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Swede apologises for sympathising with Khmer Rouge

world Updated: Nov 16, 2008 11:54 IST

AP
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When Gunnar Bergstrom was a guest of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge regime in August 1978, the young Swede enjoyed a dinner of oysters and fish hosted by dictator Pol Pot. The meal followed a rare interview he and three of his countrymen were given by the secretive communist leader who labeled talk about genocide under his rule a Western lie.

The young European leftists, members of an unofficial friendship delegation, shared Pol Pot's view, seeing the Khmer Rouge takeover as a revolution to transform Cambodia into a fairer society benefiting the poor.

Bergstrom has since realized he was mistaken about Pol Pot's brutal regime, and he wants to make amends.

"We had been fooled by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. We had supported criminals," he told The Associated Press by phone from his Stockholm home.

The 57-year-old Swede arrived in Cambodia on Sunday, for the first time in 30 years, to donate his archives from the trip and publish a photo book recounting the journey.

Bergstrom has deep regrets about his August 1978 trip to Democratic Kampuchea, as Cambodia was then called. He was one of only a handful of Westerners whom the xenophobic Khmer Rouge allowed to visit during its 1975-79 hold on power.

While presenting an earnest and progressive face to foreign visitors, the Khmer Rouge were inflicting a reign of terror that left an estimated 1.7 million dead from starvation, overwork, disease and execution.
"For those still appalled by my support of the Khmer Rouge at the time, and especially those who suffered personally under that regime, I can only say I am sorry and ask for your forgiveness," Bergstrom says in his book, "Living Hell."
In 1978, Bergstrom was president of the Sweden-Kampuchea Friendship Association, a small political group that identified with the communism of Mao Zedong's China and was motivated by the movement against the US war in Vietnam.

To their Swedish sympathizers, the Khmer Rouge revolution presented an "idealistic idea about an alternative society," Bergstrom said.
The Khmer Rouge had its origins in the struggle against French colonialism in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, while its ideology was shaped in part by the French university education of several of its leaders, including Pol Pot. It came to power by toppling a pro-American Cambodian government in 1975 after a bitter five-year civil war.

Within days of their April 17 takeover, the Khmer Rouge began a radical social upheaval, emptying the cities and sending people to work in massive rural collectives. They simultaneously cut almost all links with the outside world.

But the regime's flawed plans for a communist utopia sparked a paranoid search for scapegoats.

Bloody purges swept the country, and attacks were made on border villages in neighboring Vietnam. An invasion by Hanoi would drive the Khmer Rouge from power in early 1979.

A few months before the collapse, the Khmer Rouge invited foreigners, mostly left-wing sympathizers, to visit in a halfhearted effort to whitewash accusations of human rights abuses. During their 14-day tour, Bergstrom's delegation saw what their hosts wanted them to see: smiling Cambodian faces, clean hospitals, well-fed people eating happily in cooperative kitchens. They interviewed Pol Pot, who called accusations of atrocities "Western propaganda and a lie."
The Swedes were sympathetic.

"Pol Pot was maybe wrong but he wasn't that bad," Bergstrom said, recalling his thoughts at the time. "We came home with a belief that we have found the truth somehow that this (story about killings) is Western propaganda."

"Our excuse was that 'The (Cambodian) revolution is young, immature, you will never have a perfect revolution, and that these killings ... are now (occurring) in the beginning and will stop later."'
But evidence that emerged after the Khmer Rouge's fall forced Bergstrom to change his views.

"It's like falling off the branch of the tree," said Bergstrom, who now works as a counselor for drug addicts. "You have to re-identify everything you have believed in."

To make amends, he wrote articles for the Swedish press renouncing his support for the Khmer Rouge.

He is donating his photo and movie archive from the 1978 trip to the Documentation Center of Cambodia, an independent group researching Khmer Rouge crimes. The center is publishing his book and organizing forums around Cambodia at which Bergstrom will speak, and he will visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former high school and the Khmer Rouge's largest torture facility. "It's a healing process for him," said Youk Chhang, the center's director. "He's part of our history now, and it's our mission to help people reconcile and move on."