Comrade Duch, who ran the infamous S-21 prison where some 17,000 Cambodian died between 1975 and 1979, is the only Khmer Rouge leader to have admitted his role in torturing and killing civilians.
His step follows a personal journey that led him to convert to Christianity in 1996 after befriending a Cambodian-born Protestant clergyman, a journey very different from that of Pol Pot, the fanatical ideologue and leader of the Khmer Rouge regime, who died without appearing before the court, or the other four leading figures of the former Maoist regime on trial—Khieu Samphan, Ieng Sary, Ieng Thirith and Nuon Chea—who have also not owned up to their crimes.
Hun Sen, the current prime minister of Cambodia, is also a former official of the Khmer Rouge regime, and has dismissed with scorn any suggestion that he should appear before the tribunal, saying that before that ever happens he would see it starve of money.
Kang Kek Iew’s hearing, which was broadcast live across Cambodia, was closely followed by Cambodians, generating all sorts of reactions. Many excused the guilt of the past, simply saying that everyone was just following orders.
For Duch coming to grips with his crimes and his demand for forgiveness began in 1996 when he became a Christian after befriending a Protestant clergyman in a village near Battambang.
Listening to Rev Christopher LaPel’s sermons, the former head of Prison S-21, who had concealed his true identity under the name of Hang Pin, expressed a desire to be baptised.
“He changed totally after receiving Christ—180 degrees,” said LaPel in an interview to Times magazine. “He turned from hatred to love. He said he had never felt love in his childhood or when he grew up. So when he turned to Christ, love filled his heart.”
In retrospect, there were signs pointing to Duch's real identity. “Before he received Christ, he said he did a lot of bad things in his life,” LaPel recalls. “I don’ know if my brothers and sisters can forgive the sins I've committed against the people,” Duch said.
LaPel lost friends and family in S-21 too, but said he had “no personal hatred for the only member of the Khmer Rouge to have confessed a role in the movement's killing machine.”
Fr Alberto Caccaro, a PIME missionary with ten years in Cambodia, said that Comrade Duch’s confession is even more significant now.
“Acknowledging one’s guilt is how we see ourselves before God,” he said. “Many people were positively surprised by his confession, which strikes a different note from the rest.”
Cambodians have in fact not yet begun the process of reviewing the history of what happened in the 1970s when almost two million people died under the Khmer Rouges before the latter were driven from power. After that Cambodians turned the page in favour of modernity and “focused solely on material interests and individual well-being.”
“People have a hard time seeing themselves as part of a greater whole,” Father caccaro said. “Even in everyday language they tend to hide guilt. Admitting one’s responsibility is a no no—people would rather choose self-indulgence.”
Even thought bringing Khmer Rouge leaders to trail “will not remake Cambodian society,” “individual actions” like that of comrade Duch can be the “starting point for a more in-depth look at history.”
At the same time “we should not turn comrade Duch into some kind of saint,” said the missionary, “but his personal story, the timing of his confessions, and the realisation of the crimes he committed are something new for Cambodia.”