The Power of an Apology: Gunnar Bergstrom November 27, 2008Posted by chandrapong007 in Cambodia, Politics.
Tags: Gunnar Bergstrom, Sarah Jones Dickens
Siem Reap, Cambodia:
Gunnar Bergstrom and three other delegates were invited by the Khmer Rouge in August 1978 to visit Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge regime controlled the country. He was one of the few foreigners allowed in to see Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge took him around the countryside to see hospitals, factories and schools on an orchestrated tour. He went back home to Sweden and hailed the Khmer Rouge as a positive thing for Cambodia. He realized he made a grave misjudgment six months after his trip home. Bergstrom has finally arrived back to Cambodia for the first time in 30 years to apologize for his support.
Gunnar Bergstrom stumbles into Wat Prum Raot on Saturday, November 22, 2008. It is the same pagoda he strolled into 30 years ago when he had a few minutes away from the Khmer Rouge tour. On his 14 day jaunt around the countryside, Bergstrom stayed at the Royal Palace in Siem Reap and prior to his happening into the pagoda, he and the other three delegates had visited Angkor Wat without a sole in sight. Bergstrom literally lived as king while the rest of Cambodia was in hell.
He takes off his shoes to enter the preah vihear (the highest temple at the pagoda), something he forgot or didn’t even know to do back in 1978. He tells us that in 1978 he was so excited to see that the pagoda wasn’t completely destroyed that he ignored the fact that the pagoda had no religious function–it was only used then a storehouse.
Standing inside, he places an offering in a small transparent box inside the pagoda and begins to cry. He seems shameful of his prior ignorance and disrespect for Cambodian and Buddhist culture.
The priest of the pagoda comes to speak with Bergstrom outside the preah vihear. He tells Bergstrom some of his experiences under the Khmer Rouge–that he was a former monk who was defrocked by the Khmer Rouge in 1976. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, he decided to come to Wat Prum Roat. Unlike Bergstrom, he was horrified by the desolate conditions, salvaging small Buddha statues that were scattered outside.
The next day, the priest conducts a blessing ceremony for Bergstrom, sprinkling water on Bergstrom using the branches of mok prom. The priest chants, driving out harmful spirits, but bringing in or keeping the good spirits. The priest then ties a red piece of thread around Bergstrom’s right wrist, a symbolic reminder of forgiveness being sought, awareness gained, and times anew.
Since Bergstrom’s arrival on Sunday November 16, 2008, he has already spent eight days in Phnom Penh, Kampong Cham, Kampong Thom, and Siem Reap speaking with scores of Cambodian citizens—young and old, Buddhist and Muslim, men and women, rich and poor, victim and perpetrator—apologizing to each person whom he spoke with along the way. Sometimes he has apologized publically to large crowds of Cambodians while other times his apology has been a more private affair, only speaking with one individual or a family in the home.
When Bergstrom says he is sorry to Cambodians, he asks for nothing but forgiveness. He offers Cambodians explanations—such as his Maoist ideology or the Khmer Rouge’s craftiness of a crooked tour—but he never uses the explanations as an excuse. The only person he blames is himself.
Over the past eight days, some people have criticized Bergstrom as a fool, wondering how in the world someone can think that Cambodia was peaceful and fine when there was no people in the cities and no monks in the pagodas. Others have called him ignorant, confused as to why he couldn’t put the pieces together.
Maybe all of these accusations are true or maybe they aren’t. But no matter what our opinions are of him, I believe there is something important that can be taken away from Bergstrom’s trip back to Cambodia—the power of an apology.
Bergstrom over dinner in Siem Reap, Cambodia hailed this trip “as one of the best things he’s ever done in his life.” I think his trip back to Cambodia may come second to his wife and children.
Perhaps Bergstrom’s trip back ranks so high on his “favorites’ list” is because he feels a sense of guilt being lifted off his shoulders, compunction that has weighed him down for the past thirty years. Or maybe it is because he feels that he has finally made amends with some of the people, or descendents of whom, he ignored and perhaps inadvertently harmed.
The case of Bergstrom and the relief that he feels are similar to what Aaron Lazare in On Apology elucidates when he talks about the benefits of an apology. Listen to Lazare: “Apologies have the power to heal humiliations and grudges, remove the desire for vengeance, and generate forgiveness on the part of the offended parties. For the offender, they can diminish the fear of retaliation and relieve the guilt and shame that can grip the mind with a persistence and tenancy that are hard to ignore.”
Cambodians often seem to accept Bergstrom’s apology. There are, of course, one or two people who willingly admit that they think Bergstrom is lying or doesn’t mean what he says, and I am sure there are other Cambodians too shy “at losing face” to attack Bergstrom directly. But the majority of participants seem to understand what happened to Bergstrom.
In the words of one woman in a Battambang seminar, “we too were fooled by the Khmer Rouge.” Although apologies benefit both the offended and the offender, not so many people admit they are wrong when they make a mistake. And In a country like Cambodia, it seems that high-ranking people who have made mistakes rarely do apologize to the people whom they harm, fueling the “culture of impunity” that sweeps over Cambodia. Guns, money, and cars rule the streets in this “Kingdom of Wonder.”
In regards to Cambodia’s tragic past, the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime have too never received an apology from someone who supported the regime from a political or ideological standpoint (Youk Chhang). Khieu Samphan, former Khmer Rouge head of state, and Ieng Sary, Pol Pot’s second-in-command, tried to apologize in 1998, but the two never took full responsibility for their actions and ideologies. Cambodians went into a state of uproar—they all knew the two masterminds didn’t really mean it.
But high-ranking ex-Khmer Rouge officials aren’t the only ones not to apologize for their wrongdoings during the regime. Ironically enough, Bergstrom is the only former foreign delegate to apologize so far to Cambodians. Let us not forget that there were delegates from other countries, such as Yugoslavia, Romania, Belgium, Denmark, and even the United States, who came to Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge, with their red flags in hand to support the regime. But as of today, none of these other delegates have said a word. Maybe it is because they are too ashamed of owing up to their mistake: by brushing it under the rug, hopefully one day it will be forgotten. Or perhaps it is because they are too scared their reputations will be damaged when the cat gets out of the bag, that their high-powered positions will be sacrificed or even ruined. And then there are extreme cases, like those of Jan Mrydal, a former Swedish delegate who came over with Bergstrom in ’78, who still today disturbingly believe that the Khmer Rouge was a good thing for Cambodia.
But don’t these former delegates owe the victims an apology?
Doesn’t the world owe Cambodians an apology as it stood by and watched the Cambodian atrocities happen?
And more fundamentally, don’t Cambodians owe each other an apology? For it was Cambodians—and no one else—who killed Cambodians.
Bergstrom’s trip back is only one small step towards reconciliation, a process that Suzannah Linton said must involve people “who willingly participated, the ‘unwilling’ perpetrators who were forced to commit crimes, or bystanders who aided through their moral support and silence.” Cambodia has never had a truth commission and the international tribunal, although underway, has yet to render a verdict. But there are other ways Cambodians can move towards reconciliation while the country waits for a judgment, a decision that in the end has a high chance of not meeting all expectations. Perhaps other ways towards reconciliation may be more pertinent to average Cambodians, people who already feel so unconnected and far-removed from the court, a distance building located hours away from their homes.
If Cambodians (and especially those who had power back in Democratic Kampuchea), would take note of Bergstrom, say they are sorry, and mean it, then maybe those offenders would too feel as relieved as Bergstrom does today. And maybe, just maybe, in a society where trauma is rampant and psychiatrists scarce, these apologies could be one of the first steps towards legitimizing victims’ traumas, a requisite for healing.
Sarah Jones Dickens
Gunnar in the Living Hell is organized by the Documentation Center of Cambodia in collaboration with the Living History Forum of Sweden. An exhibition of photographs from Bergstrom’s delegation tour is traveling with Bergstrom around the country. The photographs are in color, which is very rare for photographs from the Khmer Rouge. A temporary exhibition can be seen at Reyum Arts Gallery until November 25, where it will then be permanently displayed at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, both located in Phnom
Sarah Jones Dickens
US Fulbright Student