This blog post is inspired by the fact that I’ve just finished reading Philip Short’s Pol Pot: The History of a Nightmare. For those of you who don’t know, in 1975 the Khmer Rouge (a.k.a. the Communist Party of Kampuchea) unleashed upon Cambodia what can only be described as a totalitarian nightmare, from which it has yet to fully recover. The country had already been made to suffer immensely as a pawn in the US’s Cold War game in Indochina; thousands of B-52 bombing raids brought Cambodia to its knees in the early ’70s and rendered its people submissive, dispirited and most importantly, vulnerable to a Khmer Rouge takeover. The Party’s attempt at implementing a Khmer-specific, agrarian brand of communism during its four-year period of absolutist rule resulted in the creation of a modern slave state, where the urban masses were forced to evacuate the towns and become part of the peasantry, toiling on the land for little food and no money. Townspeople, and particularly intellectuals, were despised as bourgeois counter-revolutionaries; purges of alleged subversive elements of Cambodian society were commonplace and of such a magnitude that, teamed with the later purges among party ranks, they arguably constituted a genocide (though the word “genocide” doesn’t really accurately describe the Cambodian experience, as the Khmers Rouges never intended to exterminate; they set out to enslave rather than kill). The total death toll is disputed, but it is generally agreed that roughly a fifth of the population died during the period of Khmer Rouge control.
In view of the uncompromising nature of the Khmer Rouge regime, it will come as no surprise to learn that it made extensive use of prisons, and of torture methods within these institutions. The security prison Tuol Sleng, or S-21, was the epicentre of Khmer Rouge brutality. Philip Short aptly describes it as “the pinnacle, the distillation, the reflection in concentrated form of the slave state which Pol had created.” Formerly a school (I find the change from place of learning to house of pain to be fairly emblematic of the degradation of Cambodia during this period, and also of the regime’s assault on reason and logic), S-21 was where at least 14 000 people were tortured to death or sent to killing fields. Only seven inmates were known to have survived, even though its prime purpose was to extract confessions rather than to kill. Philip Short argues that this particular torture centre was different to others, in that it fitted neatly into Khmer society; it wasn’t an aberration, but rather a reflection of how the savage ways of ancient times lingered in Cambodia.
There’s some really interesting art out there documenting the horrors of S-21. Take, for example, the portraits of Nhem En. He was the chief of six photographers employed by the prison to take pictures of the new inmates as they first entered. Their faces hang in rows on the walls of Tuol Sleng, which is now a genocide museum. Imagine standing in the room populated by hundreds of these portraits, each face conveying through its fixed gaze a haunting combination of trepidation and despair.
One of the faces photographed by Nhem En belongs to Vann Nath, an artist, and one of the seven survivors of S-21. It was in fact his skill that saved him from the grisly fate met by other prisoners of the secret prison, for he was put to work painting official portraits of Pol Pot. Incredibly, Nath chose to return to the place after his escape, to work at the museum it had become. Rather than try to forget the horrors of his past, he dedicated his life and his talent to exposing the horrific acts committed by the Khmer Rouge. Vann Nath witnessed some of the most severe crimes against humanity in history; his paintings serve as a crucial reminder of past suffering, and as a powerful call for vigilance against such suffering in present and future times of crisis.