LINK The Other Swedes
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Sweden-Kampuchea Friendship Association
Within the progressive Nordic movements many were initially sympathetic to the struggle in Cambodia against the military coup of March 1970. Partly because the Maoist environment in Sweden and Norway were bigger than in Danmark, and partly the Swedish public opinion pushed further to the left (partly fuelled by a stronger anti-Americanism sentiment) than the Danish, Swedish opposition to the Vietnam War had a largely been organized by the strong Maoist dominated FNL movement. In Sweden the Association of Friendship Sweden-Kampuchea founded in October 1976 influenced by the “super Chinese” Marxist-Leninist party SKP. In Denmark it was the Maoist KAP and later Kampuchea Committee who sympathized with the revolutionary Cambodians. In Norway, Vennskapssambandet Norway- Kambodsja had been established as early as the spring of 1975. Delegations from these Nordic movements were to visit and tour Democratic Kampuchea in the latter half of 1978.
Bergstrom went to Cambodia in August 1978 to visit the country on a delegation tour with three other Swedes, Hedvig Ekerwald the author Jan Myrdal and Marita Wikander.
Two cadres escorted the three others and Bergstrom to hospitals, schools, factories, and cooperatives. They even were wined and dined by Pol Pot and Ieng Sary in the Royal Palace and slept for two nights in the Royal Palace in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
The young European leftists, members of an official friendship delegation, shared Pol Pot’s view, seeing the struggle as a revolution to transform Cambodia into a fairer society benefiting the poor. In 1978, Bergstrom was president of the Sweden-Kampuchea Friendship Association 1978_ SKFA Reports
“I was active in the movement against the war in Vietnam when I was 19,” he remembers. “The first demonstration I went to was about Cambodia. We were young and many of us were recruited after a while into the Maoist movement.”
“People did not want Soviet communism, but we young people thought China was different, that it was an ideal society where there were no oppressors.”
“When the Khmer Rouge won in April 1975, we celebrated.”
According to Bergstrom, he witnessed no torture; saw no killings; and heard
of no starvation while he was there. Armed with textbooks, songs, magazines,
and hundreds of photographs and film footage, Bergstrom went back home to
Sweden with visual, physical, and experiential proof that the newly revealed Communist Party of Kampuchea was in the beginning stages, although imperfect stages, towards utopia for the Cambodian society. It was not until he saw thousands of refugees flood into Thailand that he realized he made a grave misjudgment. [Dickens 2008]
“Now I think the whole trip was propaganda and we should never have made it,’’ said Begstrom. “It is still a mystery about how you can delude oneself so much. We were fooled by smiles but what fooled us the most was our own Maoist glasses we wore.”
The delegation returned to Sweden where they undertook a speaking tour and wrote articles in support of the Democratic Kampuchea regime.
The Swedes were sympathetic. Gunnar Bergstrom says it was the smiles that fooled him the most — the krama-clad boys and girls beaming in the rice fields of newly communist Cambodia.
Although he had some doubts about what he saw during a fourteen-day trip through the country in 1978, the smiling peasants helped him push those nagging thoughts from his mind. Bergstrom thought Cambodia could become “a very special model for the third world … an ideal society with no oppressors.”
After the trip articles and talks were published: Both Gunnar Bergström and Hedvig Ekerwald published numerous articles on the delegation’s trip in the journal Kampuchea, including a book Kampuchea between the two wars (in 1979).
“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 regime’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 counsellor for drug addicts. “You have to re-identify everything you have believed in.”
“After six months I left that movement because I realised I had been wrong about the Khmer Rouge,” recalled Bergstrom. To make amends, he wrote articles for the Swedish press renouncing his support for Democratic Kampuchea. Bergstrom admits that he was young — 27 years old — and idealistic when he undertook what he now considers a “propaganda tour” of the country.
We saw what they wanted us to see, but we also saw what we wanted to believe.
“For my part in supporting the Khmer Rouge and what they did, I am very sorry,” he told those gathered to hear Bergstrom publically speak to Cambodian audiences. “I cannot undo the trip. I can only try to make things right now.”
Thirty years later, Gunnar Bergstrom returned to Cambodia for the first time since 1978 to tell about the things he saw, and ignored, and he is donating his photo and movie archive from the 1978 trip to the Documentation Center of Cambodia, an non-government organisation (NGO) dedicated to archiving the history of the period. It offers viewers an unfamiliar glimpse into what is regarded as a genocidal regime. In addition to overt propaganda shots of cultural performances are pictures of smiling children, factory workers, men and women eating in communal halls, and people planting rice against the backdrop of the lush Cambodian countryside.
The photos, all of which are colour, offer a rare “candy-eyed view” of a regime determined to deceive Western visitors. Bergstrom’s collection includes no photos of the torture, starvation, death, and despair. The exhibition, titled “Gunnar in the Living Hell“, will find a permanent home at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
Cambodia August 1978
A commentary and photographs can be found at Gunnar Bergstrom’s personal web pages
In November 2008, with the assistance of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, the repentant Swede returned to Cambodia and retrace the delegation’s journey. As part of this, he showcased a display of photographs he took during the visit, entitled ‘Gunnar in the Living Hell: Democratic Kampuchea, August 1978’.
A duplicate exhibition entitled “Dinner with Pol Pot,” was shown from September 2009 by the co-sponsors of Bergstrom visit at the Living History Forum in Stockholm, Sweden but controversially ordered to close in 2010.The nation’s Parliamentary Ombudsman found that it had violated the privacy of one of Pol Pot’s Swedish guests, now Professor of Sociology at Uppsala University, as the exhibition’s commentary had taken the form of a belated “punishment for what she said and written.” Criticism of the Living History Forum
THE SKFA delegation was taken to factories, agricultural cooperatives, schools and a hospital. They went to the port of Kompong Som, now Sihanoukville, where they saw rice being loaded onto ships for export to China.
“We thought this was proof they were self-sufficient, that they were able to grow more rice than they needed.”
For their audience with Pol Pot, they had to submit questions in advance. “We gave him nine. One was about the accusations of genocide. He denied it was happening and said it was just Western slander.”
“I had no strong impression of Pol Pot. People asked me if he seemed crazy. At the time he seemed normal. That was even scarier in retrospect because it meant he was a rational killer.”
One part of the dinner that makes Bergstrom laugh today was a brief conversation he had with Ieng Sary in French. “He asked me who should be allowed to come to Cambodia, should they let in journalists from the Swedish media.”
“I told him of course they should, that they had nothing to hide,” he says, smiling at the irony.
“Since we did not speak Khmer we had to speak to people through an interpreter,” says Bergstrom. “That’s one of the main reasons they were able to make sure we saw only what they wanted us to see.”
“Anytime I saw something disturbing I was able to fall back on the excuse that the revolution was young and they will learn,” he admits
It is what Bergstrom and the other members of his delegation did not see during their time in Cambodia that haunts him.
“[I am sorry] to Cambodian people for what happened, or in a sense, my part in it. I supported and became part of a propaganda machine for murder. So, I say sorry to the victims,” Bergstrom said.
Eirik Rossen. How Pol Pot managed to lure the Swedish “comrades” (March 2006)
Georgia Wilkins . New photo exhibition offers rare glimpse into KR regime
The Phnom Penh Post , 14 November 2008
Elena Lesley. Former Khmer Rouge sympathizer arrives in Phnom Penh
The Phnom Penh Post 16 November 2008
Andrew Nette. Khmer Rouge Through Blinkered Eyes
Inter Press Service, Nov 19 2008
Georgia Wilkins. KR guest returns, repenting
The Phnom Penh Post, 18 November 2008
Elena Lesley. Democratic Kampuchea, through Maoist lenses
The Phnom Penh Post 19 November 2008
Sarah Jones Dickens .New Revelations: Gunnar Bergstrom’s Return to Cambodia
DCC Magazine: Searching for the Truth, November, 2008
Vorak Ny . Remembering the real regime
The Phnom Penh Post, 4 December 2008