Thursday, April 02, 2009

God and genocide in Cambodia

By Stephen Kurczy

PHNOM PENH and BATTAMBANG - The Khmer Rouge's former chief executioner asked for Christian forgiveness this week on the witness stand. Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, is charged with overseeing the radical regime's S-21 torture prison, where more than 12,000 Cambodians lost their lives. Like many of his former cadres, he found religion late in life.

His testimony conceding guilt, which could affect the fate of the regime's other four top cadres, has been influenced by his conversion to Christianity in the mid-1990s, analysts say. The other detainees at the tribunal have denied responsibility for the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians from disease, starvation and executions during the Khmer Rouge's four-year reign of terror.

"At the beginning I only prayed to ask forgiveness from my parents. But later on, I attempted to pray for forgiveness from the whole nation, for all the people who died," Duch said Tuesday on the second day of his trial at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia in Phnom Penh. "I would like to express my regret and my heartfelt sorrow and loss for all of the crimes committed by the CPK [Communist Party of Kampuchea] from 1975 to 1979."

"I would like to emphasize that I am responsible for the crimes committed at S-21, especially the torture and execution of the people there," the 66-year-old Duch told a packed courtroom on Tuesday in an address broadcast live on national radio and television. "I would like you to please leave an open window for me to be forgiven."

Those words have set the stage for painful revelations in the weeks ahead. While the Christian Duch apparently aims for salvation through contrition, his former Khmer Rouge colleagues - some who have turned to Buddhism - maintain their innocence. Some view this as a bid to avoid karmic retribution for their sins in the next life.

Once outlawed by the atheist Khmer Rouge, religion has made a comeback among the radical revolutionaries who brutally transformed Cambodia into a nation of killing fields. Buddhist shrines were destroyed and Christian adherents persecuted as a matter of policy during the Khmer Rouge's paranoid reign.

According to local religious figures, meditative ex-Khmer Rouge cadres now fill Buddhist temples or alternately praise Jesus in Christian churches. Khmer Rouge Brother Number 2 Nuon Chea, the regime's chief ideologue who was arrested in 2007 on crimes against humanity and war crimes, has publicly acknowledged his conversion later in life to Buddhism.

"I personally respect all religions, but mainly Buddhism, as it belongs to the nation," Nuon Chea told The Cambodia Daily newspaper in 2003. During that interview he presented himself as a devout Buddhist, with a large poster of a revered Thai monk tacked to his wall and claims that Buddhist monks visited him regularly to consult on Buddhist teachings.

According to sources familiar with the detainees, Duch has continued to take communion while in detention and Nuon Chea has decorated his cell with a poster of a venerable Buddhist monk. Religious experts say that while religion alone can not explain the opposing pleas lodged by former Khmer Rouge cadres, the two different faiths inspire their adherents to face the past in starkly different ways.

"Christianity in particular has put more emphasis on the sin/redemption theme than most religions," said Stanford University religion professor Carl Bielefeldt. "Conversion to Buddhism may mean little more than relaxing into the default culture, rather than committing oneself to a spiritual choice … In contrast, conversion to a culturally alien religion [to Cambodia] like Christianity may involve a much more self-conscious spiritual choice."

Faithful minority
Currently round 95% of Cambodia's citizens adhere to Buddhism. When the Khmer Rouge were overthrown in 1979, less than 200 Christians remained from a pre-1975 congregation of 20,000, according to Heng Cheng, the head of the Evangelical Fellowship of Cambodia. Today, more than 100,000 Cambodians belong to more than 3,000 evangelical churches across the country, among them many former members of the Khmer Rouge.

"The former Khmer Rouge more often open their hearts [to God]," said Heng Cheng. "[Duch] is a role model."

Duch's conversion to Christianity has caused some friction with his former cadres. For instance, Nuon Chea scoffed at Duch's conversion, saying in his revealing 2003 interview: "[Duch] wanted God to take responsibility for his sins! ... You commit the sin, so you pay for the sin. Nobody can help take responsibility for the sin."

For his part, Nuon Chea does not accept responsibility for the Khmer Rouge's atrocities, despite his high-ranking position at the time. Former Khmer Rouge southwestern region army chief Meas Muth, who has not been charged by the tribunal and is also a practicing Buddhist, similarly expresses no remorse for his role in the revolution.

"I don't think the court will call me. But if they do, it's useless," he said, adding that he is not guilty of crimes against humanity. Meas, the son-in-law of deceased Khmer Rouge army commander Ta Mok, admits he conversed with the regime's central committee members, including Nuon Chea and head of state Khieu Samphan, but denies having had any influence over policy formulation.

Meas Muth, too, has found religion later in life. During a recent interview at his spacious home on stilts on the outskirts of Battambang province's Samlot town, he mentions the tens of thousands of dollars worth of donations he has made to the local pagoda, Ta Sanh Chas. There, he gives Pali language lessons and oversees building projects.

Thoeun Samnang, the chief Buddhist monk of Ta Sanh Chas temple, said Meas Muth "comes to the pagoda every day. He comes to find peace with the Buddha." The resident ascetic says he still remembers the day Meas Muth first arrived: the auspicious date of 9-9-99.

"He is a blessing," said the saffron-robed monk, seated cross-legged in his pagoda. "Former Khmer Rouge soldiers seem more interested in Buddhism. They come here more than other people. They are more active in the pagoda."

It is religiously significant, some believe, that former top Khmer Rouge leaders Meas Muth and Nuon Chea have not sought forgiveness for their roles in the alleged genocide. One possible reason, suggests Columbia University's Buddhist scholar Bob Thurman, is that Christianity uniquely claims that the road to salvation runs through repentance, remorse and making up for past sins.

"Perhaps the Christian ones are more intent on [forgiveness] because they have the belief that repentance and true belief in Christ will help them once and for all reach heaven, no matter what they've done," Thurman wrote by e-mail. "Whereas Buddhists do repent, do try to do better, but remain aware of a long road ahead to reach enlightenment or nirvana - no one else can grant them the ultimate salvation, in their view."

The monk Thoeun says that no matter how often Meas Muth visits his pagoda, the former Khmer Rouge leader will invariably suffer in the next life for his alleged actions in his current incarnation. "Meas Muth cannot escape from what he did in the past. No matter what he does, he must pay for what he has done," the monk said.

When questioned about the notion that a Christian may escape karmic punishment for wrongdoings, the ascetic balked: "Everyone must pay for what they've done. Duch cannot be forgiven. Bad deeds are like shadows that follow you."

Remorse and repentance
Duch's 32-year-old daughter, Ky Sievkim, said that her father longs for forgiveness and views Christianity as a path out of the dark shadow of the S-21 torture prison he previously ran. "My father told me that he had done many wrong things, and that's why he asked Jesus for forgiveness," she said in a recent interview at her small home, also on the outskirts of Samlot town.

Duch may have also converted to Christianity for protection, according to the court's closing order indicting him for crimes against humanity. "Christianity, the West and the realm of international justice symbolized a new form of protection (also undeniably the most effective), because he suffered from insecurity," the order states.

The temptation of salvation has drawn many other former Khmer Rouge cadres to Christianity, according to Victory Heng, executive director of Cambodian Christian Church Organization (CCCO) in Battambang town. "You can be the worst sinner in the world and still enter the gates of heaven," Heng said.

The orginization supports about 100 churches in the provinces of Takeo and Siem Reap, as well as in the former Khmer Rouge strongholds of Battambang, Oddar Meanchey and Banteay Meanchey provinces. Many former Khmer Rouge cadres have entered CCCO's churches, says Heng, although he doesn't maintain an exact tally. "None of them come in and say, 'We are former Khmer Rouge.' And we don't ask. It's not important to us. Our purpose is not to dig up the past. Our purpose is to share Christ."

In that spiritual direction, every year CCCO holds a three-week training course in Battambang town to convert laymen into practicing evangelists. "One of those years, Duch walked through the doors of this building," Heng said, standing outside the clapboard building of the Battambang Christian Church. The year was 1996 and at the end of the training course Duch was baptized nearby in the Sangke River.

Suon Sito says he remembers that day well. He first met Duch four years earlier in Banteay Meanchey province's Phkoam village, where Duch moved his family after living in Thai refugee camps and in China throughout the 1980s. Within months of Duch's arrival, Suon Sito invited him to a CCCO-sponsored house church and soon Duch was inviting others to attend services.

As Duch drew closer to Christianity, he was also attempting to flee from his past, Suon Sito said. He moved his family repeatedly throughout the 1990s - first to another school in Banteay Meanchey, then to a school in Samlot town, then back to a Thai refugee camp - but he never stopped telling his neighbors about the power of Jesus Christ in his life.

"He asked me to be a Christian. He said he wanted to start a Christian community," said Sok Lian, a resident of Samlot town who rented a home on Duch's property for several months in 1999 until Duch's identity and whereabouts were uncovered and published in international media.

When news broke in 1999 of Duch's conversion to Christianity, renowned Cambodia historian David Chandler, who had poured through reams of evidence at Duch's torture prison, says he took Duch's professed conversion seriously.

"He must have given his conversion to Christianity serious thought, as he had done with his conversion to communism in the 1960s, and saw both conversions as ways of clarifying his mind, helping his spirit, and organizing his life," Chandler wrote by e-mail from Australia's Monash University.

"Maybe Duch was looking for refuge found only in Christianity," said Chea Vannath, a political scientist in Cambodia who lives not far from S-21, which is now maintained as a grisly tourist attraction. "Whatever mistakes you make, you recognize and confess and Jesus Christ will help you ... It's possible that if [Nuon Chea] was a Christian, he might confess too."

Stephen Kurczy is an Asia Times Online contributor based in Cambodia. He may be reached at

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