Catholic priest Francois Ponchaud got married 31 years ago. "We form an old
couple now. We've stayed together a bit by long term affection, and since we met
by accident on Nov 4, 1965, sometimes we have scenes," he says. The French-born
Catholic missionary is talking about Cambodia - his unusual life companion.
A teenage dream, Asia was at the time the mysterious promise towards a bright future.
After he finished his studies in Theology at the renowned Gregorian University in
Rome, Ponchaud was appointed by the Paris Foreign Mission to come to Cambodia.
"Appointed by mistake, kept by oversight," Ponchaud has become somewhat
of an institution here in the Kingdom. And his bride of just over three decades is
the master in his own parish, ruling the man from deep with-in. She shaped him into
what he is today: a man strongly rooted in Cambodia.
Ponchaud punctuates his speech with precise dates like a living library in this land
of oblivion. "He is a Khmerologue," says Sam Rainsy, explaining how Ponchaud
was the first to write about the sufferings of Cambodia's people. Eyewitness to the
Khmer Rouge's swift takeover of Phnom Penh on April 17 1975, he published Cambodia:
Year Zero, a compilation of his own experiences and testimonies gathered from refugees.
"After five years under Prince Sihanouk's monarchy, five years in the Lon Nol
Republic and three weeks of Democratic Kampuchea, I wanted to go back to France,
disgusted. There's no need to be nostalgic," he muses. As a voice for the refugees,
Ponchaud insisted on keeping his ear to Khmer Rouge radio, thanks to tapes sent to
him from Thailand. To have an objective judgement. "Most intellectuals had joined
the Khmer Rouge ranks, they had an ideology close to Rousseau's idea of the child
discovering the world by himself. Cambodia had to close its borders and develop from
within," he says.
Ponchaud did not side with the Khmer Rouge, but there was no hope under the corrupt
Lon Nol regime. "We chose common sense and we got it wrong," says the priest.
Relaxed, sitting on the top floor of the Cambodian Catholic Cultural Centre he founded
three years ago to help foreigners learn the Khmer language, Ponchaud catches every
opportunity to make a small remark in Khmer to some passing student. "The more
I know Cambodia, the less I understand it, and the more I speak Khmer the less fluent
I feel. I'm only a foreigner, after all, trying to walk alongside the people of Cambodia,"
he admits humbly.
Born of peasant stock, Ponchaud understands "le petit peuple" and spends
ten days a month in Battambang province teaching Cambodian seminarians the meaning
of the Bible. "I am a small person and perhaps my only achievement is the translation
of the Bible into Khmer," adds Ponchaud, referring to his recent three-year
effort accomplished with five Khmer associates and soon to be published.
Somehow it is Ponchaud's contribution to this country which taught him about Buddhism
and the primacy of the spiritual realm over that of the material, the importance
of meditation, the temperance of passion, and modesty in his own faith. "I had
to reinterpret my own faith. Buddhism changed me a little."
Far removed from an era when missionaries were appointed to bring enlightenment to
peoples living in darkness, and steeped in the generation of Vatican II, Ponchaud
was sent here to share a spiritual experience. "Buddhism and Christianity go
together well. Christians can also teach the Khmer people how to be creative, react,
and get united to fight for human rights," he says.
Politically engaged during the Khmer Rouge regime while he stayed in France, Ponchaud
no longer has sympathy for political parties. None of them. "I am happy to see
Cambodians going in the streets, slowly moving to ask for their legitimate rights
and showing a sense of collective conscience." But to those who ask him to start
his own political party, he replies that politics is none of his business.
He wrote for La Croix and Le Monde in France, condemning first the Khmer Rouge regime
and then the Vietnamese occupation which followed. Ponchaud could not be accused
of taking sides: he had criticized all sides freely. In an editorial published in
Le Monde in 1979, he denounced the Vietnamese occupation without fear of being seen
as defending the Khmer Rouge because he had previously condemned their atrocities.
"I could not remain silent because it was about human rights, but politics is
an urban luxury I am not interested in," declares the 58 year-old Father.
In the 1980s Ponchaud gave birth to Espace Cambodge in Paris, an association helping
Cambodians to integrate into French society. He also wrote several issues of Echange
France Asie, an informative bulletin published by the Foreign Missions in Paris.
"I am just a bridge between two cultures," he says reflecting on the past.
But perhaps more than he realizes, as he gently cradles visitors with testimonies
and lighter anecdotes never short of humor, Ponchaud paves the way for new arrivals
into the depths of Khmer culture.
With a keen eye, having watched closely the recent cyclone of Khmer history, Father
Ponchaud is a living - and sometimes provocative - witness to Cambodia's tumultuous
ups-and-downs. Beyond every Cambodian smiling veil, hides a withdrawn individual
which Ponchaud respects profoundly.
It is with a touching sincerity that he confesses how guilty he sometimes feels to
be a Christian. "Buddhist monks sometimes say the Christians are destroying
Khmer culture. I am ashamed of the Bible used as a means to enslave people, taught
as a unique word of truth," says the Catholic priest.
Far from being a traditional man of the cloth, when it comes to religious history
Ponchaud knows his lessons and explains that there are all sorts of misunderstandings
regarding the Catholic community in Cambodia. "The first... Christians to arrive
in the region came from Sulawesi in 1660. Christianity was brought here from within
Asia. A lot of people also have a tendency to think that the Catholics in Cambodia
are Vietnamese," he adds. Persecuted by the Emperor in Saigon, accused of colluding
with the French against the government in power, Vietnamese Catholics took refuge
in Cambodia in 1859. "The church was 'Vietnamese-ized' until 1950 but there
are 6,000 Khmer Catholics today in this country," he notes.
Ponchaud urged caution to the 1,500 Cambodian refugees he met while he stayed on
the Thai border from converting to Catholicism. "I told them that instead of
receiving help, as Christians they, themselves, would have to help people more deprived."
Ponchaud is worried about Cambodia's small people, and complains that the people
in the countryside are broken. "They don't have the strength to get up again.
They keep on making this pun with the name of the country 'Kampuchea' meaning 'Kama
not healed'," he says. He worries about seeing a massive exodus to urban areas,
illegal immigration to Thailand, villages emptied when men are absent. "People
don't care which party wins the elections in 1998. What they want is to eat, and
their children to be safe," he declares.
A Father's only pain should be the pain suffered by his children. Ponchaud's only
worry is for Cambodia's peasants. Like an old companion, he wishes his wife and kids
to stay peacefully by his side until he decides to go back where he came from. But
maybe he will stay here - by accident, of course.