Remembering Vann Nath

The death was announced yesterday of Vann Nath, one of the few people to survive imprisonment by the Khmer Rouge in Tuol Sleng prison.

Vann Nath survived his imprisonment because of his ability to paint; rather than killing him his jailers forced him to paint and sculpt images of Pol Pot. He was ultimately one of only seven reported survivors of the infamous torture center.

Years later, after the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime, Toul Sleng was converted into a genocide museum and Vann Nath returned to work there for several years. His painting, many of which still hang in the museum, graphically highlight some of the brutal crimes of the Khmer Rouge. They are a moving testimony to the horrors inflicted on the people of Cambodia by their radical leadership during the 1970s.

Vann Nath’s paintings were a central part of his life’s work to seek justice for the victims of the Khmer Rouge and to tell the story of those years. In 1998, he wrote his memoir – A Cambodian Prison Portrait: One Year in the Khmer Rouge’s S-21 Prison– which is believed to be the only written account by a survivor of Toul Sleng.

When, in 2009, the Khmer Rouge trials finally commenced Vann Nath was the first survivor to testify against Duch, his former jailer who was later convicted of  war crimes and crimes against humanity. At the hearing the Chamber president asked Vann Nath why he wanted to testify, his answer expressed a desire to ensure that Cambodia’s younger generations learnt from the Khmer Rouge period:

“I determined if one day I survived and had freedom… I would compile the events to reflect on what happened so that the younger generation knew – would know of our suffering…. So I had to reveal, I had to write, I had to compile, and it can be served as a mirror to reflect to the younger generation of the lives of those who were accused with no reason, who committed no wrong, and that they were punished that way. That was the very suffering that we received and the suffering that we had because we told them the truth and they did not believe it.”

That belief in the importance of telling the truth and establishing a clear history of the abuses carried out by the Khmer Rouge will perhaps be the most important legacy of the work of the ECCC . For many years the approach taken by Cambodia to how to deal with the legacy of the Khmer Rouge was, as the Prime Minister once said, to “dig a hole and bury the past.” The New York times described the “painful generation gap” that developed as a result, with the older generations having lived through the horror of that period, and the younger generations knowing little if anything of that time. In the run up to the beginning of the Khmer Rouge trials this problem was clearly identified in a 2009 survey carried out by the Human Rights Center at Berkeley Law School. This found that four out of five members of people under 30 knew little or nothing about the Khmer Rouge years, and only 15% said they knew much about the ECCC trials. Two years later, after the Duch trial, a follow-up survey found an increase in the level of knowledge generally, and a positive response regarding the work of the court:

Over three-quarters of respondents (compared to 68% in 2008) believed the ECCC would have a positive effect on the victims of the Khmer Rouge and/or their families such as bringing justice (37% compared to 2% in 2008) and helping victims feel better, have less anger, or help relieve the pain and suffering endured during the Khmer Rouge period (25%).

Vann Nath did not survive to witness the upcoming trial of the four senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge. The case will be more significant in the attempt to establish a public record than the Duch trial. However, it is unclear how effective it will be as the four defendants, Noun Chea, Khieu Samphan, Ieng Sary and Ieng Thirith will not cooperate in the same way as Duch. Their response thus far to the charges laid against them, including that of genocide, relies on a version of history which portrays the Khmer Rouge as national liberators who protected the country from Vietnamese incursions and threats from American bombing during the Vietnam War. 

Regardless of the outcome of further trials, Vann Nath will be remembered as an inspirational artist and human rights advocate. His paintings vividly establish the suffering and abuse of the Cambodian people between 1975-1979. Whilst his emotional testimony before the ECCC was a critical moment in speaking for all victims of the Khmer Rouge, something he had dedicated his life to and had achieved with dignity and integrity.

Finally, below a letter of condoence written by the Documentation Centre for Cambodia is reproduced here:

DC-Cam Letter of Condolence for Vann Nath

Vann Nath: Witness of History

Today, September 5, 2011, Vann Nath passed away. As one of only 14 known survivors of the infamous Tuol Sleng S-21 prison, Vann Nath was a witness to history and exhibited great strength in providing his testimony despite the horrific crimes he suffered and in the face of the impunity enjoyed by his former tormentors for over thirty years. When the Khmer Rouge Tribunal was finally established to seek justice for victims of the Khmer Rouge, Vann Nath chose not to apply for civil party status. He made this choice because he understood that his primary duty was to provide testimony for subsequent generations of Cambodians to learn from. This reflected a concept of justice that focuses on the future of humanity, rather than temporary individual desires for retribution, revenge or remuneration.

 The passing of Vann Nath before others responsible for the creation of Tuol Sleng S-21 prison are tried is a tragedy that highlights the high cost that the simple passage of time can inflict on the pursuit of justice. Sadly, this tragedy repeats itself silently throughout Cambodia, as each day victims of the Khmer Rouge pass away without having been provided any measure of justice. What is even more tragic is the fact that many of these deaths could be prevented if ordinary Cambodians had access to modern healthcare, making the world-class healthcare provided to the accused at the Tribunal appear unfair to many victims. It is hard to explain lofty, abstract goals such as promoting the “rule of law” to victims who cannot afford to even see a doctor.

Nevertheless, by providing medical care to the accused out of respect for fair trial and human rights principles, the Tribunal can present a counterpoint of compassion to the terror, torture and degradation Vann Nath and many others suffered at Tuol Sleng S-21 and other Khmer Rouge prisons throughout Cambodia. Although protecting the rights of former Khmer Rouge leaders can at times be a bitter pill to swallow, doing so, even when it is difficult or unpopular, provides a lesson for the future of which Vann Nath could be proud: that every human being has a right to dignity and equality under the law.

Vann Nath was a friend to many of us and will be missed by everyone at the Center and many others throughout the world. We will all miss, but draw inspiration from, the palpable sense of peace that emanated from within him.

 Youk Chhang, Director, Documentation Center of Cambodia