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Khmer Rouge survivor is still an impertinent priest

After 50 gruelling years in Cambodia, Fr Ponchaud still dreams of a 'Khmer Church'

  • Alessandro Speciale, Phnom Penh
  • Cambodia
  • June 5, 2013
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A few years ago, Father François Ponchaud seriously considered leaving Cambodia.

“I am a workaholic, I cannot stand still. If there is nothing for me to do I can just as well go back to France,” he told his bishop, feeling under-utilized.

It would have been a sad end to Ponchaud's almost fifty-year-long relationship with Cambodia.

At 74 and with a bandaged foot from a recent injury, the sprightly Frenchman had lost nothing of his trademark spirit and acuity during an interview with ucanews.com in Phnom Penh last month.

“I am impertinent. This is not a consequence of my character, but of my convictions,” he tells Dane Cuypers in Limpertinent du Cambodge, a book-length interview that has just been published in France.

Ponchaud first arrived in Cambodia in 1965, as a freshly ordained priest of the Missions Étrangères de Paris.

In his past, there were studies in Rome just as the Second Vatican Council unfolded, and the experience as a paratrooper in France’s bloody war against the independence of one of its African colonies, Algeria.

“In Algeria, I hatched an unshakable conviction: war is the absolute evil, unleashing hatred and stoking the worst passions in men, including me. It must be avoided at all costs. Violence only generates violence,” he says in the book.

After arriving in Phnom Penh, Ponchaud learned Khmer and sought to integrate himself into Cambodian society, just as the country spiraled into civil war and destruction.

But the experience that forever marked him was the Khmer Rouge revolution in 1975.

In his book he recounts how on April 18, one day after the Maoist guerrilla conquest of Phnom Penh, he happened to drive around a group of Khmer Rouge troops through the city's empty streets.

“Near the Royal Palace we were shot at by a group of army soldiers who were still resisting. They were afraid, I wasn’t.”

In 1976, still a young priest, Ponchaud denounced the horrors of the Khmer Rouge in a long article published in Le Monde, France's main daily.

Less than a year after the Khmer Rouge seized Phnom Penh and sent its population into the countryside, Western readers were informed for the first time of the reality of the world's “most radical revolution.”

The full scale of the horror would begin to emerge only after the Vietnamese invasion in 1979.

But Ponchaud, who had returned to France after the expulsion of all missionaries in 1975, had already managed to piece together a picture of famine and brutality from the accounts of refugees and tapes of Khmer Rouge radio he received from a friend.

In 1977, he published his seminal book Cambodia Year Zero, in which he tried to analyze Pol Pot's regime.

His account was bitterly contested, and Ponchaud sparred in the following years with Noam Chomsky and the West's many other supporters of the Cambodian revolution.

Going against generally accepted wisdom, he says that the brutal ways of the Khmer Rouge were no surprise to anyone who lived in Cambodia at the time.

“We had heard accounts of what happened in the ‘liberated’ areas. We just thought it was a war tactic; that they would mellow after victory.”

After all, like almost everyone in the country, he had lost all confidence in the corrupt regime of General Lon Nol and welcomed the Khmer Rouge's victory, hoping at least it would put an end to the violence.

Today, when he tries to explain the horror of Pol Pot and his regime, Ponchaud often returns to Cambodia's traditional Buddhism, with its conception of life as suffering and its denial of the value of the human person.

“Of course, they didn't do it because they were Buddhists, but their Buddhist background helps understand why, when they had a revolution, they had this kind of revolution.”

But no single explanation, for him, is sufficient to grasp the origin of Cambodia's tragedy.

In his book, the chapter on the Khmer Rouge Le mal-mystère, could be translated as “The mysterious evil.”

One thing is sure, though: “If the Vietnamese had not invaded, the Khmer Rouge would have stayed in power a few years longer – until there were no more Khmers,” he adds bitterly.

Ponchaud returned to Cambodia in 1993, when the borders where reopened to foreign missionaries.

After spending years translating the Bible and the Second Vatican Council into Khmer, he now acts as an impertinent gadfly to the country's Catholic Church.

“We have imported a turnkey, Western style model of the Church, we have lost the occasion to build a truly Khmer Church,” he says.

Ponchaud says he has been working hard to integrate Buddhist traditions and thinking to make the Christian message relevant and comprehensible to the Khmer. But that few other missionaries share his effort.

For him, Catholicism in Cambodia today relies too much on its vast and well-funded charitable network.

“We buy the poor. If we took away the financial prowess from Cambodia's Church, the number of Christians would melt like snow in the sun,” he says.

“I am harsh but I know it's like that,” he adds with a wry smile.

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