Reporter recalls trip to Pol Pot’s Cambodia
AFP PHNOM PENH WHEN the Khmer Rouge invited a pair of American journalists to Cambodia in the late 1970s for a rare glimpse of the revolution, they found empty streets and schools in a city with no laughter.
“There was nobody there. It was like walking into the Twilight Zone,” recalled onetime Washington Post correspondent Elizabeth Becker.
Invited by the hardline communist regime to visit the capital Phnom Penh in 1978, she jumped at the rare chance to see the secretive revolution in action and meet its leader Pol Pot. But after a tense twoweek trip, peppered with numerous staged photo opportunities in a filmset-like atmosphere, Becker left convinced of the regime’s insanity.
And her British travel companion was dead.
More than three decades later, the now retired journalist has returned to put her photographs and recorded interviews with Pol Pot and other Khmer Rouge leaders on display in Cambodia for the first time.
She is also preparing to testify before Cambodia’s UNbacked court in a landmark trial against three top leaders — including ex-foreign minister Ieng Sary, who arranged her visa for that fateful trip.
The three deny charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide for their roles in the 1975-1979 regime, which is blamed for the deaths of up to two million people from starvation, overwork or execution.
Led by “Brother Number One” Pol Pot, the hardline communist movement emptied cities, abolished money and religion and forced millions to work in huge labour camps in a bid to create an agrarian utopia.
But the outside world understood little about what was going on in the closed-off country at the time.
By December 1978, in the final days of the regime, a Vietnamese invasion was imminent and the Khmer Rouge belatedly sought support to fend off the enemy — starting with positive press about the revolution “They had isolated themselves from the world and desperately needed friends or help,” Becker, now 64, said in a recent interview with AFP.
Becker, who began her career as a war reporter in Phnom Penh in the early 1970s, was invited with US journalist Richard Dudman, who had covered the Vietnam War.