Journalist Tells of Trip to Pol Pot’s Phnom Penh

U.S. journalist Elizabeth Becker on Monday recounted dramatic stories at the Khmer Rouge tribunal of meeting Pol Pot in 1978 on a trip to Cambodia and later being awoken by gunshots as an academic in her traveling party was murdered.

Ms. Becker—an expert witness who authored “When The War Was Over” and reported in the country prior to the Pol Pot regime —was invited into Democratic Kampuchea in December 1978 and granted a rare audience with the secretive Khmer Rouge leader.

Veteran journalist and expert witness Elizabeth Becker gives testimony at the Khmer Rouge tribunal Monday. (ECCC)
Veteran journalist and expert witness Elizabeth Becker gives testimony at the Khmer Rouge tribunal Monday. (ECCC)

“It was a very dramatic scenario….we walked into an audience hall and sitting there in the large chair was Pol Pot himself,” Ms. Becker said.

“Then we were told he would not answer any of our questions and [the answers] would later be given to us in writing and he would talk to us. Instead of an interview, it became a lecture.”

Ms. Becker said Pol Pot embarked on a “bizarre” rant about how Cambodia would beat the Vietnamese in an impending geopolitical war with the assistance of the NATO.

“He drew this incredible vision of the Vietnamese Army coming from the east supported by Warsaw Pact tanks and armed forces and then he said the Cambodians would stop them with Cambodian armed forces and forces from NATO,” she said, adding that Pol Pot asserted that the war would be the “biggest crisis in the world.”

The former Washington Post correspondent went on to explain the disturbing events of that evening, when Malcolm Caldwell—a Marxist academic and Khmer Rouge sympathizer who was on the trip with Ms. Becker and journalist Richard Dudman—was murdered in the Phnom Penh house where the group was staying.

After being woken up by gunshots, Ms. Becker said, she rushed out of bed and ran into a young man brandishing a gun in her direction.

“He looked Cambodian but had a strange cap…he pointed the gun and I screamed at him, first in English and then in Khmer: ‘no,’” she said.

Ms. Becker said she ran back into her room and then heard multiple gunshots before the shooter exited the house.

She described sitting in silence for several hours before a Khmer Rouge soldier, and later Thiounn Prasith, then-Khmer Rouge Ambassador to the UN, arrived and informed her that Mr. Caldwell had been killed.

The next day, Ms. Becker and Mr. Dudman attended a secular ceremony for Mr. Caldwell that was overseen by Ieng Sary, Foreign Minister during Democratic Kampuchea, who blamed the Vietnamese for Mr. Caldwell’s death.

Documents obtained later from the Tuol Sleng security center, she told the tribunal, suggested that a group of Khmer Rouge soldiers arrested for the murder were among the last prisoners to be executed at the notorious prison before the Vietnamese invasion.

Ms. Becker decried the strictly controlled nature of her visit, saying her group was taken to “model cooperatives”—including a “Potemkin” village in Kompong Cham province—and said she was banned from traveling to Battambang province, a final refuge of the Khmer Republic, in order to investigate whether refugees’ tales of mass atrocities were accurate.

She also spoke of sneaking from the group’s Phnom Penh base and wandering the capital’s deserted streets, which had been emptied by the regime.

“I kept thinking I’d turn a corner and I’d see real life, I’d run into some kids playing a game, or some women talking…Cambodians are lively people and there was nothing,” Ms. Becker said.

“What was missing was almost profoundly more upsetting to me than what was there,” she added.

Ms. Becker’s testimony continues Tuesday.

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