Tag Archives: Khmer Rouge

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

“Who is that singer? Johnny Jackson? Like he says, ‘We are the World!’ We are with the West! Let’s join together!” said a Khmer Rouge cadre

5 Dec


“Who is that singer? Johnny Jackson? Like he says, ‘We are the World!’ We are with you, the West! Let’s join together!” said the Khmer Rouge leader

After threatening to assassinate American civilians, the Khmer Rouge leader told me “Why don’t we join hands in national reconciliation. Join together! We are with you, the West!” he said, growing increasingly animated, half breaking into song. “‘We are the World!’ Who is that singer? Johnny Jackson? Like he says, ‘We are the world!’ Let’s join together!”

(Copyright Nate Thayer. All Rights Reserved. Excerpts from unpublished manuscript “Sympathy for the Devil: A Journalist’s Memoir from Inside Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge.” No republication or dissemination in whole or in part without express written permission from the author.)

By Nate Thayer

A non-descript Khmer Rouge operative, dressed in civilian clothes was standing in the hallway outside my seedy hotel room in the still dark hours before dawn in The Thai border town of Surin. He waved me out urgently, nervously checking to see that the hallways were clear and I accompanied him at a pace too fast to be inconspicuous through the hotel lobby outside to a beat up pickup truck with a Thai civilian in the driver’s seat who refused to identify himself.

The truck had Thai civilian license plates. Tuoch, the Khmer Rouge agent, refused to tell me where we were going or with whom I was scheduled to meet. “You will see,” he said solemnly. He probably didn’t even know himself.

He would not have had to be instructed to be vague. His mission was only to retrieve me from the hotel and deliver me safely to Khmer Rouge controlled Cambodia without drawing the attention of anybody.

In late July 1996, now more than ever, the Khmer Rouge believed that enemies were everywhere. And they were right.

Life for the Khmer Rouge in their jungle redoubts by mid 1996 was a far cry from the previous years, where hundreds of millions of dollars of Chinese military hardware was trucked across the borders from Thailand, coordinated by Thai military intelligence units, and with the political backing of the United States, and more than 120 member countries of the United Nations.

Khmer Rouge leaders had compounds in the relative luxury of Thai provincial capitals and traveled in chauffeured cars to Bangkok. Now they rarely got permission from the Thais to leave their isolated jungle hideouts.

The pickup truck was driven by a very nervous Thai civilian with a mobile phone that would ring periodically and he would grunt a few responses and hang up. He insisted he was not a serving military officer and I believed him. He was nervous, grim-faced, eyes darting and reluctant to utter a word, driving way to fast, and clearly uncomfortable.

Thai spooks were much more relaxed. They had carte blanche to travel these border regions still under Thai martial law since it was infested by armed guerrillas of the Communist Party of Thailand only a few years prior, and Thai military intelligence could pull rank with the flash of an ID card, getting a no-questions asked salute, and look of fear at any military checkpoint. I had seen it many times.

This fellow I was with had no permission to transport a foreigner through the Thai frontier, and certainly not to smuggle him across national  borders into a zone controlled by an armed Cambodian rebel faction at war with the central government in Phnom Penh, of which Thailand had formal diplomatic relations. The Thai government was constantly proclaiming they had no contact with the Khmer Rouge, and now, except for the legitimate national security functions of gathering intelligence, monitoring Khmer Rouge activities, and keeping their options open, they were largely complying.

He drove many miles out of the way through a network of back roads, bordered by endless rice paddies, specifically 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 this way again.

After a couple hours, the pickup turned down a dirt path into a small non-descript Thai village and pulled over at a thatched roof noodle and cigarette stall. The tinted one-way windows of the pickup shielded me from the solemn but prying eyes of the half dozen peasant farmers milling about. This was a village that knew well to look the other way when strangers came through. After chatting with the vendor for a minute, the driver hopped back in and we drove deeper into rice fields down rutted dirt tracks used only by water buffalo and farm equipment.

We pulled over under a lone majestic banyan tree amongst the rice paddies and waited. I was told to stay hidden in the truck. I was given a baseball hat with a Kiss rock-and-roll band logo of an extended tongue for disguise, sunglasses, and told to wrap a checkered traditional Cambodian scarf around my face.

Churning up dust in its wake, snaking through the rice paddies, a battered pick-up truck with no license plate and tinted windows approached from the east out of the jungle shrouded mountain ridge, which marked the natural Cambodian border a couple kilometers in the distance. It pulled next to us and a uniformed Khmer Rouge soldier got out, greeting my companions. With little small talk, I was promptly ordered in the cramped, small rear bench seat behind the driver, my 6-2 inch frame stuffed awkwardly like a sardine, my knees bent up to my chin. The Khmer Rouge soldier was at the helm, his face serious, a Chinese AK-47 propped by the gearshift, young Tuoch, who had knocked on my hotel door that morning, in the passenger seat. We sped toward the tree line. The rice fields devolved into now unproductive, fallow fields. This was always a mark of danger. As we neared the actual ill-defined border, fields were abandoned because of recent fighting. Landmines were everywhere. These were always eerie, peculiar scenes. Stark in their silence, abandoned rice fields are the sign that civilians have fled, giving up their most precious holdings—literally the source of the food on their table. Things have to be pretty bad for rice fields to be abandoned.

Periodically, artillery would fall, or clashes would break out, villagers killed or maimed, and they would retreat from their homes, waiting for the war that each side had nothing to offer them, to end. Hand painted blood-red skull and crossbones signs nailed to trees were everywhere, a crude warning to local peasants of landmines or booby traps. These increased proportionately to the importance of the area—either as a strategic road or military base or village of families of Khmer Rouge soldiers.

We drove for miles down dirt tracks through these abandoned, neglected fields, empty and silent, toward the tree line mountain escarpment on the horizon. Trees always marked the border between Thailand and Cambodia. In these parts of the Thai-Cambodia frontier if there were trees, there were guerrilla soldiers hiding in them.

We had one more obstacle ahead, I was told—an isolated Thai military checkpoint. The Khmer Rouge driver checked that I was sufficiently scrunched up in the back, hat and sunglasses on, traditional Cambodian scarf wrapped around my head, with only my eyes exposed. “Tell them you are visiting your family, if anyone asks,” he instructed, rather preposterously. The checkpoint consisted of a single raw cut log suspended parallel across and above the road, weighted on one end by concrete and tied by rope on a post on the opposite side of the dirt track. A bamboo hut was beside it. Next to it, in the mid morning sun, a single Thai soldier lay asleep in his hammock, his M-16 assault rifle propped against a tree. He didn’t even rise as Tuoch got out of the car to lift the barricade. We had now entered Khmer Rouge controlled Cambodia. The Thai never suspected an American was being smuggled through. The explosions of incoming artillery followed the rumbling of their firing further down the mountain escarpment ahead.

The guerrilla stronghold on a high ridge of northern Cambodia’s Dongruk Mountain offered stunning vistas of tropical jungles and besieged villages encircled by bunkers and land mines. Grim faced Khmer Rouge soldiers, many of them missing limbs and walking on crude hand carved wooden crutches, eyed me suspiciously, trying not to be obvious in the curiosity at the first westerner they had ever seen at their village.

One hut housed sophisticated radio equipment, its roof criss-crossed with antennas. Amputees in pea green Chinese style PLA uniforms, the elderly, and the women and children families of soldiers down the mountain in front line trenches battling government soldiers, walked the dusty single road through the guerrilla base or squatted smoking cigarettes and boiling rice over open fires around the village.

The rhythmic thud of incoming government artillery elicited no reaction from Khmer Rouge “Minister of Finance and Economy”, Mak Ben, as he emerged from a bamboo hut, wearing rimless spectacles and a grey Mao suit buttoned at the collar around his neck.

A blackboard on a thatched wall behind him shouted Khmer Rouge slogans in the Sanskrit based Cambodian script, proclaiming “Hate the Communist Vietnamese Aggressor!” and “Believe Deeply in Guerrilla Warfare!”

He walked over to greet me, extending his hand with a smarmy, insincere smile. “Welcome to the liberated zones!”

I, of course, had been given no idea with whom I was going to meet, whether we would continue deeper into the jungle, or whether I would be offered useful new information. I patiently exchanged pleasantries while fresh mangoes, papaya, and rambuttan fruit was served.

Mak Ben wasted no time launching into the lecture he was instructed to give me, denouncing the “Vietnamese puppets and their despicable alliance” who were darkly plotting to “swallow” Cambodia and eliminate the Khmer Rouge.

He saved special vitriol for the Americans. Much of the not very thinly veiled threats were directed at ears many thousands of miles away to official Washington.

“If you, the United States, continue to help the Vietnamese and Hun Sen fight us, we will use our right to self-defense. I must tell you that if you continue to aid the Vietnamese and their puppets, we cannot guarantee the safety of Americans in Cambodia,’ he smirked at me, betraying no friendliness. “One thing I should stress is we will never agree to surrender. Never!”

“We are very concerned, very interested in (U.S. National Security Advisor) Anthony Lakes meeting with (Thai) Prime Minister Banharn Silp-archa,” he continued.

A French trained engineer and former Khmer Rouge diplomat, Mak Ben held the meaningless title of Minister of Economic and Finance in the Khmer Rouge so-called Provisional Government. “We want to know exactly what Lake means when he says the U.S. wants ‘democracy, stability, and security’ in Cambodia? Is it security through national reconciliation, without the Khmer Rouge?”

I was beginning to seethe at the realization of what was happening.

I had been summoned from across the planet, on my own dime, to be lectured by a robotic mid-level Khmer Rouge minion because they, in their isolation-fueled paranoia, were reading dark plots into a routine stopover in Bangkok by a U.S. official.

And they wanted me to deliver their pathetic message to my “bosses” in Washington.

Anthony Lake’s comments meant nothing. They were the routine rhetoric of long stated U.S. policy, made on a courtesy stopover in Thailand on his return from Beijing to Washington, which was so short he never left the Bangkok airport.

But Mak Ben hammered on, visions of dark plots having been conjured up in these isolated jungles, attaching ridiculous significance to Lake’s visit.

That was why I had just flown across the world, drove to a remote Thai border town, holed up for days in a 1 star hotel hovel, and smuggled across international frontiers illegally: To meet this bonehead spout delusional rhetoric of a wholly out of touch with reality guerrilla band of murderous thugs caught in a time warp of their own making.

They were convinced that Lake’s routine, passing, entirely inconsequential comment was focused on destroying them, and  I had just traversed the planet on my dime so they could use me to relay to Washington that they would start assassinating American citizens working as humanitarian aid workers in Cambodia if the U.S. didn’t back off.

Mak Ben went on to describe a paranoid, fanciful geo-political strategy of the U.S. having entered into an alliance with Vietnam—using Cambodia as a theater—that aimed to undermine Chinese influence in the region. “

“After the cold war, Vietnam is too weak to carry out its expansionist strategy. But Vietnam will never abandon its strategy—which is deeply rooted among the old and young. Now 4 to 5 million Vietnamese nationals are in Cambodia. Laos is finished. Seventeen northeastern provinces in Thailand will encompass the Vietnamese Indochina Federation. The Vietnamese are breeding like rats. Vietnam is at our door. We cannot afford to be alone. We are with you! Who else if not the U.S., the West?”

He went on to contend that the Khmer Rouge enjoyed wide support in Asian capitals. “Diplomatically, ASEAN, China and Thailand are compelled to recognize the Phnom Penh regime…But morally we enjoy the support of the region,” he told me.

Mak Ben went on to downplay the influence of Pol Pot and the rest of the senior leadership, who had long officially retired but in fact remained in complete control. “Cambodia of the past belongs in the past. Let’s not talk about history. Pol Pot and all the Democratic Kampuchea leaders are very old. You can imagine how they are. They have lived 30 years in the forest without medical care.”

He continued to further piss me off.

“I would like to tell you that Pol Pot and the other old political leaders are not in the political game anymore. They are finished…I am here to speak on behalf of my colleagues. I tell you that we, our new group, abide and continue to abide by liberal democracy, to be with the western world—the U.S.! I dare to tell you we are with the U.S., the free world! You can believe it or not. I have to stress to tell you that this is our political position and we will never change. For the sake of our country, we cannot go communist…to survive as a nation.”

I had known Mak Ben for many years and always been particularly unimpressed with him. He oozed insincerity. And he had the self conscious, arrogant swagger of a nervous, gangly teenager who you wanted to feel sorry for except he was mouthing such dangerous dribble.

His eyes darted avoiding mine from behind his dark glasses.

“You have abandoned your children!” he said wagging his finger at me, referring to the American government. “Look at Funcinpec, isn’t it your child? And Sam Rainsy, he is a child of the West. They are all your children. You have given birth to them. You have given them food, milk! You have sent them to school. Are you going to abandon your dying children?”he scolded me.

Mak Ben failed miserably at trying to look intimidating.

I remembered Mak Ben well from 1991 in Phnom Penh. He arrived in late November with the Khmer Rouge delegation to Phnom Penh, led by  Prime Minister Khieu Samphan and the head of the Khmer Rouge security services, Defence Minister Son Sen, after the signing of the October 1991 Paris Peace Accords on the Khmer Rouge first return to the capital since they fled the Vietnamese invasion in 1979, leaving behind more than 1.8 million corpses under the feet of the broken souls of those who survived.

They were not warmly welcomed back.

Immediately upon arrival to their newly rented headquarters in downtown Phnom Penh, convoying in from the airport with armed United Nations protection, the Khmer Rouge delegation were besieged by a government sanctioned mob that attacked them, invaded their villa, beat them up, looted the contents, and burned it to the ground.

I invaded the house with the mob.

After Mak Ben and the others were trapped, beaten and terrified, he fled for his life through the crowd back to the jungle.

But while the mob was attacking Mak Ben and the other leaders, beating them bloody, I noticed nearby their unopened luggage and immediately began to loot it, rifling through looking for documents.

A very happy fellow next to me opened a suitcase with $200,000 American dollars in it.

Among many gems, I found Mak Ben’s Yugoslavian passport. And a letter from his daughter. She was a young girl, a refugee herself from the Khmer Rouge killing fields, who found her way from the UN refugee camps in Thailand to Australia as a very young child. She hadn’t seen her daddy in years. It was a heart wrenching letter that begged her father to address rumors that he was a Pol Potist.

“They say you are a murderer, daddy, it said.

After fleeing the Phnom Penh mob back to the jungle, other Khmer Rouge made fun of Mak Ban, saying he was terrified of returning to Phnom Penh and being killed. He wanted to stay in the jungle, afraid to face the Cambodian people.

Every time I saw him, I saw a bully and a coward.

After lecturing me on the U.S. abandoning their “children”, and threatening to murder American citizens unless Washington knuckled under to these nearly irrelevant delusional, self-important thugs sleeping in the forest, he smiled at me and tried to lighten things up. “

America is a liberal democracy. We are nationalists. Democrats, too! So why don’t we join hands in national reconciliation. Join together! We are with you, the West!” he said growing increasingly animated, half breaking into song. “ ‘We are the World!’ Who is that singer? Johnny Jackson” Like he says, ‘We are the World!’ Let’s join together!”

Mak Ben blithely ignored the fact that the U.S. government really could care less what happened in Cambodia, and it’s only stated policy towards the Khmer Rouge, in 1996, was funding projects to gather evidence to bring him and his comrades to an international court of justice to face charges for mass murder, torture, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

Retreating from his absurd and comically ineffective attempt at hipness, he again tried to look menacing. “It is up to you. Our cards are on the table. We can fight for 100 years. We can eat grass if we have to. We have no other choice. We cannot accept that our nation, the great 2000-year-old nation of Angkor, disappears. As patriots, we will use our right to self-defense. It is better to die in the jungle.”

I was very angry by this time.

It was clear to me that I had been summoned around the world to be lectured and to be a courier to deliver half empty threats to Washington.

I was not to see anyone important and I was not to learn much useful.

I asked, of course, to meet Pol Pot and others and to stay in the jungle and travel to guerrilla bases.

“The leaders are all busy,” he said dismissively.

He told me that I would have to leave that afternoon, before dark. “It is not safe here.”

Down the mountain I could see smoke rising after the ground shook from each burst of mortars and artillery. which shook the earth beneath us.

At lunch, a village elder looked morose. “We moved here last year to get away from government attacks,” he said. “For the people here it is a very hard.”

He eyed Mak Ben to make sure he wasn’t saying something wrong. “

We used to have hope that the Paris Agreements would bring peace. We want national reconciliation. In our hearts we want national reconciliation and peace,” he said, softly and quietly. “Especially peace.”

The village elder, like I, was fed up.

I left shortly afterwards, telling Mak Ben, in a moment of uncontrolled fury and indifference, to pass the message not to invite me back unless they were prepared to let me meet senior leaders. He was insulted. I didn’t care.

While he betrayed nothing of the matter that day, July 30, 1996, as we spoke, the jungles just south of here were simmering with a similar attitude, and rebellion within their ranks was about to erupt into violent mutiny and mass defection that would, later that week, deliver the biggest blow to Pol Pot and his loyalists since they were ousted from power by the Vietnamese invasion 17 years earlier.

It was the beginning of the end of the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot and his movement had begun to implode. Simmering rebellion against the Mak Ben’s and their ilk at the top would soon result in bloodshed and resistance. In the Khmer Rouge, to resist meant either total victory or total destruction. There was no room for debate or discussion or disagreement or compromise. You either won or you were dead.

(Copyright Nate Thayer. All Rights Reserved. Excerpts from unpublished manuscript “Sympathy for the Devil: A Journalist’s Memoir from Inside Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge.” No republication or dissemination, in whole or part, without express written permission from the author.)



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)


The Night Pol Pot Died: Excerpts from unpublished manuscript “SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL: A JOURNALIST’S MEMOIR INSIDE POL POT’S KHMER ROUGE” By Nate Thayer

28 Sep

The Night Pol Pot Died: From the Jungles of Northern Cambodia

By Nate Thayer


(Copyright Nate Thayer. All rights reserved. No publication or transmission in whole or part allowed without express written permission of the author. Excerpts from the unpublished manuscript “Sympathy for the Devil: A Journalist’s Memoir from Inside Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge.”)

By Nate Thayer

I was alone in a hotel the night Pol Pot died, in the small, remote Thai border town of Surin, abutting the Khmer Rouge controlled jungles of Cambodia.

I had been urgently summoned by the Khmer Rouge a few days earlier in a phone call which betrayed no specifics of why they wanted to see me, only that it was urgent. General Khem Nuon, the Khmer Rouge army-chief-of-staff and top field commander for Ta Mok had said only: “What you have been asking for we have agreed to.”

I took that to mean that I had been granted another interview with Pol Pot, but I was to learn it was even more significant. They had decided, as I had been pressing them for months, to turn Pol Pot over to the international community to face a trial.

I was summoned to discuss how to actually handle the logistics of handing over Pol Pot. It was an attempt to play their last card to garner international support and stem metastasizing mutinies and all out warfare raging in their jungles which threatened to finish their organization for the final time.

I had spent several days along the Thai-Cambodian rebel held border discussing their plight and interviewing their top cadre. Earlier that day I had filed a story with my magazine, the Far Eastern Economic Review, on the Khmer Rouge decision to hand over Pol Pot. The Review went to press at 6:00 pm Hong Kong time on Wednesdays—this one being that day–the 15th of April, 1998.

“We have decided to turn Pol Pot over to the Americans. But we can’t get in touch with the Americans. We discussed it again this morning and Ta Mok agreed. So we want to give him to you,” said the guerrilla commander.

I was, to put it mildly, momentarily flummoxed.

What the fuck was I supposed to do with Pol Pot? Put him in the back of the pickup truck and take him to the Far Eastern Economic Review office in Bangkok? It was not part of my job description. I suggested they should promptly get in touch with the International Committee of the Red Cross and gave him the appropriate contact details. “That is a very good idea!” Khem Nuon responded.

There were other details, but I knew that the decision to turn over one of the century’s most egregious perpetrators of crimes against humanity to face justice was a very good story indeed.

The magazine released the highlights of the story in a press release that night, April 15, 1998, at 5:00 pm Bangkok time—6:00 pm Hong Kong time. It was picked up immediately by the international wire services, shooting high up in the top world stories, and broadcast by the Voice Of America at 8:00 pm Cambodian time on their Khmer language service, which Pol Pot had told me he listened to, religiously, every evening.

17 minutes after Pol Pot died—at 10:32 pm on 15 April 1998—my mobile phone rang in my hotel room.

Reaching past the half-empty bottle of fake Johnny Walker Black whiskey on the bedside table, I grabbed the remote, muted the volume of CNN blaring on the television, and answered the phone.

“My friend, Pol Pot is dead!” said Gen. Khem Nuon, my good friend and the top khmer Rouge military field commander, in an urgent whisper. “He died a few minutes ago.” He was calling on a Chinese military radio phone from the jungles a few kilometers away across the Thai border.


While the Khmer Rouge always whispered, they were rarely breathless. Nuon was desperate and looking for guidance. “What should I do?” he pleaded. “You must tell the Americans and you must come here immediately!”

It was an example of the murky terrain I had assumed in my only true role as a journalist, but in the final days had morphed into the  chief liaison with the rebels and the outside world in their final months.

As I listened to the Khmer Rouge army commander, Monica Lewinsky splashed across the muted screen of CNN International Headline News, the world news, that night, dominated with the criminal punishment and attempts at removal from power of  US president Bill Clinton, the most powerful man on earth, for his indiscreet blow job with a young intern. That story would continue to tower over the story of the demise of Pol Pot, a man who had been one of the century’s most notorious despots.

General Nuon called, mainly, because he knew I would want to know. He was both a killer and my friend. Nuon always tried his best to be helpful. I had spent countless days and nights over the last months with Nuon explaining how the world worked outside the jungles he had called home for thirty years. His appetite for and curiosity for ideas and the new-fangled world was insatiable.

It equaled my thirst for knowledge of his movement, its inner workings and history. He had commanded the troops that overthrew Pol Pot the year before, in June 1997, and therefore Gen. Khem Nuon had risen as the top field commander of all Khmer Rouge troops. With his formidable language skills and new role as chief field commander of rebel troops, he was for the first time able to clandestinely leave the jungles he had called home for decades and travel for covert meetings in Thailand, where he was escorted by a special unit of Thai military intelligence operatives who closely monitored the routines, movements, and intentions of the outlawed guerrilla faction.

Nuon was also receiving medical treatment in Bangkok at a Thai military facility for a cancerous thyroid. He would always come to my house and, over copious amounts of hot tea with lots of sugar, spend hours talking about life. He reveled just to be free from the harsh deprivations of the jungle.

Gen. Khem Nuon had come to rely on me, and me on him, since July 1997 as we spent countless days and nights sharing thoughts and information. “We will be friends forever!” he would often say to me with a broad, gentle grin, squeezing my hand and hugging me. He was bright, gentle, hard working, kind, and a natural leader of men. He was also the top armed commander of one of the world’s most brutal political movements.

General Nuon personified the contradictions within the Khmer Rouge movement that allowed them to be such a formidable political force twenty years after having committed the most despicable state ordered crimes against humanity leaving 1.8 million people–20% of their population—dead in 3 years, 8 months, and 20 days in power. Despite their atrocious human rights record, it was decent, good men like General Nuon who allowed the Khmer Rouge to garner considerable popular support in the years after ruining the lives of millions.

He represented to me the contradictions in my own mind that I had developed for the Khmer Rouge—on one hand respectable and impressive and on the other hand unspeakably brutal and offensive. I was very fond of Nuon and him of me, despite the fact, in truth, I had grown to collectively detest everything that Cambodia had become.

There was symbiosis in my relationship with the Khmer Rouge: They needed me and I needed them and neither of us trusted each other.

While competent jungle fighters, these were peasants, mostly rice farmers turned guerrillas, but their ranks were also filled with the best and the brightest of Cambodia who had fled to the jungles as youth 30 years before to join the revolution. Nuon, and most others in the Khmer Rouge hierarchy in the Cambodian jungles, had no exposure to how the world worked outside their jungle, where most had lived there entire adult lives. In the years preceding, they had come to largely rely on me to both interpret how the outside world worked and thought for them and, simultaneously, take their message to them.

After Nuon called me with the news of Pol Pot’s death at 10:32 PM April 15, 1998,  I knew I would not have to tell the Americans that the mass murderer Pol Pot was dead. Moments after I hung up, an American intelligence officer charged with following Khmer Rouge developments called me on my cell phone from Bangkok. He wanted to know if I had heard “rumours” that Pol Pot was dead. Nuon’s phone was tapped, as I knew mine was, and the American spy wasn’t fooling, or trying to, either of us. It was a game whose rules I had long before learned and understood.

But he also knew that a monitored phone conversation between a guerrilla commander and a journalist was insufficient to confirm such an historic event. They, as I, needed proof. To be sure this wasn’t some kind of political trick, someone independent and credible needed to go back to the jungle and provide details and evidence of what had happened.

The American asked me if I could bring Pol Pot’s body back from the jungle to Thailand,  if possible, he said, or, at the least, some forensic material. “If you can’t do that, maybe you could cut off one of his fingers,” he suggested seriously, in an only fleetingly embarrassed tone. This was not abnormal. I thought it quite a reasonable suggestion. I told him I would do what I could. He needed to get Washington hard evidence of what had happened in these jungles inaccessible to them, and his crude suggestion didn’t faze me at the time at all. The American was a top notch military intelligence officer, very bright, spoke fluent Thai, and had excellent relations with the Thai military. I had the greatest respect for him and his job.

The Americans had political restraints and could not simply show up at Khmer Rouge field headquarters, but I didn’t. I requested he make a phone call to the Thai military to encourage them to let me cross their borders at dawn with direct permission from the highest command, into the Khmer Rouge zones. The American promised to put in an urgent good word to facilitate my crossing through the heavily guarded Thai military checkpoints, through which all unauthorized persons were forbidden to pass. The road to Anlong Veng was a well hidden dirt path set off a remote road that hugged the unpopulated, jungle-clad Thai Cambodian border marked by a steep mountain escarpment. These rutted narrow paths were bordered by a towering jungle canopy and weaved through eerily silent thick tropical forests void of any human presence. It was a no-man’s land for miles after the last Thai checkpoint and before populated areas of the Khmer Rouge controlled jungle bases in Cambodia. The areas between frontlines are always the most dangerous, fraught with vulnerability from roving bandits, landmines, and ambush from a wide potential cast of characters.

While the Khmer Rouge wanted me to come, and Gen. Nuon controlled the troops at his jungle checkpoints, crossing out of Thailand into Khmer Rouge territory required another set of permissions.

A few moments after I hung up with the American spook, the assistant of the Thai army commander-in-chief called. It was close to midnight now. He told me, without me even making the request, I was granted permission personally from the Thai army commander-in-chief, who I had known personally for years. He had been a mid level Thai army Special Forces commander. The Thai’s, also, wanted me to venture into the midst of a then heavily embattled war zone on the mountains across the borders from Thailand to find Pol Pot’s body. The Thai army commander in chief general was highly respected for his professionalism and honesty and previously was in charge of Thailand’s important and complicated efforts during the Cambodian covert war from 1979 throught 1992. He then headed army intelligence before rising to overall army commander, one of Thailand’s most powerful positions. He later became Prime Minister of Thailand after a military coup overthrew the elceted civilian government.

His aide gave me the name and mobile phone number of the commander of a highly secret Thai military unit who I knew only by reputation. Regiment 16 was based in a remote location along the border and charged with the extremely sensitive task of controlling all access to and liaison with the Khmer Rouge, escorting them on their forbidden trips to Thailand and entering the Khmer Rouge zones with relative free will. Regiment 16 officially didn’t exist and performed functions Thailand officially denied it didn’t engage in. He said the Colonel was already instructed to meet me at a specific gas station at dawn

Neither the Thais or the Americans wanted to be seen as involved in what surely would be an extremely high profile event that would soon, I knew, dominate world headlines and attract scores of journalists to the border area. The Thais had long denied they had direct dealings with the Khmer Rouge, loathed the periodic public fallout from revelations to the contrary, and were under intense international scrutiny and United Nations official directive to not assist them.

My trip across the border from Surin in Thailand to Khmer Rouge zones was not a new scenario. I had made these forays many times before. And both the Thai and American intelligence officers trusted me. I could have burned them all many times over the years, and I never did.

I never revealed how I accessed the guerrilla zones or who assisted me. I knew which secrets to keep and which ones to spill and they appreciated that. One thing I rarely reported was what means and methods of getting to the story I sought or used which might jeopardize a source. The process was usually full of intrigue and would make a good read, but all officials involved operated covertly and therefore were deeply suspicious of journalists. I never betrayed a promise or source from any faction, agency or government.

By the time of Pol Pot’s death in 1998, no governments, even China, who previously appeared unconcerned with international opinion, could be seen as having friendly—or any—relations with the Khmer Rouge.

But everyone knew I still maintained good contacts with the guerrillas, and as a journalist this was wholly legitimate. Beholden to no one, I could hold the mantle of an independent, neutral journalist around my neck, which I defended proudly and without compromise. I had no political problems with associating with international pariahs and murderers. It started as my job. And I rather enjoyed it. Rogue people and states fascinated me. And then it became my obsession.

But the night of Pol Pot’s death, in many ways, marked when that long episode my life’s long efforts was finally over.

It was midnight now. Pol Pot was dead. I felt numb mainly, but also relieved. Fifteen years of my life efforts had now come to an end.

I drank straight whiskey from a glass. I re-organized my gear to cross the border in a few hours at dawn.

I watched Monica Lewinsky play over and over on CNN in the background, flashbulbs sparking, as she fled into a courthouse, to face the full puissance of the American justice system.

It did not elude me that it was a twisted reality that the Lewinsky affairs’ sordid details of superfluous justice was far more newsworthy than that which had been deemed appropriate for pursuit of Pol Pot, who stood accused of crimes against humanity.

It was a fact that when he died, 20 years after his regime, which left 1.7 million people dead–1/4 of the population—in 3 years, 8 months, and 20 days in power, Pol Pot had never been charged by any court with any crime anywhere in the world.

When he died he was not formally, in the eyes of international law, a wanted man. In fact, it would have been a violation of his rights, sufficient to have any charges dismissed under international law, if he was captured and held against his will anywhere outside of Cambodia.

I knew that soon Pol Pot’s death would dominate–perhaps not eclipsing–but nearly of equal prurient interest along with Monica Lewinsky, in the world press. I knew, as a journalist to my core, that this story would leak to be a world story within hours. Once leaked, scores of journalists would descend on this Thai border town, an 8 hour drive from Bangkok. I wanted to get in and out of the jungle before the circus began…..

To be continued….

(Copyright Nate Thayer. All rights reserved. No publication or transmission in whole or part allowed without express written permission of the author. Excerpts from the unpublished manuscript “Sympathy for the Devil: A Journalist’s Memoir From Inside Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge.”)

Why I am a Journalist: Continued….From a Daughter in Exile From her Own History

21 Mar

Why I am a Journalist: Continued…

From a Daughter in Exile From her Own History

Dear Mr. Thayer,

I truly enjoy your many articles and writing that you have posted on your website.  Growing up in the States and being around the Khmer community, I constantly remember old folks and even my grandfather blaming the genocide of the Khmer people on foreigners and the Vietnamese.

I recall my grandfather saying that everyone in the Khmer Rouge was Yuon because Khmers don’t kill Khmers.  I didn’t understand his logic, but after reading your posting of KR personalities-Hu Nim, the section where Ta Mok said everyone he killed was a Youn, was an a-ha moment.  His logic was the same as my grandfather, who was an officer in the Lon Nol army.

To grandpa, anybody that subscribed to ideas and thinking that was foreign and not-khmer centric was a blasphemous Khmer. He saw the Khmer Rouge as non-Khmer because they wanted to do away with old Cambodia society. Communism for him was introduced to Cambodia through the Vietnamese, therefore being a Communist was a being Yuon.

Ta Mok’s logic seemed that way with his reasoning of Khmer body, but Yuon heads.  Also that meeting that you attended with the senior ranking Khmer Rouges, Ta Mok, Nuon Chea, and Khieu Samphan was the first I’ve read where the DK secrets about the apparatus were revealed.

Excellent, excellent work Mr. Thayer!  I’m glad I’ve found your blog.  I’ve tried to read your work whenever I could get my hands on it.

When I was in college in the late 90’s, I read your work in the Far Eastern Economic Review.  I have always been interested in Southeast Asian and Khmer History ever since I was a kid.  The Democratic Kampuchea era has always been an enigma to me and the closest to my family’s personal experience. Please continue with your wonderful work and expertise.  I will continue to read your work.


Tola Plong

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