Father Francois Ponchaud, 74, first moved to Cambodia as a young missionary in 1965. As he puts it, he lived through “five years of peace under Sihanouk, five years of war under Lon Nol and three weeks with the Khmer Rouge” as a captive in the French Embassy. After his expulsion from the country and years of research into refugee camps, Ponchaud published 1978’s Cambodia: Year Zero, one of the first works to reveal the brutality of the Khmer Rouge. Ponchaud relocated to Cambodia permanently in 1993, and testified at the tribunal this week.
Based on what you know of the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, is the Khmer Rouge tribunal sufficient to render justice to the victims of the Democratic Kampuchea regime?
What the Khmer Rouge did is odious, monstrous, inexcusable. But I deny the international community the right to judge the heads of the Khmer Rouge, which it supported from 1975 to 1991 – 16 years – [or] at least since 1979. States are cold monsters that seek nothing other than their own interests in the short term. It was when the Khmer Rouge were in power that they needed to act, not after. What’s to be said of the international killer that was the United States, which will never be judged by anyone?
What do you think of the conduct of the Khmer Rouge tribunal so far?
It doesn’t interest me. If they wanted to judge, they needed to also judge the leaders on the second tier because it was they who did the killing. I think that if there has to be a judgment, it shouldn’t be confined to the torture centre at S-21. There were close to 200 torture centres in Cambodia, less covered in the media than S-21. But, in their goodwill, the West peeled away all the detail of it, rendering the court incomprehensible to many.
How can the court best offer justice to the victims?
Nothing will be able to soften the suffering of the victims. It seems to me that the majority of the villagers with whom I live aren’t interested in the tribunal far away. Like a monk friend of mine told me: “You who want to judge the Khmer Rouge, you have hate in your heart. Do like we do: purify yourselves on the inside; expel the hate from your hearts.” As good Buddhists, the Khmers from the countryside – those that I know – live in the here and now. They have other, more immediate worries than judging some old people.
If, in your opinion, the majority of Khmers would rather leave the past in the past, then what is the best way to offer victims justice?
It seems to me that the best way for Khmers to forget the past is for the government not to act like the Khmer Rouge – robbing the people, selling the country in concessions, expelling villagers from their lands – but rather to establish justice. The villagers say: “Pol Pot destroyed our human wealth; Hun Sen destroys our natural wealth.” In the countryside, the comparison between the two leaders is more and more frequent.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.