Some 10 km from Samlout district in Cambodia’s Battambang province, the wooden house of Ky Siev Kim is hidden between farm plots. The house is only reachable via a long bumpy road and an old wooden bridge.
Siev Kim is the daughter of Kaing Guek Eav, better known as comrade Duch, the notorious former director of S-21, a prison used by the Khmer Rouge to interrogate and torture enemies of the brutal communist regime that ruled Cambodia between 1975 and 1979.
Just like her father Siev Kim is a convert to Christianity. “I just followed my dad. It’s like being a good child who listen to her parent’s orders,” she said while comforting her 8-month-old daughter.
Duch, 77, died in early September after being seriously ill. To the surprise of many in Cambodia, despite his Christian faith Duch’s body was cremated within 12 hours following Buddhist rituals. His rapid cremation raised several questions. Why was it done so quickly? And why weren’t his Christian beliefs not respected?
Similar questions were raised when another former high-ranking Khmer Rouge leader Nuon Chea died in August 2019. Chea was also a Christian convert but he too was cremated as a Buddhist.
Siev Kim told LiCAS.news that the cremation decision was made because most of Duch’s children are Buddhist. “And at the same time, it was difficult for us to transfer his dead body for the long journey to Samlout,” she said.
“So, we decided to do the cremation in Phnom Penh, and then bring the remains to our hometown.”
Duch was responsible for the deaths of over 12,000 people from 1975 – 1979, according to the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC). Other sources believe the real number of victims is about 20,000.
In 1993 Duch converted to Christianity. While he managed to convince his daughter to become a Christian, his wife refused to do so, said Siev Kim. Two years later, Duch’s wife was killed during a robbery at the family’s home and Duch was also seriously injured.
At the time Duch was hiding from the authorities and living under the name of Hang Pin. Following the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime, during which an estimated 1.7 million people died, he worked with an NGO in a refugee camp in Thailand. Later on, he also worked as a school teacher and a principal, as well as for the Christian aid organization World Vision.
In 1999 he was discovered by British photographer Nic Dunlop. He was arrested in the same year.
Duch was the first former Khmer Rouge chief put on trial at the ECCC, also known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. He was found guilty of inhumane crimes, including extermination, murder, enslavement, imprisonment and torture. Initially he was sentenced to 35 years in prison. Later an appeal court turned the sentence into life imprisonment.
In 1996, the former prison chief was baptized by Christopher LaPel, the same pastor who converted many former Khmer Rouge leaders, including Nuon Chea (Brother No.2) and Im Chaem. The latter was charged with several severe crimes, but never arrested.
Years after Duch’s baptism, LaPel told the Khmer Rouge Tribunal that Duch had converted on his own free will. LaPel also said that after Duch’s conversion he changed from a sad person living without peace, joy or purpose into a “man with a serving heart” who cared about “sharing the word of God,” ECCC documents show.
Siev Kim still remembers the day her father was baptized. “The ceremony took place in Sisophone, a district of Banteay Meanchey province,” she said.
Duch’s daughter seems to be at peace with the decision to not give her father a Christian funeral.
Not far from her home, Nov Phoern, the pastor of the Methodist Church in Chamkar Samroang district, said it doesn’t matter that Duch was cremated following a Buddhist ritual. And despite that he was responsible for the death of thousands of people, Phoern believes Duch can still go to heaven.
“It doesn’t matter what religion they followed, when they did the ceremony, as his soul was already gone,” the pastor told LiCAS.news.
“He has confessed and admitted his guilt in public, because he wanted to follow God, to be a new person who does the right things. So, he can go to heaven, as his sins were in the past.”
Sok Sophon, a 67-year-old former Khmer Rouge soldier, got to know Duch after the Khmer Rouge collapsed. He himself converted to Christianity in 1989. These days he’s the reverend of a church in Phnom Penh.
“I’m grateful that Duch found a way to believe in Christianity, as he wanted peace for himself,” Sok Sophon told LiCAS.news in Phnom Penh.
“God has helped him to get away from his karma and his guilt for the bad things he has done in the past,” he said.
“If he had stayed with Buddhism, he would have been responsible for that, but Jesus Christ helped him to become a new person so that he could go to heaven after his death. Because in Christianity once you confess your fault to Jesus, God will forgive you.”
But that certainly isn’t something everybody in Cambodia agrees on.
Buddhist monk Khy Sovanratana, who graduated in Pali and Buddhism at the Buddhist University of Sri Lanka and who currently holds a position as a professor at the Preah Sihanouk Raja Buddhist University, has an entirely different view.
“In Buddhism, when you committed a crime, you’re guilty and you have sinned,” he told LiCAS.news over the phone.
“It’s your own responsibility, and karma will come to you in this life and the next,” he said.
“This means that Duch, who has committed crimes including torture and murder, can’t go to heaven because he has a lot of sins. His soul will go to hell for this life, and in the next life he will be born as an animal,” Sovanratana said.
Many victims of the Khmer Rouge also have a hard time accepting that the notorious former prison chief, who admitted that every person arrested during the Khmer Rouge period and brought to S-21 needed to die, has now gone to heaven. That includes Sou Sotheavy, a transgender woman who testified against regime leaders Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan about her sufferings during the Khmer Rouge era.
“No matter what his religion is, he can’t get away from his responsibility of killing and torturing people,” Sotheavy said.
“As a victim of the Khmer Rouge regime I lived like I was in hell. I’m traumatized by all the sufferings. Then how can people who have made me suffer so much go to heaven when they die? Where is justice? This is not fair at all.”
After the Buddhist ceremony rituals Duch’s remains were brought to the house of his son, a strong follower of Chinese traditions. It is not far from where Siev Kim and her family live.
For the prison chief’s daughter life has never been easy. After the death of her mother, she lived with her grandmother and later with her aunty who is Duch’s younger sister. Some sources said her husband died in S-21 while Duch was in charge.
Her aunty was strict and unfriendly, Siev Kim said, but that didn’t stop her from going to church as often as possible.
“Thank God, it’s because God is with me, I always pray to God when I’m suffering in my daily life. He helps me forgive when people treat me bad. Without God I couldn’t handle it myself,” she said.
Sineat Yon, Sours Thida, and Sry Seyha contributed to this report.