Khmer Rouge Expert Looks for a Change

Father Francois Ponchaud had been in Cambodia for five years when he was carried into action by the political upheaval of 1970, a forerunner of the hostilities that would soon tear the country apart.

A Roman Catholic priest with Paris Foreign Missions, Ponchaud may have been remembered mainly for his research into Buddhism and Cambodian culture as well as the more than 100 publications he produced in Khmer to present Christianity within the Cambodian context.

But as he turned into a witness as well as an actor in the Cambodian drama of the 1970s, his name became linked with the country and the Khmer Rouge regime whose atrocities he was the first to describe in a book in 1977.

Entitled “Cambodia, Year Zero”-words that would later be used repeatedly to explain the state in which the Pol Pot government reduced the country-Ponchaud’s book was based on accounts from Cambodian refugees and Khmer Rouge radio broadcasts. It has been translated into more than 70 languages.

Ponchaud is celebrating his 70th birthday on Sunday with plans to retire from his official duties-the running of the Cambodian Catholic Cultural Center and its publishing activities-to turn to humanitarian endeavors such as irrigation projects and kindergarten school construction in impoverished parts of Cambodia.

Moreover, he recently said in an interview, “I want to stop and take the time to think.”

“In my work, I feel as if I had done religious colonialism,” Ponchaud said. “I protest and deny it, and I’ve always tried not to do so, to respect Buddhism, Cambodians’ rites and customs. But I feel that I know so little about Cambodians…that I don’t know the Khmers’ heart, Cambodian religion, Buddhism. So how can I bring another [religious] approach if I don’t really know Buddhism?”

In the 2006 book “Together in Search of Light,” which he wrote in Khmer and French, Ponchaud outlined the lives and teachings of the Buddha and Jesus, ending the book with a declaration issued by the Catholic Church in the 1960s: “each religion contributes a ray of light to the truth in bringing light to the world.”

With this in mind, Ponchaud’s efforts will be twofold, he said: on one hand, to keep on studying Buddhism and on the other to share with people in France how Buddhism has effected his own Christian faith.

“I must put this experience of mine over 43 years [among Cambodians] to put these words into practice,” Ponchaud said.

He had been in the country barely a year in late 1966 and was still in the process of learning Khmer when he discovered the need to better define Catholic beliefs if he was to make them known, he said.

Ponchaud had been assigned to Stung Treng-a small village at the time where many people spoke Laotian-and was touring local pagodas to find one where he could study Pali. One head monk asked him about his religion. “I explained that I believed in a god who was the father, who had created all and who was in relation with us on earth. The head monk looked at another monk and said as an aside, ‘That Frenchman is really friendly but isn’t he na•ve to believe in such nonsense.’… This is how I grasped the emptiness, or at least the inanity, of our Western religious discourse.”

By March 1970, Ponchaud had been put in charge of Kompong Cham town parish and he was about to be swept into the country’s civil war, which would dramatically alter his life along with the lives of all in the country at the time.

The ousting of then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk by Lon Nol and Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak on March 18 had been followed by a period of calm, Ponchaud recalled in a recent interview.

Towards the end of March 1970, thousands of Cambodians crossed the Mekong River and poured into Kompong Cham town, carrying portraits of Norodom Sihanouk, Ponchaud said. They were responding to a speech by the prince broadcast from Beijing urging them to take to the jungle and revolt against Lon Nol’s government. Demonstrators were demolishing everything in their path and killed two parliament members who attempted o calm the mob.

Sent to regain control of the town, the army squarely shot into the crowd: There were about 80 deaths, Ponchaud said. The official line was that protesters were led by Vietcong [Vietnamese communist forces] but I didn’t see any,” he said.

Some demonstrators who had boarded trucks to go to Phnom Penh were attacked by military planes, which killed many, and when others reached the Japanese bridge in the capital, Ponchaud said “[government forces] fired canons in the crowd…of Cambodians. It was madness on the part of Lon Nol.”

In the meantime, Lon Nol had given North Vietnam 72 hours to remove its units from the country. “The Vietcong were not necessarily opposed to Lon Nol as long as he was granting them the same terms [as the previous government], especially to authorize the port of Sihanoukville to unload ammunition,” Ponchaud said.

Following Lon Nol’s ultimatum, the Vietcong invaded the country, except for Phnom Penh and Battambang town, he said.

“Then, stupid Lon Nol declared that all Vietnamese were Vietcong and started slaughtering innocent Vietnamese,” Ponchaud said.

In the night of April 14 and 15, government forces surrounded a large fishing village north of the Japanese bridge, grabbed all men older than 15 years old, took them by small boats 15 km south of Phnom Penh and gunned them down-there were 515 dead, he said. Thousands more would be killed.

“This is when Lon Nol lost the war,” Ponchaud said. “International public opinion turned against him.”

Ponchaud and other priests took upon themselves to rescue as many Vietnamese civilians as they could before they also were shot.

On his way from Kompong Cham town to a village, he was stopped by a Vietcong unit along the Mekong River. The unit made the Cambodians accompanying him listen to Norodom Sihanouk’s speech urging them to join the rebels and, since Ponchaud insisted on paying the “contribution” they were asking of the Cambodians, they spared his life and let all of them go.

The Vietcong were psychological units whose task was to enroll Cambodians into resistance forces, not to kill them, Ponchaud said. However, they usually killed foreigners-they killed about 30 at the time, he said.

Ponchaud and other priests managed to save the lives of a few thousand Vietnamese people who were able to leave the country, he said. Many had been brought to the stadium in Kompong Cham town and were taken home by military ships from South Vietnam around May 15, 1970, he said.

During the following years, the situation deteriorated in the country. “It was terrible,” Ponchaud recalled. “Especially after the US bombardments in 1973, villagers were taking refuge in Phnom Penh. The population swelled to about 2 million: the injured, the sick, people with no work…. It was misery from every standpoint.”

Some of his colleagues started a humanitarian aid committee to help the government financially and technically. When the US government offered the committee a grant 37 times bigger than the government’s social-service budget, the committee refused, Ponchaud said. “We told them, ‘Keep your money. Every night you bombard Cambodia and you [would pay for us] to rescue wounded people in the morning-no.’ We refused, which put us at odds with some Americans.”

Cambodia’s Catholic bishops and priests officially boycotted the visit of Cardinal Agnelo Rossi to Cambodia in 1974. Rossi, who was in charge of Catholic missionaries worldwide, had been invited by the US Embassy and arrived on a CIA plane, which Ponchaud and his colleagues viewed as backing a country bombarding Cambodia.

Then came April 17, 1975, and the defeat of Lon Nol’s armies by the Khmer Rouge. “From 7 am on, it was silence in Phnom Penh. No one was coming in,” Ponchaud said. “Around 10 am, those silent people dressed in black, obviously exhausted, arrived, three by three. It’s as if a lead cloak had fallen over the city-you could feel it.”

Around 11 am, the sick and injured, some carrying their bottles of serum, walked down Monivong Boulevard as the Khmer Rouge was evacuating the hospitals, Ponchaud said. In the afternoon, Phnom Penh residents followed, told they had to go as the US was about to bombard the city. By the end of the day, the city was empty, said Ponchaud, who moved to the French Embassy the next morning.

Threatened to have them taken at gunpoint if they did not walk out, French Vice-Consul Jean Dyrac had no choice but to ask at first seven high-ranking Cambodian officials and later around 500 Cambodians to leave the embassy grounds, Ponchaud said. Cambodian women were allowed to remain inside with their French husbands, he said.

Ponchaud left on the second and last embassy convoy to the Thai border, which departed Phnom Penh on May 6, 1975. Along the way, he said, “We saw no one anywhere in the country, barring a couple of monks once in the distance. As we crossed the border, we felt as if we were leaving a country of living dead,” he said.

Interviewed by the media at the airport when he arrived in France a few days later, Ponchaud told them that Phnom Penh had been completely emptied of people. “But no one wanted to believe me,” he said. The French police offered him protection as he was a witness, which he turned down. “But I was a bit concerned” he said, that they had felt the need to make the offer.

After a couple of months of rest, Ponchaud started working in the information department of the Paris Foreign Missions in Paris and, as Cambodian refugees trickled in, he started meeting them and writing their accounts.

“I progressively acquired an incredible amount of information on what was taking place in Cambodia,” he said.

He wrote a few articles on the situation in Cambodia for French national newspapers, and was soon told by a journalist to turn the information he had collected into a book.

For the sake of objectivity, Ponchaud wanted to present the Khmer Rouge side in his book, which he did by analyzing Khmer Rouge official radio broadcasts recorded and sent to him by Father Robert Venet-another Paris Foreign Missions priest assigned to Cambodia who was then working in refugee camps for Cambodians in Thailand.

After a trip to Thailand and the border area, Ponchaud completed his book, which was released on Feb 3, 1977. “I think that people believed me. But from the [French] government standpoint, one did not want to offend China because it was such a big market [for products and services],” he said. China had supported the Khmer Rouge since the early 1970s.

During the following years, Ponchaud gave numerous conferences on the events in Cambodia, and was interviewed countless times by the media. He still is interviewed on a regular basis by the international press.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Ponchaud made annual, lengthy visits to refugee camps for Cambodians in Thailand. By 1985, he was spending half the year in the camps.

In April 1993, he said, “When the last refugees left, I returned to Cambodia, and went back to my translation and writing work.”

It has been a little over 43 years since Ponchaud arrived in Cambodia in November 1965.

He was born on Feb 8, 1939, in the small town of Sallanches, at the foot of Mont Blanc in the French Alps. “The mountain comes straight down into the valley, which may explain my curt character,” he said.

The seventh of 12 children in an old, traditional rural family, he first thought of becoming a brother or a priest because he liked his parish priest and teachers, he said.

It is only when he did his mandatory military service as a paratrooper during the Algerian war that he found his true calling and decided to become a priest.

Although he was attracted by Africa, Ponchaud said, “At 17 years old, I told myself that if we had something to contribute to the world-and I didn’t have a clue what-it would have to be Asia because this is where the future of the world was.”

So he joined the Paris Foreign Missions, which sends missionaries exclusively to Asia. After studies that included three years in Rome, he was ordained a priest in 1964.

A day prior to his ordination, Ponchaud had received a letter informing him that he would be heading to Cambodia. He had not been consulted prior to the decision and, believing that the country was simply a former French colony in which everyone spoke French, he was somewhat disappointed.

It was only on the ship on his way to Asia that he started reading about the country that would consume his whole career.

Looking at Cambodia today, Ponchaud says it is not the same place he came to know in the 1960s.

“This is not the country of before 1970. People have changed, even in the countryside,” he said. “People are tougher; life is harder today than it was at the time. People are richer but also greedier…. They are turned towards the outside world whereas before 1970, they were close to it as only Cambodia mattered. People also are more ambitious and far less religious.”

As for today’s younger Cambodians, Ponchaud said he sees trouble in a system that makes even young students pay money at school to be taught or pass exams. “Youth is trained in a culture of corruption,” he said. “I wonder what moral force will manage to stop this current of corruption now spreading to all.”

“I’m rather concerned about this country.”

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