Nate Thayer: foreign correspondent and investigative journalist
I am an award winning freelance investigative journalist and foreign correspondent with 25 years of experience reporting from around the globe, with a focus on Asia, and a specialization in modern Cambodian political history, with a noteable expertize on the Khmer Rouge. I specialize in military conflict, politics, civil unrest, human rights, corruption, aysmmetrical warfare, defense, intelligence, transnational organized crime, and transitions from dependency political cultures to nation states attempting to establish political stability through rule of law and emerging democratic structures. I have covered all of Asia, as well as Iraq, the former Yugoslavia, Cuba, Albania, North Korea, and Mongolia, among many others areas. I have been a special correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review, The Associated Press, Jane's Defence Weekly, the Phnom Penh Post, the Washington Post, Agence France Presse, Soldier of Fortune Magazine, and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. In addition I have published in more than 200 other print, television, radio, documentary films, and online media in Asia, Australia, Europe, the Middle East, North America, and South America. I have published more than 500 photographs and video in various mediums...... I was a visiting scholar in residence at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University in Washington DC. I lived in Asia for 25 years, but am now based in Washington D.C.
Awards and Honours
The World Press Award; the Overseas Press Club of America Award; the “Scoop of the Year” British Press Award; the Francis Frost Wood Award for Courage in Journalism, given to a journalist "judged to best exemplify physical or moral courage in the practice of his or her craft."; The Center for Public Integrity's, International Consortium of Investigative Journalists Award for Outstanding International Investigative Reporting. The judges noted: "He illuminated a page of history that would have been lost to the world had he not spent years in the Cambodian jungle, in a truly extraordinary quest for first-hand knowledge of the Khmer Rouge and their murderous leader. His investigations of the Cambodian political world required not only great risk and physical hardship but also mastery of an ever-changing cast of factional characters."; A Peabody Award as a "correspondent" for ABC News' Nightline, which I rejected for ABC's unethical journalistic behavior, the first person in 57 years to turn down a prestigious Peabody Award; The SAIS-Novartis Prize for Excellence in International Journalism for "exposing the inside story of the Khmer Rouge killing machine."; Nominated for a Pulitzer Prize by the Wall Street Journal; and the Society of Asian Editor's and Publishers Award for Excellence in Reporting, among several others .
Politics, Writing, Journalism, Current events, International affairs, History, Civil and Military conflict, Reading, Swimming, Humour, Civil debate and dialogue, Smiling.
Selected Reviews and Commentary of Nate Thayer's Work:
*The BBC:"Many of the region's greatest names in reporting made their mark in the pages of the Review, from the legendary Richard Hughes of Korean War fame, to Nate Thayer, who found Cambodia's Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot"
* BOMBORRA ..."East Asia: The Last Foreign Correspondent" By Dan Boylan : "Considered the decade’s biggest international scoop and the last major interview in Asia, Thayer’s meeting was Pol Pot’s first with an outsider in 18 years and ended up being the last...Thayer’s stories forced world leaders to finally consider trying the murderer before international courts for crimes against humanity...Thayer hunted 10-years for the story. During the quest, he trekked 700 kilometers of jungle, was hospitalized 16 times with cerebral malaria, suffered land mine injuries, and led a now mythical hunt for Cambodia’s bizarre endangered cow – the Koupray. For the Far Eastern Economic Review weekly magazine, Thayer linked Cambodia’s key political figures to Southeast Asia’s massive heroin trade, and uncovered the last army still fighting the Vietnam War... People here say Thayer’s an inspiration.
* The Times of London"Rebel Who caught Pol Pot", By Andrew Drummond: Nate Thayer achieved every journalist’s dream when he scooped the world by meeting, and obtaining footage of, Pol Pot....So how did this self-deprecating American journalist become the first Westerner to see Pol Pot in almost 20 years?
Thayer had already built up many contacts among the rebel groups on the border before the UN-brokered peace deal in Cambodia in 1991. He marched with two rebel armies for months through the Cambodian jungle.... Five years ago, while travelling on top of a six-wheel truck in Cambodia the passengers either side were killed when it ran over a landmine. More recently he had to pack his bags quickly and depart Phnom Penh after naming a Cambodian businessman as an international heroin trafficker. Thayer has been described as a “wild man” — an image he cultivates, with his head shaved bald. He does not mind that this leads to inevitable comparisons with Marlon Brando in the film, Apocalypse Now....Thayer has become known as a stickler for detail and he has a healthy cynicism for government authorities and non-governmental organisations alike....his knowledge is taken very seriously in journalistic and academic circles."
*Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen responds, in a public letter, to June 23, 1994 issue of the Far Eastern Economic Review article by Nate Thayer based on an interview with King Sihanouk in exile at his Palace in Beijing, China entitled "Cambodia - Last Act":
First of all, please allow my wife and myself to extend to Your Majesty all our best wishes of good health and longevity…. May I beg Your Majesty's forgiveness for any possible inappropriate expressions that might occur in my letter and the inconveniences it created to Your Majesty while You are on your medical treatment.
I was forced by the current situation to write this letter…on some issues that I have to address, namely…. the issue of conferring the State Power to Your Majesty….. But on the evening of June 17, 1994, I was deeply shaken by the article published in the Far Eastern Economic Review of June 23, 1994 entitled "Cambodia - Last act" written by Nate Thayer supposedly an interview with Your Majesty. According to this article, I have become another obstacle on the way of conferring the power to Your Majesty….. (It) is not sure that the National Assembly would support any change of the Constitution. Moreover, article 17 of the Constitution which mentioned that the King reigns but does not govern prohibits any change of it… Where is the truth?
I was very shaken when I read the Review's articles which mentioned that "Sihanouk acknowledged that his bid for power would be doomed without the acquiescence of Hun Sen and the CPP because ‘I do not want to shed blood to fight a secession led by Hun Sen... unless I have the assurance that Hun Sen and his party will join me in my government’"....It is very funny because the Khmer story is like a kid's game since a press article may be able to dissolve or to form a Government. This is too simple and the Constitution seems to be worthless. Everyone is boasting of pro liberal democracy but instead are violating the nation's Constitution. What do they really want dictatorship or democracy?
....What I need right now is a truth whether Your Majesty really wanted to take power as the Prime Minister as it has been published in the media, so that I might assess according to the real fact.
I am very worried by the length of my letter and by its content. If I did not write and tell Your Majesty the truth and to seek the truth, confusion would prevail. ….How to address the rumors surrounding the question of conferring the power to Your Majesty? I am awaiting Your Majesty's noble advice for further action……..
Phnom Penh, June 18, 1994
Signed, (Prime Minister) Hun Sen
* Andrew Sherry, Far Eastern Economic Review Regional Editor, on his blog: http://bit.ly/q3LmlB: "As much as I loved reporting, the highlight of my years at the Far Eastern Economic Review was editing Nate Thayer, one of the greatest investigative reporters of his generation. 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... The following year, Pol Pot committed suicide after he heard Nate's Review report, picked up by the Khmer service of VOA, that the Khmer Rouge were about to turn him over to international authorities for trial. ... By no means a Khmer Rouge apologist, he presented a straight, unvarnished picture of the past and present, and confronted Pol Pot with the evidence that he was a mass murderer. With journalism dominated by repackaged content, reporters spoon-feed by anonymous sources with agendas, and few publications...willing to back long investigations, these stories stand as journalistic monuments I feel privileged to have helped build.... The stories represent an important contribution to the historical record on Southeast Asia and on genocide...
* The London Independent: "Your scoop? Nah. It's ours if we want it" Monday, 25 May 1998, 'Ethics' and 'large media organisation' are terms that look less and less comfortable together. Paul McCann profiles a recent conflict involving star foreign reporter Nate Thayer, Pol Pot and America's ABC News
"Nate Thayer is the kind of reporter that makes idealistic youngsters want to be journalists. He has risked his life in jungles, crossed the front lines of a civil war, been expelled from his home for exposing corrupt ministers and made secret rendezvous with genocidal killers. All for what is universally acknowledged to be the scoop of the decade - finding Pol Pot.
Now his lustre has been burnished all the brighter by his refusal to kow-tow to the might of the American TV network ABC. Furthermore he has become the first person in 57 years to turn down a prestigious Peabody award because it would have been shared with what he believes is a duplicitous media monster.
When he found the hidden Khmer leader last July, Thayer was described as having spent 10 years on the trail of Pol Pot.
*Johns Hopkins Magazine: PUBLIC POLICY AND INTERNATL. AFFAIRS, “In Search of Brother Number One”, By Dale Keiger
After years spent tracking the elusive Pol Pot, journalist Nate Thayer emerged from the Cambodian jungle last summer with a scoop heard 'round the world.
Every day when he came to work at Johns Hopkins’s Paul Nitze School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS), he'd log on to the Net and check the Cambodia list.
For much of the past 13 years, he had studied, lived in, and reported on Cambodia for Associated Press, the Washington Post, the Phnom Penh Post, and the Far Eastern Economic Review…. The 37-year-old reporter stood out at SAIS, which tends to be a sober, earnest place, populated by buttoned-down foreign policy experts and students who want to be the next Zbigniew Brzezinski, not the next Hunter S. Thompson. Thayer shaved his head. He preferred T-shirts to jacket-and-tie. He wedged tobacco up under his lip, and didn't mind being taken for a daring, hard-living foreign correspondent. He was on leave from Cambodia for a year to be a visiting fellow at the SAIS Foreign Policy Institute…. he borrowed the money for a ticket and headed to Cambodia. Six weeks later, he emerged from the jungle with the news that he had, indeed, gotten to Pol Pot. The Khmer Rouge had slipped him in to witness a choreographed public denunciation of the former dictator. Thayer had quite a story, and for a few weeks last summer, he was the most famous journalist in the world.
When word got out that an unnamed Western reporter had found Pol Pot, ABC's Nightline called Elizabeth Becker, now assistant Washington editor for The New York Times. She recalls, "They said they didn't yet know who had gotten the story. I said, 'I know who got it. It had to be Nate Thayer.”… You don't have to look far to find opinions about Thayer. Steven Solarz, former congressman and recently U.S. special envoy to Cambodia, says, "I've been deeply involved in the Cambodia issue for more than 20 years, and he stands head-and-shoulders above anyone else reporting on the country." Karl Jackson, now director of the Southeast Asian Studies program at SAIS, was a member of the National Security Council in 1990, where he followed Thayer's work; he says he found it more useful than reports from intelligence agencies. Alan Dawson, an editor at the Bangkok Post and former manager of the Saigon bureau for UPI, says, "In my opinion, which is shared by many colleagues, Nate is simply the best reporter to come to the Indochina scene since the fall of Saigon [in 1975]."…. Thayer began hanging around the Thai-Cambodian border in the mid- 1980s. He based himself in the Thai border town of Aranyaprathet and began roaming both sides of the border, establishing contacts with all the political factions that opposed the Vietnamese installed government. This roaming was dangerous business. The guerrilla fighters who controlled various parts of the jungle were unpredictable. The landscape was strewn with land mines. Mary Kay Magistad, now a correspondent in China for National Public Radio (NPR) but formerly a stringer covering Cambodia, remembers a United Nations official saying, "I keep telling Nate that he should wake up every morning and kiss his feet, because at this rate, he's going to wake up one day and find them gone."
The official was close to prophetic. In October 1989, Thayer planned to slip into Cambodia with an anti-government group known as KPNLF. Says Magistad, "Because they knew Nate, they granted him permission. A couple of days after, we got word that Nate had come out, much worse for wear. He'd been in a truck, sitting in front between two KPNLF guerrillas. The truck hit an anti-tank mine. The young men on either side of Nate were killed instantly. Those in back were thrown out--some killed, some seriously injured. Miraculously, Nate was able to walk away from it with shrapnel in his feet and what he believed was a fractured rib. Besides the trauma of being in such an accident, Nate emerged with a great story and a new cachet, certainly among the guerrillas."
Thayer used his doggedness and his new street cred to develop contacts that other journalists didn't. He began venturing further into dangerous territory. In July 1990, he was the first reporter to accompany guerrillas far into Cambodia, confirming in his AP dispatches that rebel troops were operating not just along the Thai border, but deep inside the country. He traveled up the old Ho Chi Minh Trail in 1992 and found a secret army of montagnard tribesmen who had remained loyal to their former American commanders. A few years later, he mounted, on elephants, an expedition to find a rare Cambodian bovine known as the Kouprey. The trek failed to turn up any of its quarry, but entered the lore about Thayer, who laughs at himself when he recounts the story.
Leah Melnick is now a human rights observer posted in Sarajevo, Bosnia. But in the early 1990s she was a photojournalist covering Cambodia, and she recalls a trip with Thayer that was both farcical and harrowing. A ceasefire had halted fighting between the Vietnam backed government and the rebel groups (which included the Khmer Rouge and other factions). Thayer and Melnick were the first journalists to cross the battle lines from the government to the rebel side. Thayer was malarial at the time, weak and feverish, and as Melnick remembers, "spitting large wads of tobacco out the window, which somehow always managed to fly back in the car. His luggage consisted of a plastic bag with three cans of Camembert cheese, a towel, and a T-shirt--this for a trip that could have been up to a month. We set out from Phnom Penh in one of these Russian jeeps, which have the unique propensity for losing large pieces of their machinery every time you hit a bump. By the time we pulled up to where we were to cross over to areas held by the resistance, the steering wheel literally fell off in his lap."
She continues, "Things got kind of hairy as we were crossing the line. The government soldiers were a bunch of your typical 12-year-old kids, with very large automatic weapons and blank looks in their eyes. They seemed to know we were coming, and when they stopped us there was some extremely strange vibe. We went ahead and made it to the other side, where the resistance leader there met us. He looked very worried. He said, 'I can't believe you made it. We had received information by monitoring the radio that [government troops] were going to ambush and kill you.'" Thayer and Melnick later heard the same report from worried United Nations officials, and concluded that they'd had a narrow escape. Some of Thayer's reporting had angered the government, and apparently someone had seen an opportunity to rid the country of a pest.
Thayer cultivated a persona that Magistad characterizes as "a rugged, wild Heart of Darkness journalist." He began contributing pieces to Soldier of Fortune, a monthly magazine devoted to stories about weaponry, military operations, and adventure in the world's combat zones. He acquired a reputation as a hard partyer. When the peace accord signed in 1991 temporarily ended the guerrilla war, Thayer moved to the Cambodian capital, where he figured prominently in one bacchanal that, according to Drummond of the London Times, featured a concoction that flattened several bureau chiefs for two days and caused Drummond to fall down three flights of stairs at the Phnom Penh Post's office.
Thayer sometimes simultaneously plays down and plays up his image. On the phone from Bangkok, he says, "I've taken many, many risks in reporting wars in Asia over the years. I've been kicked out of Cambodia several times. I've had innumerable death threats. I've been wounded in battle. I've been literally on my deathbed from malaria and other illnesses. When you put it like that, it sounds dramatic, but it comes with the territory. You can overdramatize these issues. Of course it's risky, but frankly that's not a big issue."
Philip Gourevitch, a staff writer for The New Yorker, knows Thayer from Cambodia. "There's these two sides to Nate," he says. "There's Nate the cowboy character, the slightly spooky, great raconteur, of whom you're almost not sure what to believe, but most of it all turns out to be true and the exaggerations seem to be of the most small kind. And there's Nate the hardcore investigative journalist, who takes very seriously his effort to be a writer of exposés. The two are absolutely in balance. One of the important things that Nate does, one reason he's good, is that he has covered Cambodia not just for the outside world but also for the Phnom Penh Post. He looks at it from the point of view of the people whose news it really is, rather than from the narrow, Western-interest point of view that a lot of foreign coverage comes from."……. Last July, Thayer scrounged airfare and flew to Cambodia to pursue his latest hunch. While he was there, forces controlled by Hun Sen--a former Khmer Rouge officer who 20 years earlier had defected to the Vietnamese, been installed by them to run the country in 1979, and then lost the 1993 U.N. supervised elections--seized power in a bloody coup. Thayer covered the coup for five days before fleeing the country on an evacuation flight. He went to Bangkok, where he started working his contacts again to gain access to Pol Pot. He says, "I can't get into specific details, but I can say this: It involved a very complicated and sophisticated underground network of Khmer Rouge covert operatives, who were ordered by their leadership to infiltrate me into the Khmer Rouge headquarters at Anlong Veng. It involved your traditional spy techniques of coded words and phone messages, and people in dark sunglasses and civilian clothes who picked you up and never talked and took you to hotel rooms, and then other people I didn't know came and knocked on the door and took me someplace else. It involved crossing international borders illegally."…. He appeared on Nightline right after he released the video. For him, relating what he'd seen was an emotional experience. He says, "Remember, I've lived in Cambodia. Most of my friends have had their lives destroyed by Pol Pot. So it was a profoundly moving moment. Here was a man who had destroyed the lives of millions of people, including most of the people I know. For them, I knew that what I was witnessing was an opportunity for closure. I cried many times for everybody I knew. It's not unlike if Hitler had escaped his bunker and was living in South America and was captured 20 years later, what that would have meant to Jews. Even if this was a people's tribunal, Pol Pot was being denounced and was no longer a political player. For Cambodians it was a very personal thing to see this video and hear this story. At least he had been condemned somewhere, someplace, sometime”…. Leah Melnick, the photographer who has worked with Thayer in Cambodia, addresses critics who hint that Thayer has been too close to the Khmer Rouge: "That's the typical sort of purist attitude that people who don't live in war zones tend to adopt. Nate did what good journalists do--you get your story firsthand, which means you talk to people, and you travel to where they live. When you cover a war, you have to do it from behind somebody's frontlines, which means you accept their protection. That's just how it is. Anyone who tells you that it's different is completely full of crap. I think that Nate's perspective on the Khmer Rouge and what that organization is now is incredibly unique and privileged, and very important. He's one of the few people who understands that organization."…. Says Philip Gourevitch, "Nate's the best journalist in Cambodia. Everybody over there waits for the Far Eastern Economic Review's next piece to know what's up. No one else is breaking those stories."