Nate Thayer, in Cambodia
Sympathy For The Devil
A Journalist’s Memoir from Inside Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge
“It doesn’t matter whether you have a letter from the Pope, if the guy with the AK-47 has been told not to let you in, then you are not going anywhere…”
“He chews tobacco, has a five-o’clock shadow, and knows his weapons. Nate Thayer is a swashbuckling reporter who has a reputation for landing himself in the middle of the action … And no one who knows Thayer was surprised that he was the one who landed the big story.”
I haven’t met Nate Thayer, but I’ve been following his blog and reading excerpts from Sympathy For The Devil for several months. I never wanted to be a war reporter–my ideal foreign bureau would have been London or Paris, since I don’t even like humidity, let alone slogging through jungles or being blown up by landmines. But Thayer’s accounts of the years he spent covering Cambodia and tracking Pol Pot are, by turns, heroic, absurd, tragic and hilarious. It is, or should be, every journalist’s dream to have so much influence and so much fun covering a beat with so much passion.
He relished the role of “larger-than-life swashbuckling reporter,” but earned respect for routinely reporting what would have been for other journalists once-in-a-lifetime scoops, according to Urban Lehner, who was executive editor of Dow Jones in Asia while Thayer reported for the now-defunct Far Eastern Economic Review. “His editors never knew where he was but they knew they could count on him for major scoops,” said Lehner. A staff writer for the New Yorker described Thayer as a combination of “a slightly spooky, great raconteur” and “hardcore investigative journalist.”
All of which is to say, I think it’s worthwhile for you to check out his blog and consider supporting his efforts to finish and publish Sympathy For The Devil.
After all, isn’t having a driving passion one way of defining a simple life? This post is adapted from Thayer’s website, Nate-Thayer.com.
The Resale Evangelista
Nate Thayer is best known as the freelance journalist who emerged from the Cambodian jungle in 1997-98 with the last photographs, the last interview and then with definitive evidence of the death of Pol Pot, the despotic and deposed leader of the Khmer Rouge. (Although last year, Thayer stirred up a widespread publishing world kerfuffle—one of his favorite words—when he complained about the financial exploitation of freelance writers by big-name, for-profit publications.)
His Pol Pot coup, published in the Far Eastern Economic Review (and around the world in other publications) was the culmination of nearly two decades reporting and writing about Cambodia.
Thayer, now living in Washington, D.C., is finally getting around to chronicling his quest to find and confront Pol Pot regarding the slaughter of 1.8 million Cambodians.
“I was convinced that, one day, I would meet Pol Pot face-to-face and he would have to answer the questions that haunted his broken countrymen,” Thayer writes in Why Journalism is Better than a Real Job: Excerpts from Sympathy For The Devil.
“I was always encouraging, maneuvering for, and poised to take advantage of increased and higher level contacts within [the Khmer Rouge] ranks. I approached it as an endless chess game, requiring long-term strategy and patience and an intimate knowledge of one’s opponent. By the mid 1990′s, obstacles were being removed and I was advancing. I knew from viewing their chessboard that I was closing in, however slowly, on their king—Pol Pot.
“For many years, my biggest fear was that Pol Pot was going to die on me before I was able to meet him. I would wake at night, my stomach in knots, with the thought of years of effort abruptly extinguished with Pol Pot’s last breath.”
No doubt, Sympathy For The Devil will fill in a significant chunk of history, largely unknown to most Western readers. Thayer hopes to raise $67,500 in direct crowd-sourcing to fund completion of the manuscript and related materials. He says he will provide explicit records of donations and expenditures to anyone who asks. More information and a video can be found on his blog, Nate-Thayer.com.
But the book also promises to be a rollicking account of a bygone era of journalism, when reporters were colorful characters who nonetheless possessed serious intent and influence. The remarkable thing is that Thayer did it as a freelance or contract writer—which is akin to what someone once said about Ginger Rogers, dancing with Fred Astaire: “She did everything he did, but backwards…and in high heels.”
For anyone who wants to know how journalists work—or used to work—Sympathy For The Devil will be something of a handbook. Not to mention, fun. Thayer’s writing is laced with cynicism and idealism, with dark humor, pathos and outrage.
Consider How–And Why-The New York Times Didn’t Interview Pol Pot, Thayer’s account of outfoxing a reporter from the New York Times who attempted to muscle her way into his hard-won jungle appointment to meet Pol Pot.
“I was goddamned if I was going to be beat on this story by a Washington-based NYT reporter in high heels, a short skirt, enough luggage to require a bellhop and a luggage cart, who flew in from Washington with letters from senior U.S. officials…requesting she be given assistance in her reporting efforts.”
“I excused myself from my whiskey and notebooks…and simply called the chief of staff of the Khmer Rouge army and inquired whether there were other journalists scheduled to come into Khmer Rouge territory the next morning with me. He said no, there was not. He further assured me–being the man in control of all the guns and check points accessing their control zones—that he would immediately put out a directive that no one else would be allowed access the next day except for me and my team.
“It doesn’t matter whether you have a letter from the Pope, if the guy with the AK-47 has been told not to let you in, then you are not going anywhere…
“On the other hand, if you have slept in the jungle with the field commanders and his troops, and for a decade talked about what a drag malaria is, compared medicines, shared your food over jungle campfires eating rice and bugs, and commiserated together on how you haven’t been laid for weeks…and how the food sucks and you are tired of getting shot at and not getting paid shit, when it comes time [for the guys with the AK-47s] to raise the bamboo pole, the chances are considerably greater you will be allowed access.”
“Nate was arguably the most knowledgeable and experienced foreign journalist covering” Cambodia, according to David E. Miller, a former service officer for the State Department in Phnom Penh. “His writing was informed by a strong sense of justice and the belief that those who perpetrated the wrongs that the Cambodian people had suffered deserve to be exposed and punished.”
Thayer’s time in Cambodia was not all about Pol Pot. Check out The Night I Lived, his account of nearly dying when the truck in which he was riding with guerrilla fighters ran over a double-dose of land mines. It’s a vivid illustration of the absurdities and tragedies of war and wartime journalism.
“There was a severed leg lying across my face. I held the leg up and looked at it. It was not connected to a body. …
“I needed to know whether it was my leg I was holding in my hand. But I was very scared to find out. I reached down and ran my hand over my left leg and it was still attached to my body. I did the same with my right leg. It, also, was still attached to my body. …
“A few feet away was the young Cambodian truck driver, moments before with whom I was laughing and smiling and chatting. Life, for both us, would be, from that moment on, very different. His would be much shorter than mine.”
And, if you read no other excerpt, don’t miss Spies and Journalists, in which a distressed Prince Chakrapong—who has attempted a coup—calls upon Thayer to save him from the armed government troops who have surrounded the hotel in which the Prince has taken refuge.
“In the preceding hours, Chakrapong had fled his home to a hotel with nothing… but his 22-year-old mistress. He begged me to come right away. Chakrapong was hiding in the false paneled ceiling of his 2-star hotel room with his mistress, with no bodyguards and no guns.
“I called three people. My friend, the American station chief and told him there was a coup underway and it would be great if he and some of his people could come down because I thought an American citizen’s life might be at risk—specifically, mine.
“I then called Prime Minister Ranarriddh’s top aides and told him I was in the hotel room with his hated brother and to please shoot carefully if or when attempting to enter.
“And I called my editor in Hong Kong to tell him I thought I had a very good story… a great fucking story.
“That was my job. Get as close as I could to a story, witness it and report it. I loved that life.”
Check it out at Nate-Thayer.com