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The Private Letters of a Foreign Correspondent: Communicating With the Khmer Rouge; CIA Spy Accusations; Nomination for a Pulitzer Prize

21 Jan

Select Private Correspondence from the Files of a Foreign Correspondent: 

By Nate Thayer

I have been doing some tinkering and final revisions and editing of my upcoming book Sympathy for the Devil: A Journalist’s memoir from Inside Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge  and have been distracted as I sort out old papers, correspondence, raw notes, and files, many which have jogged both pleasant and unpleasant memories. They include letters ranging from my suspension for being accused of being a CIA operative, to letters to guerrilla commanders thanking them for assisting me after I was wounded in battle, to secret correspondence from and to the Khmer Rouge in the jungles, to letters nominating me for a Pulitzer Prize.

Below are a few selections of such correspondence. But first a pitch for funding to bring to fruition my campaign to publish my book and related accompanying data and documents and videos of interviews with the Khmer Rouge leaders and and observations of the Khmer Rouge and modern Cambodian political history.

Please excuse, in advance, the insufferable self-promotion which I must engage in, seeking funding, over the coming weeks. Believe me, it mortifies me, but the new realities of journalism are that individual investigative journalists must seek independent financing and engage in self-marketing as the institutional support of large media companies has evaporated. I, and my colleagues who share my belief in in-depth, long term investigative journalism, almost universally no longer have institutional backing or other means of income to pay for the considerable costs of our genre of investigative journalism. It is, indeed, expensive and time consuming and requires considerable resources. It is also, in my opinion, both endangered and vital.

Pol Pot lying down, dead: Nate Thayer standing up, alive. Photo (c) Nate Thayer. No reproduction, transmission or use without express written permission of the author

Pol Pot lying down, dead: Nate Thayer standing up, alive. Photo (c) Nate Thayer. No reproduction, transmission or use without express written permission of the author

Photo: Pol Pot, lying down, dead. Nate Thayer, standing, alive. It is unclear who looks like more of a threat to society…

Two weeks ago, I posted a video clip as a preview to the impending launch of a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the publication of my book “Sympathy for the Devil: A Journalists Memoir from Inside Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge” and associated other historical material. That Kickstarter campaign will officially be launched by the end of January, 2014. It has encountered several, routine delays, including being denied permission to use the soundtrack of the Rolling Stones song of the same title–Sympathy for the Devil–which was the soundtrack accompanying the video of the Kickstarter campaign.

All fair enough, save it requires the remixing and editing of the video. That, and a few other normal bureaucratic glitches, has meant the launching of the Kickstarter project will take a few extra days, commencing by the end of  January.

But Kickstarter is only one way to support this project, and the project, which is requiring most of my full-time effort now, will be at full speed once sufficient funding is raised to underwrite the substantial costs. There are several ways to participate in supporting this project.

All support, no matter how small or large, is both needed and welcome with gratitude.

The costs for a high quality production of this project are substantial. The details of what it will cost, and the specific funding targeting each aspect of the larger project, to bring these projects to fruition will be laid out in the Kickstarter campaign.

Any thoughts, criticisms, or comments are welcome here, or by email at thayernate0007@gmail.com, or through my blog site at natethayer.wordpress.com.

Meticulous records will be kept for all donations, and a strict budget of specifically calculated and targeted expenditures will be maintained and available upon request to anyone who asks for it:

I will officially be launching a Kickstarter campaign within 10 days to raise the necessary funds for the publication of my now completed manuscript  Sympathy for the Devil: A Journalist’s Memoir from Inside Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, as well compiling and making available for the historical public record hundreds of hours of related, un-redacted archive videos, interviews, transcripts of the former, and extensive internal Khmer Rouge secret documents I have compiled over decades of chronicling Pol Pot, his Khmer Rouge, and contemporary Cambodian Political history.

Along with the hardcover book, with extensive photographs and documents–which is now more than 800 pages and will require a lengthy professional edit to pare it down to approximately 400 page, there will be an E book. Another more academically oriented book may also be a result of the efforts, with the objective of the main book being a serious history of modern Cambodian politics that is told in an accessible first person memoir to maximize its accessibility to a popular general audience.  It is comprised entirely of first person original research from my years of reporting from and on Cambodia, with a special focus on Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge. The project will also include hours of raw video and audio interviews of Pol Pot and the entire senior Khmer Rouge leadership who remained alive after they retreated to the jungles in 1979 after their three years in power, including Nuon Chea, Ta Mok, Khieu Samphan, Chief executioner Duch, and others.

Transcripts of these audio and video interviews will also be made available in their entirety.  Summarized video presentations and written synopsis’ and analysis articles written by me will be included, but the raw data will also be available so anyone interested can form their own conclusions, if they choose, based on the raw data.

Accomplishing this project will be expensive, and its realization and success depends on your support.

Direct donations of financial support, however small or large, to enable this history to be told and made available, is crucial.

It simply cannot succeed without considerable support, through direct funding. I have no institutional support from any organization and its success will depend on individuals.

Also crucial to the success of this effort is sharing over social media and through other means, including to organizations or individuals whose interest, organizational objective, or whose philanthropic abilities allow support for this project.

It will be a partnership between those who find the objective worthy of support and myself and the team of skilled professionals necessary to bring the project to fruition. The sharing of this project, and how to support it, and information of the objectives and final product with your friends and colleagues and others who might be interested or able to contribute support if they deem the project worthy, is vital to its eventual success.

In order for this to be accomplished, the project needs to secure the expertise of several professionals with specific skills, who, rightfully, need to be paid for their work. They include book manuscript editors, graphic artists, IT specialists, computer programmers, publishers, layout specialists, and various people with related technical skills for ensuring excellence in quality, organized accessibility, and quality presentation of the final product.

Aside from the impending Kickstarter launch, there are other ways to support the project immediately. This is crucial and much appreciated and will immediately be put to use to allow us to proceed efficiently, immediately, and without interruption from absence of funds.  For those inclined or willing to support the project, in addition to, separate from, or prior to the official Kickstarter launch, it is both needed and appreciated.

We have begun focusing on the project full time, but do not have adequate funds to engage the professional expertise and resources necessary to move forward at this time .

At the end of this Blog post, are several ways to make your contributions and show support for this project.

Pol Potbeing led away from his jungle trial. June 25, 1997. Photograph (c) nate Thayer

Pol Potbeing led away from his jungle trial. June 25, 1997. Photograph (c) nate Thayer

Here are random select documents of correspondence related to the search to understand and access the Khmer Rouge in their final years:

In the summer of 1992, I was accused–by persons unknown to this day–of being a paid operative of the Central Intelligence Agency. These charges were made to the then Associated Press Foreign Editor, Tom Kent, who, without a shred of evidence suspended me from my job as the AP Bureau Chief for Cambodia until an investigation was launched and completed, which of course proved the allegations to be spurious and unfounded.

I had been with AP since 1989 covering the war in Cambodia based from the Thai border and their myriad of guerrilla and refugee camps. I made 41 trips into the guerrilla controlled zones between 1989 and 1991, lasting from a day to two months in the jungle covering firefights, war, and its related deprivation and human suffering. I was paid a salary of $400.00 a month. After the signing of the Paris Peace Agreements in October 1991, I was sent to Phnom Penh to be the Bureau Chief for AP in Cambodia, reopening the AP office 17 years after it was shuttered when the Khmer Rouge seized power in April 1975.  My salary was raised to $800.00 per month–no expenses included, which meant I had to pay for my own accommodations, food, and communication to file stories, which I did through Bangkok, which were then sent to the AP Asia desk in Tokyo, and then on to the AP world desk in New York. I was hired by the AP legendary correspondent Dennis Gray, the Bangkok Bureau Chief and long time correspondent in Vietnam and Cambodia. He joined the AP after a stint as an army intelligence officer in Vietnam. He was, and remains, a man of great integrity, news sense, skill, and most importantly, an impeccably decent man and fair minded man.

In the summer of 1992, Tom Kent embarked on a whirlwind tour of the Foreign Bureaus of the AP to get a sense of what was happening inside the worlds biggest news organization of which he presided. I had never met the man. I do remember when, in October 1989, while on assignment for the AP, I was seriously injured by landmines while covering the war in Cambodia, killing or wounding everyone I was with. The only message I got from the New York HQ was not from Tom Kent, but from the AP lawyer, making it clear I was not a staff correspondent and while they felt terrible about the numerous broken bones, shrapnel injuries and brain damage I suffered, they were not responsible for any of my medical bills or other ramifications of the incident. Tom Kent did, however, play the story of “their” AP correspondent being wounded while getting what was at the time a minor world scoop after the Cambodian guerrillas captured their first district capitol in the 12 year old war, as a major top world story on the AP wire, and it was widely published globally.

Dennis Gray, the Bangkok Bureau chief, was considerably more professional and sympathetic, though a miser when it came to compensating his correspondents under the charge of his Bangkok Bureau’s. He was and remains a foreign correspondent’s correspondent.

There is also no greater honour than having one’s work recognized for its quality than by one’s colleagues. Below are selected correspondence that remain deeply appreciated by me from some of them.

Letter from AP Bangkok Bureau Chief Dennis Gray to General Dien Del, the Commander in Chief of the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front

October 20, 1989

Gen. Dien Del

Commander-in-Chief

Khmer People’s National Liberation Front

Dear General Dien Del:

I wish to thank you and your fellow KPNLF officers and soldiers for the help you gave our reporter Nate Thayer, both in allowing him to report from Cambodia and in taking care of him after he was wounded.

We would also like to express our sympathies for the soldiers who died and were wounded along with Nate.

Nate tells us he received excellent treatment at the KPNLF field hospital and that you were kind enough to call on him personally in Aranyaprathet.

Please accept our regards and thanks,

Dennis Gray

Bangkok Chief of Bureau

Associated Press

Letter from AP Bangkok Chief of Bureau Dennis Gray to Tom Kent, Foreign Editor of the AP, New York August 1992:

To: Tom Kent

From: Dennis Gray

Subject: Thayer

Dear Tom,

Since Thayer’s abilities, etc. came up several times during your visit, I thought I should add a postscript:

From Tokyo and Seoul have come kudos for his performance in North Koreaa, which was totally foreign ground to him, and he won very high praise from very-hard-to-please (Peter) Eng for coverage of the recent Bangkok demos (In which the Thai army killed hundreds of peaceful demonstrators protesting a coup d’etat during days of violent street fighting). So I am very pleased with our team here now—if we could only settle the Indochina matter.

A last thing on Thayer, which aroused my fury again today due to a lunch conversation I had with a Time magazine colleague from Hong Kong who said Thayer is being branded a “CIA type” by someone on the Far Eastern Economic Review. As you know, this type of thing can be very damaging to both individuals and companies. There is not one shred of evidence that Nate is working for anybody bt the AP and the occasional, legit media strings he has, or is an advocate of any one side in Cambodia or elsewhere. Should anybody in D.C.– or here–say otherwise, I suggest we threaten them with assassination–or at least a kick in you know where. Agreed?

All Best,

Dennis.

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Classified letter from The U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia Charles Twining to the Cambodian Interior Ministers on threats to press freedom and journalists,  after several journalists were assassinated, and plots to assassinate me were intercepted by U.S. intelligence, June 1994:

Department of State

Fm: AMEMBASSY PHNOM PENH

To: SECSTATE

SUBJECT: LETTER REGARDING PRESS FREEDOM

1. DUE TO SOME FEARS IN RECENT WEEKS THAT GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS’ COMMITMENT TO A FREE PRESS MAY BE WAVERING, THE AMBASSADOR WROTE INTERIOR MINISTERS SAR KHENG AND YOU HOKRY, AS WELL AS INFORMATION MINISTER IENG MOULY, JUNE 20, TO REINFORCE THE NEED FOR CONTINUED FREEDOM OF THE PRESS IN CAMBODIA.

2. TEXT OF LETTER AS FOLLOWS.

BEGIN TEXT.

I AM WRITING TO EXPRESS CONCERN OVER THE PERCEPTION THAT THE PRESS INSIDE THE COUNTRY–BOTH CAMBODIAN AND FOREIGN–FEEL THREATENED. I AM NOT IN A POSITION TO KNOW WHETHER THIS FEAR IS WARRANTED OR NOT, BUT IT IS REAL.

FREEDOM OF THE PRESS IS OF COURSE GUARANTEED BY ARTICLE 41 IN THE CONSTITUTION. IT IS ALSO ONE OF THE BASIC HUMAN RIGHTS RECOGNIZED INTERNATIONALLY.IT HAS BEEN A CORNERSTONE OF POLITICAL FREEDOM IN THE UNITED STATES FOR OVER 200 YEARS.

AS WE PERCEIVE ANXIETY ON THE PART OF THE CAMBODIAN PRESS THAT ITS RIGHTS MAY BE IN DANGER, I AM ALSO CONCERNED ABOUT THE RIGHTS AND WELFARE OF THE INTERNATIONAL PRESS OPERATING HERE. THIS IS PARTICULARLY WITH REGARD TO THE AMERICAN JOURNALISTS ASSIGNED HERE, SUCH AS STAFF MEMBERS OF THE PHNOM PENH POST, AND REPORTER NATE THAYER. WHILE WE MAY SOMETIMES DISAGREE WITH THE VIEWS OF ONE WRITER OR ANOTHER–HONEST MEN WILL DISAGREE ABOUT SOME THINGS–I WILL ALWAYS DEFEND THEIR RIGHT TO PRESENT THEIR VIEWS, EVEN ABOUT ME OR MY STAFF. I ALSO COUNT ON THE ROYAL GOVERNMENT TO ENSURE THE SECURITY OF THESE PERSONNEL.

I AM CERTAIN, FOR EXAMPLE, THAT THE PHNOM PENH POST AND MR. NATE THAYER WOULD BE PREPARED TO CONSIDER MOST SERIOUSLY PUBLISHING VIEWS WHICH THE GOVERNMENT MAY WISH TO PRESENT. I KNOW THAT I CAN COUNT ON YOUR EXCELLENCIES TO CONTINUE TO SUPPORT THIS FREEDOM FOR ALL  JOURNALISTS INSIDE THE COUNTRY.

END TEXT

TWINING

Letter to Khmer Rouge President Khieu Samphan from me July 29, 1996 after having been summoned across the planet to their jungles to be lectured by a mid level Khmer Rouge official who wanted their message delivered to the United States Government:

HE Khieu Samphan

President

Party of Democratic Kampuchea

Dear President Khieu Samphan:

Please allow me to express my appreciation for the recent invitation to meet your representative HE Mak Ben in the liberated zones of Cambodia under the administration of Democratic Kampuchea.

As always, I am very interested in hearing in detail and in person, the DK analysis of Cambodian politics. And, as always, I am committed to reporting accurately and without bias on Cambodian affairs. As you know, this commitment has contributed to me being expelled from Phnom Penh by the current authorities who are unhappy with my reporting on important issues that concern the nation and the people.

However, I am disturbed by perhaps a misunderstanding on the part of Democratic Kampuchea on what my job is and who I work for. Let me be very and unequivocally clear: I am an independent journalist. I do not nor have I ever worked for the United States Government or any other government. I am not an agent of the CIA nor am I an agent of any arm of any government.

I was clearly under the impression from my meeting with Mak Ben that Democratic Kampuchea believes me to be an agent of the United States government and that you had requested to see me in order to relay a message to the American authorities.

If you were to ask me–which you did not–specifically to send a message to US authorities, I would be happy to do so. I have very good contacts, as you know, with key people involved in Cambodian affairs in a number of governments, including the United States. If I can contribute to a better understanding between the DK and any other government, that is good for Cambodia and I am happy to do my part to help Cambodia.

But it is not my job.

Frankly, to spend the equivalent of two months salary on flying around the world to meet Mak Ben for three hours for the sole purpose of relaying a message to the United States government is, mostly, a waste of my time. It seemed that none of the issues that I had asked to talk about during my previous trip to the liberated zones in May were taken into consideration.

I was treated with a lack of respect for my professional duties as a journalist and historian.

I am a journalist working for the Far Eastern Economic Review. Because of difficulties with the Phnom Penh authorities, I am no longer able to effectively report from Phnom Penh. While I remain the Cambodia correspondent for the Review and will continue to write on Cambodian affairs for them, I am now based in Washington as a visiting scholar of Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies, Foreign Policy Institute. This is a respected Washington University influential in foreign policy affairs.

I am working on a book on post 1978 Cambodian political history. This book will detail the struggles of the various political factions since your political organization was in power until 1978 until the current period. Obviously the struggles of the DK play a key,  significant and dominating part of this period of Cambodian history and I want to reflect accurately the leading role of your party and army during this period. If you choose to talk to me about it, I would be honoured. The book I expect will be widely read by policy makers and historians and it is important that people understand the nature of your struggle. I would hope that you would find it important to invite me back to discuss this important part of Cambodian history. This would require I meet senior leaders of the DK Party.

I am officially, once again, requesting that I be able to meet you, Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Ta Mok and other key leaders of your movement. But let me be clear: Do not invite me back if I am only to be lectured by a mid-level cadre such as HE Mak Ben and treated as though I am a messenger boy for the U.S. government. It is a waste of my time, money and effort.

Lastly, and importantly, I wanted to follow up on a matter of great personal interest to me that I raised several times before, including in my recent trip where I met HE Mak Ben in the liberated zones. During the last months, I have followed with great interest the fate of my friend Christopher Howes, who was seized by your forces while conducting humanitarian work removing land mines from  agricultural areas in rural villages near your liberated zones.

I have received irrefutable and precise and clear information from Cambodian and other sources that Chris has been killed by forces under your command. I know this to be true. His family and the international community want and need to know the proof of the fact that Chris is dead so they can rest in peace from a traumatic months of anguished uncertainty. I am sure you are aware that all over the world during times of conflict that these situations arise and that innocent people die after straying into harms way. I will ensure that you will be given due credit as having acted on humanitarian good will by providing proof of Chris’s death so his family may have some closure to this unfortunate tragedy.

Please contact me to let me know what I can do to help bring this chapter, which has brought the DK considerably bad publicity and will continue to do so, until there is proof and closure to Chris’s case.

I would like to request once again that I be able to meet with you and HE Pol Pot and speak about important Cambodian political issues of newsworthy interest to the Far Eastern economic Review., but I am on a limited budget.

Do not invite me back if I am only to meet with a low ranking cadre such as Mak Ben. It is, frankly, a waste of my time, effort, and money. My trip to accept your invitation to the liberated zones where I met Mak Ben cost me a huge portion of my total budget to research my current work projects, and I have to be very careful how I spend my money. 

As you know, I have devoted much of my professional life to attempting to report fairly on Cambodian political issues because of my great fondness for Cambodia and its people.

My current situation allows me to have significant influence on those involved in making foreign policy decisions regarding Cambodia. But in order for me to have influence, I must have knowledge. In order to have knowledge and credibility, I must have access. I think you can see we have some common interests here. So once again, I request formally that you allow me to visit the liberated zones to speak with you and to HE Pol Pot on these issues of critical importance to Cambodia and its future.

If I can not meet with people of your rank or senior, please do not, in the future, waste my time or yours.

With Sincere and warm regards,

Nate Thayer

Cambodia Correspondent

Far Eastern economic Review

******************************************

Letter to a senior Khmer Rouge cadre based at their clandestine jungle headquarters of Anlong Veng, responding to his handwritten, hand delivered messages to me by human runners in Phnom Penh, June 1997:

Dear XXX,

I have been here in Surin for several days. I got your messages. I am sending this note with our Thai friends.

I would very much like to see you. Maybe our Thai friends can request if you ask them to. Please stay in contact. I will await your reply. I hope you are safe and well.

Best regards,

Nate

Another message from me given to a Cambodian government general on a remote mountain military base in the northwest Cambodian jungle, late June 1997. He was on a secret visit by helicopter to Khmer Rouge headquarters delivering ammunition to Khmer Rouge forces mutinying against Pol Pot but not yet successfully:

Dear XXX,

I hope you have received my messages through the usual channels. I am writing this from O’Smach where I came yesterday driving by car from Siem Riep.

I very much want to come talk to you or Khieu Samphan and understand the real situation regarding Pol Pot. If I was to see you, your message would be spread clearly and honestly to the world. Now everyone is very confused as to the changes in the DK leadership and what your objectives are.

The reason is there is no independent confirmation of anything. This I could provide so the world could receive your message clearly.

You would then not have to worry about efforts to distort or block or manipulate your message. I will report the facts honestly, as you know well over the years.

Please make arrangements with our Thai friends and/0r friends in the Cambodian government to invite me and give permission for me to enter Anlong Veng and your liberated zones. I can either cross from Thailand or cross from the Cambodian side in the jungles near O’Smach.

I will await your reply through the usual channels or through General XXX XXX

I hope you are healthy and safe.

Sincerely,

Nate

A few days later, in June 1997 after Pol Pot had been captured by mutinying forces, a hand scrawled message delivered to me on a mountain top in Northwest Cambodia when a helicopter briefly touched down, a soldier ran out and gave me a scrap of paper, from the same senior Khmer Rouge cadre by Cambodian government military intermediaries:

Dear Friend,

I am pleased to receive your short message. We have many difficulties and I have a lot to talk to you about. I will meet with you soon. The time and place will be arranged later with the help of our Thai friends. You can trust them.

XXX

****************************************************************************************************************

Handwritten letter to me hand delivered in Phnom Penh June 22, 1997 by the governor of Siem Riep province, General Tuon Chhay. General Tuon Chhay, a senior Funcinpec official, had just defected from the Funincpec Party in an internal rift. Ten days before Pol Pot had assassinated his defence Minister, Son Sen, and Khmer Rouge troops had mutinied against him. While there had been no formal confirmation, Pol Pot and his loyalists had been captured by the Khmer Rouge army chief and confusion reigned in the jungles and Phnom Penh as to what the true situation was. A week later, Hun Sen and the CPP would launch a coup against Funcinpec and a new civil war erupted:

Dear Friend,

I am well as are my colleagues.

I fought the leadership in the Party of HE Prince Ranariddh because otherwise the Funcinpec Party will go down. But I have small support from the high ranking officials of Funcinpec, but the grassroots people and the older Funcinpecists support me.

I have learned the real situation of Funcinpec but the corrupt high Funcinpec people (the high ranking one did not) do not realize that the Funcinpec will be driven down. They are spoiled by the victory of the last election. They do not think to work properly as I had expected, but the CPP does their job.  I feel very ashamed of Funcinpec and of the CPP.

Now they accuse me that I sell my head to be a puppet of the CPP.

They know (Funcinpec) how to criticize, but they do not know how to work.

The relations, cooperation  and collaboration with the CPP is destroyed. Each side, they move to strengthen their own parties but not the government. There is no political stability.

Today, June 22, my close little brother went to Anlong Veng. He saw Pol Pot who is staying in a secret house. He (P.P) looks very old and very sick.

Within the next few days, Khieu Samphan will declare from Prwah Vwihear temple to abolish his Khmer Rouge party as well as their provisional government of “National Solidarity.”

Chan Youran, Pech Bun Reth, Mak Ben, Tep Khun Nal, Thioun Thioun, Ko Bun Heng were all captured since June 15 by Ta Mok. Now they stay in Anlong Veng.

Your Friend,

Chhay

A week later, the CPP launched a coup against Ranariddh and Funcinpec, killing hundreds, and driving tens of thousands to the jungle and across the border to Thailand. One month later, on July 25, 1997, I was allowed into the jungle headquarters of Anlong Veng, where I witnessed and photographed the jungle trial of Pol Pot. It was the first time he had been seen or photographed in two decades.

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Letter from the Foreign editor of the wall Street Journal nominating me for a Pulitzer Prize, January 1998:

My nomination for the Pulitzer Prize by the Wall Street Journal–1998. This letter of nomination was written by the WSJ Foreign Editor John Bussey:

January 5, 1998

Urban Lehner

Nayan Chanda

Nate Thayer

Urban/Nayan/Nate—Here, FYI, is my nominating letter for Nate’s story. I’m entering it for U.S. newspaper awards: the Pulitzer, the Polk (already sent) and the OPC. Just a reminder: I wrote this for strategic reasons, in a manner that emphasizes the U.S. newspaper coverage, noting that the story was published in the Review the same day.

Best, Bussey–NY

Pulitzer nomination, International Reporting

Nate Thayer’s Interview With Pol Pot

In the pantheon of 20th century butchers, Pol Pot has always rated a spot on the A-list. The world lost count of how many Cambodians he and his genocidal Khmer Rouge killed during the 1970’s and subsequent years. The accepted figure: somewhere in the millions.

For the last twenty years, Pol Pot remained a murderous enigma–a shadow variously reported deposed, injured or dead. No one outside the innermost circle of his communist cadre had even spoken with the man. The most recent photograph of him dated from 1979. On the run, deep in the Cambodian jungle, criss-crossing his killing fields, Pol Pot eluded his enemies, eluded accountability, eluded explanation.

That is, until freelance reporter Nate Thayer, at great personal risk, tracked down and interviewed Pol Pot. It was the journalistic coup of 1997. Writing for the Wall Street Journal in the U.S. and its sister publication, the Far Eastern economic Review in Hong Kong, and publishing his exclusive interview on the same day in both the Journal and the Review, Thayer ripped away Pol Pot’s anonymity. His feature length story, written under intense deadline pressure, was riveting: Here was the mass murderer, unrepentant,explaining the geopolitics of genocide, talking wistfully of fatherhood and his 12-year old daughter–writing history. Thayer’s story was an international sensation, and virtually every major publication and broadcaster in the world picked up lengthy excerpts. Indeed, no single international story in 1997 transcended Thayer’s blockbuster interview with Pol Pot.

Sometimes the story behind the story is as exemplary, and this is one of those times. Nate Thayer’s pursuit of Pol Pot began in 1989, when he started reporting from Thailand on the Khmer Rouge. Freelancing for U.S. and Asian publications, he made dozens of trips into the jungle, sleeping and eating with the guerrillas, reporting on firefights, gaining the confidence and respect of all sides in the deadly conflict. On one reporting trip he was gravely injured when the truck he was riding in hit a land mine, killing several of his companions.. He contracted cerebral malaria, and was hospitalized several times. His stories inevitably infuriated one side or the other. One commander broadcast a reward for his capture; another ordered him assassinated on sight.

All the while, Thayer pressed to see Pol Pot. In June of this year, he sensed his opportunity was at hand: Khmer Rouge radio announced Pol Pot had been arrested as a traitor. Thayer began working his extensive set of guerrila contacts in Cambodia, Thailand and Europe, sending messages through operatives and meeting in the jungle with field commanders. He sometimes found himself in the thick of the fighting–only to retreat and start the process over again.

In a letter to his Journal editors, Thayer writes about one trip into a Khmer Rouge zone this summer: “We were not told where we were going or who we were going to meet. I was very aware that the last three Westerners who had gone to this exact area had been murdered and that a government negotiating team that was invited in February had been ambushed and that 11 of the 15 members of the team were executed. The others are still being held hostage. We did not know who was in control–whether anyone was in full control–and whether there were factions that opposed my visit. The jungle was thick along the road as we descended the mountain, a place easily ambushed. I had been ambushed before in guerrilla areas after being assured that the areas were secure. It was not irrelevant that the Khmer Rouge executed many foreign journalists in their day. I was not relaxed.”

His years of cultivating friendships with peasant commanders paid off. After five months of working his network, Thayer was taken into the jungle and permitted to watch a Khmer Rouge trial of Pol Pot, and then, several weeks later, granted the first interview in two decades with the deposed despot.. His extraordinary freelance story on October 23 in the Wall Street Journal and the Far Eastern economic Review was the result. (Thayer subsequently, in November, joined the Review staff.)

For his notable courage, and top notch journalism, we are pleased to nominate Nate Thayer for the Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting.

October 23, 1997, Wall Street Journal, An Interview With Pol Pot: Master of the Killing Fields, By Nate Thayer

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Award from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, November 1998, Harvard University

International Consortium of Investigative Journalists

1998 Award For Outstanding International Investigative Reporting

Judges Commendation

The winner of ICIJ’s first award for international investigative reporting rescued history with his courageous and enterprising reportage on the final days of Pol Pot.

He illuminated a page of history that woul have been lost to the world had he not spent years in the Cambodia 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 leaders.

His amazing persistence, as well as endurance and bravery, allowed him to be a witness to the final days of one of history’s most barbaric despots. he was the only representative of the press allowed to attend the jungle trial of Pol Pot by his disillusioned Khmer Rouge Peers. He was the only Westerner later to be able to interview Pol Pot at length.

he, alone, was able to ask the murderer the eternal question—why?–on behalf of the millions of Cambodians exterminated under the Pol Pot regime.

His reporting was serious and informative on the factions and personalities that led to a once untouchable ruler being tried by his own people. And, yet, he was extremely restrained about his own presence. A lesser journalist would have drawn attention to his achievement in obtaining these worldwide exclusives.

Nate Thayer’s years of hard work, detailed reporting, and clear understanding of Cambodia’s murky politics gave the world a ringside seat at the demise of one of the most notorious leaders of the 20th century.

The judges, therefore, would like to commend you, Nate, for a remarkable piece of journalism and present you with this first ICIJ Award for Outstanding International Investigative Reporting.

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Here are some ways to provide financial support for the project:

Please go to my blog site, natethayer.wordpress.com

In the upper right hand corner is a Paypal button that will easily walk you through the simple steps to donate.

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The new-fangled world of journalism requires a significant effort at self funding, as virtually all institutional budgets supporting in-depth investigative journalism has been eliminated in recent years. This genre of journalism is as time consuming and expensive as it is vital. It is an unpleasant process for most of us, but less unpleasant than ceasing pursuing this essential genre of quality, in depth journalism.

In order to succeed, the Kickstarter campaign requires that the full funding target goal must be raised within a set period of days (my campaign will probably be 30 days) or the project will not be supported at all.

The costs for a high quality production of this project are substantial. The details of what it will cost, and the specific funding targeting each aspect of the larger project, to bring these projects to fruition will be laid out in the Kickstarter campaign. That campaign will begin by February 1 and will last for 30 days.

Any thoughts, criticisms, or comments are welcome here, or by email at thayernate0007@gmail.com  or through my blog site at natethayer.wordpress.com or on my Face Book page

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A letter to a young Cambodian-2013: Reflections on a toxic political culture

26 Jun

Cambodia-2013: Reflections on a toxic political culture

A letter to a young Cambodian

If Cambodia is not careful, they will be relegated to selling roadside trinkets along the highway as the rest of properly organized Asia zooms through without stopping  between Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City

By Nate Thayer

June 26, 2013

Alright I just expelled my first FB friend.

Cambodia is having a so called election in coming weeks. Hun Sen, the ex Pol Pot military officer who has been running the show in the collapsed, sad nation since he lost the $3 billion UN funded free elections in 1993 and went on a murderous rampage, is still in sole and complete power, 30 years later.

Hun Sen achieved that distinction by systematically murdering, torturing, or otherwise dispatching anyone who didn’t demonstrate absolute obsequiousness, gouging their eyes out while alive, cutting off their penis’s  and stuffing them in their mouths while laughing before killing them, pulling out there tongues with pliers when they failed to utter the right words, yanking their fingernails out before putting a bullet between their eyes, and otherwise humiliating, torturing and murdering the duly elected government that would not submit in supine, abject, mute, loyalty.

He did this, this violent, bloody coup d’etat, in order to solely seize power in 1997. He fled the Khmer Rouge in 1977, well after hundreds of thousands of people were killed by his government, not out of any objection to their policies of mass murder of politically suspect citizens, but rather because he was next on their target list. He was installed in power a few years later by the invading Vietnamese army and served as their puppet leader until the UN arrived in 1991. He lost the 1993 UN election, used violence and threats to compel a power sharing arrangement, and then dispatched of the veneer formalities 4 years later in his bloody putsch.

And now he is running another transparently farcical insult to the concept of free elections , a campaign to get the absurd stamp of legitimacy on his dictatorship once again.

He has once again expelled all elected parliamentary opposition members in recent weeks, which strips them of legal immunity, so he can threaten and jail anyone who says anything he doesn’t like using the entirely controlled judiciary.

Frankly, Cambodia is such a pathetic, myopic political culture, with virtually no sense of common good or nation, that, with the exception of a very few very brave people, almost no one stands up to these thugs.

The dictator Hun Sen’s latest embarrassing rhetoric has him targeting his main opposition figure, Khem Sokkha, accussing him of sleeping with underage virgin prostitutes, and he has threatened to throw him in jail.

For Cambodian’s, they don’t find it sufficient to just murder or destroy the reputation through slander of their opponents. They enjoy publicly humiliating them first. The dirty little secret is that these tactics are prevalent in virtually all Cambodian leaders of all ideologies.

What does it say about the Cambodian political culture that after Pol Pot killed nearly a quarter of the population in 3 years eight months and 20 days in power, his political opposition was so unimpressive that the freshly minted mass murderers was able to rebuild his political organization through genuine popular support and remained the dominating political power broker for two decades after he did what he did?

It doesn’t say anything very complimentary or reassuring.

So when the following message just appeared on my FB page, it pushed my buttons.

“Both Putin & Berlusconi were divorced, no wife, they are enjoying life as bachelors, but now ex-PM of Italian is facing charge for buying sex with many under age girls = Kem Sokha.”

Khem Sokha, the opposition candidate who Hun Sen is gleefully publicly humiliating, after stripping him of his position as an elected parliamentarian, is a decent man. I remember him as a courageous human rights campaigner in a country where such activity would likely make you a statistic, and quickly.

So I wrote the following reply to his pathetic status message:
I am not sure who you are. But I do know this: Life is too important to be sputtering foolish and dangerous untruths. And life is never worth blindly repeating the absurd and false propaganda of any political leader without using your mind to think for yourself and figure out whether it is true.

The allegations against Khem Sokha are so obviously bald political slander created by Hun Sen that not a person on earth outside of Cambodia believes them to be true.

Until people like you stop getting pleasure from viciously attacking without merit political leaders and start demanding your leaders stop stealing the country blind, filling their bank accounts with the proceeds that belong to the nation, selling off Cambodia’s heritage to the foreigner with the most money, and murdering and oppressing through violence and a constant state of fear anyone who doesn’t get on their knees when they enter the room, Cambodia will remain the sad, failed country that is unable to survive without the charity of the properly organized world.

You should be ashamed of yourself.

And you should certainly be ashamed of your country.

Only then, perhaps, will you fight to create a national dignity that is such an historical relic in Cambodian political culture that it is beyond the ability of historians to empirically reconstruct.

Why should the rest of the world care about a country that cares so little about itself that it allows the same incompetent, corrupt, rapacious thugs to run the asylum years and years on end?

It is one thing to not say anything at all because you rightly know if you speak the truth they will do whatever it takes, up to and including murdering you, to make you stop. It is entirely another to take perverted pleasure in destroying the reputation of good people who are trying to change the country.

It is embarrassing and despicable.

OK. I have said what I feel because I am a free man and can. Good luck achieving the same political conditions in your neck of the woods with your pathetic attitude.

And, congratulations. You have the distinction of being the first person I have ever formally blocked and kicked off my FB page. Because you simply are not worth the bother.

Good luck in your upcoming “election.”

And good luck with the future you and your country are rapidly hurtling towards: A sad, pathetic failed nation state that will find itself selling trinkets on the highway between Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City, as the rest of the region and planet, zooms through without stopping,  as they get on with the program of making life better for their people.

Nate

My Friend, Arthur: Formerly the Planet’s Biggest Dope Trafficker

9 Mar

My Friend, Arthur: Formerly the Planet’s Biggest Dope Trafficker

By Nate Thayer

Arthur Tonzone was, in his arguably misguided youth, the biggest  international drug trafficker  on earth. He also, I feel I have confidently confirmed, a great fucking guy. Arthur contacted me a couple weeks ago and said we had, sorta, crossed paths a few years back. “I know who you are,” he wrote me out of the blue. “We know many of the same people.”At the time he was smuggling 5 tons of marijuana from Cambodia to the U.S., a career path which had allowed him to intimately get to know a good portion of the planet from Jamaica to Thailand to Cambodia.

It didn’t, as these things tend to do, follow a happy script from there forward. Like many of our youthful choices, his story included a less than happy interval, but not ending.

Arthur was arrested and thrown in one of the worst hell holes on earth—T-3 political prison in Phnom Penh. He was only released into the custody of U.S. federal agents who took him back to the U.S. and to federal penitentiary, where he had the unfortunate, or perhaps enlightening, experience, where he then spent a far from pleasant further chunk of time.

He obviously recovered from his legal unpleasantness, because he wrote a book about all this.

Arthur is pissed off, for perfectly good reason. So he did what free people do when they are free—he objected.

His book, “Herb Trader”, which Arthur sent me by mail last week, is a riveting tale of his life. It is brutally honest, it is tragic, it is inspiring, and, as far as I can tell, spot on correct.

Arthur was a dope trafficker. Arthur is a very good man. I am glad to count him amongst my newer friends, despite the fact he claims we crossed paths while he was smuggling dope and I was tracking Pol Pot in the jungles of Cambodia:

Here is a portion of our correspondence this morning: Continue reading

Spies and Journalists: Excerpts From Sympathy for the Devil by Nate Thayer

26 Dec

Spies and Journalists: Excerpts From Sympathy for the Devil: A Journalist’s Memoir From Inside Pol Pot’s Cambodia

By Nate Thayer

(c) Nate Thayer. Copyright strictly held by Nate Thayer. No republication or transmission in whole or in part under any circumstances without the express written permission of the author. Excerpts from the unpublished manuscript of Sympathy for the Devil: A Journalists Memoir from Inside Pol Pot’s Cambodia

Singaporean military intelligence Colonel Eng and I were very close personal friends for many years. I would socialize with him often. I am quite sure we never once spoke of what he did exactly or who, precisely, he worked for. It was always very compartmentalized to the issue at hand, and after a couple years it was obvious and certain we both knew exactly who he worked for, what his job was, and  that it wasn’t what it was purported to be–but that was still all left unsaid and really not necessary.

Colonel Eng’s colleagues were, shall we say, rather frustrated with him. He was very good and the Thais and Cambodian guerrillas loved him. He spoke perfect Thai and the Thais gave him an honorary military rank as General courtesy of the Lopburi  Royal Thai Army Special Forces command headquarters.

It was an official rank, so Colonel Eng had reason to think he was somewhat immune. But Eng was not a desk officer sort of fellow, and he was, to be charitable, very fond of drinking and had caused many near public incidents.  A combination of Colonel Eng’s personality, job description and conduct made his colleagues, superiors, and foreign intelligence counterparts very, very nervous.

Colonel Eng was in charge of being the actual covert liaison between the Singapore government and the Cambodian non-communist guerrilla groups which Singapore directly armed, albeit very covertly, to this day having never acknowledged their significant role.

While an undercover operative, the good Colonel was also the only person in Thailand who drove a blue Volvo station wagon with Singaporean diplomatic license plates routinely up and down the remote roads and dirt byways that snaked into Cambodia from the Thai border. And he certainly was the only one with a Volvo station wagon that never was without a case of Johnny Walker Whiskey in the back. Eng was generous with sharing gifts and insisted the recipients use them, regardless of what hour of the morning it was.

When the Paris Peace Agreements was signed in 1991, Eng was so close personally to virtually the entire military and civilian leadership of the Cambodian non communist resistance groups, the Thai government, and a potpourri of foreign intelligence agencies, that the Singaporean government rightly put him in charge of the portfolio of gathering intelligence on Cambodian military and political developments from Phnom Penh where the former enemy armed factions all moved and set up shop in a very uneasy alliance preparing for UN conducted elections.

But Eng was still formally attached to the Bangkok embassy and was forced to commute every few weeks to gather information for his regular intelligence updates.

The Cambodians use of him had peaked by then, since they weren’t relying on his weapons deliveries any longer, and, the truth is, in Cambodia a foreigner can only aspire to be a temporary tactical ally never other than to be discarded as a strategic enemy when the time arrives.

Plus Eng didn’t like the leg work of all the new faces and complicated politics of Phnom Penh. He was a field guy and didn’t do well with supervision or rules.

He use to come over to my office/house each time he landed in Phnom Penh and basically ask me for all the details—a sitrep of the political, military, and spookery shenanigans of the various players and factions, and then write it up for his report which he delivered back to his bosses. He was by that time drinking very, very much. I had no issue of course with sharing information with him, because the Singaporeans are very good–like the French or Germans–with sharing information in return, unlike very much the Americans, who think they can just get and not give.

He use to come straight over to my office/house each time he landed in Phnom Penh and basically ask me for all the details to fill his obligatory scheduled intelligence report. Colonel Eng would always arrive at my place with a half empty large bottle of Johnny Walker Black (never Red) and it was always still morning. Most days we would finish it together  well before dusk, both taking notes from each other. He was by that time drinking increasingly heavily, which did not go unnoticed.

As an example of the consternation Eng created amongst his own team, one day he arrived in Phnom Penh, quite tired and emotional as the Brits say, and proposed to me in quite extensive and dramatic detail that he “had talked to the Ambassador and it is all approved. We want to hire you to write the report.” He offered a specific quite generous dollar figure for my troubles. Eng just didn’t want to bothered with the pesky commute from Bangkok to Cambodia, and I didn’t blame him.

”I am tired of this bullshit,” he said in his lilting Singaporean accent, gesturing animatedly, chain smoking.. “I am thinking of retiring.”  Eng’s offer was serious and he was persistent. I declined then and more than once afterwards. Eng’s response was invariably a confused “Lah! What is wrong with you, my friend?! It is easy money! You already are doing it. Just write it up for our style! It is much more efficient for both of us!”

Colonel Eng was a genuine character.

In the months prior, on several of the good Colonel’s visits to my home, the topic was dominated by some cockamamie get rich retirement scheme Eng had concocted where he claimed to be privy to some magic Chinese ointment about to dominate the world market that one spread over ones bald head and it “cured” baldness.

He wanted me to be the photo model and photograph me for before and after shots for his planned global get rich quick marketing scheme. He would, he assured me, cut me a generous percentage of the inevitable millions waiting to be made. It was the brainchild of some “very good friend I have in Hong Kong.”  Colonel Eng, again, was dead serious.

But it was his plan to pay me to do his work to gather and write intelligence reports by recruiting me, an American citizen and journalist, as a paid agent of the Singapore SID which was not received kindly by Washington or his Singaporean  superiors. The SID and Washington are very close allies. Their relationship of sharing intelligence is of the top rank. I was told by an un-amused representative of my government and his equally unimpressed Singaporean bosses, that it was strictly against the rules to hire one another’s citizens as covert operatives behind the back of the other. So that is the sort of consternation Colonel Eng evoked from his peers.

I had no issue of course, except for the cash part, because the Singaporeans are very good–like the French or Germans–with sharing information unlike, very much, the Americans who think they can just get one to hand over sought after information in a one way monologue and offer no information or cooperation in exchange.

However, my job is not to provide intelligence information I have gathered to governments. My job is to provide information of interest to my readers. While the job descriptions of journalists and spooks are similar, our audiences and bosses are very, very different. Plus, they have much better toys and a considerably larger budget.

My deal was always that if I acquired or was given the information with the understanding and agreement it could be published, it was my choice who to share it with, even if it never saw print.

Any sources or methods or information given or acquired  in various categories of confidence I strictly applied rules uncompromisingly protecting the agreement, and have never been accused, I am rather proud to say, of violating an agreement. I can say until this day I have never burned a source, and this reputation proved to be a foundation of access to many people with many different jobs from many countries over the years.

An experience with Singaporean Colonel Eng a few years later serves as an example. I was doing a story that I had worked on for a couple years on Cambodia’s richest businessman who was the biggest source of corrupt payoffs and funds for the Cambodian government and its leaders.

He was also a major heroin trafficker and very bad man, in general. And was worth several billion dollars. I knew that he would sue me and my magazine, and do whatever he could to protect his reputation and hopefully destroy me and mine to boot.

I managed to get copies of his 3 Cambodian passports’ (one diplomatic as ‘economic advisor’ to the Cambodian head of state) and two others under different names. I also had copies of his Thai passport under a third name and his Hong Kong ID card, all with different birthdays etc. I needed as much documentation on this guy as I could to deter and discourage his appetite for revenge.

Towards the end of my several years of research and nearing publication, I called Colonel Eng in Bangkok from the offices of the Far Eastern Economic Review in Hong Kong. I had been summoned there by my bosses who wanted to be sure every i was dotted and t crossed, as they knew they would be sued in court once the story was published.

I told my good friend the Colonel that “I needed a background check and as much documentation of any illegal or suspicious activities” this man had engaged in, was associated with or was connected to. That this was a special case and I needed a favour. I gave Colonel Eng stellar personal data—passports, birth certificates, addresses, company names etc.

Eng was happy to help, but in his inimitable way. “Oh, lah! I hope you have changed and are being a good boy. You know you cause many people many headaches,” he admonished in a friendly, co-conspiritorial tone. “But you are my friend and so I am forced to help you,” he sighed. Eng tended to side on the dramatic.

Soon after, he calls me from Bangkok in Hong Kong, where I was working with our editors and lawyers for the cover story. “Oh, my friend, please never do that to me again!” he feigned being upset in a low, hushed voice. I waited for the second act. “My good friend, this man will kill you. You must not write anything. Please warn me the next time when you want to know about someone like this!  My computers and departments almost short circuited wanting to know who wanted to know and for what reason about this man! He is very powerful! You will go too far this time. You are my friend. I am suggesting to you it is a very bad idea to talk about this man. He will kill you.” I could almost see the Colonel grinning on the other end of the phone as he provided me a treasure trove of court admissible documents proving beyond a scintilla of doubt this man’s multi-billion dollar international criminal enterprise and his payoffs to the Cambodian government, including the serving prime Ministers of Cambodia.

And, despite Eng’s acrobatics, Eng provided a boxful of documents from files the Singaporeans had on his trans-Asian narcotics and criminal syndicates and his largesse to major political figures in several countries. I am guessing Eng actually liked the idea we were writing about him. He was a very good judge of character, a quite important trait for both spies and journalists.

My deal was always that if I was given the information with the understanding of publishing, it was my choice with whom to share it, whether it merited getting into print or not.

Any sources or methods or information I was given in various categories of confidence I applied the equally non negotiable strict rules on, and most of the good stuff never saw print or was ever mentioned to anyone for any reason..

And being a journalist obviously I don’t have the same layered complexities as their job. So, really depending on whether I trusted that person, I had good relationships with professional intelligence officers from many countries. Some I had none.

With the U.S., it depended strictly on the person. One station chief in Cambodia was amongst my closest friends. We would hang out together most every day, see each other at the gym most every day, and visit at my house and me at his house. There were several others there from what I call “the dark side” that were very, very good at their jobs.

When my friend left Cambodia, I asked him what he thought of his replacement, and he said: “I wouldn’t trust him.” And he was right. I met him once, where he waxed drunkenly on how all he needed was one company of U.S. marines and he could take out the entire Khmer Rouge phenomena once and for all. We did not become close friends.

Another one of the excellent U.S. guys was very, very much still not declared and operating under the radar, and the fact is one can only keep that status going for so long and then something will happen, and the other team will catch wind of the nature of their employers and their career trajectory will take a sharp turn differently. I was close to him too. When he left, he told me “I am going to be out of touch for a couple years” and he was. He and some of his people would periodically get in touch with me just to pass on  a message of sayings hi but it was clear that he off somewhere, doing something, that couldn’t simply be known. There were others.

There is one guy who was in country who spoke 32 languages, was a citizen of another country, and held a very good professional cover who simply did not trust journalists under any circumstances. I hung out with him a number of times but he had a lifetime in various places and he wasn’t going to jeopardize that. One journo in a medium sized paper had made reference to him not even by name, 15 years before, which really pissed him off, and he remained spooked, as it were, ever since.

Anyways, there was a very sophisticated dance in a good relationship between a journalist and a spy.

You both knew the rules of your own organization and both respected those of the other. There are ways to ask for information and give it and still protect your rules, ethics, and responsibilities, and most importantly the confidentiality of the people who are your sources.

When Cambodian deputy Prime Minister and son the King, Prince Chakrapong, tried his 1994 coup, I was with him in the hotel. It is a long and dramatic story, much of which never saw print, and a lot of which never will.

The night before the coup, I had heard rumors that a coup was going to happen. In fact several Funcinpec Party people in government had called me out of personal concern and said “don’t go out tonight, it is not safe.” And I checked and found that all of them had ordered their own kids to stay home. It was a Saturday night. But that was all I had. I took my motorcycle on a tour of the usual places and it seemed relatively quiet, though a few military reinforcements were at key senior official’s residences, and new checkpoints were indeed erected, as well as an armored personnel carrier placed in front of Prime Minister Ranariddh’s home and the street in front of Hun Sen’s home blocked off and reinforcements of heavily armed troops were in place there, too.

I sought out the American CIA station chief, who I found having dinner with his wife and kids at a Phnom Penh hotel, and asked him (his wife was there and used to this) if he had heard anything unusual was up, outlining intriguing rumors of an impending coup. He said no,  he was unaware of any chatter or more, after I told him what I had heard. But he thanked me and said “I will check it out and get back to you.”

He called a while later and said “You are on to something. Don’t relax or think you are chasing a bad rumor. Be careful. And thanks for the tip.”

So, this is a perfect example of how each of us could still say precisely enough to keep the rules and integrity of the home team, and keep a conversation going, exchanging information useful to each other.

As it happened, these guys from the American dark side really hated their Ambassador, Charles Twining. And they didn’t tell him anything they weren’t required to, as they had a separate communication channel to Washington which did not require passing through the State Department or the ambassador. And they had heard nothing concrete but clearly something was big on for that night.

At 0600 Sunday morning, asleep for a very few hours naked in my bed on the roof of the Phnom Penh Post with my girlfriend, my mobile phone rang.

The call was from Beijing. And it was the Queen. And she said in totality: “Call this number” and read the digits. And hung up.

I recognized immediately the phone number as belonging to Prince Chakrapong. I called him.

In fact, in the preceding hours Chakrapong had fled his home to a hotel with nothing, including his address book, but his 22 year old mistress. And he had called his mother, the Queen, for help, asking her to call me because he was surrounded by hundreds of heavily armed troops with instructions to capture and kill him after his attempted coup fizzled, and he was about to be executed.

He begged me to come right away. A very smart move. Because any government would have had all kinds of time consuming hoops to go through before they could dispatch anyone to the location of the impending confrontation—time not helpful to put something effective between him and the bullets of some people very angry at him.

A jittery voice answered after I dialed the mobile phone. “This is Prince Chakrapong. Please, please help me,” he said in a frightened broken whisper, “Come right away to the Regent hotel. They have surrounded me. They are trying to kill me.”

In the 20 minutes it took for me to arrive, the Prince called me seven times begging for me to come quickly. “I am alone. Please, before they kill me, come now. Call the American Embassy and tell them my life is in danger.”

I drove to his hotel thru the several hundred troops that had surrounded it and walked into the hotel. Chakrapong was hiding in the false paneled ceiling of his 2 star hotel room with his mistress, with no bodyguards and no guns. His choice of rooms, frankly, was quite ill thought out given his conduct over the previous few days . There were no windows and no view of the street. A very poor vantage point to keep tabs on the full resources of the military and secret police of the very pissed off Prime Minister of the government he just tried to topple.

Government troops and security forces armed with machine guns, rocket launchers, and carrying walkie talkies were positioned on the street corners and entrance ways around the hotel when I arrived on the otherwise quiet early Sunday morning. But no one tried to stop me, probably thinking I was a hotel guest.

Inside, hotel workers, white with fear, stared blankly in response to my inquiry of where the alleged coup leader was staying. The desk clerk sat frozen and silent with fear, staring at me as if I was insane.

I stayed on the phone with Chakrapong, who guided me to the fourth floor, refusing to mention his room number on the unsecure line. But maids were hovering in an upstairs hallway and they opened Room 401.

A disheveled, barefoot, and petrified son of King Sihanouk emerged in his underwear and a t-shirt from a crawl space above the ceiling of his hotel room, begging for help.

“Please, they are trying to arrest me. They will kill me. I am innocent. Please tell the American Ambassador to come right away. I need protection,” the wide-eyed Prince said, near tears, and jittery from lack of sleep. He was alone, except for his 22 year old mistress.

The bed was still made, and the curtains were drawn. A ceiling panel was removed revealing a small dark crawl space. A chair was under it to allow one to climb up. He said troops had been surrounding him since 3:00 am.

I was not incognizant of the fact that no press or diplomats were aware of the developments, and I was alone with a hunted, hated alleged coup plotter, and surrounded by troops clearly prepared to invade.

I told Chakrapong to hold tight for a minute. I went and surveyed the hallway for the best room that would have a view of the street and troops below, and went downstairs to the lobby and approached the desk clerk.

“I would like to rent room 406,” I said to the now near catatonic poor boy. I waved a wad of U.S dollars and had to insist on a registration form, which I filled in completely with my full name and contacts and employer, the Far Eastern Economic Review.  The desk clerk stared with a furrowed brow look of fear and alarm, said nothing, and handed me the key. He had no interest in the cash, a sure sign that something abnormal is underway in Cambodia , so I it left on the counter.

I thought that it might diminish the incentive of the troops outside to act precipitously if I was in a room rented under my own name, and buy time to interview the Prince.

Returning upstairs, the Prince thought it was a grand idea and, with his lovely young mistress, came over, as my guest, to my room, Regent Hotel room #406. I still have the room key.

I first called my American spook friend. I called three people. My friend, the American station chief and told him there was a coup underway and it would be great if he and some of his people could come down because I thought an American citizen’s life might be at risk—specifically mine.

I then called Prime Minister Ranarriddh’s top aides and told thim I was in the hotel room with his hated brother and please shoot carefully if or when attempting to enter.

And I called my editor in Hong Kong to tell him I thought I had a very good  story.

The US ambassador, Twining, wasn’t informed until the station chief and his colleague were on the street below. I waved, very happy to see a friendly face, who, not incidentally, was well trained in these matters and had access to lots of toys.

At this point the streets were empty save for the several hundred heavily armed troops and two very conspicuous white guys, who I was very happy to see as I peaked with Chakrapong through thee curtains to view the scene on the street.

No journalists. No embassies.

It was Sunday early morning and dead quiet. From there the stage was set.

The three mobile phones in my room rang constantly. More than 40 calls came in within the first two hours, as Chakrapong desperately tried to delay the troops from arresting him, and attempted to convince US Ambassador Charles Twining to give him political asylum.

The ambassador was very, very pissed off. As were the Prime Ministers. In contrast, I was tickled pink. This was  a great fucking story.

The Ambassador, the Prime Minister, and the Interior Minister all called me repeatedly and told me to leave. I said no “this is a great fucking story and you can arrest me but I am not leaving on my own accord. I rented and paid for this hotel room.” I said I wasn’t leaving on my own accord and this was my job, but it was their country  and they could, of course, arrest me.

The coup plotter Prince Chakrapong was sitting next to me on the couch of my hotel suite and was on the phone also with, among others, his parents, the King and Queen, in Beijing.

While the US ambassador and the Cambodian government called me and Chakrapong demanding I leave at once and that Chakrapong surrender, numerous other calls came and went.

I declined firmly and politely and repeatedly, and took notes of every word and described the ambience as it evolved.

Chakrapong refused to leave the hotel without me, with good  reason fearing he would taken and killed. He asked to speak with the U.S. Ambassador, who  by this point was down on the street below, his neck craning up staring at my hotel window, and asked for political asylum.

He just knew he would not have a good day if he was taken out alone, although his day by now was considerably better than hours before, when I had yet to arrive.

Fast forward to 4 hours later. The street was packed with journalists and embassy people and heavily armed troops, and, eventually, Chakrapong agreed that the interior minister You Hokry and the U.S. ambassador could come up to my room.

During this whole time I had my tape recorder on and notebook out and wrote  every word of Chakrapong’s, the conversations with the King, Queen, the negotiations at my sitting room table with a very, very angry You Hokry and U.S. Ambassador, and served them all soda when they arrived for the final negotiations of Chakrapong’s surrender.

Chakrapong repeatedly denied to me that he was involved in any coup attempt, cursed the leaders of the government, begged for my help and asked me not to leave him if the troops invaded.

He fielded phone calls constantly on his two phones, often listening silently and hanging up, speaking in English, French, and Khmer.

King Norodom Sihanouk rang from Beijing. “I am alright Papa, but the situation is bad. They have surrounded me,” he said at one point.

As more calls came in he broke down and again moist-eyed. He looked dejected as Queen Norodom Monineath Sihanouk kept him up to date from Beijing with the state of her negotiations with government leaders over allowing him exile.

“It is not the Queen, but as my parents. It is not politics, it is as a son,” he told me when asked whether King Sihanouk and Queen Monineath supported him.

For the first two hours, he was in fear of his life, convinced that if arrested he would be killed.

“If I am arrested, you must not leave me. I won’t go outside this room without you. They will kill me. Please don’t let them take me anywhere. Please don’t leave me alone,” he said to me.

The Prince asked me to contact the US Embassy to request political asylum. I rang US Ambassador Charles Twining, and said: “I have someone who wants to talk to you” and handed the phone to Chakrapong.

“I ask your protection, Your Excellency. It is a human right. If you don’t come to protect me I prefer not to go outside. I prefer to die here. I will stay here in the room. How can I trust them if they bring me somewhere?”, he says to Twining.

Prince Chakrapong’s face showed that the American Ambassadors response was not positive. One of my U.S. spook friends, who was down on the street staring up at my window called my phone: “Tell Chakrapong he is not a US citizen. As long as the government proceeds in a legal fashion regarding his human rights, there is nothing we can do to interfere in a sovereign government.”

At one point, crying young hotel maids burst into the room: “The soldiers are coming. They are inside now.”

A disheveled Prince – barefoot, shirt unbuttoned, sleepless, and dejected-began to put on his shoes. He handed me his wallet and mobile telephones and asked me to give them to his daughters. “Please make sure my daughters are alright. The soldiers invaded my house last night and they were there.”

But the soldiers didn’t come in and the phones continued to ring incessantly, sometimes three at the same time. At one point, Chakrapong had King Sihanouk on the line in one hand, and Twining on the other.

The military called from downstairs to say that the troops were coming to our room now and that the Prince would be allowed to leave the country.

He turned to me: “Please do not leave me. I will only leave if you go with me to the airport in the same car. They may not take me to the airport.”

There was a strong knock on the door and I went to open it. A score of heavily armed soldiers and security police waited in the hallway as U.S Ambassador Twining and Minister of Interior You Hockry entered alone. The four of us sat down.

Hockry asked me to leave. Prince Chakrapong asked that I stay. I said nothing, except I did offer them each a soda pop from the mini bar.

And I turned on the tape recorder which was I placed on the table in front of us as we all four sat down.

“We will promise your safety to the airport. I promise there will be no guns on the plane. The best thing for us it to bring you safely to the airport,” Hokry told the Prince.

A Malaysian Airlines plane was held on the tarmac as Chakrapong was assured that he would be allowed to safely leave the country.

Meanwhile my two spook friends downstairs from the CIA had an equal interest in doing their job, but were also considerately trying to help me do mine.

They went and retrieved Chakrapong’s passport and money out of hishome safe when negotiations to go to Malaysia looked good. Chakrapong’s daughter was on the street in tears and she took the agency guy home to get the money and documents. He had refused to accept political asylum in Thailand because his mistress didn’t have a visa and it would take too long to process that. When my friend and Chakrapong’s daughter got back on the street with the money and passports, they handed them in the open to some soldiers who then brought them upstairs to my room.

After negotiations were complete, a very bizarre scene emerged as several Ministry of Interior police entered the room crouched on their knees and hands clasped above their heads in deference to Royalty as they went about their business preparing to arrest the Prince and send him to exile.

At one point, while, we waited for the motorcade and luggage downstairs, Twining turned to Hockry, visibly alarmed.

“I just remembered, there will be a fireworks display this afternoon at the Fourth of July celebration,” he said, suddenly realizing that, as a jittery city emerged from an attempted coup, explosions in the city might not be timely.

“Do you have authorization?” the Minister shot back to the Ambassador, with an equally shaken look on his face.

When the mobile phone rang to say that the motorcade of troops was ready, we left the room to walk to the street. Hotel staff and soldiers clasped their hands and knelt in respect as Chakrapong was led by a bevy of sunglassed, automatic weapon-toting officials through a throng of cameras waiting on the street.

It all ended with us—Chakrapong, myself, a very upset and confused U.S. ambassador, and a very angry and scared Interior Minister You Hokry– all being whisked in a police convoy in the back of limousines to the airport where the Malaysian plane was delayed waiting for Chakrapong.  We were shoved into a sleek Toyota with black tinted windows, whisked to the airport in a convoy of a score of cars with sirens and lights blaring, streets were blocked off and hundreds of people lined them to watch the motorcade pass. The plane was waiting at the airport, full of curious passengers, as Chakrapong was whisked on board and the flight departed. He gave me a big hug and kissed me sincerely.

He called several hours later from Malaysia saying: ” I want to thank you sincerely for saving my life. They would have killed me if you had not come. I am innocent. I was not involved in anything. Tell them I am innocent.”

Meanwhile, my friend, the guy who retrieved the money and passports with the daughter of Chakrapong from his safe, was the one I mentioned earlier that  was still very much undeclared as a spook and his covert status very important to him.

And he had had his picture taken by journalists as he handed a wad of cash and documents over to the soldiers. But he was someone who never went out in public and so no one recognized him. This caused a decided quizzical reation and vague inquiries of: “Who the hell was that guy?”

I managed to get the pictures and negatives that included many very good, clear shots of him holding thousands of dollars, passports, and documents surrounded by soldiers and Chakrapong’s daughter. And I told the journalist that he had “very good pics and we (being the Far Eastern Economic Review) want to run them, but I need the negatives.”

Then I delivered those negatives and all the prints to my undercover friend, who was very, very grateful indeed.

So the moral of the story is, in life as well as journalism and spycraft, all good relationships are personal.

The CIA station was given big credit for being the first of any embassy or agency to report the coup to their home office. I got a great story. Chakrapong wasn’t dead. And, as a bonus, the agency people liked they had made the ambassador look bad, and I very much enjoyed giving a whole cast of people major angst. I just kind of like making all governments and people with guns look bad, frankly.

Chakrapong credits me to this day with saving his life. He is right, except he saved his own by smartly calling the only entity that could  bypass the bureaucracy and get foreigners between him and a bullet. And all ended well. I never once came even close to violating ethical lines. That was my job: Get to a story as close as I could witness it and report it.

Well, except my photographer friend from whom I stole his pictures. But I did pay him for it. And I wouldn’t let the agency do it, of which they offered. I explained it to my editor and he understood and paid. And I told the photographer the story later and he thought it was exactly the right thing to do.

And these are more reasons why journalism will always be better than a real job.

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