Richard was very disturbed by the refurbishing work being done at S21. He said it was like they were trying to sanitize the place and the memory of what had happened there, before the trial. He asked Van Nath what he thought.
“I am not involved. So, I have no opinion,” answered Van Nath.
Van Nath had made his career off of the close association between himself and that place where he was interred for so long. He is, unofficially, the keeper of its memory. How in the world could he not have an opinion? We were frustrated again at Khmer’s inability to make an opinion or take a stance. Later, Richard found a two-week-old copy of the Cambodia Daily Newspaper, where Van Nath was quoted as saying that the refurbishing work at S21 “is Vandalism.”
Any questions about the current government were met with evasive answers. Van Nath also refused to comment on Prime Minister Hun Sen’s alleged connection to the Khmer Rouge regime, or his current connection to Hanoi.
As one of only two remaining witnesses, it would not be hard to imagine that there were people who wanted Van Nath dead. But, as the world famous painter of Toul Slang, Van Nath was untouchable. I secretly believed that it was only this international press attention which caused the government to dub him a hero and a national treasure, instead of taking him out in the woods and killing him, which would have been a much neater end to the Khmer Rouge story.
Why did the army need painters? Why had Van Nath been given such a good job, with a comfortable retirement? The only answer I could think of was that these were perks, given in exchange for his obedience and amnesia. Even his comment “The trials will decide who is innocent, and who is guilty” had clearly been spoon fed to him. Having grown up in New York, and formerly running a division of the Israeli bank, I can say that every Jewish person I ever met had an opinion on Hitler’s genocide. How was it that Khmers had no opinions?
Historically, the one subject Van Nath was not shy about was talking about his inhumane treatment at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
“We were not guilty,” he told us. “But the soldiers tortured us every day. They gave us food worse than an animal. Until you thought you could not survive. Then at the end they killed you. You didn’t have any defense or any rights. When you got into S21, you knew that you would definitely die.”
He told us that he painted his pictures after the liberation, to release his mind and to educate the people.
“This was the torture of the Pol Pot Regime,” he said. “And I want to spread the message of the suffering of the Cambodian people to the whole world.” He went on to say that leaders claimed not to know what was happening. “And now, many of them are very old and senile. So, you can’t trust their testimony.”
Once he got on a roll, he finally espoused an opinion. “How could the leaders not know?” he went on to say. “Duch should be punished by the courts,” he said, referring to Duch, who was the commander of S21, and who is one of only two Khmer Rouge cadre in prison. “He was very brutal. And many of those who died at S-21 were ordered to death by Duch. He should get the same that he gave to others.”
As an artist, Van Nath discussed Duch’s appearance. “In all of his pictures, he doesn’t look cruel. He is always pictured smiling.”
According to his book, Van Nath had been forced to paint a number of portraits of Pol Pot. So, we asked what he knew of the leader of the regime.
“At the time of the Khmer Rouge, we didn’t know the names of many of the leaders. We only knew the name Pol Pot. And when we suffered we concentrated on that name. Later we got information on many leaders. Pol Pot had made himself a god. At the end of his life he died without empathy from others. No one felt sorry for him. It still would have been better if he had been on trial.”
As for Van Nath’s daily routine, apart from interviews: He keeps in contact with the other survivor. He told us he paints very little now. We asked why, but he had no answer.
Richard asked if Nath had made serigraphs prints of his works? The answer, of course was “no.” Richard and I both believed that serigraphs and t-shirts would sell on the Internet and at souvenir shops in Phnom Penh.
When our time ran out, and we got back in the car, we rode in silence for a wile. I had come away with a strange feeling.
First off you feel like an idiot asking someone who was a prisoner of the KR if he suffered. Of course he did. I didn’t need him to describe the actual torture because it was in the book. So, I didn’t have as many good questions as I could have.
The next point was that any Khmer interview ends in disappointment. Their social mores are completely contrary to the concept of freedom of the press, as is their political history under the Lon Nol, the Vietnamese, and the current government. The news that Khmers are allowed to report on and would be allowed to read is all censored. Then, Buddhist teachings might make Van Nath feel guilty. The laws of karma say that bad things happen to bad people. By this logic, since the KR happened to him, then he must have done something to warrant such a horrible punishment. Also, you are never supposed to show emotion. And finally, you are never supposed to question reality, make opinions, or draw conclusions. Much of this related back to the Buddhist concept of pre destiny. And, much of it related back to the Khmers having lived their entire lives under a military dictatorship.
For me, it was easy to tell my Khmer interview subject, “The KR is over. You are allowed to talk, now. You have the protection of the freedom of the press.” But I have never been starved, beaten, burned, or electrocuted or watched countless others suffer in the same way.
Richard and I questioned again if the trials would ever happen, and, if they did, if they would match up to our western standards of truth and justice. For example, in Asian culture, and particularly in Khmer, the issue of face is so important. One of the best accounts of the KR period was a book written by Haing Ngor, the man who became famous for playing Dith Pran in the film, “The Killing Fields.” In his book, he said, that many westerns have looked at the KR period and made comments to the effect that even if you had believed it in the first year, by year two or three you had to have realized that this program of auto-genocide wasn’t working. But, he said that although some people, even high-ranking officials, may have realized that the program was not leading Cambodia to any kind of success, they could say nothing, because then those above them would lose face. In any regime, people don’t speak out for fear of reprisals. But, in Asia, and particularly in Cambodia, the problem is even more complicated. Once an entity, whether it is a government or a corporation, embarks on a bad course of action, it is in perpetual motion, because there is no way to stop it. Subordinates cannot suggest to management to change plans, because then management would lose face. And, management cannot change, or else they would have to admit that they had been wrong.