As much as I loved reporting, the highlight of my years at the Far Eastern Economic Review was editing Nate Thayer, one of the greatest investigative reporters of his generation. Nate broke the story in 1997 that Cambodia's ex-dictator, Pol Pot, was still alive and had been purged from the Khmer Rouge, the movement responsible for the deaths of some 2 million Cambodians when it held power from 1975-1979. He followed up a few months later with the first interview with Pol Pot in 18 years, shedding light on how utopian leftism absorbed in university classrooms and cafes in Paris translated to genocide back in Cambodia. Pol Pot committed suicide after he heard Nate's report, picked up by the Khmer service of VOA, that the Khmer Rouge were about to turn him over to international authorities for trial.
In an era of instant communication, when scoops are matched in hours and sometimes minutes, the Pol Pot stories went unmatched for months. That's because Nate had spent years developing contacts within the Khmer Rouge, Thai intelligence, and elsewhere to gain this access, and seized an opening when the movement turned in upon itself. By no means a Khmer Rouge apologist, he presented a straight, unvarnished picture of the past and present, and confronted Pol Pot with the evidence that he was a mass murderer. With journalism dominated by repackaged content, reporters spoon-feed by anonymous sources with agendas, and few publications besides The New Yorker and The Atlantic willing to back long investigations, these stories stand as journalistic monuments I feel privileged to have helped build.
With the Pol Pot exclusives, Nate came exhausted out of the jungle, disgorged his notes, pictures and video, and we shared the writing. It was great teamwork, and it would not have been possible without the support of another legendary journalist, then Review editor Nayan Chanda. The stories are not available online, because Nate was a freelancer on retainer with the Review, and he owns the copyright. But with his permission, I'll scan and post them on this site eventually, as they represent and important contribution to the historical record on Southeast Asia and on genocide. I also hope to see Nate complete his book about that era -- the chapters I have read are very strong.
Nate and I actually first met when we were competing reporters in Cambodia in 1991, him for AP and me for AFP. Then after we both joined the Review, I helped him pull together a package of stories that exposed how Cambodia was failing as a state, with a major Sino-Thai drug dealer paying a third of the defense budget and using the apparatus of state to grow his business -- much the way Al Qeda took over Afghanistan a few years later. We remain close friends.