Tributes have been pouring in for Nate Thayer, an American journalist whose relentless pursuit of Khmer Rouge leaders scored him an interview with Pol Pot in 1997, who died at the age of 62.
“A formidable force”, “fearless”, and “a giant among foreign correspondents” are just a handful of tributes being paid to Thayer on Thursday by his peers. According to reports in international media, Thayer was found dead at his home in Massachusetts in the US on Tuesday after battling ill health.
Thayer landed in Cambodia in the late-1980s to report for publications including the ‘Far Eastern Economic Review’, ‘The Associated Press’ and ‘The Washington Post’.
Throughout the 1990s, he quickly garnered a reputation as a fearless journalist, who was relentless in his pursuit of Khmer Rouge leaders. A moment in his career that firmly cemented him in the history books was in 1997 when he scooped an interview with Pol Pot for the first time in two decades.
The story broke in the ‘Far Eastern Economic Review’, with the leader of the genocidal regime stating during the interview that took place in Anlong Veng, “Am I a savage person? My conscience is clear.”
Thayer was also the only known journalist to interview one-legged Khmer Rouge commander Ta Mok, also known as the Butcher and Brother Number Four.
He later teamed up with photojournalist Nic Dunlop to trace down Kang Kek Iev, the head of detention centre S-21 who was commonly known as Comrade Duch. He agreed to an interview after hearing Thayer had snagged one with Pol Pot.
Duch surrendered after Thayer’s article ran in the ‘Far Eastern Economic Review’. He died in prison in 2020 after becoming the first senior Khmer Rouge leader to be convicted by the UN-backed Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia tribunals. He was sentenced in 2012.
Michael Hayes, founder of the ‘Phnom Penh Post’, which Thayer contributed to, said, “Nate Thayer played an extremely critical role in getting the ‘Phnom Penh Post’ off the ground and helping it become a much-respected newspaper.
“He played a much more important role in bringing to the world’s attention many painful insights into the nature of the KR, especially their genocidal leader, Pol Pot,” Hayes said.
Sebastian Strangio, Southeast Asia editor at ‘The Diplomat’ who has been reporting on the region since 2008, told Kiripost, “During his active years in Cambodia, Nate was a giant among foreign correspondents and those of us who came after very much walked in his shadow.”
The author of ‘Hun Sen’s Cambodia’ and ‘In the Dragon’s Shadow’ added, “Nate’s coverage of the Khmer Rouge was distinguished by his remarkable ability to win the confidence of a range of Cambodian contacts, including the country’s most elusive and sinister figures, and his unparalleled willingness – and eagerness – to put himself into dangerous situations in pursuit of a story.”
According to ‘The Washington Post’, Thayer escaped death several times in Cambodia, including when he suffered serious injuries in October 1989 after a Cambodian guerrilla transport truck he was travelling in triggered an antitank mine.
Stalwart journalist Luke Hunt, who has been reporting on the region for more than 25 years, said, “Throughout the 1990s, Nate distinguished himself among the best journalists of his time and, in pursuit of the scoop, went into parts of Cambodia where others feared and preferred not to tread.”
The current Southeast Asia correspondent for ‘The Diplomat’ added, “His interview with Pol Pot was historic for several reasons. Not least because, at that time, many doubted the Khmer Rouge leader was even alive.
“Across the decades, his work was fearless. He constantly challenged authority and that made an enormous difference to Cambodians struggling to piece their lives back together in the aftermath of a genocide and vicious war. With that came the respect he deserved.”
Thayer, the son of a former US ambassador to Singapore, scooped several awards throughout his career, including the prestigious ICIJ Award for Outstanding International Investigative Reporting in 1998. It stated, “He illuminated a page of history that would have been lost to the world had he not spent years in the Cambodian jungle.”
Thayer also reported on the 2003 Iraq war. He eventually returned to the US, where he continued to cover a range of topics, including the Ku Klux Klan, before his health started to deteriorate. His final months were spent by the beach in the American Northeast, with his social media full of odes to his beloved dog, Lamont.
A statement from the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia described Thayer as a “formidable force among journalists who sought his advice from the bar of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, where he often held court. He was always generous”.