Father François Ponchaud was part of the last truckload of foreigners to leave Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge seized Phnom Penh in April 1975, when he passed through a “ghost country” seemingly bereft of inhabitants apart from the guards who accompanied the truck to the border crossing at Poipet.
After spending the weeks following the fall of the capital largely sequestered in the French embassy, inklings of the brutal nature of the newly installed ultra-Maoist regime were only just beginning to coalesce.
“A man on the truck told me – even though he was a soldier – told me that he wanted to go to France as well,” Ponchaud said. “And it was at that moment I realised that even a cadre in the Khmer Rouge clique was afraid of his own people.”
Ponchaud – author of the 1978 book Cambodia: Year Zero and one of the first to make public the regime’s grave transgressions – offered a long and discursive testimony at the Khmer Rouge tribunal yesterday, one that traced the arc of the Khmer Rouge’s rise and rule, and eventually veering into the present and taking to task the very trial itself.
As a young French priest in the late 1960s, Ponchaud was based for a time in Kampong Cham’s Kroch Chhmar district just as the rumblings of the Khmer Rouge were making themselves felt.
“At night I would hear dogs barking, and they would say that that was normal,” he said, speaking fluent Khmer, as he did for the entirety of his testimony. “Actually, it was not normal, but the Khmer Rouge had to come to the villages at night to propagandise.”
At the time, Ponchaud said, Khieu Samphan was considered an exemplary politician, known for his principles.
“His Excellency Khieu Samphan was Mr Clean,” he said. “He did not receive bribes. He was offered a Mercedes-Benz as a bribe and did not take it.”
Cambodian politics took a dark turn, he continued, as the Sihanouk-era government gave way to the Lon Nol regime, at whose feet Ponchaud laid part of the blame for the Khmer Rouge’s brutality.
“The Khmer Rouge were cruel, but I think they were cruel because they had reason to be cruel,” he testified, adding that he had his “own version of what happened under the Khmer Rouge”.
“At the beginning, the Khmer Rouge provided some form of hope for Cambodian people,” said Ponchaud, maintaining that American and South Vietnamese incursions into Cambodia had made life miserable for peasants. “Even I myself, in my book [Cambodia: Year Zero], I also wrote that I would pray that the Khmer Rouge soldiers came, because people lost all hope during the Lon Nol regime.”
The American bombs – explosions Ponchaud could see from his apartment on some nights – had been so persistent that many citizens required little persuading in April of 1975, when the Khmer Rouge forcibly evacuated the capital, claiming it was for their own safety.
“When we heard that we had to leave the city because we could be bombed again, people were convinced,” he said.
The evacuation, or the side that he saw, said Ponchaud, was motivated not by threats of violence or killings – he testified that he saw no corpses between the city’s fall and his departure – but rather by the very looks of the Khmer Rouge.
“A friend and I met a Khmer Rouge, and they looked at us with a strange look,” he said. “In fact, the Khmer Rouge could threaten us with just a look from their bare eyes. They looked very fierce.”
“It was a psychological force,” he added later.
But despite the promises of an imminent bombing, Ponchaud testified, the true purpose for the evacuation was ideological.
“At the beginning, I didn’t understand this, but later on I learned from a cadre in Phnom Penh,” he said. “It was on the 17th of April 1975. He said Phnom Penh was not a good place. In the city, people did not grow any vegetables or plants, so people had to go to the countryside to grow crops so Cambodians would understand the value of rice.”
“Angkar would like everyone to return to their hometowns to become real Khmer,” he added.
Eventually, after three weeks of house arrest at the French Embassy, Ponchaud was escorted to the border, and returned to France, where he began researching the situation inside Cambodia. He published his book detailing Democratic Kampuchea’s atrocities in 1978, before the regime even fell. The same year, he testified on the situation at the United Nations, which he described as an exercise in futility.
“Back then, I was like an object from nowhere, from another alien planet. Nobody listened to me,” he said. “They had their agents along the border; they must have known how it was . . . They knew that the Khmer Rouge had killed a lot of civilian people. They chose to be indifferent.
“I am ashamed of the UN, who supported the Khmer Rouge for 19 years, even though they knew the work that the Khmer Rouge had done was barbaric, and they killed innocent people, but they chose to be indifferent,” he continued. “I don’t think that they should be involved in bringing the Khmer Rouge to trial now.”