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Khmer Rouge genocide recalled in Newseum program

By Alice Bishop


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American journalist Nate Thayer, an Associated Press reporter at that time, sits in a hotel room in Aranyaprathet, Thailand, on Oct. 15, 1989, after he was injured in a land mine explosion on his way back from Cambodia. Thayer spoke to a Newseum audience on July 28 about his experiences covering Cambodian despot Pol Pot.

ARLINGTON, Va. — "Twenty years later, those who did what they did in Cambodia have, in fact, gotten away with mass murder," free-lance American journalist Nate Thayer — who covered Cambodian despot Pol Pot and witnessed his jungle trial — told a Newseum Inside Media audience July 28.

Although Pol Pot died in 1998, many of the Khmer Rouge architects of the "killing fields" — in which 2 million Cambodians were slaughtered between 1975 and 1979 — are back in power in Phnom Penh.

Thayer said the perpetrators of the genocide should be brought to trial in front of their victims and the world because a trial would send an important message that if you commit crimes against humanity, you will face justice. He blamed the international community, particularly the United Nations and the United States, for failing to force a trial for "unacceptable political reasons."

Thayer spent 15 years in the Cambodian jungle covering the civil war and cultivated sources from regular soldiers and field commanders to political operatives. "I became rather a nuisance," he said.

But he also became the first — and only — journalist to interview Pol Pot after the Khmer Rouge came to power.

Pol Pot, he recalled, was a secretive and elusive leader. When he assumed power in 1975 in Phnom Penh, the Central Intelligence Agency had never heard his name despite his having waged five years of war against the United States in Cambodia. His revolution, Thayer added, was "racist, nationalist and chauvinist because he wanted absolute power."

When Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1979 and overthrew the regime, Pol Pot disappeared into the jungle and wasn't seen in public for 18 years, even though he continued to run the Khmer Rouge as a guerrilla movement.

"He was the last, great, un-gotten interview of the last several decades," Thayer said.

Finally in 1997, after the Khmer Rouge had announced that Pol Pot had been overthrown and would be put on trial, Thayer convinced his contacts that the world didn't believe the news and that he could be an independent and credible witness. The Khmer Rouge were "cornered," according to Thayer, so they let him witness their "people's tribunal" held in the northern Cambodian jungle that July. The ousted leader was sentenced to life imprisonment but the tribunal ruled out turning him over to any international court.

When he did finally meet Pol Pot for the first time, Thayer said, the despot placed his hand on Thayer's shoulder and said, "I've known your name for a long, long time."

"The one regret I had in my several encounters with Pol Pot was that he didn't feel sorry. He felt what he did was justified," Thayer added, noting, however, that Pol Pot may not have known the full extent of his crimes because he lived in the jungle for 38 years. While thousands of citizens were executed, many others died of disease and starvation as a result of the regime's "bizarre, agrarian" policies.

Although his interview with Pol Pot was a high-profile story, which won him numerous awards, Thayer also wrote hundreds of other stories about human rights abuses and political corruption in Cambodia.

"A free press makes a real difference in emerging democracies like Cambodia because those with guns and money fear nothing more than the harsh glare of public scrutiny," Thayer said.


Journalism group details 'lively and largely fearless' Cambodian press
Committee to Protect Journalists report says that given the country's recent history, 'this is an achievement in itself.'  08.17.00

War Stories events coverage
Coverage of discussions relating to Newseum's War Stories exhibit.  07.31.01