The New Yorker
The Talk of the Town
By Philip Gourevitch
August 18, 1997
On Friday, July 25th, Nate Thayer, a thirty-seven-year-old Boston Brahmin with a shaved head and teeth blackened by chewing tobacco, emerged from the Cambodian jungle, having witnessed and recorded on film the Khmer Rouge trial of Pol Pot. Being the first Western journalist to see Pol Pot in nearly two decades was, he said over the telephone from Bangkok last week, the fulfillment of a "life objective." A few years ago, in Phnom Penh, The Cambodian capital, he had given me some indication of what he had endured along the way. By Thayer’s reckoning, over the last ten years he has been the object of several assassination attempts and countless death threats; been taken hostage twice by the Khmer Rouge; seen eight of his personal security guards killed; been hospitalized sixteen times for cerebral malaria; been detained more than ten times by Thai intelligence and Cambodian government troops; and lost hearing in one ear when his vehicle was blown up by a land mine.
Thayer's appetite for the extreme, his gift for shucks-it-ain't nothin' self-dramatization, his readiness to meet armed adversaries with what he calls "superior firepower," and his anti-hair style have won him the nickname Kurtz among the increasingly pampered ranks of contemporary foreign correspondents. Thayer, who speaks Khmer, has said that he feels more attuned to life in Cambodia than in America. Of New York, where he lived, and was mugged, as a teen ager, he says, "Man, I can't control my perimeter there. It's the crazies that I can't deal with." Thayer rarely talks about his family - moneyed New England; Harvard's Thayer Hall; his father, Harry Thayer, a former Ambassador to Singapore - except to ...recall Judge Webster Thayer, who sentenced Sacco and Vanzetti: "Whenever they call me the black sheep of the family, I say, 'What about this fucking guy?
Whether Thayer’s gnarly macho bluster is more of a gag or pathology, it has served as a useful foil for his intense seriousness as an investigative reporter and political analyst. Since he first turned up, with no journalistic experience, in the refugee camps along the Thai border in 1988, Thayer's muckraking exposed of Cambodia's Jacobean politics have made him not just a chronicler of events but a significant factor in their development. (In a typical story, he found himself alone in a hotel room with a coup plotter, ringed by troops with orders to kill). His principal employer is the Far Eastern Economic Review, but he also contributes to Soldier of Fortune, a magazine which he calls "by far the finest publication of its genre."
In 1992, Thayer trekked up the old Ho Chi Minh trail near the border of Vietnam, where he discovered a lost army of anti-communist Montagnards, still loyal to their Saigon and American commanders; he convinced them that the war had been over for seventeen years, and many of them later settled in America. A more recent ‘scientific’ expedition, in search of the Kouprey—a nearly extinct Indochinese bovine species—ended in fiasco, after Thayer and his cohort rode into the jungle on elephants, heavily armed and wearing Donald Duck and Ronald Reagan masks on the backs of their heads to scare off Tigers (the cats tend to attack from the rear).
In June, when Khmer Rouge radio announced that Pol Pot had been imprisoned, Thayer saw an opportunity to get "the last great interview in Asia." He was broke, so he borrowed the plane fare and set about convincing his Khmer Rouge contacts that they needed to bring a credible witness to Anlong Veng, the jungle redoubt where Pol Pot was being held. With his old friend the cameraman David McKaige, Thayer proceeded through an elaborate underground railroad—“meetings at gas stations, coded phone messages, hotel rooms, waiting”--...into the bush. "I wasn't the first to get into Anlong Veng," he said. "I was the first to get out." Three Westerners had disappeared after venturing into the Khmer Rouge headquarters in the past year or so.
Thayer never got his interview. Pol Pot, seventy-two years old, and visibly weakened by disease, could not stand on his own, much less speak, when the two-hour trial was over. "Every ounce of his being was struggling to maintain some last vestige of dignity," Thayer said. “You could see his cheeks shaking.” And Thayer, who choked up himself during an interview with Ted Koppel afterward, told me, "It was a tragic thing to watch any human being have to go through that, regardless of what he did to others. I felt great sympathy—and not just for him. My mind raced with the millions of people whose lives were destroyed."
Still, Thayer seems almost to regard the accomplishment of this life goal as old news. The leaders of this summer's coup in Phnom Penh are themselves old Khmer Rouge cadres. "Pol Pot is in jail; the rest of them are in leadership," he said. "They're executing people, and the American government doesn't have the balls to call it a coup, because that would mean cutting off aid, and that's a scandal." To hear him talk, Pol Pot's demise was not the end of the story but the starting point of a new one.—PHILP GOUREVITCH