Phnom Penh (AsiaNews) Dozens of former Khmer Rouge members are converting to Christianity. Among them is even Pol Pot's 59 year-old ex-body guard, Uk Sarith.
In its Jan. 15 2004 issue, the Far Eastern Economic Review dedicates an accurate report on the occurrence of such conversions.
Most new conversions are happening in Pailin along the country's north-eastern border with Thailand. Pailin has been the last bastion for Khmer Rouge members, before being granted amnesty on the condition that they drop their weapons and participate in political life (in 1994). Khmer Rouge has always used the region's rich supply of lumber and rubies to make black market dealings with Thailand to subsidize its own activities. Over half of Pailin's 29 thousand inhabitants are former members of the Khmer Rouge. Here two of Pol Pot's lieutenants, Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, still live.
From 1975 to 1979 Pol Pot's ultra-Maoist regime led to the killing of nearly 1.7 million persons and the abolishing of "the old Khmer culture", including its religions. Therefore, former fighters don't believe in Buddhism, the religion to 95% of Cambodians. And many Buddhist monks, due to fears of the past, dare not even venture to Pailin.
Pailin is thus an open field for both local and foreign Protestant Christian missionaries. The most active missionary work is that of the Good Samaritan church, a chapel converted out of a coffee shop pertaining to Singapore's "Life Bible" Presbyterian community. After the church, schools and medical dispensary were built, where English lessons and heath care are offered for free.
On the list of new coverts are In Sopheap and Long Norin, both of whom were top officials in Pol Pot's army in addition to 48 year-old Chea Som Ol, an ex-informant and now church organist. Another convert is Kuon Dong, a current local radio station director. Since his conversion, his station airs a sacred-hymn hour on Sundays. Also on Sundays are over 60 former Khmer Rouge attending religious functions led by pastor Buth So Theas, age 24 and son of an ex- Khmer Rouge member.
The success of conversions is due partly to the need for redemption after all the atrocities committed; and partly due to the desire, especially among young people, to overcome marginalization and to reintegrate themselves into Cambodian society.
Youk Chhang, director of the Cambodia's Documentation Center which researches and archives evidence of Khmer Rouge violence, explained: "The Khmer Rouge have become a symbol of evil
Those who were associated with it may see no other way to be integrated into society. God seems to be their only exit, to make them feel at peace with themselves." Sometimes such conversions occur against the wishes of parents. Nim Nyna, age 12, is the daughter to two ex-guerrilla fighters. Her father despises all religions. Yet she decided to get baptized despite her parents' objection: "They try to stop me from going to church and they say bad words about Jesus, but they are never around for me."
There is still doubt about how deep conversions in fact are. Uk Sarith, a 59 year-old ex-Pol Pot body guard baptized a few weeks ago, explained his sentiments: "Today is a good feeling. I believe it (my conversion) will help me for all the things I have done in my life. In the end, the Khmer Rouge is just like Christ. The Khmer Rouge taught us to avoid bad things like robbery and cheating
(It) had a lot of rules. Christ is the same (believing in him is) like having a leader you respect and obey. Regarding the new conversions, skeptic Pol Leang, vice-governor of Pailin and former Khmer Rouge member, offered his opinion. According to him, missionaries are "buying souls" with their providing of health care services, English lessons and financial assistance. Even Nuon Chea, Pol Pot's number 2 man and now fervent Buddhist, criticized the "Christian way". "Cambodians will still have Buddhism; they are strong in Buddhism," he said.
Even if various conversions are superficial, missionaries believe that the faith is helping old enemies to reconcile themselves. Chap Souong, 54, is a member of the Seventh Day Adventist Church outside Pailin. He was a government soldier when the Khmer Rouge regime took over. He was tortured countless times and his family was killed in the genocide. Now on Sundays he gives English and catechism lessons to 20 former Khmer Rouge members and 30 of their children. "Now I work for God and he tells me not to express anger, so I let bygones be bygones. I feel like this work is healing old wounds."
Youk Chhang, of the Documentation Center, puts up his guard against such easy absolution: "The only way the former Khmer Rouge can be successfully socially integrated (into society)
is through national reconciliations, through prosecutions."
Awaiting trial, the only two Khmer Rouge members in prison for genocide are Ta Mok and Kang Kek Ieu. The latter, known as "Duch", became a devout Protestant Christian and is said to be eagerly looking forward to the UN-backed tribunal on Khmer Rouge atrocities. There are no Catholics in Pailin. When asked by AsiaNews, some Catholic missionaries said that were no ex-Khmer Rouge converts to Catholicism.