My wife Noit, along with all the other people who were living in the capital city Phnom Penh were considered worthless city people. The Khmer Rouge leadership had determined that all the nations problems could be traced to the city people. They were viewed as oppressors because they were rich and they acted like it. Those wealthy people in the capital city knew they were a wealthy and educated elite and tended to treat the poor farmers poorly. Therefore, the sinister Khmer Rouge leader determined rather than to be executed, which would have been an easy punishment and a waste of bullets and manpower, all city people would be put to work like animals. They would be worked to death. Of the terrible slogans they had, one recalled, “Blood makes the ground grow softer.” This is referring to the blood of these city people used in producing more rice in their agrarian dreams. When they died, their bodies were simply dumped into the fields, bushes and ditches with minimal effort. They rarely even covered the decaying corpses. These people were called, “17”. Noit was labeled “17”. Her name, her life, her age and her identity were all irrelevant. To the Khmer Rouge she had no value because she was born in the capital city.
The number 17 comes from the day that the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh: April 17, 1975. Since the defeat of the Khmer Rouge the country celebrates a national holiday called the “Day of Hate” on the day when they routed the Khmer Rouge from the last of the cities in Cambodia. The actual holiday is officially called in Cambodian “Tngie chong kumhung” which literally means “Day of Bitterness and Rage”. It has been celebrated every year since 1979 when the Vietnamese beat the Khmer Rouge out of Phnom Penh. Those who celebrate it are those who were called “17” by the Khmer Rouge.
I don’t believe that a person can move forward in emotional healing while still celebrating a day of “bitterness and rage”. Remember, absolutely, but continue to stir up bitterness and rage, no.
A few years ago, Cambodia’s most unlikely witness of Christ gave a message of healing and forgiveness on national television. His name was “Duch”. He was a Khmer Rouge officer who oversaw the torture and execution of more than 20,000 people. While still with the Khmer Rouge fighting in the border regions along the western border with Thailand, he had heard about Jesus. Someone gave him a Bible and he read it cover to cover. He accepted Christ and was going around spreading the good news of Jesus.
Quickly, once people knew who he was, he was arrested and after a decade of detention was charged with “crimes against humanity” and “genocide”. His trial lasted nearly two years. Actually, the court was limited to only prosecute the most senior members of the Khmer Rouge, but no one was talking except Duch, so they put him on the stand. He said repeatedly, “I should be prosecuted for the evils I have done in this world, but for me I know that whatever happens to my body, my soul is safe with Jesus.” His very Christian witness on the stand each day often infuriated judges and victims of the Khmer Rouge. Many, never knowing what Christians believe, were puzzled by his confessions and seeking forgiveness. No other Khmer Rouge leader ever admitted to atrocities.
Finally, the trial was coming to a close. He had requested that his punishment be “death by stoning” so that he could die like the worst of sinners in the Bible. The court refused but he had a chance to give his final defense and beg for his life. What resulted was the clearest presentation of the gospel I think Cambodia has ever heard. Mind you, the entire trial was broadcasted live on every television station in the nation.
Instead of begging for his life, he started out. “I know many of you wonder about my faith in Jesus and how that contradicts with my role in the Khmer Rouge. I want to talk about that.”
Summarizing his twenty minute remarks about religion he said, “I have studied Buddhism and was fully dedicated to following all the precepts, yet I found no peace in this. I studied Islam and read the Koran cover to cover, but I found nothing there to draw me. I was introduced to atheism under the communists and I strived as hard as I could to be the best communist I could. Yet, I found nothing. Then one day I heard about the teachings of Jesus. I was given a Bible and it studied it thoroughly cover to cover. In the Bible the teaching of Jesus says to ‘love your enemies’ (Matthew 5:44). I knew that this was a radical teaching, unlike any other religion. I have studied all these religions and only Jesus teaches this. I appeal to my fellow Cambodians to believe in Jesus and follow his ways. Jesus is the answer for Cambodia. If we all believed in Jesus there would be no more wars, no more hatred between people and no revenge. I appeal to all of Cambodia to believe in Jesus.”
Upon concluding his gospel presentation, the defense rested. Many in the court room scoffed; some looked puzzled; others contemplated. His sentence was later passed down which would ensure he spent the rest of his life in prison. Cambodia saw and heard with their eyes how Jesus changes lives. As Duch illustrated, forgiveness is the only way to bring healing to the land which still celebrates a “Day of Hate.”
Many people have asked how a nation deals with the emotional and psychological trauma they experienced. How did Noit deal with it? The answer is simple. Jesus healed her heart when she forgave the Khmer Rouge. Jesus even gave her a chance to share the gospel with the Head of State of the Khmer Rouge, the very one who masterminded the plan to torture and exterminate her entire family and all those labeled “17”, with the only desire to give him the peace and forgiveness that only Jesus can bring.