How to Be Buddy-Buddy With an Guerilla General


  Far Eastern Economic Review (2 August 1997)
with Thayer’s investigative work featured as its cover story.

Image Credit: Wikimedia

If you read one thing this weekend, this should be it.

Nate Thayer was the Far Eastern and Economic Review‘s man on the ground in Cambodia for most of the 1990s. One of his editors at the Review described his achievements in the following terms:

Nate broke the story in 1997 that Cambodia’s ex-dictator, Pol Pot, was still alive and had been purged from the Khmer Rouge. He followed up a few months later with the first interview with Pol Pot in 18 years, shedding light on how utopian leftism translated to genocide back in Cambodia…. In an era of instant communication, when scoops are matched in hours and sometimes minutes, the Pol Pot stories went unmatched for months. That’s because Nate had spent years developing contacts within the Khmer Rouge, Thai intelligence, and elsewhere to gain this access[1]

 Mr. Thayer is currently writing a book that tells how he was able to build a network of contacts in an insurgent controlled jungle and gain the trust of the Khmer Rouge’s top leaders. This week he published a meaty excerpt from his truly remarkable story:

“….Secretly, General Nuon came to my house in Bangkok scores of times, accompanied by Thai military intelligence escorts and handlers in unmarked pickup trucks who would lurk around my garden while Nuon drank hot tea with lots of sugar and peppered me with questions from politics to popular culture into the night. Sometimes, the Thais would get nervous and balk at his meetings with me and forbid him to come to my house. Nuon relished in giving them the slip from his Thai military safe house, where he stayed in Bangkok, and sneak over to my place in a taxi. Other times, he would call me and say it was urgent that I make my way to the Khmer Rouge jungle headquarters at Anlong Veng, or some obscure rural noodle shop in a remote Thai border village. There he would seek advice whether some political or military strategy the Khmer Rouge leadership were considering would be prudent or effective. Over time, I became General Nuon’s filter to explain how the world outside the jungles worked, which was critical to the new mission that Ta Mok had bequeathed him: to figure out how to salvage the remnants of the Khmer Rouge movement by establishing relations with an outside world that they had totally cut off for decades….

This gave me unprecedented access to Pol Pot until the day he died. I literally knew what Pol Pot ate for breakfast each day, what his mood was, what was the content of the conversations he had with his wife and daughter, and who visited him. “How is the old man today?” I would ask Nuon during his daily calls to check in. No names were ever used in these telephone conversations as we both knew they were monitored by more than one government, and Nuon would recount the minutia of the mundane existence that were the final weeks and months of one of the centuries most egregious mass murderers, Pol Pot.” [2]

Mr. Thayer’s account is not only a fascinating look at the nature of insurgencies, intelligence work, and investigative reporting, but also a pleasure to read. I strongly recommend that visitors to the Stage read it in its entirety.


[1] Andrew Sherry, quoted in “Selected Reviews and Commentary on Nate Thayer,” ed. Nate Thayer.

[2] Nate Thayer. “How the U.S. Dropped the Ball When Offered to Bring Pol Pot to Trial For Mass Murder.” 24 January 2013. Quoted with permission from author.

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