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January 26, 2023


A family friend sent me a text advising me that Nate Thayer had passed away at age 62. She said she was not certain that I knew Nate but could not imagine that our paths had not crossed over the years. She was “spot on!” I believe I first met Nate when he was somewhat focused on Mongolia as the Mongolian democratic youth movement had brought the communist government to a halt and created a democracy in the early 90s.  He was most likely working as a stringer for the Far Eastern Economic Review and I was deeply involved in Mongolia both commercially and politically. In fact, I was just re-confirmed a few weeks ago as an Honorary Consul of Mongolia after some 30 years in my posting. The greatest benefit is showing your wife the U.S. State Department official identification to “Treat the Bearer with Due Respect.” It does not work but gives you a moment of fleeting status. 


I preceded Nate to Southeast Asia and “The Troubles” by twenty years though he accomplished the unbelievable feat of having conducted an interview with Pol Pot of Khmer Rouge fame. Joey and I had the opportunity to spend some time with Nate a few years later when we had a liquid lunch at the Erawan Hotel in Bangkok in 2001 with a guy from Janes, The Trusted Global Agency for Open Source-Defence Intelligence. Joey remembers the lunch vividly as it may have made an impression on her that I knew people like that. Moreover, it gets better as she also remembered a significant event to firmly establish the date of our luncheon. Another guest of Nate was a Hmong guy who was consumed by the news that Tiger Woods was dating a Swedish nanny. By the way, the Hmong people were our mercenaries in Laos in the 1970s. By most all accounts, this was an ersatz group though I think Joey was the only one who had that impression.


If Nate had to pick one image of him to publish, it would be the one shown below as it says it all about his life. On January 6, 2023, Seth Mydans published an article in The New York Times entitled Nate Thayer, Bold Reporter Who Interviewed Pol Pot, Dies at 62. The “mad genius” journalist scored an exclusive interview with the genocidal Cambodian leader and covered his show trial, another worldwide scoop. Nate’s brother, Robert Thayer, said he had long struggled with multiple ailments which I took to mean demons. In any event, Nate would have been proud of Seth’s coverage including his favorite photo below where he narrowly escaped death when his truck struck an anti-tank road mine in a Cambodian conflict zone killing the soldiers on either side of him.

Nate crossed the Thai border into Cambodia and interviewed Pol Pot in October 1997 after months of clandestine meetings with Khmer Rouge guerrillas whom Pol Pot led. During Pol Pot’s four years in power, in the late 1970s, two million people or some one-fourth of Cambodia’s population, died of execution, torture, starvation or overwork as he sought to create a pure, pre-modern Communist state. The personal accounts from my friends describing the heroism of Air America pilots evacuating stranded foreign diplomats in April 1975 under fire on the Phnom Penh air strip still reside in my mind. 


Another favorite photo of Nate’s is the image he took of a young Khmer Rouge guerrilla with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher strapped to his back in Cambodia. Although a stone-cold killer, the young lad chose to protect himself with a horde of Buddhist amulets around his neck. You would probably not be surprised that most of us did the same thing in Laos.

Nate spent considerable time writing a book about the Khmer Rouge titled “Sympathy for the Devil: A Journalist’s Memoir from Inside Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge.” Periodically, I would look on Nate’s website where the book was advertised online but never published. He carried the manuscript with him for years as it was a major part of his life.


Robert Brown, the founder and publisher of Soldier of Fortune magazine said: “Goodbye to one of the most colorful, gutsy, by some standards certifiable mad genius journalists I have ever encountered.” In retrospect, some of us should have reached out to Nate to see what we could have done to lend a hand—not just “Go Fund Me” to keep him going but to get his manuscript out into the public arena to share the horrors of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot’s regime with a world that could not appreciate the depths of his depravity which he never regretted. Maybe it is not too late to accomplish that objective. 

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