The former Khmer Rouge cadres who turned to God for salvation

In Pailin, a province in Cambodia established for former members of Pol Pot’s regime, Christianity is offering the redemption that Buddhism’s karma cannot

Kong Duong (right), Pol Pot’s former chief propagandist, hosts his Christian radio show. Pictures: Thomas Cristofoletti

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 guerrilla 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 program, 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 skeptical 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.

Ing Sophat addresses his congregation at a Khum O Presbyterian Church Sunday service.

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 harboring “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.

The Marist Church of Pailin, in Cambodia.

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 realized 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.”

 

"I don’t believe that [former cadres] consider they have been doing bad things [...] the notion of guilt doesn’t exist" - Anthropologist Fabienne Luco

 

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 defense 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.

A poster hangs in the house of Sok Sem, a military unit commander under the Khmer Rouge who converted to Christianity in 2011.

“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.”