In 1979, Gunnar Bergstrom changed his mind. Mere months before, the drug counselor from the hard, dark north of Sweden had eaten oysters with Pol Pot and Ieng Sary at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. This, depending on one’s perspective, makes Bergstrom something of a moral prodigy.
“In Sweden, Communists in the 50s supported Stalin. It took them 30 years to realize they were wrong,” he said.
On Wednesday, Youk Chhang, the director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, went to Bergstrom’s home in Sweden and ranged freely through his library, gathering two suitcases of films, photographs, documents, and musical tapes from Bergstrom’s April 1978 trip to the closed nation then called Democratic Kampuchea.
“I told Gunnar, ‘When you were here, I was starving and my sister was killed at the same time you were going around smiling and taking pictures, shaking hands with officials, eating rice and chicken,’” Youk Chhang said by phone from Stockholm. Bergstrom just looked at me, Youk Chhang recalled. “He said, ‘What you want, you can have.’ I went through the library and took everything.”
For Bergstrom, now 56, the gift was part of a long process of expiation. “I realized more and more I had been a fool. I had supported the wrong side,” he said, adding: “These things could be of some use to the tribunal now, of more use than they are on my bookshelf.”
Swept up in the anti-war ferment of the 1970s, Bergstrom, like many liberal Westerners, believed in Pol Pot. “It was a dream,” he said. “Here we thought we could have a country with a totally egalitarian society with no landlords. We thought Pol Pot’s regime had found the solution to the Third World problem.”
The Khmer Rouge began an international public relations campaign in March 1978, when they welcomed a group of Yugoslav journalists. In April, Bergstrom led a group from the Swedish Cambodian Friendship Association, which included Jan Myrdal, Marita Wikamder, and Hedda Ekerwald. They were kept on a tight rein, he said, always followed by a guard. Not speaking Khmer, Bergstrom had to rely on the translators provided to him.
They took a whirlwind 14-day tour through Kandal, Phnom Penh, Kompong Cham, Kompong Som (now Sihanoukville), and along the Vietnamese border, rarely staying in any one village for any length of time.
“We met only the well-fed people,” Bergstrom said. There were no soldiers, no prisons, and certainly no torture on display. There were, however, cities with no people.
One evening, in Phnom Penh, Bergstrom said his group was told that in an hour Pol Pot would receive them for dinner at the Royal Palace. “You had to give your questions before. He read his answers,” Bergstrom recalled. The group asked about the rumors of genocide, which Pol Pot denied.
Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister Ieng Sary was also there, said Bergstrom. Over a dinner of fish, oysters and chicken, they spoke French, and Ieng Sary, who was educated in Paris, answered in Khmer.
Bergstrom saw boys working in factories, a technical school, a lovely hospital, well-fed peasants, and people with glasses. This last, he felt, gave the lie to what he and others, embittered by the US war in Vietnam, believe was CIA-fueled anti-communist propaganda, which had it that the Khmer Rouge killed anyone who wore spectacles. It was perhaps shorthand for some deeper truth of the revolution, which sought to remake not just Maoism, but Bergstrom says, mankind itself.
Officials he met, including his guide Sok Rim, asked him, he recalled: “Do you think we have created a new man, a new kind of human being? I said to them, ‘You don’t create a new man in three years. People have been formed over thousands of years.’”
Bergstrom’s doubt exploded into certainty the next year, as thousands of refugees poured out of Cambodia with stories too horrible to comprehend. “When I read refugee stories, I thought everyone is not lying. Thousands are fleeing from Cambodia. There must be a reason,” he said.
Khmer Rouge leaders like Ieng Sary and Ieng Thirith, he said, have lied a lot, giving shifting explanations of, for example, the evacuation of Phnom Penh and the Tuol Sleng torture prison. “I don’t see any regret. I don’t see any remorse,” he said. “We should not have fallen for them. Now we have to correct this.”
But there are still believers, both in Cambodia and abroad. “If you have a belief for 80 years of your life, you believe in a Marxist, Maoist, Stalinist view of things and you have to adjust your vision, it’s like cutting off the branch you are sitting on,” Bergstrom said.
Sometimes, he added, people nurture their blind spots to survive.
He thinks the work of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia is necessary to bring to justice the surviving leaders of Cambodia’s failed revolution. “They blame each other and Pol Pot because he’s dead,” he said. “Crazy dictators should know sooner or later people will catch you.”
Bergstrom has never returned to Cambodia.