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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Connecting to a happy time

Connecting to a happy time


DURING the Pol Pot regime Miech Ponn climbed a sugar palm tree with a bamboo ladder to drink the nourishing juice. That’s the only reason he’s alive today.

“Necessity is not subject to law,” he said.

“I cannot believe I’m alive. I loved life,” he said.

Miech Ponn is famous beyond Cambodia as an author of books dealing with Khmer culture, especially books aimed at children, including A Girl Entering the Age of Puberty,   Khmer Tradition, Parts 1, 2 and 3, as well as Children’s Folktales.

Another book is entitled Four Types of Khmer Wedding Ceremonies.

Comparing the Cambodia of his childhood in the 1930s with today, there is almost no resemblance.

He was the youngest of nine children in a happy family where he loved reading books and described himself as a “library rat”.

“It was another world.  I have been through a metamorphosis,” said the calm 80-year old in the first floor living room of his modest Toul Kork house.

“Even now for me it is unbelievable.  I could have never thought such a thing was possible. In the Pol Pot regime it was a reduction of humanity to nothingness.  Men replaced cows in the field. If you didn’t proceed, you were beaten.  You don’t have enough paper to write down what I have seen,” he said.

“Many people don’t dare to say what they think, but I don’t fear.  Truth is not always an easy thing to say.  In Khmer they say “truth is poison”.

Miech Ponn was a French teacher when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia.

Born in 1932, Miech Ponn grew up in a dedicated Buddhist farming family in the Kirivong district of Takeo province, the youngest of nine children, five sisters and four brothers. His father was a former monk with very strong Buddhist convictions and his mother organised traditional Khmer wedding ceremonies and other events – giving Miech Ponn an early grounding in Khmer traditions.

In 1939, Miech Ponn went to Wat Pratheat School in Kirivong under the French-governed education system. Miech Ponn had his teaching licence in 1953 and went to work in Stoung in Kampong Thom province.  He married Sam Kim San and they had five children together.

He became a French teacher and watched as Communist propaganda began to arrive from China, published in Khmer.  Cambodia’s teachers found the reading interesting and popular at the time.

He took a job in 1972  as president of an American-funded community development scheme in Kampong Thom. During the Civil War years from 1972 to 1975, Miech Ponn found it difficult to travel because the road from Phnom Penh to Kampong Thom was often blocked.

In April, 1975 when the Khmer Rouge moved the population of Phnom Penh into the countryside, Miech wanted to travel to Kompong Thom with his family but was forced south at gunpoint, carrying books and papers.

Miech survived by pretending to be an ordinary farmer, with no education, burying his books.  Most of his educated colleagues died of torture, disease, or were worked to death.

He had two close brushes with death himself but survived by the aid of sympathetic others and drinking the juice of the sugar palm tree.  Two of his brothers and one of his sisters died.

When he returned to Phnom Penh after the Khmer Rouge fell, he found an old bookshop where he used to go and learned that his wife and children had all been killed.  The news was devastating.

From 1980 to 1986 he worked for the government’s political science school and also  translated communist literature from French into Khmer.  Among the translations were biographies of Karl Marx and Ho Chi Minh.

“In reality, communism is worth nothing,” he reflected at his home last week.

“At that time I was a professor of French and many books were brought here by the Chinese in the Khmer language – educating people in Communist thought.  Many people liked reading it because it sounded good,” he said.

But the communist propaganda from China didn’t bear even the slightest resemblance to what Pol Pot did – destroying every vestige of human dignity, decency and tradition with a ferocity and stupidity that he still finds difficult to comprehend.

”The mistreatment of Cambodians by Pol Pot was the absurd misbehaviour of a man who had not been accepted by Cambodian society and was taking his revenge.  Pol Pot had been a primary school teacher.  He was a social failure and that’s why he wanted to take his revenge.  There were many people around him who were guilty as well.

“The only solution for the pathetic leader Pol Pot was to kill.  He put no trust into anyone – even people around him he didn’t trust. For a communist like him, killing breeds power.”

Miech’s own secret to survival was adapting to his environment.

“Whatever the boss wanted to do, we had to do.”

As for retribution, he still feels a thirst for justice.

“I still want to get some revenge even today,” he said. “I know where the former Khmer Rouge people live – the people who never received justice,” he said.

Yet, in a hypothetical scenario, this writer asked Miech if it would be justifiable to shoot Pol Pot, or some other murderous terrorist,  if the act would clearly save the lives of others.

“No,” Miech Ponn said.  

His Buddhist convictions against killing remain strong – even for retribution – even against those who “deserve” it.

Now in his twilight years and having survived the horrors and having lost half of his family, Mieth Ponn sees the restoration of morality in Cambodia as essential in helping the young population find answers to life’s difficult questions.

For Mieth, the Buddhist principles articulated by his father and which helped create the environment for the harmony and love in his own large Khmer family – are key to helping the young Cambodians of today who are so much less connected to their families than they were during his own youth.

“With Buddhist education we can reconstruct and restore the former state.  There are many people working to restore former values.  This is important.  We can make the present from the past,” he said.  

“Buddhist values will play an essential part in this task of restoration.”

Miech praised the work of many of the young Buddhist monks on the radio.  He encouraged people to listen to what they say.  Of particular interest to Miech is the education of young people.  He contends that not enough emphasis is placed on behaviour.

“Many journals and magazines ask what do we have to do to restore this culture?  For me, my social position is low – I can’t do much to repair what has been done.  If I were minister of culture or minister of education – it would be very different indeed,” he said.

“In reality, every one of us was extraordinarily disappointed,” he said.

But, he said “we have not lost hope to reconstruct Cambodian society”.

“If I were prime minister, it would be entirely different.

“I would like to restore a new moralism:  you can listen or not according to your will.

“The opposition wants to lead to democracy.  We need to have free and fair elections.  The newly developing class is going to transform into democratic society,” he said.

“If we do not have democracy, we cannot have what we really need.”

Miech Ponn named Cambodian politicians Kem Sokha and Son Souber as worthy of praise for their work.

With regard to the Khmer Rouge trials now taking place, Miech Ponn spoke in defence of Khieu Samphan, who was his own childhood teacher.

“I don’t believe he as a lamb who became a wolf.  He was sweet, modest, dedicated and never shouted.  He was a good professor.”  Khieu Samphan was Cambodia’s head of state during the Pol Pot regime.

“He was a very respectable person and as a professor he was respected,” Miech Ponn said. “I don’t understand how he became a central figure in the Pol Pot regime.

“There is no free justice now – it is justice under influence. For all those people tried, there is no justice, no reparation.  Without reparation it is not a trial.  That is the opinion of most Cambodians,” he said.

“It would have been good to try the Khmer Rouge leaders abroad with foreign judges because here the main leaders are exerting pressures on judges,” he said.

Miech Ponn said he does not agree with government plans to build a Buddhist stupa in memory of the people who died as a result of the Pol Pot regime.

“I think it is unfair. I don’t believe in that – building a stupa for common retribution.”

About restoring tranquility and harmony in Cambodian society and life, Miech Ponn says people have to be persistent.

“An almost entirely rotten society is very difficult to restore. They (the Pol Pot regime) wanted to create a new society according to their ideas.  They wanted to erase everything.  It is very difficult to restore that.”

The Buddhist Institute where Miech Ponn works is dwarfed by the adjacent NagaWorld Hotel and Casino.  

The quiet, peaceful complex houses a number of offices and a library that contains some interesting books. Because of the pressure of the adjacent casino next to a Buddhist holy place, with motorcycle parking and traffic pressures, Cambodians have expressed hope that the casino would offer greater support toward the preservation and protection of the Buddhist Institute.

When you’re in the presence of Miech Ponn there’s a calmness and kindness you feel that reflects the Buddhist “middle way” – yet there’s fearlessness and clarity in facing Cambodia’s turbulent past – and there’s an offering of ideas for what people can do to restore the Cambodian mind to the beauty, peace and family strength he experienced as a boy.

With regard to the Khmer Rouge trials, Miech Ponn thinks they are ineffective and says the local population agrees with him.

As a message to Cambodians on the occasion of Khmer New Year, Miech Ponn says he wants to go back to how it was when he was a little boy.

“We can do it,” he said.

“The world can change and we can change as well. On Khmer New Year we played the traditional games from the heart.  Today they are just pretending. People need to play the games from the heart,” he said.

“We can bring it back. It depends on us and our own perspective.  We can bring it back by democracy.

“I want to go back to how it was when I was a little boy. In future, democracy will bring happiness to us,” he said.

“Democracy will be the revenge against the Khmer Rouge time. We can change and the world can change as well.”

For Miech, books are more important than money.

“Money has no room in my heart - books are the most important.”

Miech Ponn is well known beyond Cambodia’s borders and is treated with great respect by those who have come to seek him.

A few years ago he was visited by a group of students from Korea and they knelt down in front of him.

“They had found my books and they had never met me.  They knelt down in front of me and I said - what are you doing?  Stop that!”

He reflected that he was lucky to see that in his life. {jathumbnail}

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