Elizabeth Becker speaks about covering the war in Cambodia and meeting Pol Pot
Elizabeth Becker, an American journalist who began her career as a war correspondent in Cambodia, was one of only two foreign journalists to visit Cambodia and interview Pol Pot while he was in power. She is in town this week for a reunion of war correspondents, as well as for the local launch of her latest book, Bophana, a tragic love story based on Khmer Rouge-era letters between the eponymous heroine and her partner. The launch will take place at Tuol Sleng prison at 10am on Thursday. Becker is also the author of When the War Was Over, a history of Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge.
What was Cambodia like when you arrived?
I came at a very, for a journalist, a very opportune moment – but this was in spite of myself; it wasn’t because I knew what I was doing. The United States had just in January of ’73 signed the Paris Peace Accords, which means that the American direct involvement in Vietnam and Laos was essentially over. And for Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge Cambodians refused to be part of that negotiation. That meant the war moved here....
The war had been going on since ’70, but the war really moved here [then], and within weeks we had the huge amount of bombing. And during that first period in ’73, more bombs were dropped in Cambodia than, I think, in Japan in World War II.... The atrocities were miserable.
I think I hadn’t been here a month – and this is on the government side – I was walking to the headquarters of a Khmer Krom general in the south, and as I was walking to the headquarters, the road was lined with sticks with heads of dead Khmer Rouge that they had killed. Unfortunately, this was not the only time that you saw the desecration of bodies. And both sides did it, of course. So it was extremes. Extreme, extreme story to cover. War anyhow is extreme, and this one was extraordinary.
How long were you based in Cambodia?
I left at the end of ’74 because my reporting had – and I wrote all of this – had convinced me that the Khmer Rouge were going to win and it was going to be awful. I can’t say that I predicted anything, but I knew it was going to be awful....
It was very, very hard to cover this thing because you loved it so much that it made it that much harder. So I left.
And then when the Khmer Rouge won in April, the stories were so bad, that no matter how awful I thought it was going to be, I couldn’t believe it; the evacuation on the first day, and then the refusal to take any aid when you knew the people were starving....
I immediately started applying for a visa to come back and cover Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge. And it took three years, and I was one of only two journalists who were allowed to come back, and that turned out to be among the last two weeks that the Khmer Rouge were in power.
And that’s when we went and I actually got to see Cambodia while the Khmer Rouge were in power and, on our last day, interview Pol Pot.... Our last night we were attacked by a dissident group within the Khmer Rouge and a third person with us, a British professor, was murdered. We left the next day, and that’s the day that the Vietnamese invaded.
Why do you think Malcolm Caldwell, the member of your group most sympathetic to Pol Pot, was murdered?
First of all, when people want to know why Malcolm Caldwell was killed rather than me or [journalist] Richard Dudmen, my first response is there’s no reason to believe there was a rational reason for his murder versus any of the Cambodians who were killed.
We are dealing with a regime that is irrational and would choose victims nearly at random.... All of the people executed/murdered by the Khmer Rouge were done so for irrational reasons....
What makes the most sense is that there was a serious group of people in the top strata of the Khmer Rouge that did not want us to be there.
There’s a reason they never invited people. And if you were going to make sure no one ever comes again, maybe you kill the friend rather than these two journalists, because we’d go back and write the story. So if you’re looking for the most rational answer, that’s the most rational I can come up with; you kill the friend and you have the two journalists go and write how dangerous it is. That’s the closest I can get.
What was it like meeting Pol Pot?
Of course he had to be a charismatic man, how else would he become the leader of the Khmer Rouge?...
You keep forgetting that people don’t always wear white and black hats and it’s not always easy to see who’s good and bad. But he clearly had stature. You could see how he became the head of it, and insane in what he said....
When Pol Pot saw us, instead of answering the list of questions we’d given him about the whole way he was running the country, he decided he wanted to spend – I can’t remember – one to two hours [on] a monologue about how Vietnam was going to attack, that they would require Soviet tanks and war planes crossing across the Mekong into Cambodia, but that he knew that NATO would come, and American planes would come and help him, and so on and so forth – and this went on and on.
He had this vision of the final Cold War being fought on the rice paddies of Cambodia – of the Soviets versus the Americans.
How important was covering the war in Cambodia for you personally?
This was an extraordinary story ... and it became your life. And I don’t think there’s a war correspondent who won’t say that the more you cover, no matter how awful it is, the more engaged you are, and you care about the outcome; you want to know why it was happening.
And this is an incredibly attractive culture and people. And, as I said, as an American, there’s a special sense of responsibility – this is your country that’s involved in this.
Interview conducted by Brooke Lewis, David Boyle and Rick Valenzuela