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Legendary journalist Nate Thayer passes away

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Nate Thayer, the American journalist who interviewed Pol Pot, speaks at the Foreign Correspondents' Club in Bangkok, July 16, 1997. AFP/FILED

Legendary journalist Nate Thayer passes away

Veteran Journalists and historians are saddened by the passing of American journalist Nate Thayer, who once covered the Cold War conflict in Southeast Asia and was the last western journalist to interview Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot. Thayer once wrote for The Post. He passed away at the age of 62 at his home in Massachusetts, the US.

His brother Robert Thayer told AFP that his family found Nate Thayer's body on January 3, 2023. His family did not know when he had died.

Nate Thayer said on a social media post last year that his health had been in decline and he was suffering from a skin disease after undergoing foot surgery. A doctor had warned him that he would not be able to walk again.

A colleague of the late Thayer, Mark Dodd, confirmed that Thayer had been in poor health for several years before the news of his death broke.

In the late 1980s, Thayer began working as a freelance journalist. He was willing to endure hardships, and had the courage take risks to follow stories in depth for many well-known newspapers and magazines, including Soldier of Fortune, the Far Eastern Economic Review, the Associated Press and the Washington Post, and the Phnom Penh Post.

In 1997, he interviewed Saloth Sar, better known as Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge. No other journalist had interviewed him for more than two decades, when he sent a secret message to Faran Economic Review Editor-in-Chief Nayan Chanda.

In the interview, Pol Pot, who was accused of killing more than 2 million people under his rule, asked Thayer: “Look at me now. Do you think ... am I a violent person? No.”

Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia said that Thayer's journalism related to the modern history of Cambodia was rare. The work had contributed to public awareness as they were made aware of the facts and the truth surrounding the Khmer Rouge.

“Nate Thayer was a brave man who dared to go where it was dangerous and hard, just to cover rare news stories. This was one of his standout features,” he added.

He said Thayer had peculiar traits. He was a foreigner who adapted himself into Cambodian society during the civil war. He could cover news stories that could be released to Western countries about the true situation on the ground in Cambodia, particularly the Khmer Rouge, who had drawn international attention for decades. Western countries found it difficult to gauge the real situation.

Former Cambodian journalist Meach Sovannara, who was once an associate of Thayer, said two decades ago Thayer became a prominent photojournalist and freelance journalist who sold his work to major international newspapers, and was also a friendly person who took care of others.

“Nate Thayer was an important witness to the modern history of Cambodia and was involved in the Cambodian media for more than 10 years. He covered historical and political news stories, which were the key to the Cambodian civil war crisis, both in his written text and through his photographs,” he added.

Veteran Australian journalist Mark Dodd, who worked for Reuters in Cambodia from 1991-1995, said that although he and Thayer were competitors in Cambodia during their time in journalism, they were good friends. The journalists who knew Thayer considered him a smart and brave person.

“One highlight of Nate's career was his interview with the Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot in 1997. He was the last foreign journalist to speak directly to the genocidal leader,” he added.

“Nate Thayer deserved a lot of applause for his work, not just for the interviews with Pol Pot, but also for other exclusive interviews with the famous Khmer Rouge commander Ta Mok. Those successes were not by accident, but the results of his perseverance,” he continued.

Keo Duong, a lecturer at the Department of History of Royal University of Phnom Penh, said Thayer's passing served to remind people of the important work he had done, especially the modern Khmer history that was written along the borders, the last refuge of the Khmer Rouge resistance.

“Nate Thayer played a part in compiling history. He was a brave journalist who interviewed the Khmer Rouge on the Thai-Cambodian border. His greatest achievement was the interview with Pol Pot, who was not an easy man to interview,” he added.

He continued that Thayer's works provided important evidence of Khmer history, from covering the incident where Ta Mok punished Pol Pot for assassinating Son Sen, the former minister of defence of the Democratic Kampuchea regime, to offering a voice to the ruthless dictator before he passed away in Anlong Veng district, Oddar Meanchey province.

Moeun Chhean Narith, journalism professor at the University of Cambodia, who worked with Thayer at The Post 30 years ago, said he was saddened to hear of his death. He had enjoyed reading Thayer’s long pieces.

“In 1996, I translated for him when we interviewed with Ieng Sary, after Sary’s separation from the Khmer Rouge. In 1997, he asked me to translate for him when he interviewed Pol Pot in the Khmer Rouge-controlled zone, but I was scared to go there as the Khmer Rouge had recently killed a British deminer and his translator.

“May your soul rest in peace, Nate! We always remember you,” he added.


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