The next day, we went out to interview Van Nath, one of only two remaining survivors of The Khmer Rouge prison, S21. Van Nath had been subjected to forced labor and torture, like everyone else, during Khmer Rouge time. Almost immediately after gaining control of Phnom Penh in 1975, the KR had forced the city’s evacuation. Van Nath was sent to work in a farming commune, in the countryside. And for the entire four years of the regime, the city remained a ghost town.
At one point, Van Nath was summoned to a meeting with the commune head. Although he was never actually informed of any charges against him, he was put in a regional jail, where he was tortured. Later, he was taken to S 21, where he was also tortured, and where he was still not informed of charged against him. One-day, guards took him from his cell and locked him in a workshop, where he was instructed to paint a portrait of Pol Pot. The first portrait was quite bad, given the circumstances. But the second one pleased his captors enough that they allowed him and a few other artists to remain alive, and to work all day as artists, making busts and paintings of Pol Pot.
After the prison was liberated in 1979, Van Nath set out to paint portraits of the suffering he had seen at the prison. His horridly moving paintings depict images of torture and murder. One is of a man with his arm clamped inside of a box; one soldier is ripping off his fingernails with pliers while another doused the open wounds with alcohol. Another is of a baby being ripped away from a mother. When KR people were killed in S 21 the whole family was killed. Babies were stomped or smashed. Children were killed, with a blow by a garden hoe, between the seventh and eighth vertebrae. There are written accounts of KR soldiers cutting fetuses out of pregnant women.
All of this Van Nath painted. His portraits, to this day, remain one of the most moving tributes to the horrors of men.
I was very excited about meeting Van Nath, as I had read his book, and found it very moving. That morning, before going to meet Richard, when I packed my film and notebook, I was careful to pack a pen, so Richard wouldn’t get angry. At the last minute, just as I was stepping out the door, I remembered to grab a copy of Van Nath’s book, which I had wanted him to sign.
Richard and I met Van Nath at an abandoned restaurant on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. He led us into the living room of his little house, located behind the restaurant. His living room was full of remembrances of S21. Every prisoner had to be photographed. And these awful portraits are one of the most upsetting aspects of a visit to the prison. Van Nath had his prison photo hanging in his living room, as well as some of his gorier paintings.
When I read Senator John McCain’s book, he said that he had become so famous for the suffering he had endured in the Hanoi Hilton, the infamous prison for US Airman in North Vietnam. One of the first Americans to be captured, he endured captivity longer than almost any other survivor. When his plane crashed, his arms and legs had been horribly damaged, and were never treated during his lengthy imprisonment. So, he was deformed, and limped severely, signaling even the most casual of observers to his suffering. Further attention was called to John McCain, because his father had been a very high-ranking naval officer. All of this combined so that when he returned form Vietnam he was a much sought after speaker. And, although he regularly speaks in public, he said that he didn’t want to become a professional victim. And so he sought to make a career for himself, in politics, rather than just to live on the lecture circuit, indefinitely retelling his tales of Vietnam.
As much as I respected Van Nath, the thought crossed my mind that he was a “professional victim.” In fact, no sooner had we sat down, than he said, “Could you please make this fast? I have some other journalist coming at eleven.” The previous day we couldn’t get in to see him at all. He had journalists stacked up like hotcakes.
He told us that, he has two more interviews, both scheduled for ten o’clock, and that he was interviewed almost every day.
I felt a bit like a jealous lover. “Could you do that a little faster? My boyfriend will be home soon.”
If he hadn’t been the painter of Toul Slang prison he would have been just another Khmer who had suffered and then gone on with his life. Was his suffering any worse than the suffering endured by the average Khmer?
To break the ice, I asked him to sign my book. The second he set eyes on the copy I held out to him, he frowned. My hart sank. Like a lightning bolt, I knew what he was about to say, before he said it.
“That is a pirate copy,” he said, turning up his nose. He glanced at his watch. If it hadn’t been for Richard, this would have been the shortest interview in history.
“I’d like to buy a proper copy of the book,” said Richard with a smile, reaching for his wallet.
Van Nath warmed a little. But he still hated me.
“I’ll go wait in the car,” I told Richard under my breath.
“In fact, give us two copies,” he added. “One for Antonio.”
Van Nath charged Richard $20 for each of the thin, paperback volumes. Once the forty dollars was in his pockets, Van Nath was all smiles. “So, what do you want to know?”
This was a good question. I really hadn’t prepared anything. What should I ask him? I could ask him about his life and the KR, but that was well documented in his book.
According to the book he hadn’t been in Lon Nol’s army. But he served in the army under the Vietnamese, and later in the regular Cambodian forces which he retired from. His job in the army was painter.
Richard asked him if he had been approached about participating in the KR trials. Van Nath’s answer was the he was willing to participate, but he didn’t know what his roll would be. “I guess I will be a witness,” he said.
Richard, who had just finished reading the book Voices of S 21, was obsessed with the point that higher ups all claim that they didn’t know what was happening below. So, they weren’t responsible. And lower downs all claimed that they were just following orders from above, so they weren’t responsible. When he formulated this point as a question to Van Nath, his answer was shocking, if appropriate.
“The trials are not the same as in Khmer Rouge time, because in the trials the guilty will have as many rights as the victims.”
He shook his head, and spouted what could have been the party’s answer to Richard’s question regarding guilt. “The trial will find who is right and who is wrong.”
Van Nathe was invited to USA in 2002 to have an art exhibition. While there, he received a certificate form the governor of New York and the mayor of Boston both of which he was very proud of.
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.