Even by war criminal standards, Kaing Guek Eav (a.k.a., “Comrade Duch”) was an abomination. So when the former director of the largest Khmer Rouge prison died at age 77 on September 2, 2020, there was not much outpouring of grief from his fellow Cambodians (or “Khmer”).
Duch’s genocidal exploits in the 1970s are the stuff of international infamy. Less-known, however, are his purported repentance and conversion to Christianity in the 1990s.
For Duch, the road to Jesus was long and grizzly. Born in central Cambodia’s Kampong Thom Province on November 17, 1942, he was a quiet youth who excelled at school. Mathematics was his favorite subject, and as a young man he obtained his teacher’s certificate to begin his career as a math teacher.
In 1967, he joined the Communist Party of Kampuchea. His activities with this organization led to a two-year imprisonment without trial. After his captivity, he joined an outpost of Communists in a mountainous setting along the Thai border. Smart and well-organized, he was entrusted with setting up detainment facilities for identifying and purging suspected enemies of the budding Khmer Rouge movement.
Before his peak war criminal years in the capital of Phnom Penh, Duch was refining his interrogator’s craft in the forests. During this time, he married a local village woman with whom he would have four children.
Following the April 1975 Khmer Rouge seizure of Phnom Penh, Duch and his comrades began establishing detention facilities in the city. Most notably, they converted a former high school into a secret prison called “S-21” (better known as “Tuol Sleng”).
Here more than 18,000 men, women, and children from all levels of society were photographed, measured, then interrogated and tortured. Whatever life remained in their bodies was promptly extinguished at the nearby Killing Fields.
Inexperienced Khmer Rouge medical staff used some detainees as guinea pigs to practice their surgical skills. Other detainees perished while having their bodies drained empty of blood for transfusion into wounded Khmer Rouge soldiers.
Even though Tuol Sleng was in downtown Phnom Penh, there was no one outside to hear the screams. The city’s former residents were either already dead or else toiling in forced labor camps at various rural locations. In an effort to pursue a utopia free of corrupting outside influences, the Khmer Rouge essentially disconnected its country from the outside world. Such seclusion might have remained for many more years had Khmer Rouge forces refrained from launching attacks on Vietnamese soil.
The Vietnamese invaded at the end of 1978, and by January 1979, Duch and other Khmer Rouge cadres fled the capital. Before making his escape, Duch made sure his remaining detainees were executed. But unfortunately for him, he did not have enough time to destroy all the piles of documents (later used as evidence) about Tuol Sleng atrocities and his enthusiasm for them.
Where he went soon after leaving Phnom Penh remains unknown. It is assumed he spent time at multiple locations along the Thai border. Unlike so many other Cambodians, Duch was eventually able to reunite with his family. But he would come to learn what it meant to be a victim: in 1995, his wife was killed in front of him during a house invasion.
Not long after this murder, a Baptist church near the western Cambodian city of Battambang received a new visitor—a gaunt little man who looked rather beyond his chronological age. He said his name was “Hang Pin” and, without giving any specifics, he eventually revealed that he had done many bad things in his life.
In 1996, the former torturer received a Christian baptism within the “muddy waters” of the Sangkae River. The Khmer-American pastor who baptized him, Christopher LaPel, had lost his parents, brother, and sister to the Khmer Rouge regime that had claimed almost 2 million other lives by way of slaughter, overwork, or starvation. The nation’s Christians, as religious minorities, were especially at risk, and 80 percent of them were killed during this period.
LaPel has stated that he forgives Duch, but he is not the only one to offer forgiveness. In fact, “almost all Khmer Christians” now view this war criminal “as a brother in Christ,” says Pastor Meng Top of the Cambodian Community Church in Dallas, Texas.
Top personally forgives Duch and accepts his repentance as earnest. The pastor, who lost both parents and two brothers to the Khmer Rouge, thanks God for preserving him through the nightmare that ravaged his country. “I was supposed to be starved to death, to be killed… but I am still alive to do His works.”
Though most Khmer Christians are evidently willing to accept Duch’s conversion, Christians account for only a small part of the overall population in Cambodia (CIA statistics say only 0.5 percent of Khmer are Christian, though Top insists the number is higher, and other sources put the rate at about 2 or 3 percent).
The majority of Khmer people “don’t care much about [Duch’s] claim of repentance,” says Top. His conversion to Christianity has made some Khmer “even angrier” with him. By turning to Jesus as his savior, Duch sought immediate salvation. Had he remained a Buddhist, he would have to endure many unhappy lifetimes to expunge all the bad karma he accumulated.
Duch turned himself into Cambodian authorities after a photojournalist tracked him down in 1999. Upon serving years in detention, he was finally charged with war crimes in 2007. In contrast to other Khmer Rouge leaders, Duch actually admitted to committing atrocities. However, he later attempted to downplay his misdeeds, saying that although he had supervised the torture of thousands, he only acted on behalf of a rogue regime.
The United Nations-backed Cambodia Tribunal found Duch guilty of crimes against humanity, murder, and torture. He received an initial sentence of 35 years (with credit for time served). However, this punishment was later changed to a life sentence.
Top feels that Duch “deserved his prison sentence.” But he also says other persons brought even more misery to his homeland, and yet they managed to evade justice. In light of Duch’s recent death, the pastor says he is “almost sure this man has obtained his salvation.”