lundi, décembre 24, 2007

Ponchaud : Report of Mission in Cambodia

News From Cambodia N° 0748-F (suite)

From 16 till 27 September 1990

(Unofficially translated from the original in French by Khemara Jati)

I was in Cambodia by the request of the BPAC, officially invited by Caritas Internationalis to visit its projects.

Already in 1982 I had taken steps to reach Cambodia through the UNICEF: the Cambodian government had granted me a visa, but the authorities of Hanoi had removed it back from me. A second step made in 1982. It was without answer.

I was able to go anywhere by walk, by motorcycle, by car, quite freely; I was able to speak to whom I wanted, without having the impression to be watched. Most of the time, I was in Phnom Penh, but I went to Moat Krasas (15 km in the southeast), to Kompong Chhnang (90 km in the North), to Kompong Speu (50 km on the West).

General Impression

Coming from Ho Chi Minh City, we are hardly confused by arriving to Phnom Penh: a city as ruined as dirty and deformed. We do not practically see ruins, but most of the houses are darkened by the rains of the monsoon, many apartment buildings do not have windows anymore nor of doors, they were replaced by boxes, steel sheets. Except for the big arteries, streets were not maintained and are often kicked down, muddy, filled with puddles, at this end of rainy season; most of the pavements are broken, garbage are dawdle in spite of an important service of garbage dump with brooms and even endowed recently with trucks « Propreté de Paris » still registered number 75; wild grasses grow almost everywhere: Véal Men (space of the big popular gatherings, the Congress, etc.) look like a garbage dump; even the “Phnom”, in the center of the city is not very well maintained, although the outside of the pagoda and the stupa which surmount it are repaired.

Some districts however are clean, apparently intended to be visited by foreigners: that of the « monument of Victoire » (formerly « monument of the Independence »), with its beautiful flowerbeds, that of the Royal Palace, Cambodiana with its 250 luxurious rooms and its motels, the bank of Mekong, in front of the royal palace. Some of coconut palms planted by Pol Pot give to the city an aspect even more exotic than before.

Phnom Penh appears as an overpopulated city, with numerous squatters living in the empty apartments, camp in sheds of bamboo inside the surrounding the pagoda walls, or sleep on pavements. It is a city full of life, with an intense traffic of cyclos, bicycles, motorcycles: during Pchoum Ben, the big Holiday of the deceased, September 19th, motorcycles circulated on several rows, covering the main axes of the city. Some cars cleared a road by honking non-stop. The traffic is very anarchy, agents try hard to put it a little of order.

Phnom Penh is fascinating by the number of its markets full of stocked, where the crowds are anticipated, but also by the multitude of shops of retails of scraps in any kinds, mini traders, selling some fruits, cigarettes in unity, some gasoline at a liter bottle at the edge of pavements.

In the first glance, we have the impression of the similar people (who lived here before) and at the same time very different from the one who populated the city before 1975: fewer Chinese (these are gradually bought back the city center and their shops), more Cambodians and especially Vietnamese. The Khmers seem very poor, they are farmers who come to earn in Phnom Penh or who fled the fights. The accent of people living in Phnom Penh is not the same any more.

During these ten days, I was able to note around thirty words or new expressions, or at least the generalized usage in the people, of the Pol Pot cultural revolution : “hôp = to eat”; “tveu chivapéap = to earn the life” (with the harmonious: “khméan chéavaphéap”); “saphéapkar = situation”; “niyéay kampuchéaw = speak Khmer”; “ aharathan = canteen”; “téarokathan = daycare”; “méteysala = nursery school”; “prachéachon = population”; “kal pi sangkum = under the previous regimes”; “sappada = week”; “komret vapathor = cultural level”; “krousar = spouse”; “saum aèkaphéap = to agree”; “avathaméan = absence ; vathaméan = presence”; “tveu satésanéam = to tell biography”; “samasaphéap = counts participants number”, etc.

The name of streets have changed with the political changes: the former bld Monivong (become “Prachétipatai”, “democracy” under Lon Nol), is renamed “Son Ngoc Minh”, one of the Vietminh's supporter in the war of liberation against the French colonialist; the ex-bld Norodom (become then « October 9th ») becomes then under the name of “Tou Samuth”, founder of the Cambodian communist Party; the bld Sihanouk became “Sivotha”, younger brother of the King Norodom who had rebelled against him en1860; bld Kampuchea Krom is called « Friendship Kampuchea-Vietnam »; the bld Mao Tsé Toung became “Kéo Moni”, of the name of a Khmer communist representative of the end of the 50s; the road of the friendship Khméro-soviétique became « Soviet Union »; the road Kossomak, dedicated to the souvenir of the Queen mother was renamed “Ho Chi Minh”; the bld in front of Chamkar Mon is called “Achar Sva”, instigator of the first anti-French revolt of 1864; the quay Sisowath became « bld Lenin »; the road in the front of Bassac became “Karl Marx”. The street Trasak Paem remains the same, because the gardener who has this name had, at the end of the XIIIth century, knocked down the Khmer monarchy. On the other hand the traversing roads in between the big boulevards has given by the N° of the American style. Generally Hospitals have the name of the historic dates of the Cambodian revolution: « The Revolution » (Calmette), « The April 17th » (Hospital of the Monk), « The December 2nd » (Ang Duong). Etc.

The description could be raised on Kompong Chhnang: a phantom city, wild grasses growing everywhere, a crowd of horses grazing the herb on the city palace, the beautiful buildings of the provincial capital. Only the new monuments decorate the city, as all the provincial capitals: a « monument of the victory », reply of Phnom Penh as well as a monument celebrating the indestructible friendship between Cambodia and Vietnam.

From Kompong Speu, there is nothing left, otherwise some ruins lining an asphalted road: houses were shaved by bombardments even before 1975. A new city is build along the main road N° 4 leading to Kompong Som port, with magnificent school buildings of the Executive members of the Party.


Political situation

It is difficult to see the political situation from inside of Phnom Penh. It is more by statements made by the different responsible of outside that we can better make an idea.

It is true that most of the people seem appreciate the wind of liberation blowing on the country for about a year, even if many aspects are negative. But the regime remains [controlling by] police and the Party have the monopoly of all the political activities, connecting by the Front as the organ to operate of its directives. Any newcomers have to be declared to the chief of district, the control is strict, but in the patrol is always underground. Fifteen minutes after I arrived at a Protestant minister who had troubles « with the police », two agents of the district came to take information of my visit. The political discussions are not often than in the past.

Prisons remain: Not only T3 (the central Phnom Penh prison), but also the underground prisons, of which that of Tuol Sleng (next to the museum of the horror of the Khmer rouge genocide), which is not allowing to any visit. According to the International Red Cross director Committee, there are promises that prisoners can be possibly visited soon by this body. I met three refugees who returned from Thailand camps: the one returned by himself in 1982, but he is closely under full control by the police for confessional reasons; the other one returned of himself as "lost" (« vongveng phleuv »): he was not able to settle in the city even in Phnom Penh, but in the suburb and seem does not worried; the third returned by the International Red Cross means and is not worried. The "lost", even they were former Khmer rouge leaders, were reinstated in the Khmer society, and hold a special card of "lost person". They are the object of a discreet control. According to the Pol Pot's rules but in the new version, it happens that people are arrested without reason, and that they have to prove their innocence during several months in the preventive prison.


Everyone wait and wait for the peace, but without much believing from [this regime]. Many people are afraid of the return of the Khmers rouge as a possible eventuality, exactly because of the corruption of the current regime.

Vietnamese presence

Officially the Vietnamese army left the country on September 26th, 1989. At first sight, the presence of a vietnamese colony is not seen, in Cambodia. Nevertheless, by walking in streets, we see Vietnamese everywhere: in houses, in the market, on the edge of rivers. The district of Russey Kéo, as well as the places behind the catholic village are exclusively populated by the Vietnamese. On the other hand there is practically none in Chrui Changvar. All the craft, notably in the construction are under their control, not only because traditionally the Khmers are less artisans (they build however very well their pagoda and the other buildings), but especially because the young Khmers are forced to enroll in the army, while the young Vietnamese are exempted from it.

At Kompong Chhnang, in « Psar Krom », it is necessary to have good glasses to discover Khmers! One Sunday morning, the radio diffused very loudly (in full volume) of the Vietnamese songs from the island which is located not far from that. According to the President of the Vietnamese Association of the province, the Vietnamese residents would be among 10.000 there.

It seems that the Vietnamese colonies of Cambodia are amongst the poor people who come looking for a subsistence which is better than in their homeland. They are however well supervised by the Association of the Vietnamese Residents of Cambodia which is controlling directly by the Embassy of Vietnam in Phnom Penh or by the Consulate in Battambang. Moreover, this embassy issues Cambodian identity cards blocked by a line, allowing those Vietnamese to freely circulate between both countries. However, it is difficult to advance a precise figure. Some people speak Khmer, because they are Vietnamese living in Cambodia but deported in 1970. Others do not absolutely speak any cambodian. They are (Vietnamese) living by group together amongst them, because isolated; they are object of the vindication by the Khmers. A Vietnamese child of Arey Ksach (on the western bank of the Mekong, opposite to Phnom Penh) thrashed by his classmates and had to leave the school.

Even in ministries, nobody denies the presence of 6.000 Vietnamese experts (cadres). As for the army, they are present, although it is impossible to estimate the number. One speaks about it as « our friends ». For sure, without their presence Battambang, Siemréap and Kompong Thom would be in the hands of Khmer rouges. At the beginning of September in the newspapers of Bangkok one could moreover read governmental statements according to which the Cambodian security of the Siemréap and Battambang provinces were doubled by Vietnamese soldiers. Foreigners were able to meet, in Vietnam, military brought back recently from Cambodia: they made a profit because they were paid in dollars. As for the police and the Interior Ministry, according to a Vietnamese, the staff would consist for an important proportion of Vietnamese but dressed in Cambodian dress. A multitude of small details confirms this presence: a saleswoman of cigarettes of the corner said: « they speak to me in vietnamese ». During a small collision between a motorcycle and a bicycle, the Cambodian military who went up the motorcycle spoke only the vietnamese; a foreign friend taking a beer in Siemréap heard the "Cambodian" military speaking between them only in vietnamese.

The Vietnamese seem to be useless everywhere, but hold the whole country in hand. « The capital of Cambodia, is Ho Chi Minh-city », said frankly a young man. The monument of the independence renames « Monument of Victoire », and the road flanking it called « Ho Chi Minh » showing the Vietnamese carelessness regarding the Khmer people.

The Church

Since the decrees of April granting the freedom of cult to the different religions, the Church of Cambodia finds a new vitality, but has to face, once again, the presence of many Vietnamese colonies.


Moat Krasas

Two communities coexist: first a small group of six cambodian families, consisting essentially of young people and women, without any men adult. These Khmers lived in approximately 3 kilometres in the North of their ancient village where lands were taken by the Mekong. Another group includes a dozen of Vietnamese families living in boats and in houses built on the place of the former Vietnamese parish. The Khmers are very poor, while the Vietnamese, living with the fishing are relatively rich. The Vietnamese built a small church, thanks to the grant of P. Thom Dunleavy. The mass is celebrated every Sunday in cambodian, animated by Cambodians, with the gospel reading in vietnamese. A young from Phnom Penh helps in the catechism's education. Although speaking in cambodian (most of these Vietnamese are of former of Cambodia) seems not really appreciate this liturgy in Khmer.



The Christians count 124 families of 381 persons. They are organized by a mixed committee including 5 Cambodians and 3 Vietnameses. At present the Christians have officially authorized to meet at Phâl (approximately 180 persons, especially Cambodians), and at Bora, sister of the P. Benedictine Bernard, married to a Vietnamese soldier (200 persons, of whom some are Vietnameses).

This responsible asks permission to build a small place of cult close to the ancient church. The authorities of the village and the city hall authorized it, but the Consul of Vietnam in Battambang opposes to it, because he would like to impose the presence of the President of the Association of the Vietnamese of the province, two others of his agents in the committee. « The Vietnamese have more experience, » said the Consul.


Chrétiens, montagnards

By a French planter of passage in Phnom Penh, we learnt that an important group of montagnards of Quida, of the Centre Vietnam came to establish in the region of Ratanakiri. Their territories in Vietnam were occupied by Vietnamese come from the North, and even, in the sector of three borders, had encroached on 20 km inside the Cambodian territory.

The Vietnamese Christians

By coming in Cambodia, I did not try to meet the Vietnamese catholic communities of Cambodia, otherwise the small group of Moat Krasas. I however accompanied two American priests who went to Kompong Chhnang to celebrate there the mass for the Vietnamese. A small community of hundred persons met on the terrace of a market building, decorated in the colors of Vatican. Usually the priests are celebrating in American, with translation into vietnamese. I was invited for the meal following by the mass: all the male participants of these feasts were members of the (political) Association of the Vietnamese Residents of Cambodia, and made no mystery of their relations whith the embassy. The President was a Christian of Krauchmar who was a child when I was priest and that I had tried, in vain, to take him to Kompong Cham in 1970. A member of the Association invited me to go to Vat Champa, where is a big Vietnamese church.

There would be about 14 places of cults for the Vietnamese. It does not go without raising problems. The solution engages the future of the Church in Cambodia. If the Church has to show itself attentive to the spiritual needs of the Vietnamese immigrants and try to answer it, it does not have to be a dupe of the political aims from this immigration: it seems that Vietnam wants to use the Church as one of the means to colonize the country, by favoring the grouping of her nationals. By the way to Ho Chi Minh City, I had indirect confirmation by a member of the patriotic Church who wants to organize a visit of Vietnamese priests in Cambodia next December. As long as the political situation is not secure, the Church cannot offer but only the minimum of religious services to the Vietnamese immigrants, and in Khmer language, at least in the official demonstrations.

It is advisable for the Church to show itself watchful not to repeat certain errors of past, while at the end of the XIXth and the beginning of the XXth century and in another context, the Church, being inspired by colonial plans, favored the Vietnamese settling in Cambodia. It was worth of being considered by the Cambodians as doubling foreigner, and by her previous history, and by her communities. The evangelisation of the Khmers was of this fact compromised during almost century.

While the Church of Cambodia is reborn of its efforts, with the fragility that one know, while it has the opportunity and the will to offer the service to the Cambodian people of Cambodia, an inconvenient pastoral action and one-sidedly with the immigrants where the presence is negatively seen by the public opinion, risk to burden heavily the Cambodian evangelisation hope. The pastoral action in Cambodia requires a caution and calls coordination.

The vitality of the Khmer Christians, the coolness of their faith, their enjoyment to meet amongst themselves together has given me a great moment of the Acts of the Apostles. Although the future is uncertain, they are sign of Hope.

François PONCHAUD, le 1.10.90