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Reconciliation in the homes of war criminals

  • 16 May 2012

On Saturday, I was travelling around the Catholic parish of Khompong Thom in Cambodia in company with the director of UCAN News, Australian Jesuit Fr Michael Kelly, and the parish priest, Thai Jesuit Fr Jub Phoktavi (pictured, second from left, with Fr Kelly, right, and Khompong Thom parishioners). As we drove through the village of Prek Sbeuv, Jub matter-of-factly pointed to Pol Pot's old house.

It is an unremarkable house, and if tourists happened to be this far off the beaten track they would have little idea that this was the residence of one of the world's greatest war criminals.

I thought back to 1987 when I met a Khmer leader in the Site Two refugee camp on the Thai Cambodian border. I asked him if he could ever imagine a return to government in Cambodia. He looked very sad as he told me how the Khmer Rouge had killed most of his immediate family. He could not trust the Khmer Rouge again.

I had the sense that he would find it hard to trust any of his fellow Cambodians ever again in rebuilding his nation from such ruins. Reconciliation was a fashionable textbook concept.

Twenty five years later, there is a certain routine to life in Cambodia, though poverty in the villages is widespread and government corruption legendary.

The previous evening I had been asked to address a multi-faith group of NGO and Church workers on faith, justice and public policy. What could I, a Catholic priest from Australia, say about such matters in a largely Buddhist country devastated by genocide?

Whether Christian, Buddhist, or Muslim, faith is about my having, owning and reflecting on a belief system which allows me to live fully with the paradoxes and conflicts of life and death, good and evil, beauty and suffering. It is only fundamentalists who are able to live as if these paradoxes are not real, as if they do not impinge on our sense of self and on our considered actions every day.

By embracing these paradoxes and confronting these conflicts, the person of faith, whether inspired by Jesus, Mohammed, or Buddha, is able to live an engaged life of faith. I am able to commit myself to