Priest who exposed Khmer Rouge slams trial

By Michelle Fitzpatrick ,AP

PHNOM PENH — Cambodia’s landmark trial against ex-Khmer Rouge leaders is “a monumental mistake,” says the French priest who 35 years ago became the first person to expose the horrors of the regime. “I deny the United Nations the right to judge the Khmer Rouge,” said 73-year-old Francois Ponchaud, who was forced to leave Phnom Penh when the hard-line communists took power in 1975. “The U.N. backed the Khmer Rouge for 14 years for geo-political reasons during the Cold War. I don’t see why the U.N. would now give itself the right to judge those it supported,” he said in an interview with AFP. In what is considered an embarrassing chapter in U.N. history, the Khmer Rouge was allowed to retain its seat in the General Assembly even after the regime was ousted by Vietnamese troops in 1979 and its blood-stained revolution was exposed to the world. In 2006, the Cambodian government and the U.N. set up a tribunal in Phnom Penh to try to find justice for up to two million people who died under the regime’s 1975-1979 reign. Late last year, it began trying former deputy leader Nuon Chea, ex-Foreign Minister Ieng Sary and one-time head of state Khieu Samphan, all of whom deny charges of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity. The trial has been hailed as a milestone event in the still-traumatized nation, but the Roman Catholic priest is one of its few vocal detractors. Ponchaud, who returned to his beloved Cambodia in 1993, says the legal process betrays a lack of cultural sensitivity because it imposes a Western idea of justice on a staunchly Buddhist nation. “It’s a monumental mistake. The Cambodians don’t need this trial, invented by Westerners, that causes more pain than it heals. It just rehashes all this suffering that the Khmer people have begun to forget,” he said. Ponchaud, who has spent years living alongside rural Cambodians, believes the country has its own way of resolving conflicts, and “it’s not through court verdictsj.” Many survivors and former Khmer Rouge perpetrators have already found a way to “live together,” often side by side in the same village, he said, trusting that karma will set things right in the next life. “The concept of human rights is a very Judeo-Christian concept,” according to the clergyman. “For a Buddhist, the human person doesn’t exist. When you die, you will be reincarnated.”