News / Asia

Cambodian Painter Used Art to Show Khmer Rouge Brutality

Vann Nath is seen at Tuol Sleng genocide museum, formerly Khmer Rouge's notorious S-21 prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, August 9, 2011.
Vann Nath is seen at Tuol Sleng genocide museum, formerly Khmer Rouge's notorious S-21 prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, August 9, 2011.



Funeral preparations are underway for one of the most famous survivors of the brutal Khmer Rouge government. Cambodian painter Vann Nath passed away Monday after a long illness. He was 66 years old.

Vann Nath could easily have been one of the more than 12,000 Cambodians killed at the notorious Khmer Rouge prison, S-21. Instead, his gift of painting served as a gift of life. His jailers spared him to paint portraits of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader.

Vann Nath was one of only seven survivors to leave the prison when Vietnamese forces pushed the Khmer Rouge from power in 1979. He spent the rest of his life painting, speaking and writing about the abuses that took place there.

Youk Chhang, the director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, got to know Vann Nath while collecting evidence for the U.N.-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal.

“He presented the strength of the Cambodian genocide survivor. He was a witness of history. That is Vann Nath,” Youk Chhang said after learning of the painter's death.

Listen to Kate's full interview with Youk Chhang:

In the tribunal's first case, the former prisoner testified against Kaing Kek Euv, or Duch, the S-21 chief who oversaw his torture.

Youk Chhang said he thinks Vann Nath found a sense of peace by testifying.

“How can you be silent? Especially when you’ve been dehumanized. More than anything else, as a human being, you want to become a person. I think that’s what Vann Nath wants the most. To become a free man. To become a person.”

Paintings by human rights icon and artists Vann Nath depicting how torture devices were used hang on the walls of Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, June 2011.
Paintings by human rights icon and artists Vann Nath depicting how torture devices were used hang on the walls of Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, June 2011.

Vann Nath’s 1998 memoir, A Cambodian Prison Portrait: One Year in the Khmer Rouge's S-21 Prison, is the only written account by a survivor of the prison. His book and paintings of bloody, tortured scenes from S-21 are visceral reminders of one of the most lethal regimes of the 20th century. Nearly two million people died under the Khmer Rouge, as it purged the population of anyone perceived a threat to its Communist, agrarian utopia.

Vann Nath’s paintings have helped Cambodians reconstruct their memory in a precise way, so that they can deal with the past, Youk Chhang said.

“You know, when you talk about justice, you talk about the court. When you talk about prevention, you talk about education, teaching the younger generation. But when it comes to healing, you need art,” he said.

Vann Nath grew up in Battambang, in northwestern Cambodia. Before being arrested by the Khmer Rouge, he made a living as a sign painter.

Sopheap Pich, a Cambodian-American artist who left Cambodia after the fall of the Khmer Rouge and has since returned to Phnom Penh, said he was proud to have worked with Vann Nath.

Listen to Kate's full interview with Sopheap Pich:

“I admire him for his sincerity, his honesty and his sort-of unwavering, I suppose one could say, attitude to not paint things just for the commercial market.”

That’s a rarity in Cambodia, where markets are filled with replicas of idyllic orange sunsets over green rice fields, traditional dancers and the famed Angkor Wat temple. Pich said Vann Nath was interested in capturing the true light of the day.

“I remember being in his studio quite recently and he was talking about, ‘Oh I paint this color, I paint this kind of light because I want to express that this took place at 3:00 PM and not 1:00 PM.’ So he was very interested in color and form.  And I think this is where the pleasures of painting that is very much in him,” Pich said.

As true to the day’s light, Vann Nath was true in his own nature.

“Publicly and privately he is the same person.  This in one thing I admire about many of the older generation artists of Cambodia," Pich noted. "When you spend time, he’s the same. He’s generous, he’s kind, he’s open, he’s energetic.”

That energy carries on in Cambodia’s young artists who, Pich said, will paint their own version of Cambodian history.

Until then, there is still one unfinished chapter. Duch was sentenced to 30 years in prison last year for war crimes and crimes against humanity. But the four surviving Khmer Rouge leaders charged with genocide have yet to go to trial. They are expected to stand before the court next year.

You May Like

Tired of Waiting, South Africans Demand Change ‘Now’

With chronic poverty and lack of basic services largely fueling recent xenophobic attacks, many in Rainbow Nation say it’s time for government to act More

Challenges Ahead for China's Development Plans in Pakistan

Planned $46 billion in energy and infrastructure investments in Pakistan are aimed at transforming the country into a regional hub for trade and investment More

Audio 'Forbidden City' Revisits Little Known Era of Asian-American Entertainment

Little-known chapter of entertainment history captured in 80s documentary is revisited in new digitally remastered format and book More

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populationsi
April 24, 2015 10:13 PM
A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.

Video Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populations

A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.

Video Data Servers Could Heat Private Homes

As every computer owner knows, when their machines run a complex program they get pretty hot. In fact, cooling the processors can be expensive, especially when you're dealing with huge banks of computer servers. But what if that energy could heat private homes? VOA’s George Putic reports that a Dutch energy firm aims to do just that.

Video Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festival

Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.

Video UN Confronts Threat of Young Radicals

The radicalization and recruitment of young people into Islamist extremist groups has become a growing challenge for governments worldwide. On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council heard from experts on the issue, which has become a potent threat to international peace and security. VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports.

Video Growing Numbers of Turks Discover Armenian Ancestry

In a climate of improved tolerance, growing numbers of people in Turkey are discovering their grandmothers were Armenian. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians escaped the mass deportations and slaughter of the early 1900's by forced conversion to Islam. Or, Armenian children were taken in by Turkish families and assimilated. Now their stories are increasingly being heard. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul that the revelations are viewed as an important step.

Video Migrants Trek Through Western Balkans to Reach EU

Migrants from Africa and other places are finding different routes into the European Union in search of a better life. The Associated Press followed one clandestine group to document their trek through the western Balkans to Hungary. Zlatica Hoke reports that the migrants started using that route about four years ago. Since then, it has become the second-most popular path into Western Europe, after the option of sailing from North Africa to Italy.

Video TIME Magazine Honors Activists, Pioneers Seen as Influential

TIME Magazine has released its list of celebrities, leaders and activists, whom it deems the world’s “most influential” in 2015. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports from New York.

Video US Businesses See Cuba as New Frontier

The Obama administration's opening toward Cuba is giving U.S. companies hope they'll be able to do business in Cuba despite the continuation of the U.S. economic embargo against the communist nation. Some American companies have been able to export some products to Cuba, but the recent lifting of Cuba's terrorism designation could relax other restrictions. As VOA's Daniela Schrier reports, corporate heavy hitters are lining up to head across the Florida Straits - though experts urge caution.

Video Kenya Launches Police Recruitment Drive After Terror Attacks

Kenya launched a major police recruitment drive this week as part of a large-scale effort to boost security following a recent spate of terror attacks. VOA’s Gabe Joselow reports that allegations of corruption in the process are raising old concerns about the integrity of Kenya’s security forces.

Video Japan, China in Race for Asia High-Speed Rail Projects

A lucrative competition is underway in Asia for billions of dollars in high-speed rail projects. Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia Thailand and Vietnam are among the countries planning to move onto the fast track. They are negotiating with Japan and the upstart Chinese who are locked in a duel to revolutionize transportation across Asia. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok has details.

Video Scientists: Mosquitoes Attracted By Our Genes

Some people always seem to get bitten by mosquitoes more than others. Now, scientists have proved that is really the case - and they say it’s all because of genes. It’s hoped the research might lead to new preventative treatments for diseases like malaria, as Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

Video Bible Museum Coming to Washington DC

Washington is the center of American political power and also home to some of the nation’s most visited museums. A new one that will showcase the Bible has skeptics questioning the motives of its conservative Christian funders. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky reports.

Video Armenia and Politics of Word 'Genocide'

A century ago this April, hundreds of thousands of Armenians of the Turkish Ottoman empire were deported and massacred, and their culture erased from their traditional lands. While broadly accepted by the U.N. and at least 20 countries as “genocide”, the United States and Turkey have resisted using that word to describe the atrocities that stretched from 1915 to 1923. But Armenians have never forgotten.

Video Afghan First Lady Pledges No Roll Back on Women's Rights

Afghan First Lady Rula Ghani, named one of Time's 100 Most Influential, says women should take part in talks with Taliban. VOA's Rokhsar Azamee has more from Kabul.

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.

VOA Blogs