GREENSBORO, N.C. — Late in the summer of 1994, as the hot season was finally breaking in Cambodia, three scraggly men in flip-flops showed up at the Phnom Penh Post’s compound looking for American journalist Nate Thayer.
The trio, members of Vietnam’s oppressed Montagnard hill tribes, had initially snuck across the border looking for fellow freedom fighters in the decades-long battle against the communist government. But those hopes had given way to weeks of living on the city’s streets and sleeping in pagodas. Their hair was long and stomachs empty.
They were paranoid that they would be discovered by Vietnamese agents in Cambodia and returned home to face prison or worse. Now they wanted to secure asylum in America, where hundreds of their people had found safety and a new start. The United Nations refugee agency wouldn’t help them. So a Montagnard contact in America said they should find Thayer.
They arrived at the Phnom Penh Post’s office — also the home of the newspaper’s owners and Thayer — and nervously asked for the journalist. Thayer, with a college swimmer’s build and a bald head, walked outside and saluted the men. He welcomed them inside like old friends.
For the next few months, the three Montagnards lived with Thayer, his girlfriend, and the Post’s owners, Michael Hayes and Kathleen O'Keefe. They largely kept to themselves, wary of bothering their hosts and limited in their ability to communicate across languages. But it was the nicest place they had ever lived, and they could eat and sleep soundly.
Months went by with no progress on securing refugee status. Eventually, Thayer and O’Keefe tearfully told their new friends that they couldn’t help, and the trio covertly made their way back across the border into Vietnam.
Even before the U.N. brokered a peace deal in 1991 that restored Cambodia’s monarchy and paved the way for internationally-observed elections in 1993, Thayer had established himself as a journalistic force.
He had spent much of the late 1980s on Cambodia’s border with Thailand, where the civil war was raging between the Vietnamese-backed government in Phnom Penh, remaining elements of the Khmer Rouge, and royalist forces loyal to Norodom Sihanouk.
Thayer developed close relationships with hardened guerillas during treks through the jungle and with U.N. officials during extended stays at the refugee camps housing tens of thousands famished and shell-shocked Cambodians. Andy Pendleton, a career humanitarian officer who oversaw Thai refugee camps in the 1980s, remembers Thayer showing up on his 125 cc motorbike in areas where U.N. officials would go out in Land Rovers.
“He would come in and his little motorcycle would break down on the way, and he’d run and jump in a ditch when the artillery started,” Pendeleton recalled. During one trip across the border, Thayer was in a truck that drove over an anti-tank mine, and Pendleton was called to respond. “I went over and he was limping across the border with bandages on his feet. He was the only surviving person in that truck when it got hit. So pretty brassy.”
By the time Cambodia opened up to the foreign press in the early ‘90s, Thayer had a running start.
“The vast majority of the journalists on the ground there, they were good and professional, but they didn't know the territory, they didn’t know the layers, and they didn't know the players like Nate did,” Pendleton said. “And when Nate put the screws on something, he had a good chance of making it happen, because he was the number one journalist in Southeast Asia. He was the man to listen to.”
While Thayer would become most famous for being the last foreign journalist to interview Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, just months before his death in 1998, perhaps his most impactful story came years earlier.
In the summer of 1992, two years before the Montagnard trio showed up at Thayer’s doorstep, the United Nations became aware of nearly 400 members of the Degar hill tribes hiding deep in Cambodia’s northern jungles. It was a politically volatile discovery, coming as the international community was attempting to steer Cambodia from Vietnamese occupation and civil war to a sovereign multi-party democracy.
An UNTAC military official told Thayer at the time: "We have enough problems in Cambodia dealing with the four factions, and now this army we never even heard of turns up.”
The group represented the final active remnants of the United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races, or FULRO, the Montagnard army that had fought alongside American forces in the Vietnam war. They had continued their fight in Cambodia’s jungles, where they had been living for 16 years, at times finding common cause with the Khmer Rouge warlords who controlled swaths of the northeast through the 1980s.
Using guerilla tactics and arms supplied by the U.S. decades before, they would occasionally launch flash attacks on Vietnamese troops based on intel shared by the Khmer Rouge, according to surviving members of FULRO. And in the early years, the Khmer Rouge charged a monthly jungle rent of deer antlers or other spoils of their hunting.
But the more grueling fight was against the jungle itself — diseases carried by mosquitoes, venomous snakes and starvation. The group needed to move too often to grow rice, so they sustained themselves on corn, pumpkins, cucumbers and deadly potatoes that were processed to remove the toxins. And they maintained a deep and abiding belief in god, having adopted Christianity from French and American missionaries in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
It was a brutal existence, but better than the Vietnamese prisons where many of their friends and relatives faced torture and death. Millions of Montagnards became victims of the communist government’s unrelenting campaign against unsanctioned religions and perceived threats, especially given their historical ties to America.
In 1992, as Cambodia’s power dynamics shifted, their relative safety began to evaporate. Five members of their group were caught by Phnom Penh soldiers while on a hunting expedition and sent back to Vietnam. And then hundreds of Cambodian government troops showed up near their camp without explanation.
It was time to seek help. Y Hin Nie, who served as a multilingual spokesman and diplomatic liaison for FULRO Commander-in-Chief Y Peng Ayun, learned from a Cambodian trader that the U.N. Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) had a presence in Koh Nek, about a day’s walk from the army’s camp.
When he arrived, the French U.N. officials didn’t know what to make of the group. If they weren’t Khmer Rouge, why were they living in relative safety in Khmer Rouge territory? And who exactly were they fighting?
Y Hin Nie spent seven days explaining the situation and convincing the U.N. their only enemy was the communists in Hanoi. Then the Uruguayan military commanders overseeing the region for UNTAC paid a visit to the FULRO camp, marked by a burning pile of bamboo in a makeshift airfield.
The FULRO fighters wanted to leave the jungle, but the U.N. made clear that any hope for finding safe haven abroad would require disarming. After all, part of the UNTAC mandate was to rid the country of foreign troops and reduce the number of young men with guns, whichever side they were on.
Even then, navigating the diplomatic morass of the moment was no guarantee. Peng Ayun had a tough decision to make — keep up the fight, and probably end up in Vietnamese jails, or take a leap of faith in these foreigners and hope for the best. After that initial encounter with the Montagnards, UNTAC sent its own troops to live at the FULRO camp. But weeks went by without any obvious progress.
Then Nate Thayer arrived with his notebook and camera.
Thayer touched down in Mondulkiri on a U.N. helicopter along with Hayes, the Post’s publisher. They spoke with Y Peng Ayun through Y Hin Nie.
"If we give up our weapons, they will take us back to Vietnam or the Vietnamese will come get us," the commander told them. "If I go to the U.S., I don't want to stay a long time there, because I have responsibility to liberate my country."
When Hayes and the U.N. folks headed back a day later, Thayer stuck around for another night, laying out his hammock along with Y Hin Nie and spending the day fishing with the FULRO fighters. Y Hin Nie’s son had died the previous day at six months old, after suffering from a severe stomach illness. Thayer stood by his new friend’s side to bury him.
On September 12, in one of the first editions of the weekly Phnom Penh Post, Thayer’s story about that trip was splashed across the front page. News of the group had been reported elsewhere, but Thayer provided a vivid picture of their dire predicament, and their lives in the jungle.
“Abandoned for years by their own leaders and former foreign military backers, an anti-Hanoi Montagnard army based in northeast Cambodia has approached the United Nations with a plea for protection,” read the lead of the story.
Thayer wrote that the army was “unaware of the world around them and desperately seeking instructions and resupply from their leadership” and “Col. Ayun and his lieutenants gathered around the Post reporters, hungrily seeking information.”
Thayer and Hayes told the soldiers that the charismatic leader of their movement, Y'Bham Enuol, had been killed by the Khmer Rouge 17 years ago in Phnom Penh.
“They fell silent when informed; some wept quietly,” Thayer wrote.
UNTAC’s quandary was now out in the open. And word started to spread among Montagnards already living in the U.S., having been resettled among the waves of Vietnamese refugees throughout the 1980s.
Cheyney Hales, a filmmaker working on a documentary about the group in North Carolina, said they caught wind of the news through Thayer’s reporting in the Far Eastern Economic Review. Speaking to VOA Khmer last month, he recalled Montagnards telling him at the time: “we got thousands of people living in the f—ing jungle and dying and shooting each other.”
Soon, Hales was on a plane with Pierre K'Briuh, a leader of the Montagnard refugee community in North Carolina, and Don Scott, a Vietnam war veteran who led a medical non-profit in Vietnam and became a leading figure in the push for Montagnard resettlement in America.
Once they arrived in Cambodia, the three of them were invited to a meeting at what was then the Hotel Le Royal in Phnom Penh, recalled Hales. Also present were America’s ambassador to Cambodia, Charles Twining, and Sérgio de Mello, a Brazilian diplomat who was head of repatriation and resettlement operations for UNTAC.
Cheyney Hales recalls being told at that meeting that Dan Quayle, the vice president of the United States, was demanding that the Montagnards in northeast Cambodia be sent to the U.S. post haste. “I think Nate probably caused some embarrassment,” Hales said.
"Then Nate Thayer arrived with his notebook and camera.
During an interview with VOA Khmer last month, Twining, who now lives outside Baltimore, Maryland, said he couldn’t recall that particular meeting. “It's certainly possible,” he said of the order from Quayle. “As I recall, it was mainly people from the US side who were pushing to get this done.”
Tim Reiser, a longtime aide to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), has played a quiet but key role in U.S. refugee policy toward Southeast Asia for the past four decades. He didn’t recall being involved in the FULRO resettlement specifically, but wasn’t surprised to hear that Quayle was.
“He wasn't just a potted plant. I think there were things that he actually cared about. And you know, this — helping people who had fought the communists or been on our side during that period — I think would have appealed to him…probably for both political reasons and humanitarian reasons.”
Quayle didn’t return calls and emails to his consulting firm seeking comment for this story.
Twining was sure about one thing: Thayer’s reporting had spurred politicians and diplomats into action.
“Reporting always influences opinion, including political opinion,” he said. “And Nate did very sympathetic reporting on things like what was happening in Cambodia, and that would include with refugees. And so yeah, I can't name chapter and verse, but I would be sure that that reporting did register in the campaign to try to move the people out.”
Hales split up with K'Briuh and Scott soon after their arrival. K'Briuh headed up to Mondolkiri first, along with a delegation of U.N. and Phnom Penh officials. He confirmed to the fighters that Y'Bham Enuol had died years ago, and helped establish trust that disarming would pave the way to safety in a third country — rather than certain imprisonment in Vietnam.
Hales spent a couple weeks hanging out in Phnom Penh, waiting for Thayer to be ready to make another trip north. They eventually hired a private helicopter, paying with a lien on the Post. They flew to Stung Treng and stopped for the night, before heading on to Mondulkiri in the morning.
While in Stung Treng, Thayer’s generosity of spirit became clear to Hales. They ran into a well-dressed Cambodian man who was familiar with Nate. Hales found out that Thayer had previously given him money to buy new clothes for a job interview to become a police officer.
Then they went to eat in a makeshift restaurant under a disused military tent. Again, a Cambodian woman was beaming at the sight of Thayer, who during an earlier visit had given her hundreds of dollars to pay for her mother to get a medical operation.
At dinner that evening, at a restaurant overhanging the river, they ran into a Dutch flight operations coordinator with UNTAC, who had helped get Thayer and Michael Hayes onto their initial flight to the FULRO camp.
“So there was at least three people that Nate met, the two he helped enormously and one that was another part of the Nate network,'' Cheyney Hales said. ''That's the reason the whole thing happened. Nate was maintaining his network. Just being nice to the guy.”
Thayer and Hales had hammered out a deal ahead of their trip, with Thayer using the footage for a package for NBC News and Hales using it for his film, “Living in Exile,” which was produced by the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources.
They flew into Mondulkiri early the next day and touched down in an open field near the FULRO camp. Once there, Hales recalls Y Hin Nie, the diplomatic liaison, essentially producing a film about the army’s life in the jungle — recreating their guerilla attacks on Vietnamese units, planting and harvesting crops, and gathering for Sunday church service. Hales’ film shows a group of young Montagnard men belting lyrics from hymnals, in an outdoor church with wooden pews and a wooden cross.
The life the Montagnards had known for so long was swiftly coming to an end, with the bureaucratic wheels in motion to get them out of Cambodia. Within a few days of Thayer’s second visit, the group was flown from Mondulkiri to Phnom Penh, where they stayed in a refugee camp for a few weeks. Then they boarded a direct flight to Los Angeles, before heading onto their final destination: Greensboro, North Carolina.
Thayer was on those final two legs of the flight, joining his FULRO friends for their arrival in their new home, where they were welcomed by hundreds of fellow Montagnards. Outside the ceremony, Thayer spoke into Hales’ camera.
“This is not a conclusion for the 400 Montagnards who came here. It’s a conclusion in a way — a psychological conclusion — for a lot of Americans who the Montagnards meant a lot to. And it’s certainly not a conclusion for the million plus Montagnards who continue to live under the conditions they do in the Central Highlands of Vietnam,” Thayer said.
“In a lot of ways, it’s a step back, because their political leadership, the people who have been keeping whatever pressure there was alive, are now living in North Carolina. They are not any threat to the Vietnamese. If I was the Vietnamese government, I would be celebrating along with those of us who are here today.”
Thayer died in January at the age of 62, having long fought a series of health battles, both mental and physical.
After leaving Cambodia, Thayer continued reporting and writing, focusing largely on North Korea and extremism in the U.S. during the last decade of his life. He was also working on a book about his pursuit of Pol Pot, titled “Sympathy for the Devil,” which he did not complete.
Thayer was not always easy to work with. Chad O’Carroll, the editor of NKNews, which Thayer contributed to, described him as a dogged reporter who was “affable, empathetic and energetic about his work.”
But he also called Thayer a “professional and personal roller coaster to be around” and “one of the most difficult reporters our team has ever worked with — something I suspect he was very proud of.”
Michael Hayes, one of Thayer’s closest friends, described him as “a loner who hated being alone,” in an email to the New York Times for their obituary of the “mad genius” journalist.
“He was fearless, infuriatingly stubborn, uncompromising in his commitment to a free press, extremely generous to those people he loved, unbelievably disorganized in terms of managing even the simplest paperwork, and constantly wrestling unsuccessfully with a whole host of inner demons,” Hayes said by email to the Times.
In late February, dozens of Montagnard-Americans gathered in Greensboro and remembered Thayer with gratitude.
A celebration of his life was held at the United Montagnard Christian Church, where Y Hin Nie is the pastor. Former FULRO fighters fought back tears as they spoke of the strapping American reporter who showed up at their jungle camp 30 years earlier.
“We miss you, we love you, we’ll never forget you,” said Y Duen Buondap, who was among the fighters in Mondulkiri 30 years previous. “Even you’re gone, but your work is still alive in our hearts. We remember you. And from now, forever, our people should celebrate you more and more. And we will put you in our history for whatever you have done for our people.”
Among those in attendance was Y Bion Mlo, one of the three men who had showed up at the newspaper office of the Phnom Penh Post in 1994.
After sneaking back into Vietnam, he and his friends found out that authorities had visited their families in their absence asking about their whereabouts. Spooked, they went back into the jungle for almost a decade. Mlo crossed back into Cambodia with a wave of Montagnard refugees 2001, this time with his wife, and was among more than 900 who were resettled in the U.S. in 2003.
Mlo is now a father of three, aged 19 to 24, and works as a Montagnard community liaison in the Greensboro school system. In 2016, he tracked down Thayer on Facebook and reached out. Thayer responded, and the two caught up about their lives — their first communication since living together 22 years earlier.
Sara Colm, who was Thayer’s editor at the Post, recalled during her eulogy that Thayer reached out to her about that conversation.
“He texted me and said he had amazing news, one of the Montagnards…made contact with him again and let him know he and his family were now safely into the United States,” she said.
“Nate was floored. He had been haunted for decades about the three.”
“He had a reputation as a tough sort of hard-living foreign correspondent,” Colm added, “but for those of us who saw him on a day-to-day basis, we knew underneath he was a softy at heart.”
Near the end of the service in Greensboro, Y Hin Nie read the parable of the good samaritan from the New Testament, in which thieves leave a man half dead on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. A priest and a Levite pass by without helping, but the good samaritan has compassion.
“So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him,'' Y Hin Nie said. ''On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.’”