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KR guest returns, repenting

Content image - Phnom Penh Post

Thirty years after visiting Cambodia as a guest of the KR regime,

Gunnar Bergstrom returns with an exhibition he hopes will say sorry to

those who died

Photo Courtesy of Gunnar Bergstrom

Gunnar Bergstrom at a former bus station in Kampong Cham province during his visit to Cambodia in 1978.

GUNNAR Bergstrom, a Swedish intellectual who once held Democratic Kampuchea in high esteem, does not remember much about his dinner with Pol Pot and Ieng Sary towards the end of 1978. But a comment he made in French to the former foreign minister while in the bathroom of the Royal Palace still lingers.

"He asked me about people who had applied to come to Cambodia... should we let them in, he asked, and I said, of course ... you have nothing to hide," he recalled Sunday.  

Bergstrom was welcomed back to Phnom Penh on the weekend by the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-Cam) to showcase photos from what he would later consider a propaganda tour arranged by the former regime leaders.  

But the 57-year-old former communist, who will begin his travelling exhibition Tuesday, says he is here not only to make public his photo archive, but to reckon with past ideals, ones he believed led him and his colleagues to be a part of a "propaganda machine for murder".

"We saw things we wanted to believe - a cultural revolution, everyone the same, no corruption, no personality cult - this was the perfect communist revolution, we thought," he said. "But we were wearing Maoist glasses."

We saw what they wanted us to see, but we also saw what we wanted to believe.

Bergstrom was 27 when the regime invited him and four other members of the Sweden-Kampuchea Friendship Association, an unofficial delegation, to see firsthand the country post-revolution. They had politically allied themselves, like thousands of European intellectuals, against America and its own propaganda war against communism.

"We saw what they wanted us to see, but we also saw what we wanted to believe," he said.

But the 14-day tour, which guided them through seemingly industrious towns, working hospitals and happy villages, left a sour taste in his mouth.

"I found when I wrote the book that there were forbidden thoughts that I had at the time, thoughts that I never expressed to anyone because they were self-censored," he said. "Even things that we acknowledged did happen, we put down to a young revolution.... We always found an excuse."

The next year, his ideals were finally reconciled with what was slowly becoming known to the rest of the world. But for Bergstrom, this was too late.

"We should have understood," he said.

The exhibition, titled "Gunnar in the Living Hell", will open Tuesday afternoon at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

Bergstrom will also speak at an opening at the Reyum Arts Gallery later in the evening. The exhibition will travel to Cambodia's UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal, as well as galleries in Kampong Cham, Takeo and Battambang. It will then be put on permanent display at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, where he hopes it will mark his remorse.

"[I am sorry] to Cambodian people for what happened, or in a sense, my part in it. I supported and became part of a propaganda machine for murder. So, I say sorry to the victims," he said. 



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