As a young woman, her zealousness in applying the tenets of Maoism helped propel her through the ranks of the ultra-Communist regime. She ended up serving as a district chief who allegedly supervised large-scale slave labor and mass killings, according to prosecutors at the Khmer Rouge tribunal, who spent years trying to charge her with crimes against humanity.
So when the former acolyte of Khmer Rouge warlord Ta Mok became a Christian late last year, she erected a six-meter-tall white cross in the garden of her large family compound in this former Khmer Rouge stronghold in northwest Cambodia. She converted her rice-threshing barn into a chapel, where she hosts Sunday services for other ex-Khmer Rouge. And she began to read the Bible daily.
Im Chaem, 75, had long resisted converting to Christianity, although the religion is widely practiced in her community of former Khmer Rouge followers. But when she did finally embrace Jesus, she did so with outward fervor and believes that she has been duly rewarded. In a recent interview at her home, she told VOA Khmer that since her baptism in January, good things had come to her.
Her son has recovered from a mental illness that plagued him for years. She is no longer worried about the prospect of being prosecuted for genocide at the Khmer Rouge tribunal. In retrospect, the choice to embrace Jesus seems inspired.
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“My son is now better and I am happy,” she said. “I have a peaceful mind. I did nothing wrong [and] now the court stopped accusing me.”
Converted by Pragmatism
On a recent afternoon, Im Chaem was lunching at home with a young local pastor, Vong Bunlim, 38, who had tried to convert her to Christianity since 2002.
He approached her with the suggestion at least 10 times, but every time she rejected the idea.
“At the beginning, perhaps she was afraid that she would be cheated because of conversion to a new foreign religion,” Bunlim said over a spread of dried fish, sour soup with loofah gourd, and rice.
Her daughter Kaing Ban and son-in-law Vor Var said they had also tried for many years to make Im Chaem a Christian.
“I used to ask her but she was unsure and afraid of being cheated,” Vor Var said.
The man who finally succeeded was Christopher LaPel, perhaps Cambodia’s best-known Christian pastor, who has made something of a career out of high-profile Khmer Rouge conversions. His most famous convert is accused war criminal Kaing Guek Eav, better known by his revolutionary alias, Duch.
LaPel became a Christian in a camp along the Thai-Cambodian border, where he fled as the Khmer Rouge fell to the invading Vietnamese. He then moved to Los Angeles, becoming a pastor with the Golden West Christian Church there, before returning to Cambodia to find the Cambodian Christian Church.
When LaPel heard a radio update about Im Chaem’s case at the Khmer Rouge tribunal in November, he recognized the name of the Trapeang Thmar dam, where she allegedly oversaw slave labor. That was the site where he had been forced to work as a young teenager.
He jumped into action and decided to target her for conversion. When he heard that Im Chaem’s family was struggling to pay for her son’s mental health treatment, he got in touch and promised help for her son if she would bring him to Battambang.
She was reluctant, but her son seemed eager to go, so she agreed to the plan. At first, she said she had no intention of being baptized.
“I said, ‘No need to urge [me]. I understand. No need to explain. I know about God. God is good. Both Jesus and the Buddhist God are good.’”
But once in Battambang, she encountered a former Khmer Rouge colleague named Choeun. Im Chaem said Choeun changed her thinking, although she demurred when asked to explain exactly how.
“If Comrade Choeun hadn’t come and I didn’t meet her, I wouldn’t have converted due to my firm stance,” was all she could say.
Both LaPel and Bunlim, her pastor neighbor, expressed deep satisfaction that Chaem was finally a Christian. They said her conversion would absolve her of sin.
“When she decided [to convert], she knew that only Jesus could give her harmony, peace, love, and hope in her life and her family, and God can forgive her sins,” LaPel said.
“When you believe in God and stop doing those bad things, God will forgive,” said Bunlim.
Seeking God’s Forgiveness?
But is Im Chaem herself interested in absolution?
Chaem, who was a protégée of the feared Khmer Rouge warlord Ta Mok and served as a district secretary in Banteay Meanchey province in the 1970s, was charged in March 2015 with crimes against humanity, including murder, extermination, enslavement, imprisonment and political persecution.
The case was a contentious one that split the court along national-international lines after the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen demanded that it be dropped.
Im Chaem repeatedly insisted that she was innocent of all charges, and expressed satisfaction that the Cambodian government appeared to publicly take her side.
In February last year, over the protests of UN prosecutors, the court did drop the charges, determining that her case did not fall within its jurisdiction as she was neither a senior leader nor one of the Khmer Rouge leaders most responsible for its crimes.
Like Im Chaem, Duch was once a zealous Communist who parsed the Khmer Rouge’s ultra-Maoist doctrine as literally as possible. After his conversion, he seemed to embrace Christianity with equal fervor.
Despite complaints from many victims participating in the case, who said his embrace of Christianity was hypocritical, he stuck to his tale of guilt, conversion, and redemption throughout the course of his trial.
Im Chaem, however, has consistently denied that she ever committed any serious crimes during the Khmer Rouge era.
When asked by VOA about her conversion to Christianity, she declined to discuss past actions in any detail.
“I decided to go with God since in the past I also committed some sins—but not serious sins,” was all she would say.
Prominent social commentator Ou Virak argues that without a public reckoning of Im Chaem’s actions between 1975 and 1979, her conversion to Christianity is just an empty narrative—and one more appealing to Westerners than Cambodians.
“The underlying narrative is that once you are actually converted to Christianity, your soul should be saved and the crime should be washed off,” he told VOA.
“There was a similar narrative around Duch as well, and if you’re a Buddhist then you stay evil, and it’s such a Western Christian look at the issue. But I think it’s not healthy to overemphasize the religious twist to what should be a discussion of what happened during the atrocities.”
“It seems to deflect the discussion about what happened 40 years ago and what we are to do now,” he said.
From Buddha to Jesus
Before her conversion, Im Chaem was a devout Buddhist who helped build a pagoda in her home village in Takeo province, and a Buddhist gathering hall in Anlong Veng.
Ly Sok-Kheang, the director of the Anlong Veng Peace Center, an initiative by the Documentation Center of Cambodia to promote reconciliation, said Im Chaem’s conversion raised questions about whether institutionalized Buddhism—Cambodia’s state religion—was doing enough to help the poor.
“If conversions like Im Chaem’s are successful, it raises unsettling questions about the role of Buddhist monastic systems in assisting those in need of emotional, psychological, and material support,” he wrote in an op-ed in the Phnom Penh Post this year.
“For example, Im Chaem’s son was so ill that he was sent to a hospital in Battambang province. No one could help but a Christian organization, which paid all the medical costs. Are there any other organizations that can help the critically ill? Should there be? Is there any way to create such organizations?” he asked.
Christianity has proven especially popular among ex-Khmer Rouge in Cambodia’s western provinces, partly due to the key services and material benefits brought by Christian missionaries to their communities, which are often remote and deeply impoverished.
Some have also suggested that the Christian theology of forgiveness and redemption might be especially appealing to former Khmer Rouge soldiers and officials, many of whom participated in killings or atrocities and struggled to reintegrate themselves back into Cambodian society.
“A former KR cadre may feel that Christianity is more comforting than Buddhism, given that the Buddhist doctrine is more about “do good, receive good; do bad, receive bad,” said Sok-Kheang.
Pastor Bunlim said he hoped his older friend’s conversion would inspire some of their other neighbors to become Christian, as Im Chaem is still widely respected as a local leader.
“Via her, God can help others too since she used to be resolute in not believing and now she believes,” he said. “Perhaps God can do the good work of making other former Khmer Rouge believe.”
Mao Lorn, 64, a lower-ranking ex-Khmer Rouge cadre who used to be a cook for Ieng Sary, said she had been joining Im Chaem’s prayer sessions and was considering a conversion of her own.
“She used to be the leader, so she can urge others to join.”
But Im Chaem herself was noncommittal, brushing off questions about any plans to proselytize.
“If I do that, I will be accused of mounting a campaign against Buddhism,” she said.
Her words, consciously or unconsciously, echoed the language of the Khmer Rouge, who banned the practice of religion during their period of rule. They declared Buddhism a “reactionary religion,” killed monks and desecrated pagodas across Cambodia.
This ironic disconnect between past and present is not something Im Chaem seems interested in addressing. But her refusal to publicly reckon with history does not seem to bother most of her neighbors, Christian or Buddhist.
“God will help and rescue her if she committed anything bad during the Khmer Rouge,” said Bunlim fervently. “God will forgive everything.”