In August 1978, shortly before the fall of Democratic Kampuchea, Gunnar Bergstroem visited Cambodia as a Khmer Rouge sympathizer. He and three other members of the Swedish-Cambodian Friendship Association took a two-week propaganda tour of the country and dined with Pol Pot at the Royal Palace.
On Sunday, he returned to Cambodia for another tour—this time to repudiate his earlier visit. Now 57, Bergstroem works as a drug counselor in the north of Sweden and gave up his Maoism long ago.
Today he will visit Tuol Sleng, Choeung Ek and the Khmer Rouge tribunal; on Tuesday, an exhibit of photos taken by his delegation in 1978 will open at Tuol Sleng and the Reyum art gallery. He will then embark on a speaking tour, organized by the Documentation Center of Cambodia, of five Cambodian provinces, where he will show the photos and discuss his experiences. DC-Cam has also published a book of the photographs, complete with Bergstroem’s annotations of his reactions then and now. He spoke with The Cambodia Daily’s Rollo Romig at DC-Cam headquarters Sunday afternoon.
- Why did you decide to return to Cambodia?
- I had to think about this. What’s the point? First, it’s personal—to somehow make things right, if that’s possible. And I want to encourage critical thinking.
We have a friendship association with Cuba in Sweden and they use the same arguments we used: ‘Well, Cuba’s basically good, so we can excuse that some writers are locked up, there aren’t so many.’ Today I think that every time you take one step away from freedom of speech, freedom of movement, elections, you’re on a sliding scale, and the idea that we will move back to democracy later—that never happens. So if I’ve learned something, I’ve learned that.
I looked out the window just now and saw two monks on the street, and I remember my own self-censorship. Of course I knew that there were monks here before [the Khmer Rouge era], but we didn’t see one. And if you read the Democratic Kampuchea constitution, there was a very strange paragraph about freedom of religion—except for those religions that contradict the state of Democratic Kampuchea. So obviously, they had forbidden Buddhism. And we wrote nothing about that when we came home.
- In the book, you write, “The things we were shown did disprove some of the rumors about Cambodia.” Such as?
- When we landed at Pochentong Airport, we met a person who Le Monde and the Times said had been executed by Pol Pot. His name was Ok Sokun—and I knew it was him, I’d met him before.
My first impression of Cambodia was meeting a man who everybody claimed they had killed and here he was alive. And then we thought, oh, maybe everything they say is wrong. We saw people with glasses; everybody wearing glasses was not killed. There were no armed guards at the rice fields—the ones we saw, anyway.
Those were some things that were disproved, and we used those things and exaggerated them in gross form. Two or three minor mistakes somebody made, and we blew them out of proportion.
- In the book you mention your hope that your experience could be a lesson to others who may be ideologically deluded or misled. Are there examples in the world today of politically misguided groups that could benefit from your experience?
- I don’t think these people would happen to read or know about my experience, but the first thing I think of is in Sweden today, there are Nazis, young people who really don’t know what they’re getting into. And I was told today that there are young Khmer people here who really don’t want to believe that the Khmer Rouge were as bad as they were.
- What about the other three members of the Swedish-Cambodia Friendship Association who visited Cambodia in 1978? Have you been in contact with them?
- I wrote an article in 1979 that said we were wrong, but received no reaction from them until a year later when they had broadened the group, and they wanted me back. I never rejoined.
The other members of the association stayed on for a while. One dropped off, and she doesn’t want to talk about it. She was married to a Khmer Rouge who was killed here. It’s a part of her life she wants to be over with.
Jan Myrdal, the author, still defends Pol Pot. He wrote that Cambodia would be better off if Pol Pot had remained in power. He admits only that a few more people were killed than he thought at first.
The fourth person is Hedda Ekerwald. She took some of the pictures [in the exhibition], and she agreed that the pictures be published here. She basically agrees that we were wrong here, we were fooled. She is a little more skeptical and thinks that maybe some things were good. She doesn’t support the tribunal because she thinks [that] you should also prosecute [former US Secretary of State and National Security Adviser] Henry Kissinger and [late US President] Richard Nixon for the bombings.
- In the book you also say that they should be held accountable. How would you imagine that accountability taking place?
- I don’t. That’s why I can accept the tribunal, because if you make prosecuting Henry Kissinger a condition of the tribunal, it will never happen. It’s not realistic. You can’t blame the Americans for what the Khmer Rouge did. I think the Americans should be held accountable, but it won’t happen, except in the general debate and education.
- Are you anxious about the time ahead of you in Cambodia?
- People ask me that. What happens if somebody gets furious? If somebody stands up and says, ‘Pol Pot killed my brother, and you defended him.’ If things like that happen, or some other reaction, I have to take it when it comes.
I decided not to prepare for it and let it happen if it happens. If they want to say something to me that I wouldn’t like to hear, maybe I should hear it. I was wrong, and they were right.