By James Bishop| Comrade Duch (pronounced “Doik”), whose real name is Kaing Guek Eav, is the only Khmer Rouge leader to have admitted his participation in the genocide that killed an estimated 2 million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979.
Under the atheist state (1a), Duch himself commanded Camp S-21 in which he was responsible for the torture and deaths of an estimated 16 000 – 17 000 enemies of the regime. A UN-backed War Crimes Tribunal in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, has sentenced him to 35 years imprisonment for crimes against humanity (1b).
According to the ECCC, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, Duch “worked tirelessly to ensure that S-21 ran as efficiently as possible and did so out of unquestioning loyalty to his superiors” (2). Duch’s work ethic led to his promotion as head of the Santebal, the Khmer Rouge’s internal security apparatus. During the 77 day court proceedings, Duch admitted to overseeing the deaths of up to 16 000 people who passed through the prison’s gates.
The torture administered included pulling out prisoners’ toenails, electric shocks and waterboarding. The court said at least 100 people bled to death in medieval-style medical experiments (3). Duch’s trial was a big deal in Cambodia as 28 000 people followed the proceedings from the public gallery while the proceedings were broadcasted across the country (4).
After the Communist seizure of power in 1975, the Khmer Rouge, under their tyrannical leader Pol Pot, emptied Cambodia’s cities. They forced residents into collective farms and forced labour projects with the goal of forming a Utopian society (5). Some 21% of the Cambodian population died following the restarting of civilization in “Year Zero.”
The regime collapsed in 1979 when Vietnam invaded the country and from 1979 to 1997 Pol Pot and his supporters operated in the jungles in along the border with Thailand. A factional split within the Khmer Rouge led to Pol Pot’s house arrest in 1997, and he died in captivity in 1998.
What is particularly striking in this story is Duch’s conversion. In a predominantly Buddhist country Comrade Duch, while in hiding from his crimes in 1996, converted to Christianity. Alongside his recollection of the horrific events of Cambodia’s killing fields, the country learned that while in hiding he had heard a Cambodian-American missionary, Christopher LePel, preach in a village near Battambang.
Two weeks later Duch approached LePel and asked to be baptized. According to LePel during the trial, unaware of who Duch really was at the time of his baptism, the man he knew only as Hang Pin confessed to him that he had done things that “couldn’t be forgiven” (6).
LePel then said that after converting from Buddhism to Christianity, Duch changed from that of a man with “no joy, no peace, no purpose in life” to someone whose “heart wanted to share the word of God to his friends and family” (7). LePel also told the court that his own parents and a brother and sister had died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. He had also lost a number of friends at Duch’s own camp S-21.
However, LePel, citing his Christian convictions as the reason, had forgiven Duch, “I hate the sin, but I love the sinner,” he told the court. LePel says that there is even a physical dimension to this change as Duch has began to appear more relaxed, started dressing better, tucking his shirt tails into his long pants (8).
The court dismissed Duch’s conversion as they believed he was insincere though Duch maintains he is (9). However, LePel said he was convinced of Duch’s sincerity, saying that in a 2008 jailhouse visit he “was sorry for the crimes that he did in the past and that he did not rejoice for what he had done.” Duch will serve his prison sentence for his crimes but the families of the victims believe he deserves a much stronger punishment (10). Personally I feel that a person who has committed the crimes to the extent of Duch’s should never see the outside of a prison, and thus I can only hurt and grieve with the victims.
However, Dutch was the only perpetrator from the Khmer Rouge to come out to face his crimes, “I would like to seek forgiveness from the victims,” implores Dutch, ”I would like to emphasize that I am responsible for the crimes committed at S-21 [prison], especially the torture and execution of the people there” (11). According to Cheam Socheong, a director at Phkoam High School where Duch, using the alias Hang Pin, taught mathematics in the 1990s, believed Duch was wholly sincere, “Duch often talked of God and the good way. He asked me why I didn’t go to church. He tried to convert me” (12).
Duch had thus embraced Christianity and cast aside his communist beliefs. He was vocal about his faith and would even invite others to attend services, and he eventually became a lay pastor (13). According to Duch’s child, Ky Sievkim, her father baptized her soon after his conversion, “Every night my father led me in prayer. Every Sunday he brought out the Bible and read it to the whole family.”
He later started a house church and during the work day he proselytized. Sok Lian, a local market vendor, says that “He asked me to be a Christian. He told me he wanted to start a church” (14). Family members have witnessed Duch’s sincerity saying that he is a changed man, “I want to tell the court that my father is a good man, through Jesus,” says Hang Kim Hong who today lives in Duch’s old home in Samlot.
Duch says, “I don’t know if my brothers and sisters can forgive the sins I’ve committed against the people… Thank God that the Lord forgives me” (15). May God have mercy on his soul.
1a. Wessinger, C. 2000. Millennialism, Persecution, and Violence: Historical Cases. p. 282.
1b. Conger, G. 2010. Khmer Rouge killer/Christian convert. Available.
2. CBS News. 2010. Khmer Rouge jailer Duch sentenced for war crimes. Available.
3. CBS News. 2010. Ibid.
4. Conger, G. 2010. Ibid.
5. Conger, G. 2010. Ibid.
6. Conger, G. 2010. Ibid.
7. Conger, G. 2010. Ibid.
8. Gluck, C. 1999. The Killer and the Pastor. Available.
9. News 18. 2009. Khmer Rouge defendant expresses ‘heartfelt sorrow.’ Available.
10. CBS News. 2010. Ibid.
11. Kurzcy, S. 2009. From Khmer Rouge torturer to born-again Christian. Available.
12. Kurzcy, S. 2009. Ibid.
13. Dunlop, N. 2005. The Lost Executioner – A Journey into the Heart of the Killing Fields.
14. Kurzcy, S. 2009. Ibid.
15. AsiaNews. 2009. Comrade Duch, from Khmer Rouge to Christian, alone to ask for forgiveness. Available.