British Khmer Rouge Apologist Murdered in Cambodia – After a Meeting With Pol Pot.
Above Photo: Malcom Caldwell (left) with a Khmer Rouge cadre, Elizabeth Becker and Richard Dudman.
I was recently surprised to come across an old article about another Briton murdered by the Khmer Rouge, bizarrely on the day he’d met with Pol Pot in Phnom Penh. I’d never even heard of him, so I did some digging…
In December 1978, a British academic and notorious Khmer Rouge/Pol Pot apologist called Malcom Caldwell was a member of the last group of Western journalists and writers invited to visit Cambodia as guests of the Khmer Rouge. The other two members were US journalists Elizabeth Becker and Richard Dudman.
The three visitors were given a highly chaperoned and propaganda-soaked tour of the country. “We traveled in a bubble,” wrote Becker. “No one was allowed to speak to me freely.”
Throughout the 1970s Malcom Caldwell had been a key member of CND, an anti-Vietnam War activist and a staunch supporter of liberation movements around the world, including the Khmer Rouge’s victory in Cambodia, which he frequently championed in his writing.
Naively, Caldwell had an unshakeable belief in Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, and the organisation’s barmy economic/agricultural reforms. He should have known better, because Caldwell was a history lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.
Colleagues said Caldwell was a man with very clear theoretical and ideological views and that facts didn’t seem to worry him. This translates in the Khmer Rouge’s case as Caldwell blindly supporting their attempt to make Cambodia great again by forcing everyone to grow rice, and rubbishing reports – even first-hand accounts – of Khmer Rouge atrocities and the mass murder of its own civilians, as Western propaganda.
He was also a staunch supporter of American intellectual Noam Chomsky, another shameless Khmer Rouge apologist.
As a reward for his one-eyed support of the Khmer Rouge, Caldwell had been invited to Cambodia in 1978 and on the final day of a two-week tour of Cambodia, he was told that he would meet Pol Pot. This was a rare privilege. Unlike most other communist leaders, Pol Pot hadn’t created a personality cult. There were no posters of him. He was seldom seen or quoted, and many Cambodians hadn’t even heard of him.
Only seven westerners were ever invited by the Khmer Rouge to visit Cambodia (which had by then been renamed Democratic Kampuchea). And Caldwell was the first and only Briton to be a guest of the regime.
Travelling with Caldwell were two American journalists, Elizabeth Becker and Richard Dudman. Becker had been a reporter in Phnom Penh during the civil war that brought the Khmer Rouge to power. She knew the terrain, and she knew what was really happening in the country.
“He [Caldwell] didn’t want to know about problems with the Khmer Rouge,” she said.
With Dudman and Becker, Caldwell was escorted around the country to a series of staged scenes. Alarmed by the changes she saw and frustrated by what she was not allowed to see, Becker grew increasingly combative with her hosts. “It was so clearly awful,” says Becker. “One of the problems was the absence of what I saw. The absence of people. And that’s a different kind of proof to ‘I don’t see any people being executed.'”
Caldwell was not unduly bothered. “He preferred to stay in the car and laugh at the clumsy photo opportunities prepared for us,” Becker wrote in her book on Cambodia, When The War Was Over.
At the end of the tour, the party returned to a deserted Phnom Penh, which Dudman described as “a Hiroshima without the destruction, a Pompeii without the ashes”. They stayed at a guest house near the centre of Monivong Boulevard, one of the empty city’s main thoroughfares. Close by was the secret facility of Tuol Sleng, a former school that had been turned into an interrogation centre.
Known as S-21, Tuol Sleng specialised in gaining confessions through torture. Between 14,000 and 16,000 prisoners – men, women and children – passed through its gates; only a handful survived. After processing at Tuol Sleng (S-21), prisoners were usually taken to the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek, where they were brutally murdered.
Tragically, only a couple of months before Caldwell’s visit to Phnom Penh, another Briton had also ‘visited’ the Khmer Rouge capital. His name was John Dawson Dewhirst, a 26-year-old teacher from Newcastle who’d been captured in 1978, while sailing with friends through the Gulf of Thailand.
Intercepted by a Khmer Rouge patrol boat, he was incarcerated in S-21 and tortured over the course of a month, making a series of ever more bleakly surreal, tortured confessions about him and his father being CIA agents, his father using the unlikely cover of “headmaster of Benton Road secondary school” in Newcastle.
S-21 was not concerned with the truth. Its only aim was to derive the fullest possible confession. After that, Dewhirst, like so many thousands of others, was brutally murdered.
Yet just a few months after Dewhirst’s murder, fellow Briton Malcom Caldwell prepared himself to meet Pol Pot, the man who had commissioned it. Caldwell was excited. He admired Pol Pot’s plan to dramatically increase rice production to finance Cambodia’s reconstruction. It required collectivisation and slave labour, though Caldwell preferred to see the effort in terms of spontaneous revolutionary spirit.
In the event, owing to the shortage of technicians and experts (who were killed as class enemies) and lack of peasant support, rice production fell well short of targets.
The result was the opposite of self-sufficiency: famine. Unable to accept the shortcomings in his plans, Pol instead blamed spies and counter-revolutionaries, and that meant, in the absence of rice, spies and counter revolutionaries had to be produced.
One Friday morning, Caldwell was taken in a Mercedes limo to see Pol Pot in Phnom Penh. When the two men sat down, they discussed revolutionary economic theory and Caldwell left the meeting a happy man.
He returned to the guest house he was sharing with Becker and Dudman, full of praise for Pol Pot and his political outlook. “He thought he’d had a good conversation, and he was looking forward to going home,” said Becker.
That night, the three of them had dinner. Becker went to bed at 11pm and was woken a few hours later by the sound of gunfire. She opened her bedroom door to see a young man pointing a pistol at her in the guest house. He was wearing two bands of ammunition and carrying an automatic rifle over his shoulder. She begged him not to shoot and locked herself in her bathroom.
Meanwhile Dudman had woken up and, looking out of his window, saw a file of men running along the street. He knocked on Caldwell’s door. The two men spoke briefly and then a heavily armed man approached. The man shot at the floor and Dudman ran into his room. Two shots were fired through his door.
The two Americans remained in their rooms for the next hour before an aide arrived and told Becker to stay where she was. Almost another hour passed before she was allowed to come out. Caldwell, she was told, had been shot. He was dead.
Following Caldwell’s murder, four guards assigned to the tourist’s protection team were arrested and taken to the torture centre at S-21. Owing to the importance of their alleged crime, the commandant of the prison, the infamous Comrade Duch, was instructed to head their interrogation.
Two of the “confessions” made by guards referred to in their S-21 files as “the Contemptible Met” and “the Contemptible Chhaan”, outline a bizarre conspiracy involving many other people. They said they’d killed Caldwell to prevent the Khmer Rouge gaining friends in the outside world, and they’d left the US journalists alive so they could write about it.
There must have been some kind of in-house involvement in the murder, as the guests were guarded. But who instructed the guards, and why they did so, remains a subject of speculation. Some argue that the Vietnamese were behind the killing, others argue that it was a function of an internal party struggle.
Why would Pol Pot seek international support by killing one of his few remaining friends from abroad? It makes no sense.
“Don’t apply rational thinking to the situation,” said Becker. “It was crazy. Crazy. Malcolm’s murder was no less rational than the tens of thousands of other murders.”
A journalist claimed to have seen a Cambodian report not long after Caldwell’s murder, which stated that he “was murdered by members of the National Security Force personnel on the instructions of the Pol Pot government”. In the end, Becker believed: “Malcolm Caldwell’s death was caused by the madness of the regime he openly admired.”
The confessions of Caldwell’s alleged killers were completed on 5 January 1979. The four men were then bayoneted to death in the prison itself. They were very possibly the last killings to take place at S-21.
On 7 January, the Vietnamese army arrived in Phnom Penh, overthrowing the Khmer Rouge, but by then Pol Pot and his associates had already fled into the jungle.
See the trailer for our new film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil. Set in the jungles of Laos and Vietnam, the film deals with the possible fate of US servicemen left behind after the US pulled out of the Vietnam War.
For POWs left behind in Laos, see also:
(I took a lot of the quotes above from an excellent, far-reaching article by Andrew Anthony in the UK Guardian here: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2010/jan/10/malcolm-caldwell-pol-pot-murder)
For more on John Dawson Dewhirst, see: http://peteralanlloyd.com/back-part-2/related-regional-articles/mass-murdering-khmer-rouge-scum-escapes-justice/
© Peter Alan Lloyd
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