On his second day of testimony at the Khmer Rouge tribunal, Francois Ponchaud, author of “Cambodia: Year Zero” and one of the last foreigners to be evacuated from Cambodia after Pol Pot’s forces took control, told the court that he had grown to admire defendant Khieu Samphan, and does so to this day.
On Tuesday, Mr. Ponchaud, who has testified almost entirely in Khmer, recalled hearing of the time, four years before his own arrival in Cambodia, when Khieu Samphan was stripped of his clothes in front of an assembly by then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk after Khieu Samphan’s newspaper, L’Observateur, was shut down.
“I heard of him in Sihanouk’s regime. I knew him to be a clean person who believed in justice, who would like to find justice, and he was mistreated by the police right in front of the assembly and I still admire him greatly,” Mr. Ponchaud said.
He said that Sihanouk had been intent on arresting Khieu Samphan and his compatriots, Hu Nim and Hou Yuon, and that rumors had spread in the ’60s that the three had been “plunged into a pit,” Mr. Ponchaud said.
After Khieu Samphan resurfaced, he was regarded as a “ghost minister,” he added.
On Wednesday, Mr. Ponchaud recalled the strange, quiet horror of having been evacuated from the French Embassy in Phnom Penh to the Thai border without seeing anyone, a few weeks after the fall of the city.
“The road was completely empty…. We didn’t see a soul and that terrified us,” he said. “We were leaving a ghost country. We didn’t meet a Cambodian, not a single soul. We saw the smoke coming out of some fields and villages. We presumed it could be smoke from burning houses or burnt fields.”
Mr. Ponchaud, who moved to Cambodia in 1965 as a missionary, said he had for some time believed that the burgeoning Khmer Rouge movement would provide much-needed relief from the brutality of bombing raids that were for years carried out across the country under the Lon Nol regime, and which saw millions of people flock to Phnom Penh for refuge.
“I didn’t support the Khmer Rouge revolution; I simply noted at the end of Lon Nol there was no hope in Cambodia for the people…so the only hope was maybe the Khmer Rouge,” he said.
“We were wrong, but I continued believing this was the only hope. In the days of Sihanouk, we were hoping it would improve.”
He said he believed the Khmer Rouge and the likes of Khieu Samphan would “take the ministerial power from the top and install a Communist regime that was fairer,” but noted that there was a branch of the movement—of which Pol Pot, Ieng Sary and Son Sen were members—that focused on the use of arms to overthrow the monarch.
“I was more in favor of Khieu Samphan’s idea than in armed revolution because when we start using weapons, we don’t know where we will end up,” he said.