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ABC News and Ted Koppel owe an apology for soiling the integrity of freelancers and the institution of journalism

12 Dec

Mr. Koppel, you owe an apology to the institution of journalism for soiling its integrity.

By Nate Thayer

December 12, 2013

Well, Mr. Ted Koppel, I, for one, would like to hear your response to my contention you pimped your reputation for integrity to ABC News/Disney Corporation in order to steal the life work of a freelance journalist. And then accepted a Peabody award for, well for doing exactly what, really?

This week has been a tad distracting, but I very much appreciate the overwhelmingly positive and supportive commentary from colleagues from around the globe over my objection to Ted Koppel and Nightline and ABC News, owned by the Disney Corporation, stealing my photographs, video, and exclusive eyewitness reports of Pol Pot, the cumulative result of more than a decade of my journalistic efforts, and ABC’s egregious violation of basic journalistic ethics and integrity by trying to take credit for that work, despite not having a single ABC employee assigned to all of South east Asia.

ABC TV stolen still pictures, in which they place four separate credits claiming this picture was taken by them and they had rights to distribute it. Note that, despite there not beingan employee of ABC news located in Southeast Asia at the time, there is no credit to the photographer of the picture

ABC TV stolen still pictures, in which they place four separate credits claiming this picture was taken by them and they had rights to distribute it. Note that, despite there not being an employee of ABC news located in Southeast Asia at the time, there is no credit to the photographer of the picture

Every freelance journalist on earth has faced untold numbers of similar experiences, but the cost of fighting back these huge media corporations makes most every case of this common practice almost impossible to fight back.

At least, in the case of the Pol Pot story and video and still images, the story was worth enough that lawyers, not my favorite category of people to spend my leisure time schmoozing with, were willing to take on my case.

It was not because they were outraged at the ethical and moral stench that this high-profile example of the routine treatment of freelance journalists by media behemoths represented.

It was because they knew they would make enough money to increase their tax bracket.

This allowed me to be able to fight back and win.

But, after 7 years of the most unpleasant life sucking process, after it became clear to ABC I would never be intimidated and never back down in the face of their behemoth corporate machinery, ABC demanded I sign a document saying I could never mention the issue again in public if they agreed to pay me for their clear-cut, intentional calculated theft and plagiarism of my copyrighted work.

Another ABC frame grab of my still pictures, taken after 15 years of work, which they distributed to the planet and took credit for

Another ABC frame grab of my still pictures, taken after 15 years of work, which they distributed to the planet and took credit for

I signed the document. I am now intentionally and without a scintilla of reservation or remorse violating that agreement. Because it an insult to the very fundamental premise of free speech and concept of a free press.

To demand that a journalist–that would be me– be forced to muzzle his right to free speech in order that another so-called icon of journalistic integrity compensate me for outright theft, after a very nasty, prolonged 7 year effort of blackmail, corporate intimidation, threats, bullying, and a bald attempt at bankrupting me, while Ted Koppel remained (and remains silent) shilling for his corporate pimps, was too much for me to stomach.

Koppel flew to Bangkok, signed a written legal contract promising to use the video for “Seven days North American rights only for video use only for Nightline only”, and then said to me: “You are going to have to trust me journalist to journalist” and looked me in the eye and shook my hand. That used to be the way journalists on deadlines dealt with each other. One had to trust another man’s word.

There was no time, and thank God, place for lawyers when a story needed to be written and produced and edited and researched and published on a very short tight deadline.

My still photograph, which became worthless on the international market after ABC TV America stole my pictures and tried to take credit for 15 years of my life work

My still photograph, which became worthless on the international market after ABC TV America stole my pictures and tried to take credit for 15 years of my life work

Ted Koppel then refused to talk to me for nine months. “My ABC lawyers have told me I can’t talk to you, ” is one direct quote, shortly after he got a hold of a copy of my video tape, which was transferred based on his personal word of honor and I accepted based on his reputation for integrity.

Ted Koppel had a price he was willing to sell his reputation for integrity, and by extension the integrity of the institution of journalism. That price was the instructions of his ABC/ Disney corporate bosses.

Then the ABC PR machine got a bit a head of themselves. They have an entire department devoted to applying for nothing but awards. And they made the mistake of applying for a Peabody award for their use of my stolen, copyrighted work, under my name, as a “correspondent for ABC Nightline.”

When I won, nine months after they stole my work, they had refused to pay me a penny until I signed a document saying they had done nothing wrong, I informed them I was scheduled to be in New York–ironically to accept another award for the annual “Courage in Journalism” given to the journalist who had “exhibited the most moral and physical courage in practicing his craft” that year.

I told Koppel I planned to attend the Peabody ceremony and, on stage, formally refuse the ward because “I in n o way wanted my name associated with egregious violation of journalistic ethics and integrity” that ABC television and Nightline had exhibited. My written invitation to the ceremony was rescinded by ABC and the Peabody awards and I was escorted from the Waldorf Astoria banquet hall by security guards, despite having not only been in a possession of a physical ticket but a recipient of one of the awards given that day.

I want to add here that I believe Koppel is indeed a man of integrity. He was one of the very best that American television had to offer. Which, in itself, is not saying much.

So, I signed the document where i promised to never speak a word disparaging of ABC on the matter, took the money they owed me, which virtually all went to lawyers and taxes, and am now saying “Fuck you ABC!”

You did what you did.

No one will ever force me to be gagged from telling the truth, particularly on issues that soil the reputation of the vital institution of a free press. The facts speak for themselves.

ABC, Ted Koppel, and Nightline, rightfully should be ashamed of themselves.

I am not and never will be.

Has anyone noticed, that after 3000+ FB reposts, tens of thousands of Twitter comments, tweets, and re-tweets, neither Koppel, ABC, Nightline, or Disney corporation has uttered a single comment or response?

Their silence speaks for itself.

I, for one, would welcome their constructive comments on this issue. I believe it would contribute to a healthier state of the now very sad state of the institution of journalism.

I suspect they will be required to consult their massive legal department and corporate bosses before they are allowed to open their mouths.

And, the fact is, the powers to be at ABC, and the ABC’s that, today, control the media in free societies don’t really care whether they are selling toothpaste or quality journalism to free people.

If they can make more money selling toothpaste, they will sell toothpaste. Maybe journalism, and free people, would be better off if they choose to sell toothpaste.

There is a reason that public opinion polls rank the credibility and trustworthiness of journalists at the same level they do used car salesman, members of Congress, and lawyers. And I for one am tired of having my reputation soiled by them.

While I harbor no animosity towards ted Koppel personally, I do take grave exception to the undermining of the ethical foundation of the institution of journalism. I take that very personally.

Mr. Koppel, you owe an apology to the institution of journalism for soiling its integrity.


How Ted Koppel and ABC TV Tried to Steal my Life Work

8 Dec

How Ted Koppel and ABC TV Tried to Steal my Life Work

By Nate Thayer

December 8, 2013

I am banned by legal agreement to write the following: ABC Television/ Disney Corporation, after seven years in court, where they attempted to bankrupt me and ruin my reputation for objecting to them stealing fifteen years of my life work, buckled and paid me. They have the legal right to take back the money they finally paid me–which actually all went to lawyers and taxes–if I open my mouth.

Fuck them.

Good luck getting blood from a stone while trying to attempt to muzzle a free person in a free society while claiming you are an icon of the free press and free speech

So here goes…..

On July 25, 1997, I was the first outsider to meet Pol Pot since he killed 1.8 million people 20 years before.

It was, for a couple of days, the biggest story in the world. I, as a freelance journalist, had the only photographs and video and eyewitness account that existed since Pol Pot did what he did. It was a tumultuous few days of dealing with the very worst of what the big media companies represented.

Ted Koppel, of ABC Nightline, flew to Bangkok to view the video and signed a written contract for “North American video rights only for 7 days.” ABC America–owned by Disney–told Koppel to sign whatever Thayer asks for–our lawyers will deal with it later. He is just a freelancer. Give him whatever he wants. We can bankrupt him if he objects.

As soon as ABC, which had exactly zero correspondents in Southeast Asia, got a hold of a copy of the tape, which Ted Koppel personally and in writing promised he would not allow any frame grabs to be made into still pictures, or allow the video to be distributed to anyone outside of Nightline, or allow the transcript of the text of the video to be shown to anyone else, ABC created the below frame grabs from the video, distributed it personally to numerous news outfits, including the AP and the New York Times, where it appeared on their front page above the fold, and ABC placed them on their website crediting themselves with having taken the image.

My picture, credited to ABC TV, was published on the front pages of hundreds of newspapers around the world, my footage was distributed around the globe, and my story was written in virtually every major news organ on earth, credited to ABC TV, before I actually had written my own story . which was published with the integrity and dignity and seriousness it deserved in my excellent publication, the Far Eastern Economic Review.

1018923 Pol Pot ABC Frame Grab Pic

ABC TV stolen pictures frame grab from my copyrighted work. Count them--four separate credits demanding ABC be given credit for photographs taken when ABC did b not even have a staff person in all of Southeast Asia. This photo was hand delivered to the New York Times, The AP and posted on ABC's website

ABC TV stolen pictures frame grab from my copyrighted work. Count them–four separate credits demanding ABC be given credit for photographs taken when ABC did b not even have a staff person in all of Southeast Asia. This photo was hand delivered to the New York Times, The AP and posted on ABC’s website

ABC distributed transcripts of the trial of Pol Pot I had made and allowed other news organizations to view the video tape with strict instructions to credit ABC for the images and story, and then refused to pay me anything unless I signed a release that they did nothing wrong and I promised not to take legal action against them.

I refused.

Nine months later, I won the Peabody award as a “correspondent for ABC Nightline.”

Ted Koppel called me up, nervous, to congratulate me.

I said “Fuck you! Where is my fucking money? I am going to go to the Peabody awards ceremony and refuse the award and tell the planet what unethical thieves ABC are and how you, Ted Koppel, acted as their pimp.” I was then banned from attending the award ceremony, escorted out of the Waldorf Astoria hotel banquet room by security guards.

I spent seven years in court fighting ABC.

I won, sort of.

It sucked the life out of me, which was the exact intention of ABC: to make my life as miserable and expensive and distracted as possible to punish me for objecting to bald plagiarism, fraud, and theft. They tried to bankrupt me and ruin my reputation.

But ABC fucked with the wrong person. They will never fuck with Nate Thayer again.

It was worth it. They thought I would back down in the face of their team of hundreds of staff lawyers and corporate power.

I refused.

Such is the life of freelance journalism.

Every freelance journalist alive has suffered under the corporate jackboot of the ABC’s of the media world, their work stolen and never compensated. Usually it is not possible to pay for a legal team to fight them to get remunerated for one’s work.

Above and below are a couple of the still pictures, still available by a simple Google search online.

Another ABC frame grab of my still pictures, taken after 15 years of work, which they distributed to the planet and took credit for

Another ABC frame grab of my still pictures, taken after 15 years of work, which they distributed to the planet and took credit for

These are just some examples of the still picture ABC frame grab’s ABC took from the video and distributed to the world, voiding scores of contracts I had sold for my stills for exclusive rights.I had scores of contracts for the sale of still pictures, video, and stories cancelled around the globe overnight.

ABC tried to take credit for 15 years of my life work. Below is one of my original still photographs, which became worthless overnight because  a degraded version was available for free from the ABC website.


One of my actual still photographs–taken by me–with a Nikon F-4 on July 25, 1997—the first pictures of Pol Pot taken since he murdered 1.8 million people during his 3 years 8 months and 20 days in power

My still photograph, which became worthless on the international market after ABC TV America stole my pictures and tried to take credit for 15 years of my life work

My still photograph, which became worthless on the international market after ABC TV America stole my pictures and tried to take credit for 15 years of my life work

The Night I Lived: Landmines, war and journalism: Excerpts from Sympathy for the Devil

13 Nov

The Night I Lived: Landmines, war and journalism. One close encounter with religion, death, and victory

By Nate Thayer

Excerpt from Sympathy for the Devil: A Journalist’s Memoir from Inside Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge.

(Copyright Nate Thayer. No reproduction or dissemination in whole or in part without express written permission of the author)

 Your Financial Support is Needed for the publication of “Sympathy For the Devil: A Journalist’s Memoir From Inside Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge”

Please excuse, in advance, the insufferable self-promotion seeking funding. Believe me, it mortifies me more than it will annoy you. This is 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. 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. For those able to support the project financially, it is both needed and appreciated. Please go to the upper right hand corner of this blog where there is a Paypal button. This will easily walk you through the simple steps to donate. As well, at the top of this page is a link to a page on this blog detailing other methods of providing donations to ensure this book is published in both hardcover and as an E book sometime in mid 2014)

By Nate Thayer

It was after midnight, before I was to be picked up before dawn by Thai military intelligence to be escorted into Cambodia to accompany guerrillas on a mission to attack and seize a Cambodian district capitol town.

It was monsoon season. As always, I was carefully preparing my equipment. There was an art to fitting everything I might need into a light backpack with lots of pockets and readily accessible under pressure. There were separate Ziploc bags for different speed film, for each Nikon lens, my two Nikon camera bodies, a point and shoot camera (what we then called a “drunk proof” or “idiot camera”), for an extra pair of dry socks and other dry clothes, a small medical kit, notebooks, a flask of whiskey, a poncho, a hammock, extra pens, a carton of cigarettes to give away to grunts on the front line, tape recorder, extra batteries, and more. As always, I never knew how long I would be gone for or what I might encounter.

There was a knock on my door, and the manager of my small guesthouse where I lived in the Thai border town of Aranyaprathet, a young boy of 17, entered. Ghung, who I had taken under my wing in the previous months, knew I was going to leave in a few hours on what might be a dangerous assignment. Ghung was very concerned.  I invited him into my spartan room and, with a very serious expression on his face, sat down. He opened his hands which clutched two Buddhist amulets.

“I want you to take these with you. Wear them around your neck. If you are respectful to them, they will protect you from danger,” he said. The one on the left, pictured below, is an effigy of a dead baby fetus. He warned me that I should not be afraid if it talked aloud to me. The powerful one, he said, was that image, the Kuman Thong. “This will make sure you don’t die”, he said, if I treated it with a reverence.

Ghung clearly did. “Only wear it around your neck and don’t be afraid. Sometimes it will talk to me.”

Philip Blenkinsop photo

Philip Blenkinsop photo

The Kuman Thong effigy is revered in rural Thailand and Cambodia by many Buddhists, but it is Animist, not a traditional Buddhist practice, more “black magic”, or necromancy. Kuman Thong was created centuries ago by surgically removing the unborn fetus from the womb of its mother. The child’s body was roasted accompanied by chants. original Thai Buddhist texts say making a Kuman Thong amulet requires removing the dead baby from the mother’s womb, followed by a ritual of the baby cooked until dry. This process must be finished before dawn.

“Kuman Thong” means “Golden Baby Boy”. They say if you have a good relationship with your Kuman Thong, you will not have very bad things happen to you.

Ghung’s heartfelt gift had not gone through such an involved process, but it represented. to him, the same power. They are widely believed, in rural Thailand and Cambodia, to be very powerful, protecting one from danger, even bullets bouncing off of you.

Ghung was a very sweet and intelligent boy and we had become friends. I thanked him respectfully, because I knew he was very sincere and serious, but I didn’t really believe him. But it was touching.

I wrapped the amulets in my traditional Cambodian scarf and wore them around my neck when I departed for the Cambodian jungle, before dawn broke, riding shotgun in an unmarked Thai military pickup truck.

We arrived at a secret Cambodian guerrilla base in the jungle just over the Thai border and hour later. The guerrillas were gathered, waiting for me, heavily armed and sporting a dozen brand new  CIA supplied Yamaha 250CC dirt motorcycles. They also had a new, powerful, secret weapon that the government was unaware of which had been clandestinely delivered to their enemies in the days before.

We left the guerrilla base before dawn for an arduous trek through monsoon soaked ox cart paths that snaked through the jungle, led by the convoy of  dirt bikes, one of which I was riding shotgun on. Advance teams of troops were ahead and behind us.

The guerrillas had two new weapons; the German made Armbrust 69 mm shoulder fired one time use anti-tank weapon and the Swedish Carl Gustav 84 mm anti-tank weapon. For ten years, the government had tank superiority. For a decade, once the government tanks broached the front line positions, the guerrillas had no effective weapons to stop them. For years, the guerrilla commanders had offered a 50,000 Baht ($2000) reward to any soldier who could destroy a tank prior to that day. Their only weapon was a B-40 rocket propelled grenade launcher, designed to take out concrete bunkers,which required one to get within 20 meters of the tank, from behind, crouch and aim upwards and so it hit the undercarriage of the tank and took out the tracks to halt its advance. More often than not, the guerrilla would be killed attempting to do so, and if he was lucky enough to survive, it was likely he would be wounded by his own shrapnel backwash from firing the RPG from so close.

This time was different.

We entered the first government held town and immediately destroyed three tanks. The German and Swedish weapons, covertly supplied through Singapore, penetrated the tanks armor but the round would not explode until it was inside the tank, vaporizing the 3 or 4 man crew instantly. I took pictures of their incinerated, burnt corpses still sitting in the drivers seat and manning the tank turret gun, the twisted carcass of the feared armoured T-54 Soviet tank smoking and twisted and neutralized.

We captured that town within an hour.

The government troops fled in sheer terror, the psychological impact and confusion of knowing they no longer had tank superiority changed the face of the war that day.

Within two hours we advanced without hesitation and had captured the district capitol of Thmar Puok.

My feet. Photo Blenkinsop

My feet. Photo Blenkinsop

There, we destroyed 4 more tanks defending the perimeter of the sprawling city.

The guerrilla’s had a celebratory lunch in the former Vietnamese military headquarters, the former only school house in the city and the only concrete building. Graffiti spray painted on the inside walls read in Vietnamese Roman script: “Long Live the Communist Party of Vietnam!”

This was 30 kilometers from the Thai border, more than 500 miles from Vietnam.

It was the first district capitol seized by the guerrillas during the long 12-year war. Government troops, terrified young boys who didn’t care a whit about politics and were conscripted like all troops on both sides of the war, surrendered by the hundreds, along with their Russian jeeps and transport trucks and weapons.

We drank lots of whiskey in the mid day sun. The people I was with were very happy. Other people, not so much.

For the civilians, none were happy. They were satisfied, like most Cambodian’s,  if they did not die, their daughter was not raped, their life possessions not looted, and their water buffalo not stolen. Peasant villagers in Cambodia knew that no army or government, regardless of ideology, actually had anything to offer to make their lives better. It was the faction that wreaked the least havoc, who took away the least from their already meager lives, which they would least detest.

It was a big story, I knew. I had very good pictures and an exclusive eyewitness account.

We toured the new liberated zone of dozens of villages with no electricity, schools, running water, or hope. This stretch of real estate, for a very, very long time, only knew war.

Then, after 12 hours, we began the return trip towards the sanctuaries of the rear military bases straddling the Thai Cambodian border, as dusk began to fall, west, towards the Dongruk mountain escarpment far on the horizon marking the border.

The heavy, daily late afternoon monsoon rains had begun.

I was eager to file my story and pictures, which would be, still, many hours away. I still needed to cross out of the jungle, be transported back across the border to Thailand, and down 60 kilometers to the Thai border town of Aranyaprathet.

From there, I would call the Associated Press office in Bangkok and dictate my story by landline telephone.

Ghung, the sweet and cocky 17 year old boy, who had given me the Buddhist amulets late the night before, would always, for months now, push the button on a stopwatch and time my calls and charge me by the minute.

The undeveloped photographs, still on 35 mm film, would be given to the long distance bus driver of the commercial bus company which made a half a dozen trips through the day and night from Aranyaprathet to Bangkok. We would give him no money for fear he would then take the film and sell it to local Thai papers. In Bangkok, an AP messenger on motorcycle would be dispatched from the AP office and meet the bus at the bustling Moenchit bus terminal. There, they would exchange cash for film and he would return to the AP office, where the film would be souped and developed. A few pictures would be chosen and put on a roller and sent over telephone lines to Tokyo and New York. From there they would be transmitted to AP customers worldwide. To get story and pictures out from when they were taken to when they were seen and read could often be days.

But this day it didn’t work out, as it really never did, as planned.

We began the motorcycle ride on our CIA dirt bikes through the uninhabited savannah and jungle, headed west towards Thailand. Bombs and gunfire were everywhere. This area had been under government control when dawn emerged earlier that day. It was, in reality, now under control of no one, but the government had fled. The guerrilla’s had never been here before.

Then the motorcycle convoy of a dozen or so got separated. The dirt tracks were a meter deep in mud. We got separated. Then our motorcycle broke down. Dusk was rapidly approaching. One guerrilla stayed with me. We finally abandoned the motorcycle and began walking west towards the silhouette of the Dongruk Mountains still a dozen miles to the west. That was Thailand and that is where I wanted to be.

“Are there any landmines around here,” I asked the young guerrilla grunt.

“No. No landmines,” he replied

“Where are we,” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said.

What it feels like after not dying

What it feels like after not dying

“Well, if you don’t know where the fuck we are, how the fuck do you know there are no landmines? I asked, now tired, dehydrated, and hungry.

It had been 12 hours since we left the guerrilla base on motorcycles and seized a couple hundred square kilometers of territory. Many, many were dead. That didn’t much bother me. I had not eaten all day. That didn’t much bother me either. I was dehydrated. That made my mind fuzzy. But, mostly, I wanted to get my story and pictures, which I knew would be a minor scoop in the world news, out, safely.

We entered a thicker jungle and bushwhacked ourselves through by hand.  We did not know where we were. It was now dark. There were no longer front-lines defined. No one knew what territory was now controlled by the enemy or friends. As far as I was concerned, there were no friends and there was no enemy. I only wanted my pictures and story to get out.

Then we heard the sounds of trucks idling ahead in the jungle.

That was a very bad, frightening sign.

The guerrilla’s I was with—troops of the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front, did not have any trucks.

We halted. We moved slowly through the light forest and peaked through the trees and foliage.

There, idling on an oxcart path, were two Soviet Zil transport trucks with several Cambodians, in government military uniforms, carrying Soviet issue AK-47’s.

My lone guerrilla companion turned to me, after a long period of silence, and said: “I think they have defected to us.”

“What the fuck do you mean ‘You think they have defected?” That is not fucking good enough! They either have defected or we are about to be dead or become prisoners of war.” I was, honestly, ready to surrender if the latter was the case.

He had a look of fear and uncertainty in his eyes. That scared me even more.

“You wait here. I will go check,” he instructed me, failing in his attempt to give the impression he was in control of the situation.

He tried to be quiet as he pushed aside the forest brush and not alarm the armed men in government uniform in government military trucks.

I waited, crouched, decidedly not comfortable in the savannah. My guerrilla guide returned with a smile on his face. The armed men and vehicles had, indeed, defected in the previous hours.

I was ecstatic. It was dark. We were lost. Our motorcycles had broken down and been abandoned. It was rainy and muddy and hot. I was hungry and we had no water. We were in territory under unclear control. Now we had a truck and we would be back in Thailand within an hour.

I emerged from the jungle and was greeted warmly although with the concomitant, quizzical look that is directed towards animals in a zoo.

There were about a dozen troops in the jungle clearing with two trucks. Some were guerrillas and some were freshly defected government troops. We all piled into one truck. The driver was a government soldier hours before. Now he was a guerrilla. Three of us were in the front seat, myself squeezed in the middle, between the driver and an impressive fat guerrilla officer. About a half dozen troops were in the open back carriage of the 2 ½ ton Russian military transport truck.

We were laughing and giddy as we slowly negotiated the mud soaked, deeply rutted ox cart path, headed west, towards Thailand. The dim silhouette of the Dongruk mountain escarpment still visible under the moonlight about ten miles to the west.

I remember being scrunched up tightly between the fat guerrilla commander and the skinny young boy government conscript, now a defector, in the driver’s cabin of the Zil. I was sitting in the middle. I was in a very happy mood. I had great pictures and a great story and I was the only journalist there and I was now in a truck being driven towards a safe place where I could transmit them to the few interested around the world. I remember chatting to the driver, smiling and laughing. He was happy, too, mainly because he was not dead, a fact I am sure he was concerned about at the start of that day.

I loved this life.

We had been driving only a few minutes and then something–in an instant–terrible, something life altering, and for some, life extinguishing happened.

The sound was so profoundly loud that I could not hear it. My eardrums were blown out. The concussion of the explosion was so great my brain shut down. I remember the liquid in my body became so heated I could feel it simmering near boiling. I could hear my blood boiling, gurgling from what seemed like heat. I felt my brain being tossed around like a rag doll bouncing off the insides of the wall of my boned skull.

Our 2 ½ ton truck was thrown in the air several meters and, luckily, hit the side of a tree, and bounced back down, landing upright. Actually, I don’t remember that part. I saw it, afterwards. It looked like a shredded child’s toy Tonka truck.

We had driven over two Chinese anti-tank mines.

Specifically, our left front tire, which was less than 1 ½ meters from where I had been sitting.

This is very Cambodian. One does not need two anti-tank mines to blow up a tank.  One will do. But, for good measure, just in case, the guerrillas had placed one on top of another. The mines were placed by the guerrilla’s themselves. Because they had no vehicles—until that morning.

We had just driven over our own landmines.

I don’t know how long I was unconscious.

I do remember waking up that night, with clarity and vividness, that startles me in my sleep and jolts me awake, regularly, now many hundreds of nights and some days, to the present, years later, in a mixture of unspeakable fear and grief and confusion and sadness.

There was a severed leg lying across my face. I held the leg up and looked at it. It was not connected to a body.

I was in the remnants of the engine compartment of the truck, its tattered carcass spread meters across the muddy jungle ox cart path.

I needed to know whether it was my leg I was holding in my hand. But I was very scared to find out. I reached down and ran my hand over my left leg and it was still attached to me body. I did the same with my right leg. It, also, was still attached to my body.

I had no idea what happened. I looked around me.

A few feet away was the young Cambodian truck driver, moments before with whom I was laughing and smiling and chatting. Life, for both us, would be, from that moment on, very different. His would be much shorter than mine.

He was sitting up, with a look on his face of raw terror and amazement I will never, ever forget. He was holding tightly the stump of his thigh, eyes locked, fixed, wide open, staring at what was no longer there. He did not panic. He didn’t seem in pain. He cried—no he moaned–loudly, but in words profoundly mournful.

He only called for his mother.

“Mother, please help me!” he repeated over and over and over and over.

I extricated myself from the engine and went over to him and held him in my arms. “You will be OK,” I lied. “Everything will be fine.”

For perhaps ten minutes, he called for his mother, staring in utter terror and horrid curiosity, his mind racing over, I suspect, his brief past, perhaps his never realized hopes, and his now very, very brief future, while grasping tightly the shredded stump of his muscle and bone and meat in his hands, the end of what was his leg, now within easy reach of his clutching hands.

And then he died on this irrelevant, muddy jungle dirt ox cart path, in the rain, at night, far from his mother. Probably, no one, other than the half dozen of us there that night who remained alive, to this day, knows how and where he died. He just never came home.  There are millions of Cambodians whose loved ones simply never came home and they don’t know why.

We left him, dead, on the dirt path, in the dark, alone. I am sure, no one amongst us even knew his name.

The man who was sitting to my right, the fat guerrilla commander, before the driver died, was angry.

He had taken shrapnel to his head. It penetrated his skull. There was a gaping hole on the side of his skull, above his ear, leaking increasing amounts of blood and other, whitish, grey coloured liguid, mixed with chunks of solids. It was his brains.

I remember him cursing the truck. He got up and he kicked the side of the truck with a ferocious boot and yelled and blamed the truck. Who else was there to blame?

Then he died, too, falling on the mud path, on his face.

We left his body there as well.

After I had fled in slow motion the dying, legless driver, another man, lying down, prostrate,  who I thought was dead, bolted upright.

He jumped up and yanked his pants down and, terrified, grabbed hold of his cock and balls and inspected them to make sure they were intact.

That made sense to me and I immediately did the same. I later learned this is a common reaction to the freshly wounded in war.

I remember asking him: “What just happened?” I had no idea. I had no idea we had run over a landmine. I did not understand why, in the dark, and mud and rain there were people dying and suffering.

“”We hit a landmine,” he said, with no discernible emotion.

Then, strangely, I became obsessed with locating my film, my cameras, my notebook from the wreckage of the debris of the truck and human carnage littering this irrelevant jungle patch, which, really, was of importance to no one, save those of us who died, or didn’t die, there that night.

I became obsessed and started  sifting through the metal and mud, in the dark and the rain, looking for them.  I need to salvage a purpose, an excuse that I had a reason to be there. Two other surviving troops came over and helped me. We found my Nikons and lenses and film and small,little backpack next to the bodies and under the remains of the truck. They had survived unharmed. I was greatly relieved.

Most everyone that night was killed, but several of us were not. Two were severely wounded. We cut two tree branches and attached hammocks to them, and two guerrillas carried the badly wounded through the night, in the rain and dark, for three hour, for 7 miles, a silent, sad trek, everyone lost in their own thoughts, to the nearest guerrilla base.

There, 7 miles away, they had felt the earth shake from the explosion from the landmine that was planted under the dirt less than 2 meters from me that night.

We began a long silent, sad walk.

I didn’t know that bones were sticking out of my leg until I stepped in a mud hole on that walk and a jolt of pain went from my leg to my brain. I didn’t know that I had shrapnel in my head until I tasted blood dripping into my mouth and wiped my hand over my face and looked, in fear, as it was covered in bright crimson fresh liquid.

I didn’t know I had permanent brain damage. Or that my ear drums were burst, or that my sternum was broken. Or that my liver was dislocated. And other stuff.

I just walked. Because we had no choice.

We arrived, hours later, at the guerrilla base. They knew we were coming. They piled us wounded into the back of a pickup truck and took us to a CIA funded guerrilla operating theatre in the jungle. It had a gas powered generator to provide electricity for an antiseptic operating room. There was an air conditioner in it. But we were put into an open air thatch roofed room. The loud din of a chorus of frogs croaking in celebration of the heavy monsoon rains, along with crickets, was soothing, but was so loud one had to speak louder to be heard.

A dozen or so soldiers,  all on crutches, their freshly bandaged stumps of legs covered in bright red fresh blood, their legs and arms and some one or both of each, gathered and stared at us, the new arrivals to their new world.

I was placed on an elevated military cot. Next to me was the most badly wounded soldier. The kind eyed, French trained doctor spoke softly and touched and poked me, my badly wounded neighbor on the stretcher next to me, and one other severely wounded guerrilla.

Then two soldiers walked in with a chainsaw, headed towards me.

I had bones sticking out of my feet. I jumped up like an Olympiad on methamphetamines and screamed in at least three languages to get the fuck away from me. I was forcibly restrained and reassured that the chainsaw was not destined for me. It was for the man next to me in the stretcher. They were massaging his heart. His leg was attached by a few strands of ragged tendons to his torso. he was not conscious. The medics, who, in truth, only had training in amputating limbs,  cranked it on and cut his leg off with no anesthesia, two feet from me. I stared emotionless at this. I was drained of any reserves of emotion by then.

I watched, in retrospect, with a calmness fueled and mitigated, I guess, by the context of the evil of that night. He died not so long afterwards.

They took me to the operating room. They took pieces of metal out of my legs, my torso, and my head. They sewed it up. They did their best.

Honestly, I felt very little pain, even then. I had just been blown up I then walked 7 miles with bones protruding from my foot, dozens of holes in my body, pieces of metal embedded in my head my torso, my legs, my feet. I had several broken bones. But in the coming days, for weeks, I would not be able to move from the pain.

Despite the unpleasantry of the previous hours, I was fixated, oddly, on one thing–to get my photographs and story to the Associated Press office in Bangkok. I knew then I could relax, my job done.

I repeatedly asked to be taken back the 60 kilometers to the Thai border town of Aranyaprathet. I needed—not wanted—I NEEDED—to file my pictures and story. In the darkest hours before dawn, I was driven by Thai military intelligence in an unmarked truck back to my hotel.

I was bandaged. I was confused. My whole body hurt by then.

My good friend, Philip Blenkinsop, the photographer, was staying in another room in the sparse ten room ground floor motel. I knocked on his door. It was before dawn.

He opened the door and stared silently for a few seconds. Philip, who I love dearly, didn’t say “What happened to you? Are you OK?”

He said, and I won’t forget these words: “Don’t move, mate, Great pics. Let me get my kit.”

I felt comforted,  as if I was now home and out of danger and with my people. He took these, and other pics.

A long day just begun Photo Philip Blenkinsop

A long day just begun Photo Philip Blenkinsop

The young boy, Ghung, the 17 year old Thai hotel manager, came to the room a while later. He had  a serene and loving look on his face. He looked me in the eyes and said ‘I told you they would protect you.”

Ghung knew he had saved my life that day. And I was pleased he believed he did. His black magic dead fetus was still wrapped around my neck.

Both he and I were very thankful and quite satisfied with the day, for different reasons.

Later the commander and chief of the guerrilla army came to my hotel room with a dozen roses. I liked this man. He smiled and chuckled and said: ” I told them not to drive down that path” and he handed me the flowers.

But the memory since has never left me, and never will leave me with any sense of peace or conclusion. I am not sure this story can be adequately conveyed. But that is the best I can do, today, 22 years later.

“I am scared that tonight I will die” A reporters diary from Baghdad @Nate_Thayer

16 Oct

I have been sorting through old files these last few days and came across this article I wrote in March, 2003, from Baghdad, after the American’s had launched their  “awe and shock” aerial campaign, but before they reached the capitol. I was very frightened. This story was written for my local small town newspaper, “The Star Democrat”, mainly because I had a court date of which I was going to miss because I was in Iraq, and I wanted the judge to have evidence I had a good reason why I didn’t show up. He issued a warrant for my arrest anyways, but I am glad I went to Baghdad and I am glad I wrote this article and I am glad I found it today, sparking very unpleasant but real recollections of what war has meant to me, and means to many who experience it.


The last tourists in Baghdad



MARCH 26, 20003



BAGHDAD–Night has just fallen here in Baghdad, and I am scared that tonight I will die. Last night hundreds were wounded where I am. The American missile attacks for two days have shattered my windows. We have 300 bottles of water, the windows are covered with duct tape to limit the shrapnel of the shards of glass from the concussion of the Tomahawk and Cruise missiles landing less than 500 meters from us. Balls of flames from the long-range missiles vaporize buildings with remarkable accuracy.

The American aerial assault is awesome in its accuracy. Two kilometers of government buildings, four presidential palaces, the Foreign Ministry, oil refineries, and the Defence Ministry and many other government buildings were all hit on first shot. Baghdad, as I write, is sliced apart by lines of blood red fire and black smoke. Huge fireballs erupt everywhere but we cannot see or hear the incoming missiles before they hit, perched on the balcony, cameras and videos on tripods, and watch the anti-aircraft fire rain in vain. Baghdad has been under attack for four days now, but today deteriorated to the point where we are all frightened we will die. Mary, sweet Mary, is scared also. We never let each other out of each others sight. The few minutes between explosions we hold each other tight.

Our fear is superseded by only our desire not to die. Every day journalists are arrested by the security forces and disappear, or are forced into cars to drive to the Jordanian border. CNN was kicked out en masse yesterday morning. It is only the dozen of freelancers with no bosses to order us out left here now. The young CNN Turkish correspondent hugged me, her eyes welled with tears, as security forces forced them into  four-wheel drive vehicles for the highway to the Jordanian border with Iraq. That checkpoint was leveled yesterday. I should not have told them that my friends car was strafed by American jets on that road a few hours ago.

My first night I was checked into a hotel on the west bank of the Tigris river. I sussed out the neighborhood. The oil-fired power plants outside my window with 100-foot smokestacks demanded that I must insist on a change in accommodations. Last night, I watched those stacks be hit twice by Tomahawk missiles. My hotel, which I paid for through next week, no longer exists. It is a facade of burnt concrete. Mary and I were the last guests to check out. “You must move,” the hotel manager told us. “It is not safe here.”

But that was a long time ago. Yesterday. Yesterday, the Iraqis lit a ring of fire around Baghdad. Trenches filled with oil were lit in the afternoon and fires and smoke encircled those of us still here trapped in Baghdad. It does make it harder to see the effects of incoming attacks. The city is dark in the day from the smoke of war and burning oil. But it is the psychological mood of defiance that reflects the mood of the people in Baghdad. I am met every day by a cacophonic mixture of gifts and kisses and genuine solidarity–on a strictly human level–by Iraqis everywhere who know we are past the point of political debate. Nobody knows what will happen and we all fear we will die.

Today for the first time the bombings did not come only after dusk. It lasted all day. It did not come from only long range missiles today. Allied planes flew overhead and dropped their payload. Today, for the first time, small arms fire is coming from inside the city.

Anti-aircraft emplacements are now set up outside the perimeter of out hotel. That is not good. Yesterday, those that were 500 meters from us were destroyed by long range missiles. The smart bombs, we all agree are a lot smarter than they were 12 years ago in Kuwait. But all of the former was to be expected

Today, we all–those very few journalists and human shields–and the very much smaller subgroup of Americans within us–are being zeroed in on. Journalists are being expelled every hour. They are being put into cars and sent on the 1,000-mile drive to the border. Who know where they are now.

Independent western sources have seen 100 dead civilians and five captive air crew. Three Americans are shown on television over and over. They are frightened and their legs covered with bandages from their wounds.

After an allied jet dropped its payload at 1600 Baghdad time, Mary and I got into our car and drove toward the site. The light was good and pictures are part of our job. The blasts from the bombs are so intense that the liquid in your body gurgles and warms and the concussion sucks the air from your lungs.

One of my hotel rooms and safe houses has three balconies. 16 floors above the city. We can see anything. We turn the lights off and take pictures. I turn the tape recorder on and dictate to myself.. The concussion from the bomb blasts are too much for the tape recorder, overwhelming its ability to be clear.. But the pictures are phenomenal. Tonight we all know will be worse. The Americans are moving north with less resistance than expected. But if they come to Baghdad, it will be very, very different. There will be a bloodbath. Like all wars, it is the civilians who are suffering.

But everyday has been a struggle not to be expelled, taken hostage, placed as a human shield at military targets, or arrested. I have been threatened with each every day. Day after day, we have been threatened with being taken prisoner by the government. This morning we were ordered expelled. “You have two choices, you can be a human shield or you can leave the country,” said my government minder. He was not smiling his usual smirk.

What about my visa, I asked.

He responded by confiscating my passport. “Your visa is now to heaven,” he said, forcing a laugh.

I talked my way out of this. A visa extension was given but I had to take an HIV test, they insisted.. As usual, I brought my own syringes, and I swabbed Mary’s arm and extracted the vial of blood in our room and she did that to me. We went to the HIV center to submit it, but they insisted on their own injections.

Cruise missiles landed around us as we partook in this ridiculous charade. Two journalists were killed today outside of Baghdad. Seven are missing. Five are in prison.. Mary, my sweet Mary, was taken from my room in the dead of night. One cannot leave Baghdad now. Every vehicle  on the roads out of the country are being strafed by American airplanes.

Our other option is to be a human shield, to be placed at a power plant, or electrical facility, or other targets on the allied list of vaporization. Explosions are rocking the computer as I speak. The paint from the walls covers the floors from the concussion of the long-range missiles.

But back to this afternoon: as we crossed the bridge of the Tigris River–one of four from the east to the west of the Tigris River, there was a traffic jam. Hundreds of armed men and civilians were looking down on the river below. It was 1637 hours. Scores of cars had stopped. We grabbed our cameras and gear and got out, the only two non-Iraqis there.

An allied plane had been shot down. Two pilots or crew were floating down the Tigris through central Baghdad. One had just been captured. When we arrived, they were searching for the other.  He was captured as we watched. Thousands of cheering Iraqis chanted and clapped.. People in both uniform and civilian clothes shot AK-47’s in the air in celebration. Others took potshots at sightings along the banks. Small boats with heavily armed soldiers raced through the river searching the banks for the remaining pilots.

“Where are you from?” an armed Iraqi demanded, pointing at me, poking my chest.

“Germany,” interjected my government guide, abruptly grabbing me by the arm, yanking me away.

“Do not tell them you are American,” he whispered as he rushed me to the car. “We must leave. It is very dangerous here for you.” The captured pilots had been hiding in the reeds along the banks of the Tigris in central Baghdad. And hundreds of guns and cheers went off celebrating the capture of the second pilot. Where their aircraft was shot down, I do not know.

After we crossed the bridge to the west side–where all the American bombardments had been centered–the military shut down all four bridges. We were stuck at the epicenter of this horrific scene of 96 hours of carnage. We were trapped in the kill zone and there was no way back. Mary did not want to go at first. But I wanted to get a feel of the mood on the street. And now my heart raced both with guilt and our predicament.

To flee, we had to drive through Baghdad’s most dangerous area. We passed Saddam’s palace, which was a shell of burnt rubble. The Foreign Ministry, also, was a shell of concrete with no windows and lurking, sullen soldiers. Apartment buildings, hours ago filled with civilians were charred, burnt, leveled and empty. Hundreds of apartments and no people. Where were they all?

And now tonight as I write this the bombs are dropping again  on Baghdad. This time I can see the B-52’s drop their payloads on the cit’s outskirts. Bursts of red light turn night to day. Mary is downstairs where we have the satellite phone set up covertly. She is trying to file her pictures. I rush to her.  We promised each other we would not be separated, ever, during the battle for Baghdad. All the international lines are cut now and if we get caught with a phone we will be arrested.

My room has food for weeks of a possible siege, a small generator purchased at the market, fire extinguishers, gas masks for chemical warfare and body suits to protect us from biological weapons attacks. We have 150 Jerry cans of petrol bought at the black market stored at a safe house in case we have to flee the Hotel Palestine on the banks of the Tigris River that snakes through central Baghdad.

We have electronics from computers, cameras, communication devices, but now they are wrapped in Reynolds wrap–the aluminum foil deflects the e-bombs that will destroy the data of these electronic devices that are the tools of our craft. We have safe houses. I have four hotel rooms. We have flack jackets and helmets and gas masks equipped for chemical warfare in our room.

But it is not the American bombs we mostly fear. Between us, Mary and I have covered wars from Somalia, Rwanda, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Burma, Vietnam, and the former Yugoslavia among other conflicts.. So it is not the war, it is the mood of the people that we fear. There has been a sea change since yesterday. The city is thick with anger and defiance. George Bush’s name has been spit out with venom. And as an American, it is understandable that rage and venom for the American government is a veneer ready to be punctured and directed at us.

. Mary and I arrived by road from Jordan one week ago. Mary and I and a motley group of six peace activists and freelance journalists, all of us under the cover as tourists. We arrived at the Iraqi border at 0400 huddled in the dark  listening to George Bush live on the BBC shortwave announcing that the war had begun.. But our driver refused to drive the next 560 kilometers thought the deserts of Iraq to Baghdad. WE literally hijacked his bus, forcing him out of his seat and threatening to drive the bus ourselves. We were serious.

“You are the last tourists to Iraq,” smiled the Iraqi at the Iraqi Tourist Bureau in Baghdad.

“How many tourists are here in Iraq?” I asked.

“About 100,” he said.

” How many real tourists are here in Baghdad?” I asked.

He paused, smiled in appreciation and held his hand up, his forefinger and thumb forming a circle. “None.” I was glad we got that out of the way.

I was listed as a farmer from Dorchester County, Maryland. Mary a singer from Washington, D.C. I have 300 animals. Mary has a beautiful voice. She sang to me softly as we sped west through the night towards Baghdad. Our near empty coach bus was the only vehicle heading towards Baghdad. Hundreds of cars stuffed with personal possessions headed towards Jordan, the opposite direction.

A few days later, when they closed the bridges while Mary and I were on the west–the wrong side of the Tigris river, we drove north to find a way back to the Hotel Palestine. As we sped past charred government buildings and civilian housing reduced to rubble in the last hours, the city silent and absent of people, our driver turned and said: “This is the road to Babylon.”

Indeed, I thought to myself. We are already there.

An Invitation to the Khmer Rouge Controlled Jungles: A travel Itinerary to the World’s Most Clandestine Guerrilla Army

14 Oct

An Invitation to the Khmer Rouge Controlled Jungles: A travel Itinerary to the World’s Most Clandestine Guerrilla Army

Excerpts from “Sympathy For the Devil: A Journalists memoir From Inside Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge

An unpublished manuscript (Excerpt from Sympathy for the Devil: A Journalist’s Memoir form Inside Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. Copyright Nate Thayer. All Rights reserved. No transmission or republication, in whole or in part, without prior written permission of the author)

By Nate Thayer

One day in July 1996, while in my office at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington D.C. , where I was a Visiting Scholar after being expelled from Cambodia for writing about corruption and the rise of organized crime in control of the government, I received a telephone call from a friend in Europe with an urgent message. The Khmer Rouge wanted to see me in their guerrilla control zones in Northern Cambodia. Could I come to the jungle immediately?

The message was an urgent request I fly across the world to Bangkok and make my way to a particular small, sleepy hotel in the remote Thai border town of Surin, as soon as possible. When I arrived at the hotel, I was to call a number in Europe and give my hotel room number. I was then to wait and someone would “contact me.” That was the entirety of the message. It was a typical set-up for a meeting with the Khmer Rouge. There was no mention of who I was to meet, when I would be contacted or by whom, where I was going to go, how I was to get into the Cambodian jungles, or what the subject matter would concern. I didn’t even know who within the Khmer Rouge was contacting me.

The routing of the message was typical in its circuitous layers to obscure any prying eyes or ears. And it was designed for the Khmer Rouge to keep complete control over the process that would end in me arriving at one of the most forbidden territories on earth, It denied me any ability to double cross them if I was so inclined, or to pass on information to American or other intelligence officials or other enemies. Importantly, anyone monitoring my communications or movements would also be frustrated if they had nefarious intentions. But it also left me very vulnerable if something were to go wrong.

There was always a palpable undercurrent of dark unease for me when I began the clandestine process of accessing their leaders and the clandestine territories from which they opererated.

A Khmer Rouge “former” diplomat in Paris, who was married to a Frenchwoman and therefore held French citizenship, had called my friend. My friend, a Franco-Khmer, was trusted by the Khmer Rouge, but was not a member of the Party. He, in turn, was known to be close to me. The French based former Khmer Rouge diplomat had been contacted by another “former” Khmer Rouge diplomat living underground in a safe house in Bangkok. In actuality, that safe house was operated by an extremely clandestine unit of Thai military intelligence which, technically, did not exist. That Bangkok based Khmer Rouge diplomat maintained human runners who would be dispatched back and forth overland across the the Thai border, slipping into and out of the Cambodian jungles.

The Khmer Rouge in the jungles had relayed information or invitations to me in Washington, Asia, and Europe and elsewhere this way for years. None of the compartmentalized operatives involved would be told more than they needed to know to get the information to their intermediary contacts, destined, ultimately, to me. My response would travel a similar maze to obscure the entire communication process and content. That information was limited to simply the logistics of accomplishing a rendezvous. Even if they were arrested, monitored or inclined to talk, they didn’t have any information useful to their enemies.

The diplomat in Paris did have one fully equipped man, a specialist trained in China to transmit coded communication, who was able to transmit and receive top secret messages from a counterpart in the jungle in times of crisis or extreme urgency.

But for the purposes of my rendezvous, it could routinely take weeks between a message being dispatched from the jungle and a reply from  me arriving back in their jungles.

So, as always, I told my friend in Europe to relay the message that I would depart immediately and would be checked into the Petchkasem hotel in Surin, Thailand within 72 hours. I boarded a plane from Washington’s Dulles airport that night for the 36 hour flight to Bangkok. From Bangkok, it was a ten hour drive to the obscure Thai border town abutting the Khmer Rouge controlled jungles, which were over and down the mountain escarpment to the east.

From the Petchkasem hotel, I dialed the contact number in France and informed my friend simply what hotel room number I was checked into. No names were used. No countries were mentioned. Even the name of the hotel was omitted. “How are you, my friend? I said. “I have arrived fine. I am in number 302. I will wait here.”

“I will let my friends know now, “he said. “They will contact you. Be careful.” He couldn’t tell me, even if he wanted to, when, by whom, where I was going, who i would meet, or what to expect.

Then, I waited…..for days.

I forget how many, but several. mainly I stayed semi-drunk. I did sit ups and ran in place.I left the room for one hour each night to swim at a lap pool in the town. I ate noodles and rice from the lobby nightclub, a neon lit coffee shop which doubled as a whorehouse. From there I had a view of the lobby through which all had to enter or leave. I cleaned my camera equipment and read literature and documents on the Khmer Rouge I always kept for interesting distraction. I had read everything at least once before.

As usual, I had no idea whether I was to have to walk through the jungle for days, whether I would meet important leaders, including Pol Pot, or when the contact liaisons would arrive to retrieve me.

So all that uncertainty and the various potential scenarios required contingency preparation. Jungle clothing, still camera, video-camera, charged and extra batteries, film, notebooks, hammock, mosquito nets, food, rolls of chewing tobacco, whiskey, and zip-lock bags of all sizes to protect against the monsoon rains and other jungle elements.. Everything had to fit perfectly into a small Khmer Rouge knapsack on my back in case I had to walk for days.

And i couldn’t really leave the hotel room, not knowing when the Khmer Rouge operatives would arrive, and not wanting to draw attention to myself in the interim. The small hotel staff knew me well, after years of passing through, and it was no secret what, in general, I was up to. They knew I was going to nearby Cambodia, where there was a war. But they really didn’t want to know any more than that. I would always leave, usually before dawn, and never checking out, utterly failing at being inconspicuous as I passed through the lobby dressed in jungle clothing with a backpack laden with camera equipment. Often, I would return days later, muddy and dirty and accompanied by fit men who didn’t speak much, wearing sunglasses even after dark.

On a number of occasions, I was escorted by Thai military intelligence operatives, whose demeanor didn’t require them to show the ID cards they carried, which struck fear in anyone towards whom they were flashed The hotel staff knew better than to ask any questions.

To get to Surin, the Khmer Rouge had to sneak across the border from their mountain base camps, through numerous Thai military checkpoints and, if everything went smoothly, drive several hours through remote rice farming regions dotted with small villages to get to Surin. Lots of things could go wrong, and often did. Getting a simple message from one Khmer Rouge base to another in order to dispatch a runner to pick me up could itself take several days.

Then one rainy morning while still dark at 0500, there was a firm knock on the door. I asked who it was, first in Thai. Silence.

Then in English. Again, no answer.

Then in Khmer. After a long pause, a hushed whisper replied, in Khmer, “It’s me.”

A non-descript Khmer Rouge soldier, dressed in civilian clothes, waived me out nervously and went ahead of me to check to see whether the hallways were clear He then motioned me urgently out and through the lobby to the parking lot and into a beat up old pickup truck with Thai military license plates.

He refused to tell me where I was going, or who I was scheduled to meet. “You will see, ” he said solemnly. He probably didn’t even know. But he would not have had to be instructed to be vague. His mission was only to retrieve me from the hotel in the neighboring country and deliver me, illegally across international borders, to Khmer Rouge controlled Cambodia without drawing attention to anything or from anyone.

Now, In July 1996, more than ever, the Khmer Rouge believed there were enemies everywhere. And they were right.

The pickup truck from my hotel was driven by a very frazzled Thai in civilian clothes with a mobile telephone who insisted he was not a serving Thai military officer. I believed him. He was nervous, grim faced, his eyes darting, not wanting to talk, clearly uncomfortable, and drove like a fucking maniac.

Thai spooks were much more relaxed. They had carte blanche and could pull rank with a flash of an ID card, receiving a no questions asked salute and a slight look of fear at checkpoints as the grunt trotted briskly to lift the concrete barrier poles that blocked the road. I had seen it many times. This fellow clearly had no permission to transport a foreigner towards,  through, and across the Thai frontier still under military martial law. And certainly not to smuggle me across national borders into zones controlled by an armed Cambodian rebel group at war with the Cambodian government of which Thailand had diplomatic relations. The Thai government was constantly denying claims they had any contact with the Khmer Rouge.

He drove many miles out of the way through a network of back farm roads, bordered by endless rice paddies, to avoid Thai military checkpoints. I wrote down every turn, drawing a map in my notebook, in case I needed to find my way back. or was ever inclined to sneak back in via this route in the future.

After more than a hour, the pickup truck turned down a small dirt path into a a cluster of bamboo huts that constituted a Thai village and pulled over at a noodle and cigarette stall. The tinted one-way windows protected me against the solemn staring eyes of the half a dozen peasant farmers milling about in the early morning hours, the heat already promising to become stifling. This was a village that knew well to look the other way when strangers came through. After chatting with the vendor for minute, the driver hopped back in and we drove deeper, east, into the rice fields down rutted tracks used only by water buffalo and crude farm vehicles.

We pulled over under a lone majestic banyan Tree and halted. And waited. I was told to stay hidden in  the truck. I was given a hat, told to put on sunglasses and wrap my traditional checkered Cambodian peasant scarf–a krama–which was around my neck over my shoulders, around my face.

Churning up dust in its wake, snaking through rice fields,  a battered pickup truck with no license plates and tinted windows approached from the east, where there was a jungle shrouded mountain ridge, which marked the natural Cambodian border in the not far distance. The truck pulled alongside us and an uniformed Khmer Rouge officer got out, greeting my escorts. With very little small talk and no smiles, I was promptly ordered in the back of the newly arrived vehicle, where there was a bench seat behind the driver. The uniformed Khmer Rouge officer, his face serious, and a Chinese AK-47 propped by the gear shift, its 30 round ammunition clip inserted in the weapon, got in the drivers seat. Young Tuoch, who had knocked on my hotel room door earlier that morning, got into the passenger seat. We sped toward the treeline to the east.

Quickly, the rice fields devolved into fallow, unproductive land, abandoned. This always is a mark of danger lurking. As we neared the actual ill-defined border, the fields were totally abandoned, the scene of recent fighting. Landmines were everywhere. These were always eerie, peculiar, unsettling scenes. Stark in their silence, abandoned rice fields are a sure sign that civilians have fled, giving up their most precious holding–literally the source of the food on their table and in their stomachs. Things have to be pretty bad for a rural Asian peasant to abandon their rice fields.

Periodically artillery would fall, or clashes would break out, and villagers would be maimed or killed. Soon, they would simply retreat from their land, to wait for the latest, seemingly endless war to ebb. Hand painted,  signs on trees of skull and crossbones painted in blood red colours, were everywhere, a crude attempt at warning local peasants of hidden landmines or booby traps. These increased proportionally as we neared our destination, as they do to denote  the importance of the area–either a strategic road or military base or encampment of families of Khmer Rouge soldiers or contested area between front-lines of enemies.

We drove for miles down dirt tracks through fallow fields, empty and silent, towards the tree lined mountain escarpment in the horizon coming into clearer focus. Trees always marked the border between Thailand and Cambodia. In this part of the Thai-Cambodian frontier, if their were trees, there were guerrillas with guns hiding in them.

We had one more obstacle in front of us, I was told–a Thai military checkpoint. The Khmer Rouge officer checked that I was sufficiently scrunched up in the back, hat and sunglasses on, tradional Cambodian scarfed covering my face, only my eyes exposed.

“If they ask, tell them you are visiting your family,” he instructed rather preposterously. It was highly unlikely a 6 foot two inch Caucasian had relatives in the nearby jungles controlled by one of the world’s most notorious revolutionary political movements.

The checkpoint consisted of of a single hewn log suspended across the dirt track, weighted on one end by a concrete slab and held down on the other by a rope tied to a stump. A bamboo hut was beside it. next to the structure, in the late morning sun, a single Thai soldier lay asleep in his hammock, his M-16 assault rifle propped on a tree. He didn’t even rise as Tuoch got out of the car to lift the barricade.

And we entered Khmer Rouge controlled Cambodia. The Thai grunt never suspected an American journalist was just smuggled through past his prone and droopy eyes. I relaxed, even though I could hear the rumbling of artillery, closer and closer, in the direction we rumbled toward, picking up speed……..

(Excerpt from Sympathy for the Devil: A Journalist’s Memoir form Inside Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. Copyright Nate Thayer. All Rights reserved. No transmission or republication, in whole or in part, without prior written permission of the author)

Lunching With Mass Murderers: Khmer Rouge leaders explain why they slaughtered their own people, and why it was, really, for the best: Excerpts from “Sympathy for the Devil” By Nate Thayer

12 Oct

Lunching With Mass Murderers: Top Khmer Rouge leaders explain, in their own words, why they killed 1.8 million people, why it was not their fault, and really for the best.

Excerpts from unpublished manuscript “Sympathy for the Devil: A journalist’s memoir from inside Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge” By Nate Thayer

(Copyright Nate Thayer. All rights reserved. No republication, quotation from, copying or dissemination in whole or in part without prior written permission from Author)

During the Chinese Cultural Revolution style “People’s Tribunal” held to denounce  Pol Pot in the jungles of Anlong Veng in northern Cambodia in July 1997, a middle age man dressed in a pea green military uniform, hobbled up on his amputated leg and one crutch, and stood in front of the gathered crowd.

Bang Man was very angry, very confused, very sad and very sincere.

Pol Pot sat only a few feet away, cheeks shaking trying to maintain his composure, in a simple metal folding chair. He stared off into the distance avoiding eye contact with anyone, including me who circled freely around him taking close up portraits inches from the face of the mass murderer who had not been seen in the 18 years since he was driven from power, leaving behind the corpses of 1.8 million of his countrymen. Next to Pol Pot, sat three manacled, surly Pol Pot military loyalist comrades, under arrest, their fate certain.

Pol Pot was not being condemned for genocide, mass murder, or crimes against humanity. He was charged with “crimes against the revolution.”

Bang Men introduced himself as “a representative of the people.” He spoke with sincerity and passion, his voice strong, as he stood at the crude podium under an aluminum roof that served as a warehouse for artillery and other weapons of war. On the dirt jungle floor, a microphone was  hooked up to a car battery the crude sound broadcast over loudspeakers tied to the cut forest trees that served to hold up the roof of the open air structure where several hundred peasants and cadre squatted in the dirt, their lives work collapsing, after thirty years at war and in the jungle. Their once infallible leader was being denounced:

“The people and masses of Anlong  Veng, tens of thousands of people, have abandoned their land, homes, their parents, siblings, children, and grandchildren for close to 20 years, with the aim of solving the problem of the nation, the race….not thinking of the danger, their lives. This struggle is an exceedingly hard and difficult struggle, which has never been encountered before in the history of our nation. In the spirit of loving the nation, of loving the race, we have striven to achieve and express this most lofty and supreme heroism, to continue the struggle. But finally, the result was not in keeping with most of our wishes, our intentions. We have been separated and lost tens of thousands, millions, and then in the period of 1996-1997, we encountered the most terrible, the most barbarous incident of Pol Pot, who continually had us study about the view, the stance, fighting, enduring to fight, the stance becoming even stronger, the situation becoming ever more difficult. They saw enemies everywhere, saw them as rotten flesh, swollen flesh, enemies surrounding them, enemies in front, enemies behind, enemies to the north, enemies to the south, enemies to the west, enemies to the east, enemies in all eight directions, enemies coming from all nine directions, around them, closing in, with no place to breathe…Pol Pot wanted to further strengthen our stance. Strengthen over and over and over, including measures to successfully kill and purge our own ranks, including strugglers in the movement of the same rank….Looking backward, Cambodia was dissolving into nothing…fighting continually and Cambodia steadily dissolving.”

Nuon Chea, the chief political ideologue of the Khmer Rouge and number 2 in  rank behind Pol Pot,  was a rural peasant from Battambang province in western Cambodia who was educated in Thailand after the Thai’s temporarily invaded and annexed that part of Cambodia. He graduated from the prestigious Thammassat University in Bangkok and joined the leftist Thai Democratic Youth League in 1946 and the Thai Communist party in 1950. That same year he joined the Vietnamese controlled Indochinese Communist Party.

Ieng Sary, the third ranking leader of the Khmer Rouge, was born in former Cambodian territory annexed by Vietnam for more than a century in the Mekong delta of Vietnam to a Chinese immigrant to Vietnam and an ethnic Khmer citizen of Vietnam of middle to upper class origins. He received his higher education in France and joined the French Communist Party during his studies there.

Ta Mok, the top military field commander of the Khmer Rouge, was an uneducated peasant whose family ran a lumber mill in rural Cambodia. He received Buddhist religious training to be a monk, and joined the anti-colonial Democratic Party in 1946 and later the anti-French underground armed nationalist movement, the Khmer Issaraks.

The other leaders were mainly all dead.

In several interviews with Ta Mok in 1997 and 1998, until the days before he was arrested when the final remnants of the Khmer Rouge collapsed, he expounded in straightforward detail to me about the politics and theory the fueled the Communist Party of Kampuchea. Mok was a military man who, while ranked number five in the party hierarchy, had no formal schooling, and his marginally more sophisticated comrades at the core of power despised and dismissed him, cringing when he spoke of politics. But in Cambodia, whoever has the guns has the power, and Mok had recently overthrown Pol Pot in a day’s long duel of life and death after Pol Pot had ordered him killed. Mok acknowledged to me that “hundreds of thousands died. Hundreds of thousands yes. Not millions like the Americans say.” He contended that the “Communist Party had sucked the blood of the people” and that “Pol pot had clearly committed crimes against  humanity.” But Mok was clear in parsing the distinctions of who was legitimately killed. All the thousandshe ordered murdered deserved their fate. “I joined the movement when I was 16. I have no theoretical ideology. My ideology is patriotism. Before I joined the Communist Party, but I had no idea what communism was!” he said, throwing his arms in the air and chuckling. “They said the Party was a patriotic one. That is why I joined the party. Later I found out that the Communist Party was sucking the blood of the people.”

He added that his one regret was working with Pol Pot “whose hands are soiled with blood….each of us has our own lessons to learn from ourselves. Ours is Pol Pot.”

But there was a reason Mok had earned the nickname “the Butcher.” ‘I never killed Khmers,” he said. “ Vietnamese, yes.” When I asked about the purges of other of his senior KR cadre comrades he was known to have been dispatched to kill, Mok claimed that thousands of ethnic Khmer were in fact agents of Vietnam.

“Sao Phim. He was Vietnamese,” Ta Mok said bluntly, referring to the former number four in the Standing Committee of the CPK who headed the eastern zone military on the Vietnamese border. The tens of thousands of ethnic Khmers Ta Mok massacred when he was the top battlefield commander who launched military attacks on the eastern zone forces of the Khmer Rouge were not, in his mind, Cambodians, and therefore their murder was not only justified, but necessary. “They were Vietnamese,” he said dismissively. There is a saying in Cambodian “Kluen Khmer, Kbal Yuon.” It means “To have a Khmer body but the mind of a Vietnamese.” Mok was deeply implicated in the purges of thousands of civilians and cadre during the KR rule. Including his own deputy who he sent to his death at Tuol Sleng. “He was Vietnamese,” Mok told me. Three westerners who ventured to close to his control zone in the months before my visits in 1997 and 1998, were captured and executed—two European humanitarian workers sightseeing near ancient temples and a British former military officer who was volunteering training Cambodians how to unearth buried landmines.

Son Sen was born in South Vietnam, studied in Phnom Penh and Paris, and returned to teach at the prestigious secondary school of Lycee Sisowath in Phnom Penh. Son Sen, during the Khmer Rouge period was directly in charge—as Army Commander and chief of National Security—for the activities of the CPK secret police, including overseeing S-21, the Tuol Sleng torture and extermination  center. He, his wife and 18 of his family members were killed in an orgy of violence on the orders of Pol Pot in June of 1997—an event that sparked the internal power struggle at the core leadership of the Khmer Rouge which Pol Pot lost and Ta Mok won.

Khieu Samphan was born in the eastern province of Svay Rieng and educated in Paris, receiving a Doctorate of Economics. He returned to Cambodia to be elected to the National Assembly, and was widely idolized for his reputation as incorruptible while in parliament under the regime of Norodom Sihanouk. He served briefly as Sihanouk’s minister of commerce, before fleeing to the jungle in 1967 after public threats by Sihanouk. While serving as the public face of the Khmer Rouge, he was never a member of the CPK most powerful body, the Standing Committee. He never revealed his affiliation with the CPK.

In a February 1998 meeting in the jungles of Anlong Veng, I sat at a roundtable luncheon over fresh fish and warm soda in Ta Mok’s house. The lunch guests hosted for three hours by Ta Mok included Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, and several other senior Khmer Rouge cadres. I was allowed to film and record the entire event. Mok had by then captured Pol Pot and controlled the army and therefore the power. Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan hated Mok with a passion, considering him a competent military commander but wholly ignorant of political theory and a loud and course peasant soldier.

Ta Mok began to recite the names and ranks of the Party leaders who had been executed. “ That is right, a (“a” is a pejorative Khmer term meaning ”the contemptible’) Nhim was what number? A-Chong was what number?”, referring to their ranks in the Standing Committee of the CPK. “ A-Phong was what number? Why do I want to count them all? Because I want to relate clearly that all of them were what?” Ta Mok was naming top party leaders arrested, tortured, and executed at Tuol Sleng. “ From number One Pol Pot to all of those I mentioned, some of them were Yuon ( a derogatory term for Vietnamese). Was Pol Pot Yuon or not? I don’t know, it is not clear. But So Phim is clear. He was Yuon. From the east. He was Yuon through and through, a pure Yuon. Chong was Yuon. He was a person of the Yuon.”

Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea were seething sitting to my right with Ta Mok on my left. Their loyalties were still with Pol Pot and they despised Ta Mok. They looked like they were about to explode. Revealing Party secrets is an offensive that had always meant certain death, and to do so in front of an American was unfathomable to them. I knew they had already concluded I was a CIA agent, but considered me a useful back channel.

Cor Bun Heng, a young intellectual, asked “Chong was from where?”

Ta Mok replied: “Koh Kong. Or CIA. It is the same.”

Mok then laughed and pointed his finger at me. “CIA! Have you heard of them?” while laughing menacingly, grinning broadly and gazing his narrow eyes locked on mine, laughing louder and more. I had been told earlier by Khmer Rouge confidantes that Mok was convinced I was an agent of the CIA. I said nothing. “So within the leadership, there were Yuon and CIA. And there were Americans. Have you heard of them?”  , he asked me again, perhaps trying to be both funny and menacing.

Mok laughed again. “ A-Thuch, what was his original name?” laughing and cackling, clearly enjoying making the whole table very uncomfortable for very different reasons.

Khieu Samphan, who was decidedly not laughing and decidedly annoyed, answered: “Koy Thuon.”

“Koy Thuon was an American,” Mok declared.” This is what I want to explain to you.“ Mok continued. “It was like this. It was a mess. And it is this that causes the talk of two million or three million killed. Because internally things weren’t good, they carried on killings. The Yuon group wanted to kill the American group. The American group wanted to kill the Yuon group and kill the Khmers. Internally, there were these three, three parties: The American party, the Yuon party, and the Khmer party. I want to tell you this just honestly, straightforwardly.”

It was the first time Nuon Chea had ever granted an interview in the 50 years since he joined the revolution. And he wasn’t happy. Mok presided and was periodically sarcastic, animated, and demeaning towards his senior colleagues, whose expressions seethed at Mok’s flippant and derogatory remarks.

Mok put down Khieu Samphan, who was seated next to him, saying: “Pol Pot, it is like the Americans say about Khieu Samphan, that he is only a figurehead. Because where are the forces? Who is Cambodia? I am not saying this to boast. Ask the Army. Pol Pot had only himself. The forces were the Southwest,” he said referring to the zone he ruled as military commander during the Khmer Rouge years in power.

I asked Nuon Chea about the alleged coup attempts against Pol Pot and Nuon Chea between 1975 and 1979. “ During the three years holding power, it was the Yuon and the henchmen of the Yuon, “ Nuon Chea replied through clenched teeth.

“What happened?” I asked.

“This is a historical matter of long past, long ago. There were assassination attempts, there were attempts to poison, from what I could gather,” Nuon Chea replied. “But most of it, some places, it is hard for me to recall. I don’t know what Ta would say,” he continued trying to avoid an answer. “ This I am telling you frankly,” Nuon says. “They accuse us.”

Ta Mok then interrupts, offering specific and never before revealed details to the extreme consternation of Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan. “Okay, I’d like to tell you. This matter isn’t something that is clear and transparent, it is very difficult, because internally who was it who was in charge? Who was responsible? It was Pol pot who was responsible. There wasn’t anyone else who was number one but Pol Pot. Pol Pot was number One.”

Then Mok turns to Nuon Chea, smirks, his eyes twinkling and his lips pursed in a mixture of menace and mockery, and says ”Brother, you were number two, right?’

Nuon Chea glares, pauses, and answers curtly, “Yes.”

“Yes, you were number two,” Mok repeats, “ Ieng Sary was number three. So Phim was number four. And Ta Mok was only number five. And A-Nhim was what number?” Mok asks Nuon Chea, in a clear attempt to goad and implicate him.

“I don’t know what number, Ta,’ Nuon Chea says.

“It is the number two individual who knows the most,” Mok continued, laughing and mocking Nuon Chea,” But I didn’t understand much. I just looked from the outside. I observed. I just want to express that opinion.”

Although popularly labeled as Communists, evidence from previously unpublished interviews with all the top leadership of the Khmer Rouge show the Khmer Rouge movement and its murderous policies was founded on an amalgam of ideologies and homegrown political theory uniquely Cambodian.

The handful of core leaders who comprised the all-powerful apparatus of the Standing Committee of the Communist Party of Kampuchea came from disparate backgrounds, widely divergent political influences, and  training, or absence of training, that clearly suggest a CPK structure of organized power based on no external models. Their policies and tactics drew firmly from the mainstream of their Cambodian historical and contemporary political predecessors  with influences from anti-colonialist movements, extreme nationalism, previous political rulers who assumed the role of all powerful God Kings, and, almost tangentially, various non-Cambodian communist parties in Europe and Asia in the 1940’s and 1950’s.

In fact it is more accurate that they had no single central organization or ideology when they seized power, but rather were dominated by a unique amalgam of loosely allied regional fiefdoms with little uniform central ideology, coordination or control. In effect, in April 1975, six separate armies, long void of a unified command leadership converged on Phnom Penh, simultaneously overthrowing the U.S. installed Lon Nol government. These loosely coordinated regional armed  Khmer Rouge factions then struggled against each other for dominance within the framework of the CPK to assert influence and control.

Once in titular power, there was a stark absence of predetermined strategy or national leadership that implemented what evolved into an orgy of internal power struggles and shocking comfort level with employing tactics of crimes against humanity as routine policy, and a bumbling, delusional, ill prepared and wholly unskilled and incapable cadre of government leaders  and technicians that was predestined to implode in disaster, surrendering in defeat to their own incompetence and failed policies after three years, eight months and 20 days in power.

It is useful to introduce a historical overview of the Khmer Rouge movement and its leadership prior to them seizing power on April 17, 1975.

Cambodia in the 1960’s offered few conditions that traditionally provided fuel to ignite and sustain a communist movement. It had virtually no industrial base or manufacturing sector from which to recruit a working class base of an exploited labor force by those who owned the means of production. Almost all its peasants—85% of the population—owned their own land, eliminating the opportunity to recruit popular support based on the exploitation of tenant farmers by a landlord class. The country was rich in natural resources, with abundant rice crops and some of the most productive fishing waterways in the world. It was a leading exporter of rice until after the war that engulfed the country in 1970. The population was very small compared to the productive land mass and there was virtually no malnutrition or starvation. Cambodia was at peace, despite being surrounded by the regional Indochinese wars that raged on all its borders. Despite its many failings, throughout the mid-20th century, the Cambodian government under royal control, led by Norodom Sihanouk, maintained delicate political neutrality, deftly juggling outside pressures of alliances during the superpower struggles that rendered much of the world allied with one of the three great powers of the era. As a result there were no significant Cambodian proxy armies fighting for the power interests of foreign nations. Importantly, Cambodia was largely ethnically and religiously homogeneous, precluding a racial or religious pretext to foment resentment or strife.

The conditions for revolution were not abundant. The Khmer Rouge–formally known as the Communist Party of Kampuchea–remained an infinitesimal and marginal organization with less than 5000 members until 1970.

While a number of anti-colonialist movements and nationalist armed groups flourished in the 1940’s and 50’s, the signing of the French granting independence to Cambodia in 1953 and the subsequent Geneva accords in 1954, spelled the demise of virtually all the armed underground movements in Cambodia. The Cambodian branch of the Indochinese Communist Party—entirely controlled by the Vietnamese—withdrew their entire ethnic Khmer cadre to Hanoi in 1954. The anti-colonialist Khmer Issarak party evaporated. The leftist Pracheochon above ground political party and the anti-Sihanouk Democratic Party were neutralized. While leftist sentiments lingered and Sihanouk’s autocratic rule kept alive a movement seeking more democratic rule, it was largely marginalized by his heavy handed tactics.

So to what does one attribute the rise of the ultra-radical Communist party of Kampuchea that seized power in 1975 to, leaving millions of bones stacking the killing fields that testified to the Khmer Rouge unprecedented political experiment which ended with the military conquest of Cambodia by Vietnam that brought a halt to the CPK’s 3 years and 8 months in power? What was the genus of its ideology or origins in political theory that allowed them to burgeon and drove the implementation of its disastrous rule?

On September 30, 1960 a group of 10-15 men gathered at a secret meeting in the Phnom Penh railroad station for the first party Congress and formed the Communist Party of Kampuchea. For three days and nights they hammered out and approved a party line and statutes. A Central Committee was chosen with Tou Samouth as Party Secretary, Nuon Chea as Deputy Party Secretary, Saloth Sar, alias Pol Pot, as member, Ma Mong as member, Ieng Sary as member, Chong as member, and Kaev Meas as member. The more powerful sub grouping of the Standing Committee of the CPK compromised Tou Samouth, Nuon Chea, and Pol Pot. As Pol Pot was a teacher, as was Ieng Sary, (as well as both their wives, who were sisters), they were limited to working from Phnom Penh. Nuon Chea was tasked with travelling to the countryside.

According to unpublished interviews I conducted on three separate occasions in January, February, and March 1998 with Nuon Chea, he said: “ We implemented the principle of absolute party leadership in accordance with the slogan: a protracted, difficult, hard struggle, self-reliance, self-mastery, independence…As for the party statutes, the principles of Marxist-Leninism were used and the principle of Democratic centralism. And the Party had to build from the countryside as the foundation and the towns as following behind.”

Nuon Chea’s reference to Marxist-Leninism as a guiding party principle was the sole reference I heard from any senior or other party figure of the CPK. These included  extensive and repeated interviews with hundreds of Khmer Rouge senior political and military cadre, including every surviving member of the party leadership in research from the 1980’s to date. These included interviews with Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, Ieng Thirith, Ta Mok, Son Sen, Ke Pok, and Khieu Samphan, the only surviving members of the CPK Central Committee after their internal purges and the end of their rule in power. Other research also included hundreds of interviews with other senior political cadre and military commanders who mostly had joined the movement in 1970 or the late 1960’s.

Each of the leaders had their origins as members of other political parties that formed and disintegrated in the 1940’s and 1950’s.

In 1962, the Secretary General of the CPK, Tou Samouth, was arrested while riding his bicycle to get medicine for his sick child in Phnom Penh and taken to the home of then Sihanouk security chief Lon Nol, and interrogated in an unsuccessful attempt to reveal the names of other CPK members, tortured and then executed. He had been betrayed by a government double agent, Siev Heng, who was a former Secretary general of the earlier Vietnamese dominated Communist Party–the Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Party (KPRP).

The KPRP  had effectively dissolved after the 1954 signing of the Geneva Agreements which mandated the withdrawal of armed forces to Hanoi, and the 1953 bilateral agreement of Cambodian independence between France and Cambodia, which returned Cambodia to independence from Colonial French rule.

After Tou Samouth’s execution, another Party Congress was held in 1963, and Pol Pot was named Secretary General. While logically Nuon Chea was slated to be Secretary General, he was the nephew of the traitor Siev Heng, and deep suspicions of his loyalties—given the impossible to minimize influence of family loyalty in Cambodian culture—precluded him from assuming the top post of the CPK.

The 1963 Party Congress elected Pol Pot as Secretary General, Nuon Chea as Deputy Secretary, and Ieng Sary, Chong, Keu (Sophal), Vorn Vet, Ruoh Nhem (Muol Sambath), Ta Mok, Ma Mong, and Sao Phim to the Central Committee of the CPK. The highest ranking body, the Standing Committee of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, was comprised of Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Sao Phim, and Ieng Sary. Of these ten, six were executed by the Khmer Rouge themselves in a series of purges once they obtained power.

Later in 1963, Prince Sihanouk, in his inimitable style, tauntingly announced that he would name 24 specific people as co-Prime Ministers of his government. They were the exact list of all 24 members of the central committee of CPK including Pol Pot, Ieng Sary, Son Sen, Khieu Samphan, and three leftist CPK supporters who were then members of Parliament, Khieu Samphan, Hou Nim, and Hou Yuon. The decision was made that most named would have to flee the city and go underground to various jungle redoubts.

This splintered the party leadership undermining its ability at communicating with one another or central organization and implementation of a coherent national policy to be in place when they seized power in 1975. It resulted in the development of essentially autonomous regional fiefdoms without any effective central party leadership. This is central to explaining the confusion over the origins of the killings after 1975 when essentially six separate Khmer Rouge armies converged on Phnom Penh simultaneously. The struggle for consolidating leadership and consistent national policy cannot be overemphasized, as the political policies and ideological philosophies differed widely on the ground in the different Khmer Rouge regions throughout the country.

The leadership themselves had scarce communication or coordination with each other, with Pol Pot based in the far Northeastern province of Rattanakiri, Ta Mok based in the Southwest, Nuon Chea travelling from Phnom Penh to the countryside, and Sao Phim based on the Vietnamese border to the East.

It is instructive to note, in an analysis of the origins of the political influences of the ideology that drove the CPK policy, that the CPK didn’t fire a shot for 7 years after its founding in 1960. A spontaneous peasant uprising in 1967 in the remote Battambang district of Samlaut over abusive government tax collectors sparked the CPK to make a decision to react in support. On 17 January, 1968, the Khmer Rouge raided a police post in Samlaut, killed a handful of government soldiers, stole weapons, and fled into the jungle. It was the beginning of a nascent armed struggle that would bring Pol Pot and the CPK to power 7 years later.

And it is crucial to recognize that they chose to embark on this guerrilla war after directly rejecting the plea’s not to initiate an armed struggle by both the Chinese and Vietnamese Communist Party leadership, according to Pol Pot, Ieng Sary, Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, and Ta Mok in independent interviews with each.

“The Chinese and the Yuon (Vietnamese) told us that ‘If you decide to fight, it is like fighting your own father,” Ta Mok told me in February 1998, referring to Sihanouk. “But we saw that if we didn’t use arms the movement would be finished. Therefore we decided that we had to mobilize the armed movement. And it wasn’t as if there was a proper leadership. The southwest was the southwest, the east was the east, enjoying independence-self-mastery.”

This stands as a stark early example of the CPK refusing to follow the leadership or strategy of the international communist movement, even from the countries key to their short term tactical survival.

Mok’s analysis that there was no central leadership of the Khmer Rouge forces contributes to explaining the later purges by Pol Pot and his loyalists of most of the other senior leadership of CPK after 1975.

Of the ten members of the CPK standing committee named in 1963, 6 were executed by Pol Pot after they took power in 1975 and before they were deposed in 1979.

In 1975, when the CPK seized power, they had never publicly announced that the CPK even existed, and it wasn’t until September 1977, more than two years after the seized power, that it was announced that the CPK was ruling Cambodia. Previously, they had publicly contended that a united front government of divergent political ideologies were running the government, naming a fictitious group of United Front personalities who held nearly zero internal influence in formulating State policy but represented a broad sector of well-known figures, including King Sihanouk. Sihanouk remained the public Head of State while in fact under strict house arrest.

In September 1977, the CPK held another Party Congress and named as their standing committee members, in order of rank, Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Sao Phim, Ieng Sary, Son Sen, Ta Mok, Vorn Vet, and Nheum. Of those 8 members, 3 were executed during the Khmer Rouge reign in power—Sao Phim, Vorn Vet, and Nhuem. They also named 22 members to the central committee of the CPK. Of these, 18 were ordered executed by the time the Khmer Rouge were ousted from power in 1979.

Among the first to be purged was Hu Yuon, who as finance minister, objected to the abolishment of markets and the elimination of the use of currency. He was believed to have been executed in the months after the 1975 liberation of Phnom Penh.

Hun Nim, Minister of Information, was arrested  and executed in 1977. It wasn’t the first time Hu Nim had been purged. In 1967, while a member of Parliament, Sihanouk publicly berated Nim as “a little hypocrite” whose “words carry the scent of honey, but hides his claws like a tiger”, and he “had the face of a Vietnamese or Chinese.”  Sihanouk added Hu Nim would be “subjected to the military tribunal and the execution block”.  He promptly fled to the Khmer Rouge controlled jungles. After Sihanouk was overthrown in 1970, and he himself joined in alliance with the Khmer Rouge, he called Hu Nim “one of our greatest intellectuals.

Hu Nim served as Minister of Information for the Khmer Rouge until arrested and tortured and executed in Tuol Sleng in 1977. In a  handwritten Tuol Sleng confession of 28 May, 1977 he wrote: “I have nothing to depend on, only the Communist Party of Kampuchea. Would the Party please show clemency towards me?” He also wrote “I am not a human being, I am an animal.”

“You say the enemy was trying to assassinate you, but most of your central committee was executed in Tuol Sleng before your years in power were finished, “ I asked Pol Pot, during an interview in October 1997, the only public sighting or comments he made after he was driven from power in January 1979. “Did they deserve to die, or was it a mistake?”

“You raise this question, but let me clarify this. These people were in the central leadership of Democratic Kampuchea, but they were not the people of Democratic Kampuchea,” Pol Pot responded. “In 1976 and 1977, that group of people you were talking about set up a coup d’état committee, especially against me. In that committee there were Vietnamese agents in the majority.”

“And among the leadership, they included whom?” I asked.

“My memory does not serve me well on that,” he answered rather incredulously, unable to remember the names of his top comrades he had ordered executed. He paused for about 30 seconds and then exclaimed, pointed his finger at me and fixed his gaze on my eyes, “but among those who were in the coup committee were Ya. He was a Vietnamese agent since 1946.”

Ya, alias Maen San was the zone secretary for the northeast appointed in January 1976, the same month he was arrested. He was also a member of the Standing Committee of the CPK.

The confession of Ya is particularly chilling. In an S-21 (Tuol Sleng ) document dated January 10, 1976, the Khmer Rouge chief executioner, Duch, wrote a note to Ya’s interrogator that “I reported to Angkar ( a reference used either for Pol pot or Nuon Chea. However Duch said he reported only to Son Sen and Nuon Chea and never directly spoke to  Pol Pot until 1988) at ten minutes to nine on the case of Ya based on the documents that comrade (you) provided…Angkar says that in the case that Ya remains reluctant and continues to hide his traitorous connections and activities, Angkar has decided to have him killed…Angkar has decided it is a case of having him looking down on the Party, not just down on our state security. Therefore for Ya, you can use the hot measures and for a long time. Even if those measures led to his death, comrade will not be wrongful toward Angkar’s discipline.” Duch signed off with “warm revolutionary fraternity.”

Pon, S-21’s top interrogator, added a note to the document in handwriting designated to be read by Ya. “Brother Ya, read this and think it through thoroughly.” The document was then given back to Ya.

Included among those executed were many top leaders of the Communist Party of Kampuchea named in power in 1975. They included Ya, Vorn Vet (ranked #7), Ruo Nheum alias Muol Sambat, Chou Chet alias Thang Si, Sao Phim, Koy Thuon, alias Thuoch (ranked #5), Chey Suon alias Non Suon (ranked  #11) and Ruos Nhim. All were members of the Standing Committee of the Party. Among the Central Committee members of the CPK who were arrested tortured and executed included Pang alias Chheum sak-aok alias Seuang, Chan, Pin, Reran alias So Sarouen, Mon, Meah Tal alias Sam Huoy, Nat alias Im Long, Koe alias Kung Sophal alias Kan, Phuong, and Chong, who was Ta Mok’s chief deputy and an ethnic Thai from Koh Kong province whose real name was Prasith.

An October 30, 1976 party  document entitled “Decision of the Central Committee on a Number of Problems: the Right to decide on extermination within and outside the ranks” named the following; All 6 zone heads, the 22 members of the central Committee of the CPK, the Standing Committee of the CPK, and the top leaders of the Armed Forces.

Many of these same leaders would also be arrested and executed at the instruction of other members of these bodies in the period between 1975 and 1979..

In 1999 interviews I conducted with Duch, the head of S-21 (Tuol Sleng), the primary internal security service responsible for arrests and executions, he blamed the genesis of the killings on Pol Pot’s 1973 decision to have all leaders come from the peasantry, eliminating educated cadre from positions of influence.

“ At that time many things changed, and many people were killed. After liberation in 1975, Pol Pot said ‘We must protect our country by finding enemies within the ranks of the party. We are not strong enough to attack enemies from the outside, so we must destroy them from within.’ First we arrested the people from the North, then the Southwest, then the Northwest, then the East. He used Nuon Chea to do the work. Pol Pot never directly ordered the killings. Nuon Chea was always cruel and pompous. He never explained to the cadre. He only ordered them. For arresting people, it was the everyday job of Nuon Chea and Son Sen. Pol Pot knew about S-21, but did  not direct it personally. He left that job to Nuon Chea as number 2 in the Party and Son Sen as head of the Army and Police,” Duch said.

“They arrested nearly everyone by the end…it is a permanent rule,” said Duch. “Whoever is arrested must be killed.”

In May 1978, Sao Phim, a top Standing Committee member and head of the Eastern Zone under Khmer Rouge rule, was ordered arrested and killed at a secret meeting of select top party leaders. In more than two weeks of recorded interviews, totaling 40 hours, with Duch while he was in the jungle living clandestinely under an assumed name immediately prior to his arrest, the commandant of the Khmer Rouge security service S-21, the killing machine of the regime, the man who actually personally carried out the orders to arrest, interrogate and execute that came from the top political leadership, he said: “It was brother number one (Pol Pot) who decided that Sao Phim would die…a very secret meeting was held—Pol Pot ordered it. Khieu Samphan was there—He was the note taker. Three men and especially one man ordered it. Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan and Son Sen were at the meeting–not Ieng Sary or Vorn Vet.”

By late 1978, another sweeping purge  was starting to crest. Among high ranking victims was Vorn Vet, a Party Standing Committee member who was also the deputy premier in charge of the economy. He was a long time protégé of Pol Pot, who had personally inducted Vorn Vet into the Communist Party of Kampuchea. In his “confessions” under torture,  Vorn Vet discussed his opposition to Pol Pot’s purges, which in turn was used as proof that was a traitor and enemy agent.

When the Vietnamese invaded in late 1978, documents found at Tuol Sleng revealed that another two senior leaders were also targeted for arrest and liquidation. One was long time Pol Pot associate and comrade, Son Sen, the Deputy premier in charge of National Defence, Chairman of the Armed forces general Staff, and  Standing Committee member. In practice, Son Sen was head of the entire Khmer Rouge Military and Security Services, including the secret police and execution and torture apparatus, during their years in power. As such, he was,  along with Nuon Chea, the CPK party representative that was the link between the political leadership and the killing machine itself. He was in fact the direct supervisor of the S-21 torture and execution center and the man to whom S-21 commandant Duch reported directly, alongside Nuon Chea. In Mid-1978, Son Sen was dispatched to command the troops fighting the escalating war with the Vietnamese on the eastern front, and relinquished his duties as S-21 liaison with the Party leadership to Nuon Chea. With the war going badly against Vietnam, the CPK leadership blamed not the superior military strength, troop numbers, battlefield experience, and superior firepower and morale of the Vietnamese, but Son Sen as an enemy agent because it was unfathomable that the CPK’s strategy was untenable in itself. With that logic used, it had to be purposeful sabotage of “enemies from within” that was responsible for the war not succeeding.

Another target for execution found in the files of S-21 from the last days before the Vietnamese overran Phnom Penh, showed that Ke Pok, Party Secretary and commander of the Central zone, also a member of the Standing Committee, was also targeted for arrest and execution. Ironically both Ke Pok and Son Sen were saved by the Vietnamese invasion before their arrests could be carried out.

The remaining five in the years after, all turned against each other.

Ieng Sary broke with Pol Pot in 1996 calling him a “dictator worse than Hitler” and sentencing him to death.

Pol Pot and Ta Mok announced that Ieng Sary was a “Vietnamese agent” and in turn sentenced him to death.

The irony that both Pol Pot and Ieng Sary had been sentenced to death, together,  as the “Pol Pot-Ieng Sary clique” in a 1979 political show trial by the ex-Khmer Rouge installed by the Vietnamese invasion as the new Cambodian leaders, went largely unnoticed.

Pol Pot ordered the arrest of Nuon Chea, Son Sen and Ta Mok in November 1996, blaming them for the defection of Ieng Sary. He later, in June 1997, ordered the execution of Son Sen and Ta Mok, succeeding in killing Son Sen.

Khieu Samphan went on the clandestine jungle radio controlled by Pol Pot on June 10, 1997, calling Son Sen a “traitor and Vietnamese agent.” Ta Mok fought back and captured Pol Pot, Khieu Samphan, and Nuon Chea.

Days after the execution of Son Sen, Khieu Samphan went back on the radio—this time on behalf of Ta Mok—referring to Son Sen as “comrade” and announcing that “Pol Pot” was under arrest as a “traitor.”

During several interviews in the Khmer Rouge controlled jungles with Khieu Samphan from October 1997 through1998, I asked if he was a hostage of Pol Pot during the internal fighting, he said: “You could call it something like that.”

So in the end, all ten of the original members of the 1963 Standing Committee of the CPK had been arrested, murdered, or sentenced to death by each other as “traitors.”

In fact by the end of Pol Pot’s rule in 1979, of the 22 members of the central committee of the CPK that were named in 1975 when they seized power, 18 had been executed or named to be executed as ‘enemy agents”  covertly plotting from within the CPK ranks.

Many cadres who fled to Vietnam in 1977 and 1978, including current premier Hun Sen, ruling party president Chea Sim, the titular head of the original  Vietnamese installed government Heng Samrin, Interior Minister Sar Kheng, and Defence Minister Tea Banh fled in 1977 and 1978. Many were loyal officers who remained in power with the Khmer Rouge while hundreds of thousands died  at the hands of the government they were still loyal to, well after the disastrous policies and purges were implemented. They left the Khmer Rouge, not because of objection to Pol Pot’s policies, but rather because they were aware they were next on the list of targets.

During the massive purge of mid 1978 against “internal enemies” in the Party, the Khmer Rouge publicly announced that they were not just preparing for war against Vietnam, but the extermination of the entire Vietnamese race and the military re-capture of territory on the Mekong Delta that had been lost centuries before.

The Khmer Rouge strategy was clearly tactically, strategically and psychologically delusional. But they were no doubt serious.

They announced on State radio that Cambodia, with a population of 8 million, would eliminate the entire Vietnamese population of battle hardened 60 million, and explained their crude strategy. The May 10, 1978 Khmer Rouge radio proclaimed in a public broadcast. “ The party has instructed that we destroy as many of the enemy as possible, and try to preserve our forces to the maximum. We are few in number, but we have to attack a larger force. This is our slogan:  In terms of numbers, one of us must kill 30 Vietnamese. If we can implement this slogan, we surely can win. Using these figures, one Cambodian is equal to thirty Vietnamese. And 100 Cambodians are equal to 3000 Vietnamese. We should have 2 million troops for 60 million Vietnamese. We don’t have to engage 8 million people. We need only 2 million to crush the 60 million Vietnamese, and we would still have 6 million left We must format our combat line in this manner in order to win victory. The entire army, party, and people must be made fully aware of these views, lines, and stands. We must review our history. Have the Vietnamese succeeded in swallowing Cambodia? No, they have not. We must purify our armed forces, our Party, and the masses of people in order to continue fighting the enemy in defence of Cambodian territory and the Cambodian race. If we do not try and defend our territory, then we shall lose it, and then our race will disappear. The Vietnamese will bring in one or two million people into Cambodia every year, and then we will lose our territory, and our race will be completely swallowed up.”

This official Khmer Rouge strategy was not a secret later unearthed from an internal party document. It was broadcast on their radio for both internal and foreign consumption in 1978 in their final months in power. Their military and political formula was patently delusional, and based on no remotely viable military strategy. It was simply ludicrous.

The “victory” was that the Khmer race would remain, in theory, with 6 million alive, ancient Khmer territory lost centuries ago would be re-conquered, and current territory would be saved from fictional, delusional, non-existent, foreign plots of foreign designs of annexation rooted in age old historical grievances.

It was nothing less than the manifestations of delusions of grandeur, still oozing the puss of the deep humiliation, resentment, and fixation for vengeance for the defeats now ancient history, seared into the minds of the popular Cambodian consciousness, harking back 800 years to the still forever at the forefront of contemporary political agenda of the Great Angkor Empire, which had evaporated by the 14th century.

This deep sense of racial and cultural insecurity, a national psychological disorder of a shared racial and cultural inferiority complex combined with a shocking national acceptance of the need to exact eventual revenge and a deep sense of humiliation, preceded the Khmer Rouge and remains at the very core of mainstream political and psychological culture. But when mixed with Stalinist style internal political power structures under Pol Pot, the inevitability of an implosion into an orgy of unspeakable violence and collapse seems retrospectively both logical and predictable.

Pol Pot’s other major internal central policy focused singularly on the rapid creation of a patently untenable rise in agricultural production. He based his goals on the superior racial abilities of the Khmer peasants. He set unachievable quotas for rice production that were guaranteed to fail.

He was obsessed  with an ability to create a superior agrarian utopia based on self-reliance on Khmer resources, which largely didn’t exist. Pol Pot’s domestic policies of agricultural production goals, the regional production of rice quotas mandated by the central party, were simply unattainable, guaranteed to fail, and a queer mixture of delusion, incompetence  and a stark false sense of self grandeur.

Cambodia’s mechanized resources were simply non-existent, its agricultural productive capacity and infrastructure decimated by 5 years of warfare when Pol Pot came to power, and its trained human resources and technically skilled cadre with even minimum expertise  minuscule in number and capability. In addition, anyone with foreign training and the skills, who returned from abroad upon victory to build a new society, were deemed suspected spies and most were killed. In addition, local and regional cadre who questioned the ability to meet the quotas were deemed foreign enemy agents intent on sabotaging the revolution and arrested and executed.

“They fought against us, so we had to take measure to defend ourselves,’ Pol Pot told me in 1997, blaming “enemies from within” for sabotaging the regimes’ policy goals. He blamed starvation that killed hundreds of thousands on “enemies within our ranks” who “withheld food from the people. There was rice but they didn’t give rice to the population to eat.”

The list of enemies ranged from officials of the defeated Lon Nol regime, to “internal agents” within the Party and the army, to Vietnamese, CIA, and KGB plots, often working simultaneously in coordination with one another, to his contention of six attempted coup attempts to depose assassinate and him, to finally the entire nation and race of Vietnam.

In 1977, Khieu Samphan stressed the rejection of foreign aid as a “science.”

“In the old regime did the school children, college children, university graduates know anything about the true natural sciences? Could they tell the difference between an early crop and a six month rice crop…they relied completely on foreigners, expecting foreign equipment and even foreign experts to do their job for them. Everything was done according to foreign books and foreign standards. Therefore, it was useless and could not serve the needs of our people, nor could it be of any help building our nation. By contrast, our children in rural regions have always had useful knowledge. They can tell you which cow is tame and which cow is skittish. They can mount a buffalo from both sides. They are masters of the herd. They have practically mastered nature. Only this should be called natural science because this type of knowledge is closely connected with the realities of the nation, with the ideas of nationalism, national construction, and national defense.”

In its place the Khmer Rouge mandated thousands of underfed and overworked forced labour to build poorly designed water irrigation systems, planting and harvesting at a pace that resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands from sheer overwork and exhaustion. The nationwide system of irrigation and water canals was designed with the help of North Korean engineers and can be clearly seen criss-crossing the entire country from space satellites. None of the irrigation  canals or dams work today, a colossal failure in clueless technology . untrained expertise and delusional visions of racial grandeur that cost hundreds of thousands of lives, starved and worked to death, forced to hand build the absurd scheme.

The ban on the use of money was also a direct consequence of the CPK hyper focus on foreign enemies trying to destroy Cambodia. “Pol Pot was convinced that only the ban of the use of money could prevent the CIA from carrying out any activity in Cambodia because in his view the CIA used money to buy people and recruit agents,” said CPK Standing Committee member and Pol Pot’s brother in law Ieng Sary after he defected in 1996.” He boasted that if we used money, his regime would not have lasted three months and so far no other country could do the same.”

In July, 1976, the Khmer Rouge embarked on a Four Year Plan in all Fields, 1977-1980.” The document acknowledged “we are extremely weak” in industry and technology, but said “technology is not the decisive factor; the determining factors of the revolution are politics, revolutionary people, and revolutionary methods.” It also rejected  accepting foreign assistance saying “we would certainly obtain some, but this would affect our political line…there would be political conditions imposed on us without fail.” The document concluded that Cambodia “had leaped over the feudalists and capitalists of every nation, and have achieved a socialist state right away.” They even said they had out achieved North Korea, China, and North Vietnam, saying “ we are faster than them…nothing is confused as it is with them…we don’t need a long time for the transformation.”

But while modern Cambodia bears no political or geographical resemblance to the ancient political and military and cultural antecedents of the Angkor period, the Angkor empire is crucial to understanding the motives and psychology of Pol Pot and, indeed, the modern Cambodian society that  created the Khmer Rouge rise to power, and to a significant degree the political culture that succeeded it and remains dominant today.

Pol Pot’s political contemporaries almost all shifted allegiance in recent decades to serving alternately as military and political allies and adversaries to the Khmer Rouge. Sharing many similar objectives and characteristics, the political leaders succeeding and preceding Pol Pot in power, comprise a consistent modern political culture remarkably still dominated by the same cast of characters from French independence in 1953 to the present. They together share key responsibility to the disaster wrought by the Khmer Rouge and their short tenure in power.

But it reelected the sincere belief of Khmer racial and cultural and political prowess that was superior to all other nations and theories in history and this belief was carried out in all sectors of government policy.

A look at the backgrounds and statements of the leaders of the CPK provides little substantiation of the theory that their murderous policies were inspired by any allegiance to communism, but rather points instead to its roots in traditional Cambodian political themes of nationalism, anti-colonialism, vitriolic abhorrence to foreign domination, sovereignty, retaking territory lost in past centuries to neighboring powers, racial superiority of Khmers and racial hatred for foreigners, particularly Vietnamese.

In detailed personal interviews with every living  member of the Standing Committee of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, only once did I ever hear a reference to Communism as an influence in their ideological development

The leadership of the Khmer Rouge was a disparate grouping of individuals with few shared teachings, backgrounds, ideology, or unified vision.

Pol Pot was a failed radio technician student from a rural middle class background influenced by anti-colonialist and nationalist movements who dabbled in leftist politics while a student in France and was inducted into the French Communist Party. Upon his return to Cambodia in the early 1950’s, after failing out of his radio technical school, he was inducted into the predecessor to the CPK, the  Indochinese Communist Party, by the Vietnamese, who held firm control over the communist movement in the three Indochinese countries at the time. Before joining the original formation of the CPK in 1960, he taught school and wrote articles under pseudonyms signed “The Original Khmer” and the “The nation, the People, and the Race.” The latter was the same pseudonym he used to sign his radio broadcasts from the jungles in the 1980’s and 90’s, after being deposed from power.

In 1997, when I asked Pol Pot about his political influences and what drove his policies during his reign, he said: “I would like to say that my conscious is clear. Everything I have done is for the nation the people and the race of Cambodia. I want to tell you, I am quite satisfied with one thing: If there was no struggle carried out by us, Cambodia would have been Kampuchea Krom (a reference to areas of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam which were annexed by Vietnam in the 1700’s) in 1975.”

“ During 1975-78 there were of course some conflicting views, this is true,” he said, obliquely avoiding my questions of mass murder under his rule. “There was opposition to Democratic Kampuchea, and, of course, Democratic Kampuchea had to do something about that. The Vietnamese carried out activities for some time. Naturally we had to defend ourselves. They wanted to kill me.”

“Who is they?” I asked.

“Mainly the Vietnamese. They knew without me they could easily swallow up Cambodia.”

Pol Pot saw himself literally as the personal embodiment of the Cambodian nation. Any opposition to him was interpreted as treason against the Khmer race and Cambodian nation itself, by definition. This fealty to a single infallible God King like ruler, who demands unquestioned, obsequious loyalty, has been the dominant characteristic of Cambodian organization of government power for 800 years, both historically and immediately preceding Pol Pot’s rise to power and the dominant feature of his successor, the ex-Khmer Rouge officer, the dictator Hun Sen, who has held power since Pol Pot was forced back to the jungle in 1979.

Pol Pot, the ugly truth remains, is very not only Khmer, but fits comfortably in mainstream contemporary Cambodian political culture, sharing dominant core traits with his ostensible contemporary adversaries.

(Copyright Nate Thayer. All rights reserved. No republication, quotation from, copying or dissemination in whole or in part without prior written permission from Author)


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