During decades of reporting from the late 1980s, Mr. Thayer cultivated a reputation as a freelancer willing to endure hardship and risk to track distant stories for outlets such as Soldier of Fortune magazine, the Far Eastern Economic Review, The Associated Press and The Washington Post.
With his shaved head and chewing tobacco-stained teeth, he conjured up an image of a retro-style pen pal and delighted in regaling others with stories from the field. They included near-misses, including serious injuries when the Cambodian guerrilla transport truck he was in set off an anti-tank mine in October 1989.
Over the next few years, he took to social media to relentlessly polish his badass image and claim he had been wronged by ABC’s ‘Nightline’ over rights issues to use the ‘trial’ video. of Pol Pot in July 1997 in kangaroo court by disgruntled former followers. in a Khmer Rouge camp in northern Cambodia.
His reporting on Pol Pot’s final months remained the journalistic centerpiece of Mr. Thayer’s career – a major journalistic coup that captured international attention. His work also added important historical detail to the “killing fields” legacy of the Khmer Rouge rule of 1975-1979. An estimated 1.7 million Cambodians – intellectuals, doctors, dissidents and many more – lost their lives as the regime tried to impose a radical agrarian communist order.
“He lit up a page of history that would have been lost to the world had he not spent years in the Cambodian jungle,” noted an award given by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in 1998.
A year earlier, Mr. Thayer had convinced members of the surviving Khmer Rouge factions that international cover was needed on behalf of Pol Pot in the face of these former guerrillas who had turned against him. “Crush, crush, crush Pol Pot and his gang,” some chanted as Mr Thayer and an Asiaworks Television cameraman, David McKaige, reached the remote Anlong Veng camp.
Writing in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Mr Thayer described how Pol Pot was sentenced to life imprisonment and taken away in a Toyota Land Cruiser with tinted windows.
“Some people bowed respectfully, as before royalty,” he wrote. Mr. Thayer did not have the chance to ask questions of Pol Pot.
Mr. Thayer has reached a verbal agreement with ABC to allow the video to be aired on ABC News’ “Nightline” program. During the segment, Mr. Thayer described the event as if Adolf Hitler had survived and was later found in a bunker in South America.
“Remember, I lived in Cambodia,” he told “Nightline” host Ted Koppel. “Most of my friends saw their lives destroyed by Pol Pot. So it was a deeply moving moment. … I cried many times for everyone I knew.
The network said Mr. Thayer was paid $350,000 and received proper credit. But ABC also maintained that Mr. Thayer did not understand that the clips would also be posted on the internet and fall into the public domain.
Mr. Thayer has long insisted that ABC backtrack on its promises to give him control of the material. He later turned down a Peabody Award for the show “Nightline,” which called his reporting “meaningful and meritorious.”
“I didn’t have a penny a week ago, and if I don’t have a penny in a week, I still have my integrity,” he told the American Journalism Review.
Mr. Thayer was allowed to return to the camp in October 1997 with the promise of interviewing Pol Pot. The last Western journalists to do so, in 1978, were Elizabeth Becker of the Post and Richard Dudman of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Mr. Thayer was told to wait near a small hut.
Mr Thayer wrote in the Far Eastern Economic Review about how the former dictator, then 72, needed to grab his arm to walk the short distance to the hut.
“The man who presided over the Cambodian Holocaust is about to give his first interview in 18 years,” Mr Thayer wrote. “This is his chance to make some kind of peace with his bloody past.”
Pol Pot appeared in a soft, incongruous voice, making his points calmly and with measured tones.
“Were you responsible? Mr. Thayer asked about the massacres.
“I only made decisions about very important people,” replied Pol Pot. “I did not oversee the lower ranks.”
Mr. Thayer had another exclusive about Pol Pot: he was back at Anlong Veng camp a day after Pol Pot’s death in April 1998 and took pictures of the body before it was cremated.
His reporting became the only independent confirmation of Pol Pot’s death. “He’s dead,” Thayer told The Post in a phone interview at the time. “It was Pol Pot. There was no doubt it was Pol Pot.
Still, Mr. Thayer found death more of an open wound than a closure.
“And with Pol Pot’s death, unfortunately, there’s the opportunity to really find out what happened and why,” Mr. Thayer told NPR’s “All Things Considered.” “There are so many unanswered questions about why so many have suffered so unspeakably and so unjustly. And this man had sole control.
Illustrious family pedigree
Nathaniel Talbott Thayer was born in Washington on April 21, 1960. His family had deep ties to Southeast Asia through his father, Harry ET Thayer, who had held diplomatic posts in Hong Kong, Taipei and elsewhere before to resume a role at the State Department. (He served as U.S. Ambassador to Singapore from 1980 to 1985.)
Mr. Thayer’s other major point of reference was the Boston area, where his Brahmin family tree was marked by places such as Harvard’s Thayer Hall.
Asked about his illustrious family pedigree, Mr Thayer ironically pointed the finger at Judge Webster Thayer, who sentenced Italian immigrant anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti to death after their murder convictions. in 1921. They were electrocuted in 1927, despite strong evidence of their innocence. Fifty years later, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis (D) said they had been judged unfairly in an age “steeped in prejudice”.
Deploying an epithet, Mr Thayer told The New Yorker he quotes the judge “every time they call me the black sheep of the family”.
Mr. Thayer studied at the University of Massachusetts in Boston but did not graduate. His first work in Southeast Asia was part of a 1984 academic research project on refugees from the Khmer Rouge regime before landing freelance assignments for Soldier of Fortune on the guerrilla uprisings in Myanmar, then widely known as Burma’s name.
In 1992, Mr. Thayer followed the Vietnam War-era Ho Chi Minh trail and encountered a lost group of allied mountain militia in the United States who had no idea the conflict was long over. Two years later, Mr Thayer rode an elephant as part of an expedition to search for a possibly extinct Southeast Asian bovine called a kouprey. They found none.
He described it as a “team of expert jungle trackers, scientists, security troops, elephant mahouts and one of the most motley and ridiculous groups of armed journalists in recent memory”.
Mr. Thayer was expelled from Cambodia in 1994. He returned and was expelled again for articles purporting to show links between Prime Minister Hun Sen and heroin traffickers.
After an international scholarship at Johns Hopkins University, he and photojournalist Nic Dunlop tracked down a Khmer Rouge torturer, Kang Kek Iev, also known as Brother Duch, who agreed to speak after learning that M Thayer had interviewed Pol Pot. Duch turned himself in to authorities after Mr. Thayer’s article was published in the Far Eastern Economic Review.
Mr. Thayer later covered the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq for Slate and did web reporting on the growing white nationalist movements in the United States.
Besides his brother, Mr. Thayer is survived by his mother, Joan Leclerc of Washington; and two sisters.
Despite his prolific workload, Mr Thayer never managed to put the finishing touches on his memoir, with a proposed title of “Sympathy for the Devil: Living Dangerously in Cambodia”. What drove him to continue was personal: his deep empathy for the country and its past horrors under the Khmer Rouge.
Then, when he learned in June 1997 that Pol Pot had been imprisoned, Mr Thayer saw the opportunity for a major professional break. “The last big interview in Asia,” he told The New Yorker.
He eventually returned to the United States – first securing a farm in 2000 on the shores of Chesapeake Bay in Maryland – but said he could feel more comfortable in Cambodia than in the big American cities like New York.
“Man, I can’t control my perimeter there,” he said. “These are the crazy ones I can’t deal with.”