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A very dangerous holiday in Cambodia

By: Robert Starkweather Posted: February-11-2012 in
Robert Starkweather

In December 1978, under the spectre of an imminent Vietnamese military invasion, the ultra-secretive Khmer Rouge leadership did something fantastically out of character - it cracked the curtains ever so slightly and let three foreigners inside. Only two would leave alive.

Malcom Caldwell was a Scottish historian with a penchant for Marxist politics. His two travel companions were both war correspondents from the United States: Dick Dudman worked for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; Elizabeth Becker for the Washington Post.

At Pol Pot’s instance, the trio spent a fortnight taking in Democratic Kampuchea’s abandoned cities. They zoomed down its empty highways, past rice fields and irrigation projects, and visited what Becker later described as “true Potemkin” villages.
The pinnacle of the trip included a personal audience with the secretive DK leadership. Becker came away with recorded interviews featuring Pol Pot, Ieng Sary and Ieng Thirith, as well as dozens of colour slides.

Her interviews remain the only known contact between Khmer Rouge leaders and journalists from the outside. But until now, her personal trove of documents remained packed away in private archives, inaccessible to the public. An unveiling is scheduled for Thursday, when the Bophana Audio Visual Centre opens A Reporter’s Dangerous Guided Tour Through Democratic Kampuchea, an exhibit of Becker’s photographs and audio recordings taken during the trip.

Becker is first and foremost a reporter, and her images often lack the artistic flair found in the works of professional shutterbugs. But as a collection, they provide a unique portrait of the DK regime on the eve of its collapse.

Becker’s exhibit of faded photos reveals the Khmer Rouge in full duplicity.
There is the young Ms Becker meeting the Angkar brass and snapshots of workers smiling in the rice fields, each a testament to the thin blanket of normalcy tossed over the piles of dead bodies. So too are there hints of the carnage unseen -- the Central Market overgrown with trees, Independence Monument devoid of life.
Becker’s images are perhaps most disturbing for what they do not include. Beyond the frame lay a killing field of almost 1.5 million bodies, yet the people in Becker’s pictures appear blissfully unaware.

In one snapshot, Caldwell, tall and lanky with long frizzy locks, stands arm-in-arm with a Khmer Rouge soldier. The historian is smiling, no doubt unaware the he too would soon be counted among the casualties of the revolution. On the group’s final night, an unknown assassin opened fire on Caldwell in his Phnom Penh hotel room, killing him in a hail of bullets.

After returning home, Becker filed half-a-dozen or so stories with The Washington Post, then packed away her slides and mostly forgot about them. In the ensuing years, she emerged as a leading international journalist and expert on Southeast Asian affairs. In 1998 she published When the War Was Over, a widely praised account of modern Cambodian history.

She kept the notes and photos from that 1978 trip packed away until a couple of years ago, when, with the extra time of retirement on her hands, she began sorting through the boxed-up memories of her award-winning career.

“I gave a lot of documents to my alma mater, the University of Washington,” she said. “The tribunal asked for some things, so I gave them some stuff. And I thought, the Cambodian people should have access to these documents too.”

Becker’s exhibit runs until February 29. Once the exhibit closes, her photographs and audio recordings will remain with the Bophana Centre, where they will be available to the public.

WHO: Washington Post journalist Elizabeth Becker
WHAT: An exhibition of her photos and interviews from a trip to Democratic Kampuchea in 1978
WHERE: Bophana Centre, Street 200, bophana.org
WHEN: 6pm February 9 to February 29
WHY: A rare behind-the-scenes glimpse of the Khmer Rouge’s Democratic Kampuchea

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This article was 1st published in The Advisor - All back issues are available as downloads here

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