Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - War reporter Dudman, one of few Westerners to meet Pol Pot, dies at 99

War reporter Dudman, one of few Westerners to meet Pol Pot, dies at 99

Journalist Richard Dudman, one of the few Westerners to meet Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, seen in a family photo from 2015. Photo supplied
Journalist Richard Dudman, one of the few Westerners to meet Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, seen in a family photo from 2015. Photo supplied

War reporter Dudman, one of few Westerners to meet Pol Pot, dies at 99

Richard Beebe Dudman, a prolific American journalist perhaps best known in the Kingdom for being among the few reporters to have met former Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot – and for having doubted the scale of atrocities under his regime until late in life – died on Thursday at the age of 99.

A reporter for the St Louis Post-Dispatch for most of his over 75-year-long career, Dudman often found himself in the thick of history, from reporting on United States President John F Kennedy’s assassination to covering conflicts and revolutions around the world.

Born on May 3, 1918, in Centerville, Iowa, he first began covering the Vietnam War in 1968, and in 1970 – along with Elizabeth Pond of the Christian Science Monitor and Michael Morrow of Dispatch News Service International – tried to drive from Saigon to Phnom Penh to report on the escalating covert war in Cambodia. The trio, however, were abducted along the way by Vietcong fighters, who accused them of being CIA spies.

“If we get out of this alive, we’ll have a hell of a good story,” Dudman told his colleagues at the time.

Released six weeks later on a roadside and left to hitchhike back to Saigon, Dudman described his captivity in his 1971 book Forty Days with the Enemy.

But perhaps his most defining professional experience came in 1978, when along with Elizabeth Becker of the Washington Post and Scottish economist Malcolm Caldwell, he secured a meeting with Pol Pot. They were the first western writers to gain access to Cambodia since the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975, and Dudman’s reporting would receive accolades, despite later proving to be controversial for having been relatively soft on the brutal regime.

Recalling the experience of the trip at the Khmer Rouge tribunal in 2015, he said that a “feeling of frustration” prevailed as it was “really impossible” to get answers to any questions. Minded by Khmer Rouge officers, the group was tightly controlled and given a tour of the country, including several worksites and communes, which he suspected painted a rosier view of the regime amid reports of mass killings and atrocities. Internal regime documents from the time show the Khmer Rouge viewed Dudman with suspicion, often referring to him as an “imperialist”, DC-Cam Director Youk Chhang noted yesterday.

The 1978 interview with Democratic Kampuchea’s “brother number one” turned out to be a one-sided affair, which Dudman described in a 2015 article for the Post-Dispatch. “He spoke in a quiet monotone,” he said of Pol Pot, whose handshake he found unnerving. “He spoke in Cambodian, Foreign Minister Ieng Sary put the Cambodian into French, and another official translated into English. Before getting to our questions, Pol Pot launched into a diatribe against the Vietnamese,” he wrote, adding: “We tried to break in with questions, but he ignored them and rolled right on.”

However, Dudman did take one of the few photographs of the secretive dictator.

The night following the interview, a gunman broke into the house where the group was staying. Dudman found himself face-to-face with the assailant, and took cover in his room, dodging bullets. The motivation for the attack, in which Caldwell was killed, never became clear, nor was the identity of the perpetrators ever revealed.

Dudman was later criticised by Becker for being less critical of the regime than her in his reporting in which he described the country as “one huge work camp, but its people clearly were not being worked to death or starved to death”.

Dudman’s work in Cambodia received recognition at the time, including from the US government, and it wasn’t until the Vietnamese liberation in 1979 that Becker’s accounts would appear vindicated.

Yet Dudman retained his scepticism of mass atrocities and, in a George Polk Award-winning editorial for the New York Times in 1990, he questioned whether Pol Pot was a mass murderer while saying that Vietnam was “the real threat” to Cambodia.

Despite her criticism of Dudman’s conclusions following the 1978 trip, Becker yesterday remembered her former colleague fondly.

“On our trip to Democratic Kampuchea he was very professional and a solid, friendly colleague especially during that horrible night when we were attacked by Khmer Rouge assassins who killed Malcolm Caldwell. Dick and I disagreed profoundly about what we witnessed in that trip – he was willing to give Pol Pot the benefit of the doubt – but we remained friends,” she wrote in an email.

It wasn’t until his 2015 court testimony that Dudman admitted his reporting and subsequent editorial on the Khmer Rouge had not been critical enough and that he had come to believe the evidence supported mass murder.

“Since then, I have read a great deal about what went on under the Pol Pot regime and I’ve talked to many sources about it too,” he told the court. “And I doubt if I would have written this story knowing what I know today.”

Additional reporting by The New York Times

MOST VIEWED

  • Cambodia rejects UN rights claim

    Cambodia's Permanent Mission to the UN Office in Geneva on Friday hit back at David Kaye, the UN special rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression after he raised concerns over the repression of free speech and

  • Snaring may spawn diseases

    The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has warned that snaring of animals has become a crisis that poses a serious risk to wildlife in Southeast Asia and could spawn the transmission of zoonotic diseases to humans. Its July 9 report entitled Silence of the Snares: Southeast Asia’

  • Ex-party leader, gov’t critic named as secretary of state

    A former political party leader known for being critical of the government has been appointed secretary of state at the Ministry of Rural Development, a royal decree dated July 9 said. Sourn Serey Ratha, the former president of the Khmer Power Party (KPP), told The Post

  • Residence cards set for over 80,000 immigrants

    The Ministry of Interior plans to grant residence cards to more than 80,000 immigrants to better keep track of them. The ministry announced the plan on July 10, following the results of an immigration census. “An inter-ministerial committee and many operational working groups have been set up

  • Kingdom produces PPE gear

    Medical supplies from Cambodia have been donated to member countries of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to assist in the fight against Covid-19, said an ADB report published on July 9. The report stated that the supplies were donated as a response to global efforts to

  • Kingdom, US vow stronger ties

    At an academic forum on Saturday to celebrate 70 years of Cambodia-US diplomatic ties, Cambodian researchers and officials expressed hope of encouraging US investments and for that country to deepen and improve its bilateral relations. Held at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, it reviewed the past 70

  • Fifteen Cambodians from Saudi get Covid-19

    The Ministry of Health on Sunday confirmed 15 more imported cases of Covid. The 15 men ‒ all Cambodian aged 21 to 33 ‒ arrived from Saudi Arabia on Friday via a connecting flight in Malaysia. They were travelling with 79 other passengers, three of them women. The ministry said 80 of the

  • Ministry requests school opening

    The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport on Thursday said it would request a decision from Prime Minister Hun Sen to allow a small number of schools to reopen next month. Ministry spokesman Ros Soveacha said if the request is granted, higher-standard schools will reopen

  • Kingdom eyes India FTA, China deal set for August

    Cambodia is studying the possibility of establishing a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) with India to open a new market with the second-largest regional economy. This comes as an FTA with China is scheduled to be signed next month while similar negotiations with South Korea

  • Judge lands in court after crashing into alleged thief

    Sen Sok district police on Thursday sent a Koh Kong Provincial Court judge to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on manslaughter charges after he crashed his car into a woman riding a motorbike on Wednesday, killing her. District police chief Hour Meng Vang told The