Comrade Duch, From Zero to Hero

by Timothy Tay

 Part 1: Kang Kek Lew a.k.a. Comrade Duch 

In 1975 communist Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot took control of Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, Year Zero was immediately declared as the year of the new beginning for the nation.

What unleashed from this revolutionary zeal was a scale in cruelty and brutality unrivalled since Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia resulting in genocide where 1.7 million Cambodians, a quarter of the existing population, perished.

There is no institution that symbolised the cruelty of the Pol Pot regime more than that of what took place at the high school of Tuol Sleng, converted into the regime’s interrogation centre, code-named S-21. Kang Kek Lew, “Comrade Duch”, then aged 34, took charge of S-21.

By the time of the Khmer Rouge’s defeat in 1979 by invading Vietnamese forces, more than 15,000 Cambodians and a few foreigners were sentenced to S21, none except for a dozen survived.

A news correspondence, Nic Dunlop, having earlier received a copy of the photo of Comrade Duch, in 1998 took on a personal mission to track Duch down. He found Duch, a provincial director of education, at the border with Thailand, by then he had become a born-again Christian in the process of building a church next to his house.

Duch acknowledged his identity only after a few meetings with Dunlop and then confessed of his crimes while at Tuol Sleng.

He spoke of his new found faith and said, “My life is now in God’s hand.” Nic Dunlop was pleasantly surprised at the ease of finding Duch and of his ready confession.

Soon after Dunlop published his findings the authorities in Phnom Penh brought Duch back to Phnom Penh charged been a member of an outlaw party and immediately put into detention. Before Duch was to stand trial under a UN-convened tribunal[1]Life for Comrade Duch, a milestone for international justice News Report |  to try war criminals he was brought to Tuol Sleng, now a museum.

He was immediately filled with sorrow and seeing some former detainees present at the scene he readily sought their forgiveness.

At the initial tribunal hearings Duch was obviously in great remorse when he read out his confession, “I asked forgiveness to my parents, I asked forgiveness from all my teachers, and I asked forgiveness to the victims of all the crimes.” 

He went as far as encouraging his accusers and survivors of Tuol Sleng testifying at the tribunal to tell the truth, nothing but the truth, for “you cannot cover up a dead elephant with just two tamarind leaves. The world needs to know the truth.”

Several news coverage of Duch’s criminal proceedings had made mention of the fact that Duch is now a Christian — an obvious reference to the way Duch had conducted himself at the tribunal[2]see NTDTV report 

Comrade Duch, one of today’s most notorious mass murderers, had experienced the transforming power of faith in Jesus Christ not unlike what Paul experienced on the road to Damascus 2000 years ago.

The turnaround in Duch’s life since becoming a Christian is also happening amongst many Cambodians, estimated at 2 percent of the current population of 14 millions.

In other parts of this great transformation story to come I will endeavour to cover the works of various people and agency, both Cambodian and foreigner, that had made Cambodia today one of the world’s most exciting harvest fields.


1 Life for Comrade Duch, a milestone for international justice News Report |
2 see NTDTV report 

Timothy Tay

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