Los Angeles Times: From Khmer Rouge to Christ

December 26, 2016

By Dene-Hern Chen
with contributions from Kuch Naren

PAILIN PROVINCE, Cambodia – Consulting a Bible app on his smartphone, Norng Chhay pulled up his favorite passage from the book of Matthew.

 The Marist church in Pailin City, Cambodia. (Credit: Dene-Hern Chen)

The Marist church in Pailin City, Cambodia. (Credit: Dene-Hern Chen)

“‘Do not judge others, and you will not be judged. For you will be treated as you treat others,’” the former Khmer Rouge soldier read aloud. Matthew 7 particularly resonates with him, he said, given his past as a member of one of the most notorious armies of modern times.

Recruited by the Khmer Rouge as a 15-year-old, Norng engaged daily in jungle warfare against Vietnam. More crucially, he had a role in the genocide carried out by Pol Pot’s short-lived Communist regime from 1975 to 1979, which left roughly 2 million Cambodians dead from starvation, overwork and mass executions.

“Even though I was not a direct perpetrator or the one who beat people to death, I too participated in it because I was the one who brought them to their deaths,” Norng said. “I used to escort them to the fields, and I have witnessed people being beaten and then thrown into mass graves.”

It was fear for his own safety that forced him to be part of the executions, Norng said. “People today are fast to judge our past actions even though they do not understand what we have gone through.”

The now devout 57-year-old is one of more than 600 Christians living in Pailin, a small western province bordering Thailand. Populated in large measure by Khmer Rouge stalwarts who fled there after their leadership was ousted from power in 1979, these former officers, cadres and supporters have turned to Christianity to seek comfort and salvation.

Yet Cambodians, mistrustful of the sincerity of these conversions, dismiss their newly adopted zeal for religious ideology.

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