Brokenhearted Theology, Cambodia, Global, politics, Ramblings, Relational

Is there room for forgiveness and grace?


That is, Another Post About Cambodia.

During my undergrad years, I took a class focused on genocide in modern history and we spent a portion of the semester learning about the Khmer Rouge and the tragedies in Cambodian history.  Between 1975 and 1979, nearly one-quarter of the country’s population was killed through overwork, malnutrition, starvation, illness, beatings, and executions.

(photo taken at Toul Sleng Genocide Museum

The executions were mostly crude, using basic tools and farming/gardening implements, as bullets were too expensive to waste.  The center for interrogation, torture, and imprisonment before victims were taken to the Killing Fields was a secondary school turned torture camp/prison named Toul Sleng.

In charge of Toul Sleng was a Khmer Rouge leader named Kang Kek Iew, also known as Duch.  Duch is currently being tried under the UN-backed Cambodia Tribunal for the murder of more than 12,000 victims.

The only foreigner to have survived Khmer Rouge imprisonment is François Bizot, who wrote a memoir entitled The Gate detailing his experiences in Cambodia and, specifically, his relationship with his captor, Duch.  Last year, he contributed an op-ed to the New York Times concerning Duch’s trial.  In it, he writes:

Last February, Duch was led, with his consent, to the scenes of his crimes. The visit was a shock for all who witnessed it. This major judicial step took place in an atmosphere of intense, palpable emotion.

“I ask for your forgiveness — I know that you cannot forgive me, but I ask you to leave me the hope that you might,” he said before collapsing in tears on the shoulder of one of his guards.

I was not there — it was a closed hearing — but those who were reported that the cry of the former executioner betrayed such suffering that one of the few survivors of Tuol Sleng screamed out, “Here are the words that I’ve longed to hear for 30 years!”

It could be that forgiveness is possible after a simple, natural process, when the victim feels that he has been repaid. And the executioner has to pay dearly, for it is the proof of his suffering that eases ours.

While visiting the genocide sites in Cambodia, Krissy and I learned quite about the process leading to ‘justice’ in the aftermath of the Cambodian genocide.  I read that Duch confessed to the crimes committed and expressed regret.  I also saw that, years after the Khmer Rouge genocide, he converted to Christianity.  The pastor who baptized Duch, a Khmer American named Christopher LaPel recalls “He came here and he asked permission to pray for those victims who died.  He has a strong religious faith and is ready to testify. He would like to tell the truth, the whole truth, for what he did to his people” (quote taken from this article from the Voice of America Cambodia).

So, leader over torture prison.  Baptized convert to Christianity.  Confessor of sins.  Next Monday, a verdict in Duch’s tribunal is expected.

In the aftermath of such malice and violence, is there room for grace?  Are there lessons to be learned from the baptism of one who has confessed responsibility for such horrendous crimes?  What does forgiveness look like in this scenario?


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