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The Power of an Apology: Gunnar Bergstrom November 27, 2008

Posted by chandrapong007 in Cambodia, Politics.
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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

Penh, Cambodia.


Sarah Jones Dickens

US Fulbright Student



1. Sammy and Chris Dickens - November 29, 2008

Sarah, your mother and I are so proud of you and what you have accomplished regarding your work with Mr. Bergstrom and the many other ideas you have shared with the Cambodia people. You and your work will hopefully help those people come to a better understanding of the tramatic expisode that they and their country have faced. We love you so much and wish you the best in all your endeavors. Love Mother and Father.

2. asfintesco - November 25, 2009

Thank you for the interesting post, Sarah. I’ve just visited the exhibition today and would like to share my great anger when I visited it. Really, I’m lacking the words to express my outrage.

The pictures Gunnar Bergstrom took in 1978 can be seen on the 3rd floor of one of the buildings. These pictures are described on 4 different ways:
1) the title of the picture, saying basically what is on the picture
2) his thoughts of the situation in 1978
3) his thoughts about them nowadays
4) forbidden thoughts in that time

Not all the pictures are described with all the four ways. Some only show the title, while others are described on all the four ways. Further, the texts are shown in English and in Khmer. BUT, after a while, I realized though that not all the texts where translated into Khmer. First I thought this might be due to some signs that had fallen down and not been replaced. But then I started paying attention to which translations where actually missing. And it seemed to me that they where nearly always the critical ones. So after what I saw, almost never a forbidden thought (4) was translated! Also the way Gunnar Bergstrom thinks about the pictures now (3) where often missing.

Is this a conspiracy or a coincidence?
To me it seemed it was NO coincidence. And the dramatic thing about it: Gunnar Bergstrom was often saying he now thinks his trip then was all but a show for the political tourists (Swedish, Romanians, and more). But today I got the impression, that exposition of his pictures STILL is a show, only for the tourists. Apparently almost no critical texts where translated for the locals. And even if it’s not only the critical texts that are missing. Cambodians have the right to read what is written on ALL the texts.

When I asked the person who was selling the tickets at the entrance about this, I got the answer that the museum unfortunately didn’t have enough educated personnel for it. The person seemed to understand my question well, but the answer is just ridiculous to me. I don’t blame the person self. But I’m not believing a word I was told!

How can it be so difficult to translate a few texts into ones own mother language? And why would the translator be so selective and only translate texts as “these kids seemed to be ok” and “people working in a rice field” but not “nowadays I think it was all set up for us” and “forbidden thought: the Khmer Rouge misunderstood the Marxist and communist ideas”. (Note: I didn’t copy these texts literally but write them down from my memory of where I just was 1h ago).

I’m curious if other visitors the exposition testify the same.

3. Kalyan Sann - December 6, 2009

Dear Asfintesco,

Many thanks for your comments on the “Gunnar in the Living Hell” actual exhibition at Cambodian Tual Sleng Genocide Museum.

You’re right about the four points of descriptions in the pictures, but not all of them are described the same ways. The fact is that there is no conspiracies or coincidences. Every description was provided by Gunnar himself. He wrote about what he could remember, and what he couldn’t remember he left it blank giving only title to the pictures. Of course, he must have forgoten many things and thoughts after thirty years of the trip and his age has developed from 27 to 57 year old.

Concerning text translations, ALL texts were translated in to Khmer language from the time the exhibition was set up. I believe it is the wind and lack of care that caused the missing Khmer texts, and I do take this as my responsibility. Unfortunately, I cann’t do anything to improve this because I am no longer part of the project team (I am working somewhere else!).

I believe that you are not the only one that noticed all of this technical problems, and I am very appreciated your comments and expressions. Again, thank you very much 🙂

Sarah, you have done great job! Miss U.

Kalyan Sann
The exhibition producer

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