Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Pol Pot and the repentant Swede

  • 24 November 2008

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