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Nate Thayer, rebel reporter who interviewed Pol Pot in the Cambodian jungle, has died

American journalist Nate Thayer sits bandaged in a hotel room on Oct. 15, 1989, in Aranyaprathet, Thailand, after he was injured in a land mine explosion. Thayer survived several brushes with death over decades covering conflict in Southeast Asia and was the last Western journalist to interview Pol Pot. He was found dead at his home in Falmouth, Mass., on Tuesday.
AP
American journalist Nate Thayer sits bandaged in a hotel room on Oct. 15, 1989, in Aranyaprathet, Thailand, after he was injured in a land mine explosion. Thayer survived several brushes with death over decades covering conflict in Southeast Asia and was the last Western journalist to interview Pol Pot. He was found dead at his home in Falmouth, Mass., on Tuesday.

Nate Thayer, the last Western correspondent to interview the murderous Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot after tracking him in the jungles of Cambodia for nearly a decade, has died at his home in Falmouth, Mass. He was 62.

Thayer had multiple ailments and died of natural causes, according to his brother Rob, who last saw Nate on Sunday. His body was found on Tuesday.

"He was a rebel at the core," Rob Thayer says, and "had decided that he wasn't going to the hospital anymore."

A life of adventure in Asia

The intrepid investigative reporter's ties to Asia were lifelong and began with his father, a diplomat whose posts included China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore. Nate Thayer spent five years of his childhood in Taiwan, his brother says.

He studied at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, but dropped out to return to Asia.

In the late 1980s, Thayer worked as a stringer on the Thai-Cambodian border, contributing freelance reports to the Associated Press, the Far Eastern Economic Review, The Phnom Penh Post, Agence France-Presse and Soldier of Fortune magazine, among others.

Thayer was an imposing presence: tall and muscular, with a shaven head and often with a wad of chewing tobacco in his mouth. He ripped the filters off the Marlboro Reds he smoked. On the surface, it could be hard to tell him apart from the soldiers of fortune he reported on.

"If you were going to have a bar brawl, you would want him on your side," recalls Francis Moriarty, a former Hong Kong-based foreign correspondent and fellow Massachusetts resident who was close to Thayer in his final years.

Thayer was hospitalized numerous times for malaria, and narrowly survived hitting a land mine while riding in a Cambodian guerrilla truck in 1989, leaving him with shrapnel damage. He was hard of hearing as a result of frequent exposure to explosions and gunfire.

Behind the bravado, an inquisitive and analytical mind

But while Thayer relished the role of raconteur of a life lived dangerously, this masked his investigative and analytical skills, and deep expertise in his field, says Nayan Chanda, longtime editor of the now-defunct Far Eastern Economic Review and an associate professor at Ashoka University in India.

If you were going to have a bar brawl, you would want him on your side

Behind the swashbuckling, cowboy image, was "this very inquisitive mind," Chanda says. And even in those earliest years, he says, it was clear how "completely committed" Thayer was to finding Pol Pot, who led the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia's brutal Communist regime from 1975 to 1979.

In the name of establishing an agrarian utopia, Pol Pot's genocidal revolution sent between 1 to 3 million Cambodians to their deaths in the notorious "killing fields" — one of the greatest crimes of the 20th century.

Thayer shrewdly assessed the struggle within the Khmer Rouge, Chanda says, "who's gunning for whom, and how he could perhaps use this ... in getting access to the area."

Dogged persistence pays off

After years of reporting and cultivating sources, Thayer's big break came in 1997, when an internal Khmer Rouge power struggle ended in Pol Pot being ousted and put on a show trial.

Thayer and Asiaworks Television cameraman David McKaige were allowed into the Khmer Rouge jungle stronghold of Anlong Veng near the Thai border to cover the spectacle.

Later that year, Chanda received a phone call from a man with a message for Nate Thayer: "They said that 'the uncle' will see him," a signal from the Khmer Rouge that Pol Pot agreed to be interviewed by Thayer.

The Khmer Rouge's top leader was never turned over to the international tribunal that tried his subordinates and comrades (and eventually convicted three of them). And he had not been interviewed in nearly two decades, giving Thayer a rare opportunity to question the man about his reign of terror.

"What we wanted to know was whether, one, he acknowledged what he did was wrong," Thayer told NPR's Linda Wertheimer in 1997 on All Things Considered, "and two, whether he felt sorry for it, whether he would apologize to so many people who didn't deserve it, who suffered so terribly. And he refused to."

''I came to carry out the struggle, not to kill people,'' the infirm, 72-year-old Pol Pot argued to Thayer. ''Even now, and you can look at me: Am I a savage person?" he asked, adding: "My conscience is clear.''

In this 1990 photo taken by Thayer, a Khmer Rouge guerrilla with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher strapped to his back and Buddhist amulets on his neck passes by villagers on his way to the front in Banteay Meanchey province, Cambodia.
Nate Thayer / AP
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AP
In this 1990 photo taken by Thayer, a Khmer Rouge guerrilla with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher strapped to his back and Buddhist amulets on his neck passes by villagers on his way to the front in Banteay Meanchey province, Cambodia.

Pol Pot admitted to making mistakes and ordering the killings of political rivals, but also blamed many of the deaths in his country on Vietnamese agents who wanted to subjugate Cambodia.

In 1998, Thayer returned to Anlong Veng and was among the first to confirm Pol Pot's death.

The heralded scoop won Thayer a plethora of awards. It also led to a long and bitter feud with ABC journalist Ted Koppel and the show Nightline, whom he claimed violated the terms of their agreement to use his material. As a result, Thayer declined a prestigious Peabody Award.

"Thayer went from being the first journalist to meet up with Pol Pot in nearly twenty years to being the first to turn down a Peabody," Philip Gourevitch wrote in The New Yorker at the time.

He also reported on Thailand, North Korea and Iraq, among other countries.

To the end, 'a believer in principle'

In time, Thayer returned to the U.S. and bought a Maryland farmhouse in 2000, because "he wanted a breather in life," says his brother. Later, he moved to Cape Cod with his trusty canine companion – his "best pal" Lamont – by his side.

Thayer continued to write for Vice and other outlets about far-right extremist movements, including the Ku Klux Klan and the Oath Keepers.

Nate did not condone the groups or their cause, Rob Thayer says. "He wanted to get inside the heads of these people and understand them. And it was the same way that he operated with the Khmer Rouge," and managed to gain the trust of his interviewees.

Toward the end of Thayer's life, as he struggled with a variety of health issues, friends launched a GoFundMe campaign to help him pay his bills.

"He was impoverished, in certain ways, on principle," says Francis Moriarty, Thayer's friend. "He was just a believer in principle, and he was dogged and unyielding."

NPR international correspondent Anthony Kuhn is currently based in Seoul. Before joining NPR, he was the Beijing correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review from 2003 to 2004. NPR's Maureen Pao, who worked at the Review from 1998 to 2001, contributed to this report.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.