Reconciliation in the homes of war criminals


Fr Jub Phoktavi, Fr Mick Kelly, and Khompong Thom parishionersOn 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 others, in love and in justice. I am able to be open to reconciling, or at least being reconciled to, the previously irreconcilable.

I am able to accord dignity to all others in the human family, no matter what their distinguishing marks, and regardless of their competencies, achievements or potentialities. I am able to surrender myself to that which is beyond what I know through my senses. I am able to commit myself to the stewardship of all creation.

The atheist, the person with no faith except in man himself, may do all these things to varying degrees. Suffice it to say, I cannot imagine being committed to these tasks so comprehensively and so universally except with faith. Some atheists are among the finest, most generous humanitarians I know. But equally I know that my faith enhances my humanitarian instincts and achievements. I would be a lesser person without my religious faith.

For example I would find it difficult to accord full human dignity to persons at either end of the life cycle but for the abiding conviction that every person is uniquely created in the image and likeness of God. I would find reconciliation in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia incomprehensible and impossible without some religious faith.

Pol Pot's houseWhen we live in diverse, pluralist societies, it makes good sense for us to be able to translate our comprehensive world view in terms accessible to others if they do not subscribe to our way of thinking.

The challenge to a Christian living in a largely Buddhist society has some similarities to the challenge confronting a Christian living in a society where the public square is largely the preserve of those who argue and agitate with a secularist mindset. We have ideas not just about what is good for us as individuals but what is good for the society of which we are a part.

While it might be patronising and inappropriate for the religious person to tell others how to live their lives, there is nothing wrong with participating in the discussion about how society might be shaped for the good of everyone.

As state officials or as citizens, religious faith can help us and our neighbours. The religious person who espouses universal truths and the universal dignity of humanity might be more likely to stand up for the people on the margins — the land evictees, the stateless, and the trafficked of Cambodia.

The religious person is free, and perhaps duty bound, to speak up in the public square and vote accordingly. When appointed as a state official, that person is vested with a public trust and must discharge it faithfully. It would be wrong for a religious person to abuse that trust by imposing their religious views on others.

It is important to distinguish the citizen or public official with religious faith from the religious official or representative of the faith community. There are other prudential issues to consider when we come to define the role of religious leaders in the public square.

Buddhists in countries like Cambodia and Myanmar know that the monks can be very effective in making public protests. But the monks must not do it too often; otherwise they lose their exalted role. And if they never do it, they risk becoming irrelevant and withdrawn from their people. Think just of the time when the monks marched in the streets of Rangoon and gathered outside the house of Aung Sang Su Ki when she was under house arrest.

People of faith come into the public square as committed citizens. True to their religious tradition, they discharge the public trust vested in them and work to recognise the dignity and human rights of all persons, at all life stages, no matter what their competencies, potentialities, achievements or distinguishing marks.

People of faith work to establish the conditions for the common good, and to respect and enhance the culture and space for freedom of religion and conscience for all their fellow citizens. They find hope in the midst of despair and love in the midst of hatred, and persevere to educate and form citizens and to design structures appropriate to our history and culture, promoting the rule of law and due process for all.

I remain in awe of those Cambodians who have been able to be reconciled, committing themselves to the common good of their nation. Fr Jub drops in occasionally for a chat with Pol Pot's niece who still lives in the family home. May God continue to bless them both.

Frank BrennanFr Frank Brennan SJ is professor of law at the Public Policy Institute, Australian Catholic University and adjunct professor at the College of Law and the National Centre for Indigenous Studies, Australian National University. This piece contains material from his address to the gathering of church and NGO workers convened in Siem Reap by the Jesuit Refugee Cambodia on 12 May 2012. Full text here. Images by Frank Brennan

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, Cambodia, Siem Reap



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Myra | 16 May 2012

I wonder how many religious persons will be attending Musgrave Park in South Brisbane today? Yes, I'm sure that living conditions for the marginalised in some parts of Cambodia are dire and it's wonderful that some religious persons are prepared to "go into bat" for them. Hopefully, the sovereign rights of our Indigenous sisters and brothers will not be dismissed as a fashionable textbook concept.
Andrew | 16 May 2012

An excellent piece clearly stating a way of being a person of faith in the pluralist world and in our largely secular society. No preaching, no attempting to convert, no condemnation. Plenty of commitment to living one's faith within, and also as a responsible member of society. I do hope those persons of faith on both sides of the Australian Parliament especially those who proclaim their religious faith as a guide to their political lives read and take note. Especially for the asylum seekers and the Indonesian fishermen and crews who bring them to Australia, to take note and apply Fr. Frank's carefully expressed expectation that "The religious person who espouses universal truths and the universal dignity of humanity might be more likely to stand up for the people on the margins — the land evictees, the stateless, and the trafficked ..."
Ian Fraser | 16 May 2012

very interesting view of faith & reconciliation. It gives more idea how to understand the role of each individual and also to respect each person the way we are. Thanks for the article
Vilaiwan Phokthavi | 16 May 2012

It is quite easy to have great faith in your own potential for self-actualisation and the inherent goodness of humanity as a whole, if you are fundamentally unburdened by the ludicrous excuse or cruelly self-defeating notion of "original Sin" in the first place. Similarly, whilst Fr Brennan finds his concept and image of "God" an inspiring and comforting one, many, many people of equal intelligence and genuine commitment to social justice and humanitarianism are rightly appalled by the misogyny, violence, cruelty, capriciousness, immorality and petty vileness of a Biblical god created by the men of an unenlightened and fearfully superstitious bygone era. It is predictably unfortunate, to say the least, that Fr Brennan, perhaps unconsciously, patronisingly infers that an "atheist" may have difficulty "embracing" the many paradoxes of suffering, injustice and the human condition in general without recourse to a very personal, necessarily subjectively biased image of a possibly (certainly unhelpfully inhuman and unnecessarily inscrutable, distant and disinterested) non-existent deity.
Michelle Goldsmith | 16 May 2012

Like many others in this country and in other major first world countries, I was in my early life more than familiar with the hatreds, discrimination and ruination of human relationships that came with the all-pervading sectarianism of the times. This sectarianism existed in an alledgedly Christian world wherein Catholic Christians particularly were excluded from positions of power and authority and were represented as the "poor" and the "battlers" represented by the ALP politically. It was only in 1976, for instance, when Billy Sneddon as Leader of the Liberal Party changed the rules in favour of a Catholic being nominated for preselection for a seat in parliament. I have also lived, in a time where this sectarianism was dissolved remarkably rapidly when the once economically and educationally deprived Catholic community (clearly defined by the dearth of Catholics in high academic office and in the ranks of Rhodes and other scholars) achieved economic and educational independence. It might be, Frank, that economic management and universal education might be more important than faith for the poor of the third world. At least, then they are given a temporal opportunity for independence and a decent life on this planet which faith alone is unlikely to provide???? Faith, is a hell-of-a-lot easier to embrace, I imagine, when you are not starving and your kids are not dying while you look on helplessly. Perhaps the Cambodians are simply grateful that they no longer live under the threat of death and starvation. Possibly more likely that they are committed to their own good rather than the good of the nation in keeping with the predominant intention of most ordinary human beings????
john frawley | 16 May 2012

Does any other reader feel that the intollerant comments by Michelle demonstrate approaches which are deeply at odds with the approach taken by the faith (far from exclusively Christian )filled Cambodians ,who Frank found so awesome .
john kersh | 16 May 2012

An excellent report Frank! I agree that faith in our religion helps us understand the pardoxes of life especially in showing compassion, charity and hope to people less fortunate than most of us in Australia. My experience in places such as Viet Nam and Nepal where people are poor, and/or have lost loved ones in war, their religion is also vital in a reconciliation for the common good. My experience is that people are grateful when respect is acknowledged to their religious shrines, temples, churches and ceremonies etc. It is difficult to imagine the trauma suffered by the Cambodian people under the Pol Pot regime and I look forward to visiting Cambodia soon, hopefully this year. I believe it worthwhile in attending war museums in places such as Viet Nam and Cambodia to understand the trauma of experiencing war; visits to the war museums in My Lai and Ho Chi Minh City are very emotional experiences.
Mark Doyle | 17 May 2012

JOHN KERSH,While I agree with your observation re Michelle's comments, these also struck me as being supremely sad. I suspect the Christian God who, it seems, causes such ditress to Michelle, loves her unconditionally and possibly more than He does his captive own. I hope Michelle comes to realise that one day and can see beyond the human failings of the Church, failings that all of us, like it or not, are more than capable of.
john frawley | 17 May 2012

I have just seen a report on the DW TV news about Remembrance Day in Cambodia, which commemorates the 2 million people killed by the Khmer Rouge regime. An impressive memorial has been built in Phnom Penh and the Remembrance Day is remembered with a reanactment of the Khmer Rouge atrocities. It is a very emotional time for the people who lost loved ones, especially as the perpetuators have not been brought to justice by the slow moving court system.
Mark Doyle | 21 May 2012


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