Far Eastern Economic Review
May 6, 1999
He was the chief executioner in one of history's most murderous regimes.
Now, he's a born-again Christian and aid worker. In his first interview,
'Duch' confesses to his Khmer Rouge crimes. The revelations could shake
By Nic Dunlop and Nate Thayer in Battambang province
At first, the old man speaks only of his passion for Jesus and his mission
to bring the Gospel to these squalid jungle hamlets populated by Khmer
Ta Pin, as he calls himself, has worked with international aid groups in
recent years, and he speaks for an hour--in a combination of Khmer, French
and English--of the needs of the peasants. He proudly displays a pair of
laminated certificates he received after attending seminars held in
Cambodia by American evangelical churches--they commend his "personal
leadership development, team-building and deepening commitment to Jesus
He sidesteps several political questions, until one causes him to look
down and examine the business card of a visiting reporter. Following a
long pause, his eyes narrow and he looks directly at his visitor,
betraying a racing mind. "You are from the Far Eastern Economic Review,
the one who interviewed Pol Pot, Ta Mok and the other leaders," he says.
"Yes," the reporter replies. "They told me who you are and that you were
The old man stares silently into the distance for a moment, then sits
down next to the reporter. Without being asked another question, Kang
Kek Ieu--alias Ta Pin, alias Hong Pen, alias "Duch"--begins to speak of
his life as the chief executioner for Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge.
"First, I want to say that I thank God to be meeting the Far Eastern
Economic Review today," says the one-time warden of Cambodia's most
notorious death camp who has been on the run for 20 years. "It is God's
will you are here. Now my future is in God's hands."
With that, he talks freely of his role and that of others in the horrors
of 1975-79, when the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia and as many as 2 million
people perished out of a population of less than 7 million. "I have done
very bad things before in my life. Now it is time for les represailles
[to bear the consequences] of my actions."
He makes the confession in interviews on April 22 and 26 in his one-room
hut in the jungles of western Cambodia. His pregnant niece lies sick and
nearly comatose on a mat behind him, her arm taped to an intravenous
drip that hangs from a ceiling beam. His son sits nearby, his wooden leg
with carved toes--he stepped on a landmine in 1985--hanging over the
edge of the hut's raised floor. Hundreds more mines, in all likelihood,
still seed the earth around the hamlet.
"The first half of my life I will remember forever. Then I thought God
was very bad, that only bad men prayed to God. My unique fault is that I
did not serve God, I served men, I served communism," the 56-year-old
Duch says. "I feel very sorry about the killings and the past. I wanted
to be a good communist. Now, in the second half of my life, I want to
serve God by doing God's work to help people."
Comrade Duch has much to be sorry about. He was chief of the Khmer Rouge
"S-21" national-security apparatus and ran the notorious Tuol Sleng
detention centre in Phnom Penh. A converted secondary school, Tuol Sleng
was the nerve centre for a nationwide network of prisons and execution
grounds. Thousands of people--many of them purged Khmer Rouge cadres and
their families--were tortured, forced to confess to fantastic plots and
executed at Tuol Sleng, their bodies dumped in shallow graves outside
The treatment and the confessions of inmates were meticulously
documented. Duch's own signature and detailed comments are on hundreds
of documents ordering barbarous torture methods ranging from electric
shocks and severe beatings to the pulling out of toenails and submersion
in vats of water. At least 16,000 people were "processed" through Tuol
Sleng, according to scholars; only seven survived, escaping when
invading Vietnamese troops captured Phnom Penh in January 1979.
If an international tribunal is convened to try the Khmer Rouge for
genocide, Duch would be a pivotal figure: He was the direct link between
the Khmer Rouge political leadership and its killing machine.
"Duch would in fact be in a key position to close key gaps in the
evidence," says Stephen Heder, a Cambodia expert at London University's
School of Oriental and African Studies. "Although we have documents
linking S-21 to Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Ta Mok, Ke Pok and Son Sen, among
others, they do not establish incontrovertibly that any of the above
ordered all the crimes against humanity that we know were committed, and
leave very unclear the roles of key figures such as Ieng Sary and Khieu
Heder was referring to the top leaders of the Communist Party of
Kampuchea, who ran the country from April 1975 to the end of 1979. In
the past few years, Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, Khieu Samphan and Ke Pok have
all "defected" from the Khmer Rouge and now live freely in Cambodia; Ta
Mok is alone in having been jailed after his capture in March. Son Sen
was murdered in June 1997 on Pol Pot's orders, and Pol Pot committed
suicide in April last year to avoid trial.
Duch's confessions will likely give new impetus to calls by the United
Nations, the United States and other major aid donors for the arrest and
trial of Khmer Rouge leaders. Indeed, in the interview, Duch says that
the entire leadership was responsible for the executions he carried out.
"The decisions for the killings were made not by one man, not just Pol
Pot, but by the whole central committee," he says. "Whoever was arrested
must die. It was the rule of our party. S-21 had no right to arrest
anybody. We had the responsibility to interrogate and give the
confession to the central committee of the party."
Putting on his glasses, he solemnly leafs through copies of documents
recovered from Tuol Sleng and shown to him by the REVIEW. They are
"confessions" extracted under torture, riddled with notations in Duch's
handwriting giving instructions for questioning, torture methods and
execution. "Yes, this is my signature," he says, pointing to a scrawl
ordering the torture of one victim. "And this handwriting is Nuon Chea's
and this one Son Sen's."
Another forced confession bears a long note from Duch to the party
leadership on the "traitorous activities" of a perceived enemy. "That is
my handwriting," he volunteers, then pointing elsewhere on the document,
he adds: "And this here is Nuon Chea's handwriting." The prisoners were
later executed. He identifies what he says is the handwriting of Nuon
Chea and fellow leaders on other documents, many with notations to or
from "Elder Brother" or simply the ominous "Organization," as the
Standing Committee of the Communist Party was known.
Nuon Chea, formerly No. 2 in the party hierarchy behind Pol Pot, was
effectively given amnesty by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen last year.
After staying in luxury hotels in Phnom Penh and vacationing in the
seaside resort of Sihanoukville, he now lives freely in the western
Cambodian border town of Pailin.
Examining the documents, Duch expresses what seems like genuine remorse.
"I am so sorry. The people who died were good people. I am here now. God
will decide my future." He adds: "There were many men who were innocent.
I tried to understand the punishment and orders to kill. I have a great
difficulty in my life thinking that the people who died did nothing
He goes on to identify those he says made the command and control
decisions of organized genocide. "The first was Pol Pot, the second was
Nuon Chea, the third Ta Mok," he says.
Referring to seven Westerners known to have been executed at Tuol Sleng,
he says: "Nuon Chea ordered that the foreigners be killed and their
bodies burned so no bones were left. Only the Europeans were burned. I
remember well the Englishman. He was very polite."
At the same time, Duch offers a degree of exoneration for others. "Ieng
Sary knew nothing," he says of the regime's foreign minister. "He only
knew a little of the internal situation of the country because his work
was outside Cambodia." In 1980, Ieng Sary was sentenced to death for
genocide in a show trial staged in his absence by the government
installed in Phnom Penh by Vietnam. He was pardoned in 1996 by King
Norodom Sihanouk after leading mass defections from the Khmer Rouge to
The regime's figurehead prime minister, Khieu Samphan, was not as
oblivious, according to Duch. "Khieu Samphan knew of the killings, but
less than the others," he says. Khieu Samphan now lives with Nuon Chea
in Pailin, which is controlled by Ieng Sary and other ex-Khmer Rouge.
While Duch's revelations would be a prosecutor's dream, the chances of a
hearing being convened before an international tribunal abroad or a fair
trial being held in Phnom Penh remain remote. Cambodian Prime Minister
Hun Sen has resisted calls for a wide-ranging trial, saying it could
spark a new civil war in a country at peace for the first time in 30
In fact, the REVIEW has learned, the Cambodian government has been aware
of Duch's whereabouts since at least mid-1997, but apparently made a
political decision not to arrest him. Questioned by international
human-rights investigators as to why Duch had not been detained, the
army deputy chief of staff, Gen. Pol Saroeun, remarked: "What do you
want to do, cause a panic?"
The fear is that the arrest of Khmer Rouge figures implicated in the
genocide could destroy the fragile peace. Large areas of northern and
northwestern Cambodia are controlled by ex-Khmer Rouge, and thousands of
soldiers remain loyal to their leaders. These leaders have nominally
defected, but actually operate autonomous zones outside the control of
the Phnom Penh government.
On April 19, Hun Sen said foreign judges would be allowed to take part
in the trial of the jailed Ta Mok, but he insisted it would be held in a
Cambodian court. He was noncommittal on the issue of arresting others
implicated in the crimes of 1975-79, saying the government couldn't tell
the judicial branch what to do. Four days later, the UN special
representative for human rights in Cambodia, Thomas Hammarberg,
nonetheless reiterated the commitment of the international community to
push for a trial of key leaders implicated. Hammarberg has asked to meet
Ta Mok but was denied permission to do so by Hun Sen.
In his remote village in northwest Cambodia, Duch says he is willing to
let his fate be decided by others. "For the trial of myself, I don't
worry, it is up to Hun Sen and Jesus."
Instead, he speaks of his wish to leave politics behind. "For the
present and future, I want three things: Schools for the children, for
my stomach to be full, and I want to finish my life to pray to God, to
bring the spirit of God to everybody in Cambodia."
Cambodians, however, may not find it so easy to forgive and forget.