Throughout the month of February, this column will be featuring stories of noted atheists who experienced dramatic shifts in their views, eventually becoming Christians. The stories will highlight the reasons why they held their atheistic views to begin with, and the reasons they became convinced of the truth of Christianity.
The Khmer Rouge was a communist party which ruled Democratic Kampuchea from 1975 to 1979. The movement began as an offshoot of the communist party in Vietnam, spreading to Cambodia, and placing a stranglehold on the population it controlled.
The policies and procedures of the Khmer Rouge were notoriously brutal and to devastating effect. One of these was the so-called Cambodian genocide, the result of an attempt on the part of Khmer Rouge to create a form of agrarian socialism which was founded on the ideals of Stalinism and Maoism. In order to do this, the KR forcefully relocated entire populations, using torture and execution to enforce these policies. They also instituted forced labor to cultivate their agriculture. The results were a failure, and so thousands of people died of malnutrition. The party refused to accept outside help since they fancied themselves entirely self-sufficient.
One of the leaders of the KR was Kang Kek Iew, or “Comrade Duch”. As the head of the government’s internal security branch, he oversaw the Tuol Sleng (S-21) prison camp; a focal point of the torture and executions conducted for the KR.
Iew was a gifted – even brilliant – young man from the Kampong Thom Province. One of the top students in his school, Iew went on to score second in the country in mathematics upon completion of his Baccalaureate.
Iew’s love of mathematics caused him to pursue a teaching degree at Institut de Pédagogie. This school was, at the time, a hotbed of communist activism, and where Iew was first encountered hardcore communist ideals.
Kek Iew graduated with a education degree and took a teaching position in a small town. He was a devoted teacher, well-loved by all of his pupils, honoring the love his schooling had given him for mathematics and instruction. However, Kek Iew had another holdover from his schooling days that would quickly corrupt his brief period of fulfillment.
Iew’s communist sympathies ran deep, and he secretly joined the party, persuading a number of his pupils to do the same. This quickly got three of his pupils found out and arrested, and Kek Iew was forced to flee to the Khmer Rouge base in Chamkar Leu District where he was accepted as a full member of the Communist Party of Kampuchea.
This did not ultimately save the former math teacher. Kek was found and arrested for communist activities. He was tortured and imprisoned without a trial for two years. In 1970, political prisoners were granted amnesty by the Cambodian Prime Minister, and Iew was released.
With all of his bridges burned, his goodwill gone, and nowhere else to turn, Kek Iew took the final step to becoming a full communist zealot, joining the Khmer Rouge rebels in the Cardamom Mountains bordering Thailand.
As the power of the Khmer Rouge mounted in the Asian jungles, the former math tutor left Kang Kek Iew behind, taking on his new identity as Comrade Duch. In cruel irony, Comrade Duch – now appointed Head of Special Security – began founding a series of prisons which held and tortured the enemies of the Khmer Rouge in the same way that poor Kang Kek Iew had been held and tortured himself. In fact, Comrade Duch took pride in his work, honing and perfecting torture techniques to their maximum effectiveness. This campaign of torture and death was not restricted to those mounting clear resistance to the advance of the Khmer Rouge, but also to members of the Khmer Rouge who were suspected to be less than entirely devoted to the cause.
After Comrade Duch had extracted all of the real (and fake) confessions he was able from his prisoners, his superior ordered him to eliminate the rest.
In 1975, the Khmer Rouge won a major victory, becoming the dominant party in their country. Duch now took his prison campaign to the capital city which is where Comrade Duch erected his infamous Tuol Sleng prison. Here, Duch continued his campaign of terror, brutalizing all party members suspected of being secretly subversive. Duch was cruel and ruthless, commanding his men to conduct torturous interrogations of prisoners, then execute them. Women, teenagers, and children were not exempted from such treatment.
Detainees were also used for medical experimentation, including using their blood and organs to treat wounded soldiers, and operating on their still-living bodies to train medical students.
Duch’s work was so ruthlessly efficient in advancing his party’s goals, his superiors inducted him into the inner circle, making him a ranking member of the dreaded Santebal, a “special branch” similar to Hitler’s SS.
In 1979, the Khmer Rouge’s reign was nearly at an end, as their policies had reeked disaster on the country, paranoia, suspicion and backstabbing were rampant within the ranks, and outside resistance rose to a peek.
Comrade Duch interrogated more and more party members, including many of his former comrades and friends. Officials within the capital began fleeing as it became clear that defeat was imminent, however Comrade Duch stayed on to eliminate his remaining prisoners and destroy as many prison records as possible, fearing that these may be used against him by the new party that came to rule.
After fleeing, Duch kept with the remnants of his comrades, and was subsequently demoted because of his failure to destroy all of the prison documents.
Duch largely abandoned his communist pursuits as he settled on the boarder with his wife. Brilliant as ever, Duch taught himself Thai and English. He also picked up his educational pursuits, moving into Thailand and teaching refugees English and Mathematics.
During the next several decades, Duch, now under the name of Hang Pin, took small government positions, roles as a language expert in various languages, and continued to pursue his love of teaching. His time as an interrogator had taken its toll on his style of teaching. No longer the dedicated instructor of his youth, Duch/Iew was still a brilliant and respected teacher, but was known by his cringing students for his fiery temper.
In 1995, an attack on his small village killed Iew’s wife. Iew sold all of his possessions and transferred himself and his children.
At this point in his turbulent life, Iew was a man with little purpose or hope. His long years of communist indoctrination had taught him that there was no God, and that human beings were little more than resources one may use or dispose of as necessary.
It was in the midst of this existential ennui that Rev Christopher LaPel entered Iew’s life. A Cambodian-born Protestant minister, LaPel taught in a church near where Iew had chosen to hide under his new identity. Iew began listening to LaPel’s sermons, attending with more and more frequency and eventually befriending the humble minister.
Eventually Iew approached LaPel and asked to be baptized. Although Iew never disclosed to the church who he truly was and what he had done, at his baptism Iew told the congregation that he had done horrible things that could never be forgiven.
After this, Iew was a changed man. LaPel later told interviewers that Iew went from being an empty and hopeless person, to having life, joy, and fulfillment.
True to his nature as a lover of teaching, Iew became a pastor himself. Gone was the fiery temper he had displayed in his later years of teaching. Iew was once more the devoted and sympathetic teacher.
Eventually, like so many other members of the Khmer Rouge, Iew was discovered, arrested, and sent to trial as a war criminal. Without exception, all other former members of the Khmer Rouge stood before the courts arrogant and unrepentant. Only the former Comrade Duch stepped forth, admitted all, and humbly asked the Cambodians for forgiveness for his awful crimes.