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Democratic Kampuchea, through Maoist lenses

Gunnar Bergstrom says it was the smiles that fooled him the most -- the krama-clad boys and girls beaming in the rice fields of newly communist Cambodia.

Although he had some doubts about what he saw during a 14-day trip through the country in 1978, the smiling peasants helped him push those nagging thoughts from his mind. Bergstrom thought Cambodia could become "a very special model for the third world ... an ideal society with no oppressors."

It's never easy to admit you were wrong. It's especially painful when, as with Bergstrom, the ideologies you espoused led to the deaths of millions.

So while some may still attack Bergstrom for his former support of the Khmer Rouge, I think the mission he has undertaken is admirable. As he spoke Tuesday at the National Institute for Education -- the first stop on a countrywide tour -- Bergstrom impressed me as a man who is acutely aware of how wrong he once was, and that guilt has haunted him his entire life.

"For my part in supporting the Khmer Rouge and what they did, I am very sorry," he told those gathered Tuesday. "I cannot undo the trip. I can only try to make things right now."

For Bergstrom, that means donating his archived photos to the country, traveling throughout the provinces to speak about his experiences and, essentially, apologizing to the Cambodian people. This is much more than many former Khmer Rouge supporters are willing to do; Bergstrom mentioned that one of his companions on the 1978 trip still believes Cambodia would have been better off under Pol Pot. Not to mention that many Khmers Rouge themselves have yet to take responsibility for their regime's failures.

Bergstrom admits that he was young -- 27 years old -- and idealistic when he undertook what he now considers a "propaganda tour" of Democratic Kampuchea. He had been involved in the Swedish anti-war movement and protested U.S. bombings in Cambodia. Eventually, he moved in a more Maoist direction and joined a group that supported the newly installed Khmer Rouge regime.

Bergstrom, like other members of the Swedish Cambodian Friendship Association, believed that reports of torture and murder in Democratic Kampuchea were simply anti-communist propaganda, and asked to visit the country to help dispel such rumors. Their first two requests were denied, but in April of 1978 the Khmer Rouge extended an invitation.

The delegation arrived in an emptied Phnom Penh. Even at that time, Bergstrom says he "thought the evacuation of Phnom Penh was crazy."

As they undertook a "Potemkin Village" style tour of different provinces, Bergstrom and his companions could only communicate with locals through their Khmer Rouge-appointed translators. Although, for the most part, "people looked healthy and happy," there were some aspects of life under Democratic Kampuchea that concerned Bergstrom even at the time.

He didn't approve of young children working in factories and suspected that the technical high school and hospital they visited might have been frauds. Their Khmer Rouge guides claimed everything they saw -- the complex formulas on blackboards, the medicine doctors were using -- had all been developed by poor peasants. Plus, there were only two patients in the entire hospital.

"We saw what we wanted to see. And we disregarded things that we should have thought of," he says.

Despite his reservations, Bergstrom returned to Sweden with largely positive reports of Democratic Kampuchea, and used pictures taken by the delegation to promote the regime. Selected photos are now traveling the country with him and will be put on permanent display at Tuol Sleng.

Bergstrom hopes they will foster discussion about the Khmer Rouge, as well as warn others of the danger of ideological blinders.

"This is what happens when you lose your critical thinking," he told the audience Tuesday, "and when some kind of ideology becomes more important than the truth."

 

 

 

 

* Pictured (from top): Smiling peasants in the Cambodian countryside; a technical school in Phnom Penh supposedly run by poor peasants; one of the few patients in a Khmer Rouge hospital; alleged former "city people" adjusting to their new life in the countryside; Bergstrom speaking at Reyum Gallery Tuesday evening.

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