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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - A witness to the horror looks back

A witness to the horror looks back


Francois Ponchaud

On April 17, 1975, a society collapsed; another is now being born from the fierce

drive of a revolution which is incontestably the most radical ever to take place

in so short a time. But the furthest limit is too far, and "too far" is

akin to madness - for in this scheme of society, where is man?" - Francois Ponchaud,

"Cambodia Year Zero", 1977

NOTHING had prepared Francois Ponchaud for his first glimpse of the nature of the

Khmer Rouge's new order imposed on Phnom Penh in the immediate aftermath of the fall

of the capital on April 17, 1975.

In spite of the horrors borne from a decade of watching Cambodian society descend

ever more rapidly into a vicious downward spiral of violent civil conflict, the bizarre

events unfolding in the street in front of the Jesuit missionary priest's residence

appeared to defy all belief.

"Around one in the afternoon ... a hallucinatory spectacle began. Thousands

of the sick and wounded were abandoning the city. The strongest dragged pitifully

along, others were carried by friends, and some were lying on beds pushed by their

families, with their plasma and IV bumping alongside. That is how the first evacuees

left, about twenty thousand of them."

The depopulating of Phnom Penh, which was to be followed by the forced evacuation

of Cambodia's other urban centers, was the first sinister indication that the worst

was far from over for Cambodia and its people. The stark images of Phnom Penh's 2.5

million residents being led out of the city at gunpoint by unsmiling, black-clad

Khmer Rouge fighters who killed any and all who dared question their intentions dealt

a decisive blow to the hopes shared by Ponchaud and other foreign residents and observers

of Cambodia who had anticipated a Khmer Rouge victory as a deliverance from the corrupt

brutality of Lon Nol's Khmer Republic

"The evacuation was a stupidity ... a useless suffering for many, many people,"

Ponchaud recalls. "When the Khmer Rouge forced old people out [of Phnom Penh],

I couldn't support it."

The evacuations - the first step in the Khmer Rouge's attempt to transform Cambodia

into a "hyper-Marxist" agricultural utopia that would eventually kill more

than 1.5 million people - came as a shock to Ponchaud, who had assumed that the desperate

conditions Cambodians endured under the Lon Nol regime could only improve under the


"The Lon Nol regime was very, very corrupt and there was no hope for the people

... the only hope was the coming of the Khmer Rouge," Ponchaud said during an

interview with the Post.

"We'd known since 1970 that when the Khmer Rouge [captured] a village, they

killed the village chief, redistributed the land and took people to the forest, but

we thought it was an effect of the war and when [the Khmer Rouge] had victory [their

methods] would change."

Expelled from Cambodia after a harrowing three weeks of confinement to the grounds

of Phnom Penh's French Embassy, Ponchaud did not have to wait long before accounts

of the murderous reality of Democratic Kampuchea reached him through refugees who

had fled over the border.

"When in France I heard accounts of atrocities [by the Khmer Rouge], at first

I didn't believe them," he recalled. "But later there were so many, and

so similar in the details that I had to believe."

Ponchaud was moved to compile the stories of widespread murder and starvation in

Democratic Kampuchea in a marathon three-month writing session that produced Cambodia

Year Zero. Published in 1977, the book was the first and most influential exposé

of the horror that everyday life in Cambodia had become under the Khmer Rouge.

"The book was written as an expression of solidarity with the Cambodian people

who were suffering, but I had no hope that [the book] would change anything,"

he said. "The stories the refugees told me [in camps along the Thai-Cambodian

border] were terrifying, but the testimony I chose was not too horrific because I

knew if it was too terrifying, Europeans simply would not believe it."

Ponchaud's Year Zero was influential in helping to reverse the reflexive expressions

of support and sympathy the Khmer Rouge takeover evinced from left-leaning western


"Noam Chomsky [at the time] was very favorable to the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese

communists, but when he read the book he said 'I don't understand the Khmer Rouge'",

Ponchaud explained. "Also in France many [leftist] writers changed their minds

about the KR [after reading Year Zero].

Similarly unforeseen was the exploitation of Year Zero as a propaganda tool by the

Vietnamese, a circumstance that led Ponchaud to cancel a planned second printing

of the book in 1979.

"In 1978 when the Vietnamese were preparing the invasion or 'liberation' [of

Cambodia], they translated the book into Vietnamese and read it on Hanoi Radio,"

Ponchaud said, shaking his head ruefully. "So you see, I helped with the Vietnamese


While unequivocal in his condemnation of the outrages of Democratic Kampuchea, Ponchaud

is equally adamant in assigning guilt to western leaders who aided and abetted the

destruction of Cambodia and the rise and sustenance of the KR.

When asked in 1983 by the head of Amnesty International to participate in an eventual

genocide tribunal of Pol Pot, Ponchaud agreed, but "on one condition".

"Before Pol Pot I said we must judge Nixon and Kissinger and Carter ... they

are bigger killers than Pol Pot," he insisted. "They destroyed Cambodia

with their B52s and [beginning] in January 1979 supplied the Khmer Rouge and gave

them money to fight the Vietnamese."

Ponchaud, who has been living again in Phnom Penh since 1993, is also clearly distressed

by the haunting parallels between contemporary Cambodia and the endemic corruption

and widespread immiseration of the Lon Nol regime of 1970 -1975.

"In my opinion, the Lon Nol regime was not worse than [modern Cambodia] ...

in the Lon Nol period I never saw mothers sell their children the way mothers are

forced to do nowadays," he said. "The [current] government is lucky that

the present ideological environment is different [because] if the ideological environment

was the same as it was in Cambodia in 1970, there'd be revolution now."

The implications of a possible tribunal for former Khmer Rouge leaders is also a

source of concern for Ponchaud.

"If you want to judge the KR, I agree but you must judge all the KR including

the [former] KR in power now, and you must also judge the people who killed 17 people

on March 30, 1997," he said in reference to the grenade attack on a Sam Rainsy

Party demonstration outside the National Assembly. "But if you judge the acting

leaders, there could be trouble, so maybe it's best to be quiet ... it may be impossible

to find justice because there are too many people involved."



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