Forgiveness is scarce for Duch


Cambodia: The former Khmer Rouge prison boss, charged with murder in the deaths of thousands, has converted to Christianity, but few seem willing to turn the other cheek.

May 18, 1999|By Adam Piore | Adam Piore,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BATTAMBANG PROVINCE, Cambodia -- They knew him as a devoted fellow Christian who worried about the welfare of starving refugee children. He was a gentle man who carried a Bible and eagerly asked about the pastor's next visit.

Earlier this month, Ta Pin's former colleagues learned that the quiet, devoted missionary once had a different job and went by a different name. During the murderous Pol Pot regime, he was a prison boss named Duch. And for at least 14,000 Cambodians, a visit to him meant torture and death.

Duch, 56, now sits in a Phnom Penh military prison, just a few blocks from the torture chambers he once ran. He has been charged with murder and treason, and his eventual testimony could affect the trials of several former Khmer Rouge leaders -- and fill in some pieces of Cambodia's history as a "killing field" during the 1975-1979 dictatorship of the Khmer Rouge.

For the devout Christians who knew him as an aid worker, the discovery of Ta Pin's past is raising different questions about redemption, repentance and forgiveness.

Kong Rian, an administrator for the Christian aid group World Vision, remembers when Ta Pin approached the organization about a job.

"He showed me his certificate of baptism," Kong Rian says. "He respected everybody. He was very polite and seemed really to want to help people. I would say he was a very, very nice man."

But Kong Rian also remembers the Pol Pot regime. Two of his brothers were executed. The younger was killed with his new wife when they broke Khmer Rouge policies by marrying.

"When I saw this picture, it was very painful for me," Kong Rian says, pointing to Duch's likeness on the front page of a newspaper. "We never expected that kind of nightmare in his past. Just seeing the picture, in that uniform, I realized who he was."

Kong Rian is a Christian, but he is unmoved by Duch's repentance. "Forgiveness depends on how many members of your family were executed by the Khmer Rouge," he says. "For me, I don't want him to escape trial."

Chreng Darren, World Vision's project director for the Battambang and Rattamak Mondol District, suffered under the Khmer Rouge, too. He lost a leg to a land mine and later was arrested by Thai authorities on the false suspicion he was fighting for the Vietnamese against the Khmer Rouge.

He is ready to forgive. "He respects people," says Chreng Darren, who was the former executioner's supervisor in a displaced persons' camp. "He is a gentle man. He is a good man. About his history, I was surprised. Because about the past and now, he is very different. He told me, `I am Christian. I want to go to church. I want to read the Bible.'

"You cannot guess the heart of the man," Chreng Darren says. "I saw the picture, I saw the kind of clothes and he was a very bad man, but now he is a gentle, good man. We should forgive him."

During the Khmer Rouge regime, Duch ran a network of interrogation centers, including the notorious Tuol Sleng Detention Center. Only seven people are known to have survived the prison. He left much grisly evidence when he fled Phnom Penh ahead of advancing Vietnamese troops in 1979. In the rooms of Tuol Sleng, executed victims lay in blood-smeared rooms, still chained to their beds. The corpses of prisoners executed after helping Duch destroy documents also littered the prison grounds.

Duch dropped out of sight. Many believed him dead. Others suspected he was living peacefully in former Khmer Rouge territory, alongside other former leaders. Only rumors and the knowing smiles and evasive replies of his former Khmer Rouge comrades suggested he was near.

Now that he has told his story to interviewers from the Far Eastern Economic Review, former associates are willing to acknowledge that they know him well.

After the Vietnamese ousted the Khmer Rouge regime, Duch apparently joined his comrades in the jungle, where they continued to fight. A former math teacher, he spent two years in China teaching at the Beijing foreign languages institute. He left the Khmer Rouge in 1992 and taught French in a secondary school. Then, under assumed names, he obtained work with the United Nations and private humanitarian groups.

In 1993, he converted to Christianity, apparently convinced by missionaries in a refugee camp. He received his Christian education from a group called the Cambodian Ministry of Christ, and from the dean of Pacific Christian College, which is part of the California-based International Hope University.

Pastor Daniel Walter, the former Cambodia director for the Seventh-day Adventist Church, likens Duch's transformation to that of the biblical figure Paul, who persecuted Christians until he became one. "After God spoke to Paul, he changed his ways," says Walter. "Like this man [Duch], he set out to help people. God transformed this man completely from a persecutor and a murderer to one of the most outstanding missionaries for God."

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