Les Sillars – Monsters and redemption

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Today is Tuesday, September 15th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Megan Basham.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. The brutal commander of a prison during the Khmer Rouge’s communist rule over Cambodia died earlier this month. Kaing Guek Eav was 77. He was serving a life sentence for crimes against humanity. 

His death prompted WORLD commentator Les Sillars to ponder monsters and repentance.

LES SILLARS, COMMENTATOR: His revolutionary name was Comrade Duch. Of all the evil things the Khmer Rouge did in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979, Comrade Duch operated the most horrific: a prison called Tuol Sleng, codenamed S-21.

His guards tortured and executed about 15,000. I’ve visited S-21, seen the rooms with white and beige checkerboard-tile floors containing whips, clubs, hooks, and electric wires. Guards worked over the screaming prisoners and then made them sit at a desk and scribble out confessions.

Duch reviewed each confession, made notations in the margins, and sent it back for another round of torture. The regime was hunting traitors and Duch wanted names.

AUDIO: S-21 Nath [Khmer voice]

In a documentary called S-21: Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, one former prisoner admitted that he denounced 60 people to save himself. He says, “They beat me so badly, Nath, I couldn’t take it. I said anything. I named everyone.”

Sometimes a confession went through many drafts before Duch was satisfied. Then the prisoner was trucked away, clubbed to death, and dumped into a mass grave.

After the Khmer Rouge fell in 1979, Duch fled to the Cambodian jungles. In 1999 he was recognized and soon after surrendered. In 2012, he was sentenced to life in prison.

A French journalist named François Bizot testified during one of Duch’s hearings in 2009. He had been Duch’s prisoner some years before the Khmer Rouge set up S-21. They developed a strange kind of intimacy. At the time Bizot saw himself and his friends in Duch: a Marxist and a decent man. What’s more,

BIZOT: Interpreter: I considered that I was on the right side of humankind and there were monsters and, thank heavens, I would never be amongst the ranks of them.

But then Bizot realized that Duch personally beat prisoners. He was shocked.

The idea that anyone is capable of great evil should unsettle us. But those surprised by the evil found in human hearts don’t yet know themselves. And those terrified by the discovery don’t yet know the grace of God.

On January 6, 1996, Comrade Duch professed Christ. He planted a church in his village, taught the Bible, and baptized other believers. He was known as a gentle, quiet man.


During his trial he stood up and said—quote—“I would like to confirm that I am morally and legally responsible for the crimes committed at S-21 … I will not make any denial, not a word.” Unquote.

If Duch had tortured my family to death, I admit, I’d question his sincerity. But if the question is, “Can monsters repent?” there can be only one answer. If monsters can’t be redeemed, then nobody can.

I’m Les Sillars.

(Mak Remissa/Pool Photo via AP, File) In this March 30, 2009, file photo, former Khmer Rouge prison commander Kaing Guek Eav, also know as Duch looks on during the first full day of a U.N.-backed tribunal in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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2 comments on Les Sillars – Monsters and redemption

  1. Michelle says:

    I’m trying to follow the timeline: in ’79 Duch fled, in ’96 he converted and started a church, in ’99 he was recognized and captured, 2009 Bizot testified against him, 2012 Duch was sentenced. Is this correct?

  2. l Sharkey says:

    ‘there is none righteous’…

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