In 1979, Kong Duong was chosen. Plucked from a group of soldiers preparing to travel abroad, the 18-year-old was singled out by the feared leader of the Khmer Rouge.
“We were transported to meet Pol Pot for recruitment to study in China, but Pol Pot fell in love with my voice,” Kong Duong says. “So he asked me to work for his radio station instead.”
Kong Duong was appointed chief propagandist and, as the head of the Khmer Rouge radio station from 1979 to 1996, his sonorous timbre became well known among supporters of the genocidal regime. His was, in effect, the voice of Pol Pot during a tumultuous period.
After almost four years, during which about two million Cambodians died from starvation, execution and overwork, Vietnamese troops ousted the Khmer Rouge leadership from Phnom Penh on January 7, 1979. The party’s supporters fled west to Cambodia’s border with Thailand, where they continued to engage the Vietnamese in guerilla conflict. Kong Duong played his part by waging a verbal war of propaganda over the radio waves.
Today, he has a very different master: the Lord. Having settled in Pailin province, Kong Duong now professes to be a Christian, and hosts a radio programme, New Signs, that broadcasts Christian commentary across Cambodia. And judging by the listeners who call in, his audience remains much the same.
“Most of the callers are former Khmer Rouge cadres,” he confirms, speaking in the car park of his impressive Pailin mansion (Kong Duong is also a government official).
Conversion from Pol Pot’s ultra-Maoist ideology to Christianity is commonplace throughout Pailin, where a majority of the over-50s are former cadres, this being the country’s last Khmer Rouge stronghold. The soldiers and supporters who once waged war and stoked anti-Vietnamese hatred today seek comfort in the Bible and preach love and compassion in the 22 churches that serve the town’s population of 70,000.
Not surprisingly, the Cambodian public remain sceptical of these converts. With some former cadres maintaining that the regime was a just one while others deny that mass killings were perpetrated, Cambodians see the change of heart as a way to avoid addressing complicity in one of the most devastating episodes in modern history.
During the Khmer Rouge’s short-lived rule, societal norms such as traditional family units and religious beliefs were abolished; all loyalties – familial, political and spiritual – had to defer to the angkar, a word that translates as “the organisation” and referred to the party’s leadership. Buddhist pagodas were destroyed and thousands of monks – often seen as a community’s moral leaders – were stripped of their monkhood and killed. Cambodian Christians, Muslims and ethnic and indigenous minorities were also slaughtered, and anyone suspected of harbouring “impure” thoughts about the regime was persecuted.
The Khmer Rouge’s ousting in 1979 plunged the country into a period of political turmoil. The regime’s stalwarts fled to western Koh Kong and Battambang provinces, where they continued to fight the Vietnamese in jungle skirmishes until 1996, when the new government pledged to carve out a small province for the Khmer Rouge’s leadership. In exchange, the combatants would lay down their arms and reintegrate into Cambodian society.
This small pocket of land became Pailin, named for the precious gemstones mined in the region. Foreign Christian missionaries and religious organisations started entering the area in the late 1990s, to supply humanitarian aid to the former cadres and soldiers, many of whom had lost limbs to landmines. Food, money, mosquito nets (malaria continues to be a problem in Cambodia) and education were provided – as was the occasional Bible, along with an explanation of its teachings.
Moses Seth, a Cambodian pastor who had worked along the border in the early 1980s, says his mission concentrated on the border provinces because the government found it difficult to provide services there. Due to the scarcity of resources, the aid was more appreciated, says Seth during an interview at his mansion, which doubles as his church, in the Phnom Penh district of Tuol Kork. Seth has developed a network of 1,700 home churches throughout Cambodia and estimates that he has converted more than 4,000 Khmer Rouge cadres to Christianity. Some work as pastors now, he says.
Having survived the regime by pretending to be a farmer rather than the Battambang government officer he had been, Seth appears to hold no bitterness towards the Khmer Rouge.
“The key principle is forgiveness, that’s what I tell the people,” he says. “Most of them are uneducated, and the way they did it was to teach each other to hate each other and seek revenge.”
Seth believes the appeal of the word of God is in its promise of salvation: “After they read [the Bible], they know this is the only way. They know they have killed people and done bad things to people, so they confess.”
Salvation was never supposed to be an easy road, though, and Kong Duong’s path has been paved with contradictions. Before meeting Pol Pot for the first time, the then teenager had received word that his father had been tied to rocks and drowned. He believed the man born Saloth Sar (Pol Pot) to be responsible.
“But, when I saw him, I realised that I no longer felt anger. I just felt like he was a good person; I don’t know why,” Kong Duong says. “Maybe it was his gestures, the way he talked and paid attention to his subordinates.”
Pol Pot became a mentor to the fledgling radio personality, and the pair had daily meetings to plan broadcasts and trawl international media for coverage of the Khmer Rouge. It was during those meetings that Pol Pot talked about the mass executions that were being whispered about by cadres.
“He discussed how in the three years of his leadership, there were many people who died, but he did not have time to solve all the problems,” Kong Duong says. “He compared the regime to a newborn baby that was not yet developed.
“I did not witness any executions, though I did notice that people were taken away and they never returned,” he says. “I believe there were mass killings during Pol Pot’s regime, but who are we to blame? I disagree that it was him who committed genocide. It was the village chiefs, the commune chiefs and the district chiefs who did it. They killed without a command from their supervisor.”
The defence of Pol Pot and his regime – as well as denial of personal accountability – is something Youk Chhang sees frequently. As head of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, an organisation that compiles research on the Khmer Rouge, Youk Chhang and his staff have interviewed more than 10,000 former cadres, of which only one admitted to having been a killer.
“Who would want to admit that you are responsible if you know there were others involved?” Youk Chhang, himself a survivor of the regime, says at his office in Phnom Penh, a stone’s throw from the Independence Monument.
Youk Chhang believes many of the mass executions were carried out in secret, at night, and that there’s a reason ex-cadres choose Christianity over Buddhism.
“The Khmer Rouge destroyed pagodas and disrobed and killed the monks, so it would be awkward to speak to a monk as a source of reconciliation,” he says. “But with the Bible [...] it’s considered external [to] Khmer culture. And that way, the Khmer Rouge are more comfortable.”
While he appreciates the aid provided by Christian missions, Youk Chhang says missionaries should be sensitive to the nation’s history.
“Religion is a source of comfort but it can also be a source of extremism, and it can lead to violence,” he warns. “If the church has a lack of sensitivity to the history of Cambodia, which has gone through genocide, then they might end up playing a role that is more harmful than helpful to the villagers.”
He says the pastors preaching to former cadres have a duty to push for reconciliation and accountability, concepts his organisation has been working on for decades.
“If you work with Khmer Rouge groups, you must be sensitive to who these people who were responsible for the death of two million are and find the right word in the Bible,” says Youk Chhang. “It must [urge the Khmer Rouge to take] responsibility.”
However, according to anthropologist Fabienne Luco, who has been working in the country for about 20 years, the concepts of sin and guilt do not exist in Cambodian society.
“It is the notion of karma” that holds sway, she says. “When you do something bad or good, you are responsible. Bad things will follow you in your next life. That’s why people are not so interested in what’s going on at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal [the United Nations-backed court that is currently trying the senior leaders of the regime]. It’s not human beings who will punish [the perpetrators]. They will be punished in their next life.
“I don’t believe that [former cadres] consider they have been doing bad things. I have interviewed so many of them – the notion of guilt doesn’t exist. They say, ‘I was obeying orders,’ ‘I was a perfect civil servant,’ ‘It’s not me, it’s the one who ordered me to do it.’”
Ing Sophat joined the Khmer Rouge in 1970, soon after the coup that ushered out King Norodom Sihanouk. Worshipped by the people for having successfully campaigned for Cambodia’s independence from France, the king took to the airwaves and urged Cambodians to join the nascent Khmer Rouge movement to fight against returning prime minister Lon Nol’s administration. Ing Sophat, now a pastor at a home church in Kampong Speu province, was one of many thousands who answered the call.
Ing Sophat rose quickly through the ranks and by 1978 was military commander of an infantry unit consisting of more than 300 soldiers. Fighting on the front line against Vietnamese troops, he had his intestines ripped out by shrapnel.
“Since I was a commander for a platoon, I was always on the battlefield, so I did not witness any mass killings. But I did hear about the people who went missing after they were ‘re-educated’,” Ing Sophat says, using a term the regime’s victims often employ as a euphemism for being killed.
We’re speaking at Ing Sophat’s Khum O Presbyterian Church, in the Phnom Sruoch district. At the front of the church is a giant cross painted red and a lectern at which Ing Sophat stands to deliver his sermons.
Despite his being a military commander, Ing Sophat’s family was not exempt from the regime’s widespread purges. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, he found out that one of his brothers had been imprisoned at Tuol Sleng prison, a former school in Phnom Penh that acted as a Khmer Rouge jail and torture centre. His brother has not been seen since.
“At the time, I didn’t know how to say or feel anything. During that regime, we didn’t have time to worry about others. We cared only about ourselves and how to stay alive,” he says, adding that he also struggles to believe that the leadership and ideology he fought for could have been responsible for the deaths of so many.
“I am still suspicious about the true cause of my brother’s death. Even though I have been to Tuol Sleng prison two times, I still don’t believe that the genocide happened.”
About two hours from the capital, the Khum O Presbyterian Church is attended mostly by former cadres in the area and their children.
“We cannot let our sins remain in our heads; we must take them out,” Ing Sophat urges his congregation on a recent Sunday.
An hour after the service, when speaking to reporters, the pastor defends Ta Mok, a senior Khmer Rouge figure who led purges within its ranks: “I never saw Ta Mok killing people; I don’t think it’s fair to call him ‘the Butcher’”; and Kang Kek Iew (aka Comrade Duch), head of the Tuol Sleng prison, who oversaw the torture and execution of more than 20,000 Cambodians: “Duch was kind. Whenever soldiers were hurt, he would go visit them in the hospital.”
Such cognitive dissonance bothers survivors such as Pen Soeun, a civilian participant in the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. While the 62-year-old agrees that most former soldiers were on the front line and therefore not witnesses to executions, he rejects the “out of sight, out of mind” excuse.
“These former cadres must acknowledge that their regime was very bad, as we have living witnesses, survivors and mass graves across the country where people were killed,” Pen Soeun says, adding that their new-found faith does not exempt them from taking responsibility.
A prime example would be Duch, who converted to Christianity after his wife died in 1995. When he was called to stand trial by the tribunal in 2009, Duch pleaded guilty to the charges and was largely cooperative. On the final day of trial, however, he asked to be acquitted.
“We may forgive them [after they confess] in terms of the heart, but we would want to see them still be held responsible in terms of external structure, like having jail time,” says Pen Soeun.
While Duch has been more candid than other leaders of the regime – the defendants currently on trial all roundly deny responsibility – Cambodians largely mistrust his religious zeal, says Robert Carmichael, the author of When Clouds Fell From the Sky: A Disappearance, a Daughter’s Search and Cambodia’s First War Criminal (2015), a book about a French-Khmer family irrevocably altered by the regime’s cruel and secretive policies. “But I have no doubt that Duch believes in it, even if he isn’t able to operate as a Christian in a way that other Christians would see is in line with the religion’s tenets: genuine repentance and welcoming the consequences of his actions,” Carmichael says in an email.
He echoes Luco’s assertion that karma is difficult to face when confronted with heinous past deeds.
“I would say that Christianity has some advantages over Buddhism in terms of the idea of atoning for one’s sins,” Carmichael says. “[In Buddhism], life is a cycle of birth, death and rebirth, and one’s behaviour in this life dictates how one will come back in the next life. There is no escaping one’s crimes in Buddhism, and I suspect that for many of the converts, this is a powerful motivator.”
The push towards God for Touch Sokhan, chief of Pailin’s O’Tapuk Krom village, came from his daughter, who converted at a young age and today works as a pastor. Touch Sokhan worked as a messenger for the Khmer Rouge, delivering letters between communes in the southern province of Kampot. He fled westward to Pailin with fellow compatriots when the regime fell.
“Life was very difficult at that time. We had to be on the move constantly to escape from bullets, and there were mines everywhere,” the 59-year-old says, in his modest concrete and brick house.
In 1985, he lost his left leg after stepping on a mine, but many soldiers around him lost their lives. By then, Touch Sokhan had lost his faith in the Khmer Rouge’s ideology.
“I completely agree that the regime killed Cambodians and it was not a good government. I saw underage children forced to work,” Touch Sokhan says. “We were so scared all the time, we weren’t allowed to see our parents and we couldn’t ask for permission to do anything because we were afraid of being killed.”
While speaking, he flips gingerly through his Bible, before stopping at the Book of Daniel, chapter seven, wherein Daniel recounts an apocalyptic vision. In his dream, Earth was populated by four terrible beasts, the fourth of which being the most monstrous, crushing its victims “with huge iron teeth and trampling their remains beneath its feet”. The noble Jew’s dream ends with the destruction of the terrible fourth beast while God watches on in judgment. Daniel wakes up, terrified by his vision.
“I can compare this to when we were in the Khmer Rouge. We have seen so many terrible things and felt great disappointment,” says Touch Sokhan. “But when we believe in God, I feel we can confess our sins to make ourselves feel lighter.
“As a disabled person, because of God’s teachings, I can live my life with hope.”
Additional reporting by Kuch Naren