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Repentant Khmer Rouge fan returns

By Guy De Launey
BBC News, Phnom Penh

Gunnar Bergstrom visits Khmer Rouge torture centre and jail, Tuol Sleng, Nov 2008
Gunnar Bergstrom regrets his former support of the Khmer Rouge

A Swedish man who supported the Khmer Rouge movement has returned to Cambodia for the first time in 30 years.

Gunnar Bergstrom was part of a group which toured the country and dined with the Khmer Rouge leadership in 1978.

He now says he regrets what he did - and plans to apologise to survivors of the Pol Pot era.

As many as two million Cambodians are thought to have died because of Khmer Rouge policies, and trials are under way of surviving Khmer Rouge leaders.

The last time Gunnar Bergstrom came to Phnom Penh, there was virtually nobody in the city.

The Khmer Rouge had evacuated the population to the countryside.

Many of them died there - from malnutrition, disease or summary execution.

Different light

But Mr Bergstrom's Swedish support group saw the Khmer Rouge in a different light.

They thought the ultra-Maoist organisation had liberated Cambodia from imperialist Western powers.

Gunnar Bergstrom visited Khmer Rouge villagers in 1978
Gunnar Bergstrom was impressed by Khmer Rouge villagers in 1978

On their carefully controlled tour in 1978, the Swedes only saw the positive side of the revolution - factories, hospitals, and smiling peasants.

Even then, Mr Bergstrom says, he felt troubled by the stories which were starting to emerge.

"There were times when the doubts crept into my mind, but I wouldn't express them to the group of the other people until later.

"But you shouldn't exaggerate it. I was crazy enough to support the Khmer Rouge when I came home, and I quieted that voice," he said.

Strong reactions

Now Mr Bergstrom is trying to make up for not speaking out at the time.

He is staging an exhibition of his photographs from the time, called "Living Hell", and he is touring the country again.

Pol Pot leads peasants on march in 1979
Pol Pot led peasants on a murderous march to the future.

This time he will be addressing public forums for survivors of the Khmer Rouge era.

And he is prepared for strong reactions.

"I can answer questions and will have to deal with any reaction I meet," he said.

He said he would be pleased if that helped in educating young people in Cambodia about what happened.

He also wants to educate people in Sweden too, to not be uncritical, he said.

Mr Bergstrom's return to Cambodia coincides with the long-awaited Khmer Rouge Tribunal.

Five former leaders of the organisation have been charged with crimes against humanity.

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SEE ALSO
Four jailed for Cambodia murders
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Past catches up with Khmer Rouge killer
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Khmer Rouge's Duch set for trial
12 Aug 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Timeline: Cambodia
22 Oct 08 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Cambodia
08 Oct 08 |  Country profiles


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