Author and priest Francois Ponchaud continued his testimony at the Khmer Rouge tribunal yesterday, painting a picture of a movement born under one corrupt government and surviving another, only to become worse than either, despite the best intentions of some of its own leaders.
Though he would come to be unequivocal in his condemnation of the methods and brutality of the Khmer Rouge, Ponchaud, like many others, had initially held out hope that their victory would bring an end to the endemic corruption that marked the preceding Sihanouk regime, which had forced the flight into the jungle of co-defendant Khieu Samphan.
“It was because villagers in Samlot [district in Battambang] revolted against the government, who grabbed their land. They grabbed their land to pave way for the sugar factory, and peasants were unhappy, and they stole some rifles from the soldiers,” said Ponchaud, adding that then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk had cursed Samphan on the radio afterwards, insinuating his involvement.
“He said his subjects, his children, would never do anything like that without someone behind them . . . Mr Khieu Samphan, according to my knowledge, was not engaged in this,” he continued, noting that the execution of one ringleader was shown as a newsreel in cinemas.
Corruption and the use of force in Sihanouk’s government, Ponchaud said, continued under the Lon Nol regime.
Prosecutor Vincent de Wilde – describing reports of the Khmer Rouge impaling and tearing apart children, which Ponchaud would later include in his book – asked the priest why he did not initially believe reports of Khmer Rouge brutality.
“We still believed that it was part of the war tactics,” Ponchaud replied. “When [the Khmer Rouge] won the victory, then they would find it easy to live with the people.”
“At that time, even the Lon Nol soldiers were not in harmony with the people. If the court would like to know how these Lon Nol soldiers were treating the villagers, I would also refer you to a situation in which some [villagers] were beheaded by the Lon Nol soldiers,” he continued. “We saw the soldiers carrying the decapitated heads of the villagers that had been killed. We hoped that such brutality would not continue . . . that’s why we trusted that the KR would be the ones who could save us.”
But, he added, “when Democratic Kampuchea evacuated the population of Phnom Penh, I changed my mind”.
Without condoning the regime’s brutality, Ponchaud did stick up for Khieu Samphan, defending his character, and telling the court that unflattering quotes attributed to Samphan in the Italian press had been made up, whole-cloth.
“I knew of him to be a clean person, a person who believed in justice,” he said. “He was mistreated by the police, and I still admire him greatly.”
“I can see that although some people in Democratic Kampuchea made some big mistakes, they are still respectable people,” he added.