Veteran American journalist and author Elizabeth Becker yesterday told the Khmer Rouge tribunal about her “bizarre” interview with Democratic Kampuchea leader Pol Pot in 1978, conducted shortly before his radical regime was toppled by the Vietnamese.
Testifying as an expert witness, Becker described her visit to Cambodia during the final weeks of Pol Pot’s reign – under which more than 1.5 million people were killed – including her meeting with “Brother Number One”, whom she met with fellow American journalist Richard Dudman.
She said on December 22, 1978, the last day of a heavily controlled two-week tour, the pair was driven in a Mercedes to a riverside French villa in Phnom Penh, having been asked to submit questions several days before.
“We walked into the big audience hall, and there sitting down in this large chair as if it was a throne was Pol Pot himself; with him were Ieng Sary and Keat Chhon,” said Becker, who chronicled her experiences in her 1986 book When the War Was Over.
“He did not get up, we had time to take photographs, sit down have a little chat and then we were told that he would not answer any of our questions – the answers were later given to us in writing – and that he would talk to us.
“Instead of an interview, it became a lecture and for approximately two hours, he lectured us on the impending war with Vietnam and it was, without a note, entirely extemporaneous.”
Becker said Pol Pot’s address surrounded his “incredible vision” of a clash between the Vietnamese army, which would invade from the east and be backed by armed forces from countries in the Warsaw Pact, and Cambodian forces, which he predicted would defeat the invaders with support from NATO forces.
“It was so bizarre that Richard and I were looking at each other’s notes to make sure we heard the same thing,” Becker said.
“Then he described how this would be the biggest crisis in the world because if Cambodia became a satellite of Vietnam it would trigger ever larger Cold War problems.
“That was two hours, and at the end of it, he said goodbye to us and we went back to the house.”
Becker then described being woken that night by the sound of gunshots and discovering British Marxist academic Malcolm Caldwell – who was with her and Dudman on the tour and had, hours earlier, enjoyed a private meeting with Pol Pot – had been murdered.
She recalled leaving her room and being confronted by a young Cambodian-looking soldier with a strange cap, who raised his gun.
“I screamed at him, first in English then in Khmer “no” and I ran into my room and ran into the bathtub . . . which was under the stairwell,” she said.
“He did not follow me, I heard him go upstairs, and then I heard lots of gunshots, then I heard him run away, then there was quiet.”
Becker, who became visibly upset, said a familiar guard told her to stay in the room before Thiounn Prasith, who had been the trio’s guide and translator, came and told her Caldwell had been killed.
She said the group left for Beijing hours later, after a ceremony for Caldwell by the late Case 002 defendant Ieng Sary, who blamed the Vietnamese for the death.
Prior to the capture of Phnom Penh by the Vietnamese, who invaded on December 25, 1978, stewards that had been caring for the group were arrested, accused of the murder and executed at Tuol Sleng prison, Becker said she later discovered.
Becker also told judges about being shown “Potemkin villages”, witnessing child labour and being told by Sary that there were no prisons in Democratic Kampuchea.
Having reported from Cambodia prior to the Khmer Rouge seizing power in 1975, she said her tour was like “being under house arrest” and people she interviewed were nervous and unresponsive, “like robots”.
Her testimony continues today.