Johns Hopkins Magazine -- November 1997
Johns Hopkins Magazine




After years spent tracking the elusive Pol Pot, journalist Nate Thayer emerged from the Cambodian jungle last summer with a scoop heard 'round the world.

P U B L I C    P O L I C Y    A N D    I N T E R N A T L.    A F F A I R S

In Search of Brother
Number One

By Dale Keiger

LAST JUNE, JOURNALIST NATE THAYER GAZED at a computer screen in Washington, D.C., and divined that the time was right to seek an interview with Pol Pot. By his own admission, he had thought the same thing about a hundred times before, but had yet to track down the elusive former dictator of Cambodia. His only consolation was that, since 1978, neither had anyone else.

But now he had a feeling. He was scanning an electronic newslist that circulates reports out of Cambodia on the Internet. Every day when he came to work at Hopkins's Nitze School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS), he'd log on to the Net and check the Cambodia list. And on this summer morning, Khmer Rouge Radio was reporting turmoil in the party's upper echelon. The defense minister, Son Sen, had been arrested as a traitor, then executed. Something big was going on, and Thayer sniffed an opportunity.

For much of the past 13 years, he had studied, lived in, and reported on Cambodia for Associated Press, the Washington Post, the Phnom Penh Post, and the Far Eastern Economic Review. When the Khmer Rouge overthrew the Cambodian government in 1975, Pol Pot, known within the party as Brother Number One, led his country into what has been described as autogenocide. The Khmer Rouge turned on its own citizenry, emptying the cities, forcing the entire population into slave labor as part of a radical economic scheme meant to create an agrarian utopia, and murdering anyone who stood in the way. Before the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia on Christmas Day 1978, and sent the Khmer Rouge fleeing into the jungle by early 1979, hundreds of thousands of people had died from torture, starvation, or an executioner's bullet. No one knows how many perished. Estimates swing wildly from one to two million. Were comparable percentages of the American population to die, 35 to 70 million people would be gone in less than four years.

No Westerner had seen Pol Pot since the day before Vietnam invaded in 1978. He was, in Thayer's words, "the last great interview on the planet," and Thayer wanted him. The 37-year-old reporter stood out at SAIS, which tends to be a sober, earnest place, populated by buttoned-down foreign policy experts and students who want to be the next Zbigniew Brzezinski, not the next Hunter S. Thompson. Thayer shaved his head. He preferred T-shirts to jacket-and-tie. He wedged tobacco up under his lip, and didn't mind being taken for a daring, hard-living foreign correspondent. He was on leave from Cambodia for a year to be a visiting fellow at the SAIS Foreign Policy Institute, to complete a book on the Khmer Rouge.

Excited by what he read on the Internet, he called the Review and requested airfare to Phnom Penh. The magazine, a weekly based in Hong Kong that reports on East Asian politics and economics, didn't share his conviction that this was the moment Pol Pot would reveal himself, and turned him down. So he borrowed the money for a ticket and headed to Cambodia anyway. Six weeks later, he emerged from the jungle with his friend, cameraman David McKaige, and the news that he had, indeed, gotten to Pol Pot. The Khmer Rouge had slipped the two men into one of their enclaves near the border with Thailand, to witness a choreographed public denunciation of the former dictator. Thayer had quite a story, and for a few weeks last summer, he was the most famous journalist in the world.

When word got out that an unnamed Western reporter had found Pol Pot, ABC's Nightline called Elizabeth Becker, now assistant Washington editor for The New York Times. Becker was one of two reporters last to see the dictator in 1978. She recalls, "They said they didn't yet know who had gotten the story. I said, 'I know who got it. It had to be Nate Thayer.'"

A FEW WEEKS AFTER PUBLISHING his scoop, Thayer is tired. He's on the telephone from a hotel in Bangkok, where the message slips have been piling up. A lot of people want the man who tracked down Brother Number One, and Thayer seems both stunned and pleased by the attention. He keeps bringing it up whenever a reporter succeeds in getting through to him. "I had 600 calls today," he told his friend Andrew Drummond of The Times of London. "I have gotten more than 2,000 calls in the last 72 hours," he said to Indira A. R. Lakshmanan of the Boston Globe. When Hopkins Magazine reaches him on his mobile phone, he notes, "I got more than 5,000 phone calls in a 72-hour period."

Some of the callers have offered cash, apparently a lot of it, for his story. Reports of how much Thayer might gain from his adventure have varied as widely as the other numbers that come out of Cambodia. Thayer says that he sold the first rights to the Review for its standard fee ($2,000 - $3,000); further sales have grossed more than $400,000, which he must share with agents, lawyers, and McKaige. He says, "This story was never about money or I would have sold to the highest bidder from the beginning. We wanted to do the story with integrity. That is why I chose to publish in the Review and go on Nightline."

The Review actually published five stories by Thayer, and ran his photo of a dazed Pol Pot on the cover. The lead piece is an I-Nate-Thayer-was-there account of the public denunciation: "After a series of furtive rendezvous, using coded messages over mobile phones, I slipped into one of the most impenetrable, malaria-ridden and land-mine-strewn jungles of the world: Khmer Rouge-controlled Cambodia."

You don't have to look far to find opinions about Thayer. Steven Solarz, former congressman and recently U.S. special envoy to Cambodia, says, "I've been deeply involved in the Cambodia issue for more than 20 years, and he stands head-and-shoulders above anyone else reporting on the country." Karl Jackson, now director of the Southeast Asian Studies program at SAIS, was a member of the National Security Council in 1990, where he followed Thayer's work; he says he found it more useful than reports from intelligence agencies. Alan Dawson, an editor at the Bangkok Post and former manager of the Saigon bureau for UPI, says, "In my opinion, which is shared by many colleagues, Nate is simply the best reporter to come to the Indochina scene since the fall of Saigon [in 1975]."

But other journalists and Cambodia watchers, many of whom seem personally fond of Thayer, say he's not skeptical enough, that he's too close to the Khmer Rouge and sometimes sounds--whether he means to or not--like a mouthpiece for the organization. Naranhkiri Tith, an expatriate Cambodian and adjunct professor at SAIS, says, "Nate tends to be lost in detail, and lose the analytical point of the big picture. He looks in the trees, but doesn't see the forest." A journalist who has reported extensively from Cambodia (and who requested anonymity--several of Thayer's critics were reluctant to be quoted) says, "He continues to be very soft on the Khmer Rouge. I think his analytical skills are missing. It's just awful. He can see things in front of his face, which not every reporter can do by a long shot--he sees a story--but someone should kindly tell him, 'Listen, you're a good reporter, but once you start analyzing....' I couldn't believe that the Review ran all that stuff. But that's what you do for prizes."

Friends and critics do agree on one thing: Nobody has persisted in covering Cambodia like Thayer. Says Becker of The New York Times, "If anyone deserved to witness Pol Pot's denunciation, he did, because he's put so much of his life into it."

THAYER COMES FROM A PROMINENT NEW ENGLAND family. Harvard University has a Thayer Hall; Webster Thayer, a Massachusetts Superior Court judge in the 1920s, presided over the infamous murder trial of anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti; Nate's father, Harold, is former ambassador to Singapore. The younger Thayer began hanging around the Thai-Cambodian border in the mid- 1980s, at first on an academic project to research a group of Moslem refugees called the Chams. When he became fascinated by the various rebel factions across the border in Cambodia, he stayed on in Thailand and began trying to make a living as a freelance journalist.

He based himself in the Thai border town of Aranyaprathet and began roaming both sides of the border, establishing contacts with all the political factions that opposed the Vietnameseinstalled government. This roaming was dangerous business. The guerrilla fighters who controlled various parts of the jungle were unpredictable . The landscape was strewn with land mines. Mary Kay Magistad, now a correspondent in China for National Public Radio (NPR) but formerly a stringer covering Cambodia, remembers a United Nations official saying, "I keep telling Nate that he should wake up every morning and kiss his feet, because at this rate, he's going to wake up one day and find them gone."

The official was close to prophetic. In October 1989, Thayer, Magistad, and an Australian photographer, Philip Blenkinsop, planned to slip into Cambodia with an anti-government group known as KPNLF. Says Magistad, "We had to get clearance from the Thai special task force that controlled the border. Because they knew Nate, they granted him permission for this first trip, and told Philip and me that we could go later. A couple of days after, we got word that Nate had come out, much worse for wear. He'd been in a truck, sitting in front between two KPNLF guerrillas. The truck hit an anti-tank mine. The young men on either side of Nate were killed instantly. Those in back were thrown out--some killed, some seriously injured. Miraculously, Nate was able to walk away from it with shrapnel in his feet and what he believed was a fractured rib. Besides the trauma of being in such an accident, Nate emerged with a great story and a new cachet, certainly among the guerrillas."

Thayer used his doggedness and his new street cred to develop contacts that other journalists didn't. He began venturing further into dangerous territory. In July 1990, he was the first reporter to accompany guerrillas far into Cambodia, confirming in his AP dispatches that rebel troops were operating not just along the Thai border, but deep inside the country. He traveled up the old Ho Chi Minh Trail in 1992 and found a secret army of montagnard tribesmen who had remained loyal to their former American commanders. A few years later, he mounted, on elephants, an expedition to find a rare Cambodian bovine known as the kouprey. The trek failed to turn up any of its quarry, but entered the lore about Thayer, who laughs at himself when he recounts the story.

Leah Melnick is now a human rights observer posted in Sarajevo, Bosnia. But in the early 1990s she was a photojournalist covering Cambodia, and she recalls a trip with Thayer that was both farcical and harrowing. A ceasefire had halted fighting between the Vietnambacked government and the rebel groups (which included the Khmer Rouge and other factions). Thayer and Melnick were the first journalists to cross the battle lines from the government to the rebel side. Thayer was malarial at the time, weak and feverish, and as Melnick remembers, "spitting large wads of tobacco out the window, which somehow always managed to fly back in the car. His luggage consisted of a plastic bag with three cans of Camembert cheese, a towel, and a T-shirt--this for a trip that could have been up to a month. We set out from Phnom Penh in one of these Russian jeeps, which have the unique propensity for losing large pieces of their machinery every time you hit a bump. By the time we pulled up to where we were to cross over to areas held by the resistance, the steering wheel literally fell off in his lap."

She continues, "Things got kind of hairy as we were crossing the line. The government soldiers were a bunch of your typical 12-year-old kids, with very large automatic weapons and blank looks in their eyes. They seemed to know we were coming, and when they stopped us there was some extremely strange vibe. We went ahead and made it to the other side, where the resistance leader there met us. He looked very worried. He said, 'I can't believe you made it. We had received information by monitoring the radio that [government troops] were going to ambush and kill you.'" Thayer and Melnick later heard the same report from worried United Nations officials, and concluded that they'd had a narrow escape. Some of Thayer's reporting had angered the government, and apparently someone had seen an opportunity to rid the country of a pest.

Thayer cultivated a persona that Magistad characterizes as "a rugged, wild Heart of Darkness journalist." He began contributing pieces to Soldier of Fortune, a monthly magazine devoted to stories about weaponry, military operations, and adventure in the world's combat zones. He acquired a reputation as a hard partyer. When the peace accord signed in 1991 temporarily ended the guerrilla war, Thayer moved to the Cambodian capital, where he figured prominently in one bacchanal that, according to Drummond of the London Times, featured a concoction that flattened several bureau chiefs for two days and caused Drummond to fall down three flights of stairs at the Phnom Penh Post's office.

Thayer sometimes simultaneously plays down and plays up his image. On the phone from Bangkok, he says, "I've taken many, many risks in reporting wars in Asia over the years. I've been kicked out of Cambodia several times. I've had innumerable death threats. I've been wounded in battle. I've been literally on my deathbed from malaria and other illnesses. When you put it like that, it sounds dramatic, but it comes with the territory. You can overdramatize these issues. Of course it's risky, but frankly that's not a big issue."

Philip Gourevitch, a staff writer for The New Yorker, knows Thayer from Cambodia. "There's these two sides to Nate," he says. "There's Nate the cowboy character, the slightly spooky, great raconteur, of whom you're almost not sure what to believe, but most of it all turns out to be true and the exaggerations seem to be of the most small kind. And there's Nate the hardcore investigative journalist, who takes very seriously his effort to be a writer of exposés. The two are absolutely in balance. One of the important things that Nate does, one reason he's good, is that he has covered Cambodia not just for the outside world but also for the Phnom Penh Post. He looks at it from the point of view of the people whose news it really is, rather than from the narrow, Western-interest point of view that a lot of foreign coverage comes from."

"Pol Pot may not have been the worst tyrant of a century that witnessed Hitler and Stalin, but he was the most shadowy."
ALWAYS, THAYER WANTED TO INTERVIEW Pol Pot, who may not have been the worst tyrant of a century that witnessed Hitler and Stalin, but who was the most shadowy. For many years, no one was sure of his real name (it turned out to be Saloth Sar). Current press accounts still can't agree on his age, variously reported as 69, 71, and 72. After Becker (and Richard Dudman of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch) interviewed him in 1978, he dropped from sight.

Last July, Thayer scrounged airfare and flew to Cambodia to pursue his latest hunch. While he was there, forces controlled by Hun Sen--a former Khmer Rouge officer who 20 years earlier had defected to the Vietnamese, been installed by them to run the country in 1979, and then lost the 1993 U.N.�supervised elections--seized power in a bloody coup. Thayer covered the coup for five days before fleeing the country on an evacuation flight. He went to Bangkok, where he started working his contacts again to gain access to Pol Pot.

What followed is murky, because the only person who can tell the story is Thayer, and he doesn't want to reveal too much. He says, "I can't get into specific details, but I can say this: It involved a very complicated and sophisticated underground network of Khmer Rouge covert operatives, who were ordered by their leadership to infiltrate me [and his friend McKaige] into the Khmer Rouge headquarters at Anlong Veng. It involved your traditional spy techniques of coded words and phone messages, and people in dark sunglasses and civilian clothes who picked you up and never talked and took you to hotel rooms, and then other people I didn't know came and knocked on the door and took me someplace else. It involved crossing international borders illegally."

When Thayer and McKaige arrived in Anlong Veng, they had no idea what they were about to witness. "I was hoping to meet Pol Pot," Thayer says. "We certainly did not know that we were going to see a people's tribunal. All of a sudden, there we were with Pol Pot, with no warning, no notice, in what was probably the only trial, or pseudo-trial, we will ever see of one of the world's most notorious mass murderers."

McKaige's video, and the photos taken by Thayer that appeared last August in the Far Eastern Economic Review, show a slumped, despondent old man seated in a wooden chair. Thayer says he immediately realized that the figure was Pol Pot: "Here's a man who I've been on the track of for years. Actually, David will tell you that when I turned around and said, 'That's Pol Pot,' he'd never seen a look like what was on my face, ever before."

Most press reports have called the proceeding a show trial, which annoys Thayer. Though one of his own Review stories employs the phrase, he says, "This was not a trial, in the sense that we understand it. It was not even a show trial, which actually has a definition in Asian communism. This was a classic people's tribunal, which is a mass meeting to denounce and humiliate political enemies. It's a very specific process for people who are trained in this kind of political culture." An audience of hundreds of Cambodians chanted and shook their fists in unison as a series of speakers denounced Pol Pot. The proceedings lasted about two hours, during which the former dictator never spoke.

Afterward, as Khmer Rouge soldiers led Pol Pot to a waiting car (the tribunal had "sentenced" him to lifetime house arrest), Thayer tried to ask him a few questions, but got no response. The dictator seemed barely able to walk, much less speak. Thayer had found Pol Pot at last, but he still didn't have an interview. He probably never will.

Thayer knew the Khmer Rouge had staged the people's tribunal. "It was put on specifically for us, to take the message to the world that Pol Pot had been denounced," he says.
THAYER KNEW THAT THE KHMER ROUGE had staged this show for him and McKaige: "It was put on specifically for us, to take the message to the world that Pol Pot has been denounced. They had reported on their radio, on June 19, that Pol Pot had been purged. No one believed them. After five years of lying over their radio, there was no reason anyone should take what they say credibly. It was clear to them that they needed an independent, credible witness to show what was happening."

But as soon as the tribunal ended, he and McKaige decided they'd better get out with the material they had. "It's common for things to go wrong in Cambodia," says Thayer. "We weren't sure that there was 100 percent Khmer Rouge military control [of the area]. We weren't sure but that loyalists to Pol Pot might try to take the film and kill us. We knew that what we had was of monumental historical, not to mention journalistic, import, and that we should do what we could to get it out to the world. It was frustrating, because it meant that we couldn't talk more to the top leaders, which is something we very much wanted to do."

Thayer made his way back to Bangkok, where he called his editor at the Review and said, "We did it." By July 25, word was out that Thayer and McKaige had an extraordinary story. Some of McKaige's video appeared on ABC television on July 28, and the Review published Thayer's story on August 7.

He appeared on Nightline right after he and McKaige released the video. For him, relating what he'd seen was an emotional experience. He says, "Remember, I've lived in Cambodia. Most of my friends have had their lives destroyed by Pol Pot. So it was a profoundly moving moment. Here was a man who had destroyed the lives of millions of people, including most of the people I know. For them, I knew that what I was witnessing was an opportunity for closure. I cried many times for everybody I knew. It's not unlike if Hitler had escaped his bunker and was living in South America and was captured 20 years later, what that would have meant to Jews. Even if this was a people's tribunal, Pol Pot was being denounced and was no longer a political player. For Cambodians it was a very personal thing to see this video and hear this story. At least he had been condemned somewhere, someplace, sometime."

IN THE AUGUST 18 ISSUE OF THE NEW YORKER, Philip Gourevitch quotes Thayer as saying of Pol Pot, "It was a tragic thing to watch any human being have to go through that, regardless of what he did to others." Thayer's sympathy caught the attention of an opinion writer in the Worcester, Massachusetts, Telegram & Gazette, who wrote, "Journalist Nate Thayer...actually came away expressing sympathy for the monster who turned Cambodia into a vast killing field in the 1970s. Say what you will about the ruthless Khmer Rouge, they certainly picked the right Western patsy to cover the jungle charade."

Other critics of Thayer's stories don't use the word "patsy," but they do point out that some of his work seems to uncritically disseminate the official line of the Khmer Rouge.

Pol Pot's fall, according to Thayer, spells the demise of the Khmer Rouge. But Thayer's critics disagree; some argue that he is "too soft" on the movement.
They wonder why, for example, were Khmer Rouge spokesmen allowed to promote the idea that by purging Pol Pot, the organization had renounced its bloody past? In his Review articles, Thayer wrote, "The fall of Pol Pot underlines the view that the Khmer Rouge movement that ruled Cambodia in the 1970s essentially no longer exists." Comments Magistad of NPR, "That's certainly what the Khmer Rouge would like people to think, because it's the best card they can play to try to end their pariah status and work their way back into a position of power. But Ta Mok, Khieu Samphan, and Nuon Chea all still hold top positions in the group- -and all played a central role in forming and carrying out the policies that killed up to two million Cambodians. How, then, is this suddenly a different movement?"

Addressing this question, Thayer sounds as if he were making only a semantic distinction in the Review. He says, "Those who we know are responsible [for the genocide] are so redistributed among virtually every sector of acceptable, mainstream political parties in Cambodia that the term 'Khmer Rouge' means nothing. What happened to those who are culpable for the reign of terror? The answer is they're back, but they're back redistributed in opposing political parties."

A Cambodia scholar, who requested anonymity, is critical of Thayer's account of his interview with Im Nguon (a Khmer Rouge general), which ends with this from Nguon: "Our movement is pure and clean. I hope the international community will help us." Comments the scholar, "Pure and clean? Not in the slightest. Thayer knows this, but alludes to that knowledge only in the most oblique fashion. This gives rise to suspicions that he is sacrificing honesty and clarity in his reporting in exchange for continued access to his sources in the Khmer Rouge."

But in his Review story, Thayer did write that Im Nguon "freely acknowledged that older leaders such as Gen. Ta Mok and Nuon Chea, who were key members of the murderous 1975-78 Khmer Rouge regime, still have a say in 'all important matters.'" He also wrote that "younger cadres' talk of 'democracy' rang hollow against the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution-style show trial."

Leah Melnick, the photographer who has worked with Thayer in Cambodia, addresses critics who hint that Thayer has been too close to the Khmer Rouge: "That's the typical sort of purist attitude that people who don't live in war zones tend to adopt. Nate did what good journalists do--you get your story firsthand, which means you talk to people, and you travel to where they live. When you cover a war, you have to do it from behind somebody's front lines, which means you accept their protection. That's just how it is. Anyone who tells you that it's different is completely full of crap. I think that Nate's perspective on the Khmer Rouge and what that organization is now is incredibly unique and privileged, and very important. He's one of the few people who understands that organization."

Naranhkiri Tith of SAIS, who was briefly a member of the elected Cambodian government, says, "I agree that the Khmer Rouge movement is dying since the Paris accords. No question about that. But the issue here is the remnants of the Khmer Rouge who are still around. Nate's not soft on the Khmer Rouge, he's romantic. Being romantic about something, you blur the picture. He's taken with them as material, on the border of fabricating a dream instead of reality. He doesn't put down his foot on the nitty-gritty of how bad they are, and how they continue to be bad."

BEYOND DEBATES ABOUT HIS STORIES and his credibility, Thayer has a new job as roving Asian correspondent at the Review. He hopes to finish his book on the Khmer Rouge sometime soon. He has everyone's attention now, and his work will be under even more scrutiny. He says, "I'm not sure which news clips you've read, but I've read some that have been faxed to me. I've learned more about myself than I ever knew. Not much of it accurate."

If reporters are good, they prove out over time. They either get important, accurate, previously unreported stories, or they don't. Says Philip Gourevitch, "Nate's the best journalist in Cambodia. Everybody over there waits for the Far Eastern Economic Review's next piece to know what's up. No one else is breaking those stories."

Dale Keiger is the magazine's senior writer.