Feb 13 2012

A Reporter’s Dangerous Guided Tour Through Democratic Kampuchea

Published by at 1:16 pm under Events


Until the end of February, the Bophana Centre in Phnom Penh is showing an exhibition of Elizabeth Becker’s photographs and artifacts from her epic 1978 trip to Cambodia, “A Reporter’s Dangerous Guided Tour Through Democratic Kampuchea”.

At least he had a nice smile.

Elizabeth Becker, an American, was one of only two Western journalists allowed into Cambodia while it was known as Democratic Kampuchea. In this multimedia exhibit, her guided tour of the country by the Khmer Rouge is presented, including recordings of her interview with Pol Pot, in which she explains that he was hoping that NATO would come help protect the Khmer Rouge against the Vietnamese forces. Becker compared this conversation to watching a Twilight Zone episode, it was so bizarre.

The exhibit comes at a timely moment in history, just days after Duch’s appeal was dismissed. “It may seem like I planned this exhibit to coincide with Duch’s verdict and Case 002 — I didn’t,” Becker said at the opening. “It’s a wonderful coincidence.” Becker is the author of When the War Was Over, a 1986 book about the modern history of Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge.

The exhibit features photographs that Becker took to show the Cambodia that was presented to her by the Khmer Rouge; she and another journalist and a British professor who had been invited on the trip were kept under virtual house arrest and only allowed out with Khmer Rouge chaperones.

As a result, her photos show the version of Democratic Kampuchea that the Khmer Rouge wanted the world to see: a smiling Pol Pot, Cambodians harvesting rice near Angkor, happy women lugging giant bags of rice, children in the now-infamous black uniforms and kramas helping with the bountiful harvest. What is most striking about these pictures, Becker points out, is what is missing: schools, markets, monks, people worshipping at pagodas.

On the last night of her trip, a Khmer Rouge gunman entered the visitors’ guesthouse and after pointing a gun at Becker, shot and killed the British professor with whom she was travelling. “For one brief night,” she said “I had a small understanding of what Cambodians went through during the four years of the Khmer Rouge.”

“A Reporter’s Dangerous Guided Tour Through Democratic Kampuchea” runs through February 29 at the Bophana Centre. Entry is free.

Bophana Centre
64 Street 200, Phnom Penh
T: (023) 992 174

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