Father François Ponchaud came to Cambodia at the height of Sihanouk’s reign and stayed to witness the first frenzied weeks of the Khmer Rouge. The Cambodia: Year Zero author speaks to Julie Masis about the priesthood and his adopted homeland.
Catholic priest François Ponchaud first arrived in the Kingdom in 1965 and recently testified at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC). Forced to leave Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge regime after being held in the French embassy compound for three weeks, the Frenchman returned in 1993 and holds Cambodian citizenship. For more than 10 years he has been giving free weekly lectures (in French) on Cambodia’s history.
Attending his evening talks –where subjects range from his memories of Cambodia in the 1970s to the theological comparisons between Buddhism and Christianity – feels a bit like being a student in a university-level course. Ponchaud always speaks from memory, occasionally pointing at a map of Cambodia and taking questions from the audience. If you attend his talks, you might hear him say that the word “I” in Khmer is actually derived from the word “slave”, which is why the King never uses the singular pronoun when talking about himself; that after they saved the Khmers from Pol Pot, the Vietnamese stole as much as they could from Cambodia, even taking irrigation systems apart to carry parts back to Vietnam; and that in one Cambodian village, people pray to a statue of Pol Pot, believing him to be a powerful spirit.
When Ponchaud explains Catholicism to Cambodians, he draws comparisons between the Buddha and Jesus, to show how they are similar. For instance, he says Jesus was “enlightened” on the day of his baptism, in the same way that Buddha was enlightened after weeks of meditation. He doesn’t mind if Cambodian Catholics bring fruits to church and offer them to God, sit on the floor, or burn incense.
In addition to missionary work, Ponchaud has lived through wars on three continents, jumped out of an airplane, been imprisoned by the Viet Cong, helped to translate the Bible into Khmer (he knows French, Khmer, English, Latin, Greek and Hebrew), and written several books, including Cambodia: Year Zero and A Cathedral in the Rice Paddy. His latest book, the title of which has not yet been finalised, is scheduled to come out this month.
Where were you born?
I was born in Savoy, France, close to the border with Switzerland and Italy in 1939. The war started when I was two months old. My parents had a farm, and the Italians came to my house. Then in 1944, the Germans came to chase out the Italians. I remember that I was scared of the Germans. They shot at our front door, but no one was hurt.
My parents had a farm, and I worked on the farm until I was 20 years old. We had 12 cows, pigs and chickens. We had a lot of fruits and berries – strawberries, apples and pears. It’s a very beautiful region with mountains, and my parents made a living from selling the fresh fruits and vegetables to tourists. I have six brothers and six sisters, but I’m the only one who became a priest.
How did you decide to become a priest?
In 1959, I went to war in Algeria as a parachutist because all the young people in France had to serve. That’s where I decided to become a priest. I jumped out of an airplane about 80 times, to prove my courage. I didn’t jump during the war. I jumped during the training. I served for two-and-a-half years, from 1959 to 1962. It was long. I didn’t like the war, but they didn’t ask my opinion. Several of my friends were killed.
So why did the war make you want to become a priest?
During the war, there was no religion. People lived like animals. The way I see it, religion is a way to make people more human. Algeria was not a religious war – it was not Islam against Christianity. It was an anti-colonialist war. The Algerians revolted against French colonialism. Now I think I’d rather be killed or go to prison than participate in such a war, but at the time I didn’t dare to go to prison.
After the war, I went into the seminary and they sent me to a Gregorian university in Rome. I met a lot of people who became popes later. Like the new Pope, I probably saw him. We were probably in the same university because we only have a two year age difference.
When did you first come to Cambodia?
On November 4, 1965. I came by boat from Marseille. We arrived in Kampong Som. The forest was all around us. From Kampong Som to Phnom Penh we traveled via Kampot. Phnom Penh was a small town then, much smaller than now – there were maybe only 400,000 residents. I was 26 years old– I was young and good-looking.
So what were you sent here to do?
I didn’t know what I was here to do. I was at the service of the bishop of Phnom Penh. During the first three years, I studied Khmer – mostly on my own, by speaking with people, reading newspapers, and listening to the radio. I was alone in the countryside. In the villages there were some churches, but no Christians. It was my task to learn the language. I lived through five years of peace, five years of war, and three weeks under the Khmer Rouge.
What were the three weeks under the Khmer Rouge like?
I am the one who handed over the keys of the French embassy to the Khmer Rouge official of Phnom Penh. I was one of the translators at the consulate. I was at the end of the convoy when we left the embassy.
What were the three weeks in the embassy like?
On the second or third day, the Khmer Rouge asked us to hand over the traitors – Sirik Matak and one of the wives of Sihanouk. On the fourth day, a high Khmer Rouge official invited all the Cambodians to go meet their compatriots who were rebuilding the country. At that point, about 5,000 Cambodians left the French embassy. Legally, they were in an embassy, so they had the right to stay, but the Khmer Rouge didn’t know these laws, and the Cambodians had to leave because the Khmer Rouge were armed to the teeth.
The Cambodian wives (who were married to foreigners) were permitted to stay, but Cambodian husbands had to leave. The Khmer Rouge didn’t explain why, they just gave orders.
Why do you give lectures about Cambodia?
I started giving the talks more than ten years ago to help Catholic missionary volunteers learn about Cambodia’s history and culture. But then I saw that a lot of people were interested – and I think that it’s a service that I can give so that they can learn more about the people of Cambodia and work better with them. I think being a missionary is a way to help people understand each other.
How many people come to my lectures depends on the topic – sometimes as many as 60 people. If people come, it must be interesting for them. The lectures satisfy a demand. People from the French embassy always come. The secretary comes regularly. The wife of the ambassador used to come. But the ambassador himself doesn’t.
To learn more about Ponchaud’s lectures (in French), email him at email@example.com