For a lifelong missionary priest, Francois Ponchaud tells a great war story. Take
Algeria, 1961, when 20-year-old French paratrooper Ponchaud refused to fight. It
was Easter Sunday, and the seminarian-turned-soldier declined his captain's combat
order on the grounds that ceasefires were arranged for the holy days of other religions.
"That lasted until exactly 10 pm. We came under attack. That day we had 25 killed
and 85 wounded," Ponchaud said. "Algeria is a shame for me. It was a very,
very difficult place. I learned many things there. Ideals are good, but reality is
For a religious icon, Ponchaud is a remarkable realist. Born in 1939 in the French
Alps, he came to study Cambodian culture as a missionary in 1965. After weeks holed
up at the French Embassy, he left Cambodia with the last convoy of foreigners on
May 8, 1975. Upon publication in 1977, his harrowing account of the "bibilical
climate" surrounding the fall of Phnom Penh in Cambodia:Year Zero is credited
with changing international opinion about the Khmer Rouge. He returned to Cambodia
in 1993 and helped translate the first Common Language Khmer Bible in 1998. He believes
an understanding of Buddhism has made him a better Christian, and his latest book
Together in Search of Light examines the similarities of the two faiths, and their
Of his mission in Cambodia, he says it has remained the same for more than 40 years:"I
am a friend to the Cambodian people," he says." I walk with them."
Ponchaud spoke to Charles McDermid on
Describe the time you escorted the late Maha Ghosananda to visit Pope John Paul II
at the Vatican.
First, I had tried to persuade them not to allow Maha Ghosanada to visit the Pope.
He had an empty brain with no ideas. He was a symbol. I was in France and he was
in the US; we met in Rome. It was the 80s and Vietnam ruled Cambodia. There was no
hope for the future of Cambodia at the time. I said to Maha: "You must go speak
to the Pope about the situation." We prepared him for a 20-minute meeting with
the Pope, but when he arrived he grabbed the Pope in a bearhug and lifted him off
the floor. [Illustrates bearhug and lift on Post reporter, then shakes head in disbelief].
The Pope didn't understand and it was painful for him. [Maha Ghosanada] was a stupid
boy. Maybe that's too strong, but that's what I think.
So what about his reputation as the "Gandhi" of Cambodia?
He has an ascetic look, but he's not a Gandhi. I told you, there were no ideas in
his brain, it was empty.
What's your opinion of today's Buddhist clergy and its leaders, Tep Vong and Bou
It's difficult for me to say. If I don't praise them they'll have a big problem with
me. My impression is that many monks know nothing about Buddhism. Sometimes I think
that even I know more. Tep Vong knows nothing about Buddhism. It's impossible to
create a dialogue about religion because he has nothing to say. He's political. He's
a member of the [CPP] politburo. He changes his ideas about voting because he's political.
I knew Bou Kri in France. He also had nothing to say about Buddhism. He's political
also; he supports the King.
You were once quoted in an article as saying "Without Buddhism, Cambodia
is lost." Do you still feel this way?
Cambodian culture is very close to Buddhism - but there is no Buddha. That is the
new culture. It's like Europe now: many reject Christianity. I understand this. Churches,
especially the Catholic Church, didn't make enough effort to explain their aim. Many
reject this, and I agree with them. The Catholic Church, all churches, are not meant
for today. They have to change. They must adopt a modern approach to the realities
of today. Now, in France if Christian values disappear, the cultural values of France
will disappear. It's the same in Cambodia with Buddhism.
Is Buddhism providing moral guidance for Cambodia's young generation?
There has been a general loss of moral values, and no transmission of moral values
in the family or society, because now there is only one value: the dollar. Nothing
more. In Cambodia, we used to say people who do good deeds have happiness, and those
who do bad deeds have suffering. Now we say people who do bad deeds make lots of
money. People come to us and say, "We've only done good, but we are always suffering."
They can see people who do very bad things - sometimes soldiers, police and officials
- and they're very happy and rich. This is the living contradiction of Buddhism in
How does the corruption in today's society compare to that of the Lon Nol regime?
It is 1000 percent worse now. During the Lon Nol time and King Sihanouk's time there
were still some good officers and many educated people. Today everything is corrupt
and everyone is corrupt. It is impossible to sustain. The country cannot support
this, especially the poor people. Everything costs money. Everything.
In 1983 the head of Amnesty International asked you to participate in forming
a genocide trial for Pol Pot. You agreed, on one condition: that the trial also charge
Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger and Jimmy Carter. Do you still think this way?
I haven't changed my feeling about that. Who will put the US government on trial?
Everywhere in the world the US brings death and tears. In Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan
they have a "war on terror," but the US is making terror all over the world.
Who'll put them on trial? The foreign policy of the US is against human rights. It's
good to put the Khmer Rouge on trial, but they are not the only genocidists. The
US destroyed Cambodia and who condemned them?
What is the state of the Catholic Church in Cambodia today?
It's been written that Noam Chomsky abandoned his support for the Khmer Rouge after
reading Cambodia: Year Zero. Did he ever speak to you about this?
I refused to speak with him. We exchanged letters, some were 10 pages long. In the
beginning he was a good friend, but little by little we became angry with each other.
At the end of my final long letter, I told him when he really knew what happened
in Cambodia - our quarrel with words would seem ridiculous. He later became angry
with me. After, he came to Geneva, my home is about 59 km away, and I refused to
What influence has Buddhism had on you?
It's a great religion. It's very interesting. Now people don't follow the teachings
of Buddha. For me the teaching of Buddha, and meditation, allowed me to become a
better Christian. Buddha helped me to know who God is. Saint Thomas Aquinas [1225-1274]
wrote that everything has a definition, even God. Buddha and Jesus are very close
friends. They had the same spiritual experience. The difference is a difference of
culture. Buddha had India and the law of the Dharma. Jesus had the law of his Father.
Dharma and God are the same. We Christians must learn from Buddhism. I'm going to
France for six months to tell them what I learned about faith. I want to change the
reading of Saint Thomas Aquinas. It may be useful for French people who want to have
a new way of life.