Jason Burke discovers how Pol Pot’s ruthless killers are repenting their sins
The Khmer Rouge followed a harsh brand of communism, killing nearly two million people in their bid to return Cambodia to Year Zero. Now they have a new faith: evangelical Christianity.
Hundreds of former fighters have been baptised in the past year. The Khmer Rouge’s mountain stronghold, the town of Pailin in south-west Cambodia, has four churches, all with pastors and growing congregations. At least 2,000 of those who followed Pol Pot, the guerrillas’ former leader who died six years ago, now worship Jesus.
Many new converts were involved in the bloody battles, massacres and forced labour programmes that led to the Killing Fields. Between 1975 and 1979 the Khmer Rouge sought to eradicate religion, ripping down the country’s biggest cathedral, killing Muslim clerics and turning Buddhist temples into pigsties.
According to one pastor, 70 per cent of the converts in Pailin are Khmer Rouge. For many, it offers a hope of salvation. ‘When I was a soldier I did bad things. I don’t know how many we killed. We were following orders and thought it was the right thing to do,’ said Thao Tanh, 52. ‘I read the Bible and I know it will free me from the weight of the sins I have committed.’
The Khmer Rouge have been the focus of a drive by US-based religious groups. Lee Samith, a senior aide of Pailin’s governor, was a military intelligence officer for the Khmer Rouge and one of the cadres to convert. He had been repeatedly visited by a missionary from a Colorado-based group, who showed films of the life of Christ.
‘I opened my heart and Jesus came in,’ said Lee, 36. Like 90 per cent of Cambodians, he was previously a Buddhist. Now he is involved in the New Life Presbyterian Church, on the outskirts of Pailin. Its wooden walls are covered with Christmas decorations and colourful posters portraying the life of Jesus.
But Lee has yet to shed all his former ideology. ‘Pol Pot had good ideas for Cambodia and for all people,’ he said. ‘Only foreigners talk about genocide. Deaths due to class conflict are inevitable.’
After being ousted from Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, in 1979 by the Vietnamese, the Khmer Rouge withdrew to the mountains to fight a series of regimes.
Pailin, which is rich in timber and gems, has been the economic springboard for the movement since its beginnings. It is a rough place, full of bamboo brothels and bars selling bad alcohol and worse food. It is reached by a 50-mile road so rutted and potholed that it takes even 4WD vehicles more than three hours to negotiate. The thickly forested hills, scene of dozens of battles over 30 years, are heavily mined.
But the Khmer Rouge has now largely been brought in from the cold. Pailin’s governor is a member of the Cambodian Prime Minister’s party, despite being a former bodyguard of Pol Pot. His deputy, Kuoet Sothea, a key aide of the genocidal leader, told The Observer that many of his former comrades-in-arms ‘feel sorry for what they did. National unity and solidarity is the main aim now’.
Several senior figures, such as ‘Duch’ – Kang Kek Ieu – who ran the S21 complex in Phnom Penh where an estimated 16,000 people died, have converted to Christianity. Their new faith offers more than spiritual comfort. After years of negotiation with the UN, the Cambodian government has reluctantly agreed to put those responsible for the genocide of the late 1970s on trial.
Several Khmer Rouge leaders live in villas in Pailin, profiting from large farms, logging of hardwood forests and gem mining. Though many are old, they now fear dying in prison. Christian repentance is likely to mitigate any sentence they might receive.
Kun Lung, 49, started as a bodyguard for the senior commanders and became the Khmer Rouge’s best-known propagandist, responsible for bloodcurdling broadcasts on their infamous radio station. He was baptised recently and now organises Pailin Radio, describing ‘God’s work’ in two daily programmes.
However, although it is the senior commanders who will stand trial, the missionaries, funded by evangelical associations in America, South Korea and Singapore, have found most of their converts among the middle and lower ranks of the Khmer Rouge.
Most veterans now eke out a living as landless labourers on the estates of their former political chiefs. They live in flimsy shacks and work 15-hour days. With no government or international aid, local amenities are scarce. There is one dilapidated health clinic for 30,000 people.
The missionaries have built an orphanage and Bible schools. One pastor is planning a kindergarten. Other groups have built wells, marked ‘A gift from Jesus’.