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Pol Pot and the repentant Swede

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It was an error many might have made, and did, in fact, make. But Gunnar Bergstrom and his crew of Swedes from the Sweden-Kampuchea Friendship Association did not leave Cambodia in 1978 with any negative impressions of their hosts.

The tour had witnessed an immaculate display of choreographed state control by the Khmer Rouge. There was, of course, the mandatory state reception by one-time Francophile Pol Pot, ample food and good drink. Tours to the revolutionary countryside and the camps were tightly controlled. The impressions could not be anything but positive. The lot of those grinning peasants under the Pol Pot regime was, the group concluded, a good one.

Bergstrom left, not with the knowledge that the systematic murder of a population (some 1.7 million deaths in all) was taking place, but with a sense that the progressive forces of history had taken root in Indochina. The Khmer Rouge, with some destabilising help from American bombing, had not only emancipated the people of Cambodia; they were going zealously to reform their society.

The repentant Swede returned to Cambodia last week after 30 years, hoping to atone for his self-deceptions through meeting the victims of Pol Pot's Year Zero scheme. He will front up to public forums addressing survivors. He is readying himself for the grief that follows when those in denial face the confessional. Part of it is already in print, in the form of a book, Living Hell. In words to the Associated Press prior to his departure, Bergstrom claimed that, 'We had been fooled by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. We had supported criminals.'

Bergstrom's seduction by the communist revolution was merely one of thousands that took place in the 20th century among the European intelligentsia. The Hungarian polymath and intellectual Arthur Koestler described his conversion in the 1930s. One only had to see the rotting crops that a capitalist state refused to distribute amongst the populace, citing the need to be frugal and stringent in the face of economic hardship. The Great Depression saw to it that capitalism would receive a bad press for most of that century. Communism, in turn, had its defenders till the day the Soviet Union ceased to exist.

Silence was the logical response from someone like Bergstrom. After all, one would not want to disbelieve the utopian project. 'There were many times when the doubts crept into my mind, but I wouldn't express them to the group of other people until later.' But it was a silence that found itself on all sides of the Cold War. The disappearances and murders in South America at the hands of authoritarian regimes were kept under wraps by directives from within the White House and State Department. The very absence of records and bodies suggested a lethal silence. No one would talk: the stakes were high in a global, at times Manichean struggle.

While the role of communist and Marxist intellectuals these days is a small one, the lessons of the communist tragedy still resonate. Some call the fall of the Soviet Union the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century. But victims were cast aside as the necessities of revolutionary progress. To paraphrase Lenin: let 90 per cent of the population perish as long as ten per cent live to see a better future. Pol Pot came as close as any to realising this maxim, though the 'better' future eluded him.

Others are bound to disagree that communism has had, with all its experiments and excesses, its day. Someone like the Slovenian intellectual provocateur Slavoj Žižek, currently one of the major intellectuals of the left, told The Guardian recently of a secret he wanted to share: communism will eventually win. Such figures see communism as the resurgent force that can cope with the capitalist excesses of the current global financial crisis.

If it does, it will certainly only be able to do so in a humanitarian way. But as Bergstrom fronts the victims of Pol Pot's megalomania and genocide, one should also empathise with him. At least he finally repented.

Binoy KampmarkBinoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge, and lecturer in history at the University of Queensland. He blogs at ozmoses.blogspot.com


Topic tags: Gunnar Begstrom, Cambodia, Sweden, Pol Pot, Kampuchea, genocide, khmer rouge, sorry, apology



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Existing comments

Good to read this Binoy, but you make a misleading and exaggerated statement about the causes of the 1.7 million deaths. Many died, perhaps a third, due to the war with Vietnam, starvation and disease. Not all these deaths can be called murders. In 1975 Pol Pot did not want to kill 90% of his population, but only the urbanised and educated classes, of which he was a member, and the Vietnamese sympathisers among the Khmer Rouge.

Of course, I don't want to trivialise the facts. It was an awful regime.

Adam | 25 November 2008  

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