Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Former Khmer Rouge supporter gives talk to students

Former Khmer Rouge supporter gives talk to students

Gunnar Bergstrom (second right) stands in front of Siem Reap’s Angkor Wat in 1978 during his visit to the Kingdom. Gunnar Bergstrom/Documentation Center of Cambodia
Gunnar Bergstrom (second right) stands in front of Siem Reap’s Angkor Wat in 1978 during his visit to the Kingdom. Gunnar Bergstrom/Documentation Center of Cambodia

Former Khmer Rouge supporter gives talk to students

Gunnar Bergstrom, the Swede who was once one of the Khmer Rouge’s most ardent supporters, told a gathering of high-school students in Phnom Penh yesterday how his infamous 1978 visit to Pol Pot’s Cambodia had been a mistake.

Bergstrom, who met Pol Pot and returned to Sweden praising the Democratic Kampuchea government, admitted to having misgivings that he didn’t voice when he saw the abandoned city of Phnom Penh.

“We wanted to believe in the Khmer Rouge,” he said, confessing that he was blinded by “Maoist glasses” and a desire for a successful communist nation to exist in the world.

“It was a propaganda tour,” Bergstrom recalled of his two-week-long visit as a representative of the communist Sweden-Kampuchea Friendship Association.

“They must have taken us to the one cooperative where people actually had food,” he said, describing seeing healthy-looking workers.

Just months after Bergstrom returned home, Pol Pot’s regime collapsed, and the scale of the cruelties people had suffered compelled the Swede to reverse his previous support – to the dismay of his communist colleagues.

He has spent many of the years since 1979 atoning for his error; that culminated in his 2008 return to Cambodia, when he apologised for his previous support, and visited sites of mass killings and torture.

Bergstrom’s talk yesterday, while again acknowledging his mistake, focused more on the historical events that led to the Khmer Rouge’s rise, and on the need for people to learn from the past.

He also showed a collage of images of children who were murdered at the infamous S-21 prison – now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Memorial Museum – many of them younger than those in the audience.

The students reacted to the lecture, which was sponsored by the Documentation Center of Cambodia, with a slew of questions.

When one student asked what Pol Pot could have done differently to make the revolution successful, Bergstrom replied: “Forget it,” warning that no rapid communist revolution could happen peacefully.

And when another asked Bergstrom for his recommendations for the next generation, he answered: “Learn history.”

“We can learn more in person from people who were in the real situation than from what we read online,” one student, Lux, said after the lecture.

“My first trip back was a big forgiveness tour,” Bergstrom said in an interview after the lecture, adding that this trip was different. “I’m kind of married to Cambodia now.”

MOST VIEWED

  • Hun Sen: Stop Russia sanctions

    Prime Minister Hun Sen said sanctions against Russia as a result of its military offensive in Ukraine should be stopped as they have produced no tangible results, and predicted that a global food crisis would ensue in 2023 as a consequence. Speaking to an audience at

  • Chinese tourists 2.0 – Coming anytime soon?

    Regional tourism is grappling with the absence of the prolific travellers and big spenders – the Chinese tourists. Cambodia, which has welcomed over two million Chinese tourists before Covid-19, is reeling from the economic loss despite being the first to fully open last November ‘To put

  • PM reflects on shoe throwing: Free speech or act of violence?

    Prime Minister Hun Sen on May 17 questioned whether a man who threw a shoe at him while he was in the US was exercising freedom of expression or if it was an act of hostility. Hun Sen was referring to an incident last week when

  • Siem Reap’s Angkor Botanical Garden opens

    The Angkor Botanical Garden was officially opened on May 19 with free entry for both local and international visitors for the first six weeks. The garden was established on a nearly 15ha plot of land in Siem Reap. “After the first six weeks, Angkor Botanical Garden

  • Pub Street on the cards for Battambang

    The Battambang Provincial Authority has announced that it is considering establishing a Pub Street in the area around the heritage buildings in Battambang town in a bid to attract more tourists. Battambang provincial governor Sok Lou told The Post that the establishment of a Pub

  • Hun Sen: Don’t react to hostility

    Prime Minister Hun Sen urged tolerance and thanked members of the Cambodian diaspora for not reacting to the hostility on display towards him by others while he was in the US to attend the May 12-13 ASEAN-US Special Summit in Washington, DC. In an audio