Infiltrating the Khmer Rouge – The Nate Thayer Story



Several months ago I highlighted the work of Nate Thayer, one of the more accomplished investigative journalists of the post-Cold War era, here at the Stage. Some of Mr. Thayer’s most impressive work dates to the 1990s, when he was the Far Eastern and Economic Reviews man on the ground in Cambodia. 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]

You do not have to read very many of Mr. Thayer’s dispatches or essays to realize how incredible his biography is or how important his life’s work will be for the historians of the future. His is a story that deserves to be told.

Luckily for us, Thayer has started a crowd-funding project to do just that. He explains the ultimate goal of the project as follows:

I have been researching and writing my book Sympathy for the Devil: A Journalist’s Memoir from Inside Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge for 15 years. For 25 years, I have conducted original reporting to compile what is now an 800 page, rough, unedited manuscript. I have accumulated millions of words of notes, hundreds of hours of audio and video recordings, and thousands of still photographs during thousands of interviews of people involved in the contemporary Cambodian political tragedy, with a special focus on Pol Pot;s Khmer Rouge…..

The current manuscript requires extensive editing and will result in the creation of two separate print books. One a more academically focused compilation of the often dry, but critical minutia of the Cambodian contemporary political culture.

[The other] will be an approximately 400 page hardcover book, written in the first person memoir style for a broader readership – Sympathy for the Devil. While written in an accessible readable style, it will be crucially a serious history of modern Cambodia with a decided focus on the Khmer Rouge political movement responsible for the deaths of nearly 2 million people in recent years. It is entirely based on my original research and personal interviews and observations and collected documents and other material over more than two decades. There will also be an eBook of Sympathy for the Devil.

This project will also make available for the historical record hundreds of hours of related, un-redacted archive videos, interviews, and transcripts I have compiled over decades of chronicling Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge and contemporary Cambodian Politics. It will include hours of raw video and audio interviews of Pol Pot and the entire senior Khmer Rouge leadership. [2]

I am excited for the publication of Sympathy for the Devil by merit of its historical content alone. Those of you less inclined to trawl through academic tomes than I am will be happy to know that the book also promises to be a rip roaring good read. Mr. Thayer’s search for Pol Pot was an exploit that came about through several near-death encounters and other outlandish experiences that can only be had in an isolated jungle fought over by guerrillas, soldiers, and spies. You can get a good sense for the kind of stories that will end up in the book by reading some of the (unedited) excerpts Thayer has published on his website. A few of my favorites:

Why You Want to Avoid Getting Blown Up by a Land Mine
Nate Thayer. 28 January 2014.

“How the US Dropped the Ball when Offered to Bring Pol Pot to Trial”
Nate Thayer. 24 January 2014.

Note: This one is perhaps better titled “How to Be Buddy-Buddy With a Guerrilla General

Reporting From Inside the Collapse of Pol Pots Khmer Rouge

Nate Thayer. 18 April 2014.

There are several ways you can help support the book’s publication and the project’s completion. Thayer is selling a bona fide catalog of items whose purchase will support the project, including advanced and autographed copies of the book itself. He is also selling unedited footage of his interview with Pol Pot and Pol Pot’s 1997 trial. These are too expensive for the average buyer, but if you are associated with an institution who could put the footage to good use–say, the Genocides Studies Program at Yale or the Center for Southeast Asia Studies at UH Manoa–then you may consider petitioning it to purchase and archive the footage for later research. Finally, you can promote Thayer’s work-or this post-through the normal social media challenges. 

I have contributed to Mr. Thayer’s fund already. I encourage all readers with an ounce of interest in Asian political and diplomatic history, the horrors of 20th century totalitarianism and communism, contemporary Cambodian society, or the inner workings of modern guerrilla conflicts to give this project your support.


[1] Andrew Sherry, quoted in “Selected Reviews and Commentary on Nate Thayer,” (accessed 21 May 2014, or. posted a long time ago). 

[2] Nate Thayer, “Support Publication of Sympathy for the Devil,” (March 2013).

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