Nate Thayer, journalist who gave the world an interview with Pol Pot, dies at 62

0 19

Nate Thayer, an American journalist who broke stories of conflict across the jungles of Southeast Asia and was the last Western journalist to interview genocidal Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, has died at his home in Falmouth, Mass. He was 62.

Robert Thayer said his brother’s body was found on Jan. 3, but it was not immediately clear when he died. Mr Thayer wrote last year that he was in declining health, including developing sepsis after foot surgery and was told by doctors he would never walk again.

During decades of reporting beginning in the late 1980s, Mr. Thayer cultivated a reputation as a freelancer willing to endure hardships and risks to track down far-flung stories for outlets including magazine Soldier of Fortune, the Far Eastern Economic Review, the Associated Press and The Washington Post.

With his head and teeth shaved from chewing tobacco, he evoked the image of a throwback-style correspondent and delighted in bringing stories from the field to others. They included near misses, including serious injuries when the Cambodian guerrilla transport truck it was carrying triggered an antitank mine in October 1989.

In the years that followed, he used social media to steadily burnish his tough image and press his claims that ABC’s “Nightline” had wronged rights issues to use footage from a “kangaroo court trial.” Pol Pot in July 1997 with disaffected former followers. at a Khmer Rouge camp in northern Cambodia.

His coverage of Pol Pot’s final months remained the centerpiece of Mr Thayer’s career – a major journalistic coup that attracted international attention. His work also added important historical detail to the legacy of the “killing fields” of the 1975-1979 Khmer Rouge regime. About 1.7 million Cambodians – intellectuals, doctors, dissidents and many others – lost their lives as the regime tried to impose a radical agrarian Communist order.

“He illuminated a page of history that would have been lost to the world if he had not spent years in the Cambodian jungle,” noted an award presented by the International Coalition of People’s -Investigative news in 1998.

A year earlier, Mr. Thayer convinced the remaining members of the Khmer Rouge factions that international coverage was needed to account for Pol Pot in front of former guerrillas who had turned against him. “Crush, crush, crush Pol Pot and his clique,” some chanted as Mr Thayer and Asiaworks Television cameraman David McKaige arrived at the remote Anlong Veng camp.

Writing in the Far East Economic Review, Mr Thayer described how Pol Pot was sentenced to life imprisonment and driven away in a Toyota Land Cruiser with tinted windows.

“Some people received him with dignity, as if they were royalty,” he wrote. Mr. Thayer had no opportunity to ask Pol Pot any questions.

Mr. Thayer struck a verbal agreement with ABC to allow the video to be broadcast on the ABC News program “Nightline.” During the segment, Mr. Thayer described the incident as if Adolf Hitler had lived and was later found in a bunker in South America.

“Remember, I’ve been living in Cambodia,” he told “Nightline” host Ted Koppel. “Most of my friends have had their lives destroyed by Pol Pot. So it was a very moving time. … I cried many times for everyone I knew. “

The network said Mr. Thayer received $350,000 and was properly credited. But ABC also claimed that Mr Thayer did not realize that the clips would also be posted on the internet and enter the public domain.

Mr Thayer long insisted that ABC was reneging on promises that it would control the material. He later declined a Peabody award for the “Nightline” broadcast, which called his statement “important and well-deserved.”

“I didn’t have a penny a week ago, and if I don’t have a penny a week from now, I still have my integrity,” he said in the American Journalism Review.

Mr. Thayer was allowed to return to the camp in October 1997 with the promise of an interview with Pol Pot. The last Western journalists to do so were, in 1978, Elizabeth Becker and The Post Richard Dudman of St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Mr Thayer was told to wait near a small hut.

Mr Thayer wrote in the Far East Economic Review about how the former dictator, who was 72 at the time, had to hold his arm to walk the short distance to the cottage.

“The man who oversaw the Cambodian holocaust is about to give his first interview in 18 years,” Mr. Thayer wrote. “This is his chance to make some kind of peace with his past.” ‘ he went away.”

Pol Pot appeared inappropriately soft-spoken, making his points calmly and in measured tones.

“Were you responsible?” Mr. Thayer asked about the massacres.

“I only made decisions regarding the very important people,” replied Pol Pot. “I wasn’t monitoring the lower levels. “

Mr. Thayer had another one about Pol Pot: He was back at the Anlong Veng camp a day after Pol Pot’s death in April 1998 and took pictures of the body before it was cremated.

His statement became the only independent confirmation of Pol Pot’s death. “He’s dead,” Thayer told the Post in a phone interview at the time. “It was Pol Pot. There was no question that he was Pol Pot.”

But Mr. Thayer’s death was more of an open wound than a closed one.

“And with the death of Pol Pot, unfortunately, there is an opportunity to find out what really happened and why,” Mr. Thayer told “All Things Considered.” at NPR. “There are so many unanswered questions about why so many people suffered so unspeakably and unjustly. And this man was only under control.”

Distinguished family pedigree

Nathaniel Talbott Thayer was born in Washington on April 21, 1960. His family had deep ties in Southeast Asia through his father, Harry ET Thayer, who had served in diplomatic posts in Hong Kong, Taipei and elsewhere before he returned to the State Department post. (He was the US ambassador to Singapore from 1980 to 1985.)

Mr. Thayer’s other main reference point was the Boston area, where his Brahmin family tree was marked by places such as Harvard’s Thayer Hall.

Asked about his illustrious family lineage, Mr. Thayer angrily pointed to Judge Webster Thayer, who sentenced Italian immigrants Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti to death after they were convicted of murder. in 1921. They were electrocuted in 1927, despite strong evidence of their innocence. Fifty years later, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis (D) that they were tried unfairly in an era “surrounded by prejudice.”

Using egypt, Mr. Thayer told The New Yorker that he called the judge “when they call me the black sheep of the family.”

Mr. Thayer studied at the University of Massachusetts in Boston but did not graduate. His first assignment in Southeast Asia was as part of a 1984 academic research project on refugees from the Khmer Rouge regime before landing freelance assignments for Soldier of Fortune on a guerrilla insurgency in Myanmar, known as widely at that time Burma.

In 1992, Mr. Thayer followed the Ho Chi Minh Trail from the Vietnam War era and encountered a lost group of US-allied Montagnard militia who had no idea the conflict had existed for so long. Two years later, Mr. Thayer mounted an elephant as part of an expedition to find endangered Southeast Asian cattle known as kouprey. They found none.

He described it as “a team of experienced jungle managers, scientists, security soldiers, elephant mahouts and one of the most iconic and formidable groups of armed journalists in recent memory.”

Mr. Thayer was deported from Cambodia in 1994. He returned and was deported again for stories alleging links between Prime Minister Hun Sen and heroin traffickers.

After a fellowship in international studies at Johns Hopkins University, he and photographer Nic Dunlop tracked down Khmer Rouge torturer Kang Kek Iev, also known as Brother Duch, who agreed to speak after learning that Mr. Thayer interviewed Pol Pot. The Duchess surrendered to the authorities after Mr Thayer’s piece ran in the Far East Economic Review.

Mr. Thayer covered the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq for Slate and produced web-based stories about growing white nationalist movements in the United States.

In addition to his brother, Mr. Thayer is survived by his mother, Joan Leclerc of Washington; and two sisters.

Despite his prolific workload, Mr. Thayer was unable to finish his memoir, with the proposed title of “Sympathy for the Devil: Living Dangerously in Cambodia.” ” What pressed him was personal: his deep sympathy for the country and its former horrors under the Khmer Rouge.

Then when he heard in June 1997 that Pol Pot had been imprisoned, Mr. Thayer saw an opportunity for a major professional break. “The last great interview in Asia,” he told The New Yorker.

He eventually returned to the States – first acquiring a farmhouse in 2000 on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland – but said he might feel more at ease in Cambodia than in American cities such as New York. .

“Man, I can’t control my edge there,” he said. “It’s the crazies I can’t deal with.”

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.