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

Pakistan Among Developing Countries Hit Hard by Global Warming

Pakistani officials hope developed nations agree to scale back emissions, offer help in dealing with climate change

Video Speed, Social Media Shape Counterterrorism Probes

Speed is critical in effort to prevent subsequent attacks; demographics of extremists lend themselves to communicating, establishing profiles on digital platforms

Islamic State Oil Trade Seduces Friends, Foes Alike

Terrorist group rakes in up to $500 million a year in sales to customers such as Syrian government, US-supported rebels and Turkey

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.
Social Media Aids Counter-Terrorism Investigationsi
Katherine Gypson
December 01, 2015 10:06 PM
In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, officials carried out waves of raids and arrests to break up terror cells. As VOA's Katherine Gypson reports, social media can be a key tool for investigators.

Video Social Media Aids Counter-Terrorism Investigations

In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, officials carried out waves of raids and arrests to break up terror cells. As VOA's Katherine Gypson reports, social media can be a key tool for investigators.

Video Russia Marks World AIDS Day With Grim News

While HIV infection rates have steadied or even declined in many European countries, the caseload has grown rapidly in Russia, as VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow. Over half of the new infections were transmitted through injection drug use.

Video Pakistan Hit Hard by Global Warming

As world leaders meet in Paris to craft a new global agreement aimed at cutting climate-changing greenhouse-gas emissions, many developing countries are watching closely for the final results. While most developing nations contribute much less to global warming than developed countries, they often feel the effects to a disproportionate degree. As Saud Zafar reports from Karachi, one such nation is Pakistan. Aisha Khalid narrates his report.

Video With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?

The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video Political Motives Seen Behind Cancelled Cambodian Water Festival

For the fourth time in the five years since more than 350 people were killed in a stampede at Cambodia’s annual water festival, authorities canceled the event this year. Officials blamed environmental reasons as the cause, but many see it as fallout from rising political tensions with a fresh wave of ruling party intimidation against the opposition. David Boyle and Kimlong Meng report from Phnom Penh.

Video African Circus Gives At-Risk Youth a 2nd Chance

Ethiopia hosted the first African Circus Arts Festival this past weekend with performers from seven different African countries. Most of the performers are youngsters coming form challenging backgrounds who say the circus gave them a second chance.

Video US Lawmakers Brace for End-of-Year Battles

U.S. lawmakers are returning to Washington for Congress’ final working weeks of the year. And, as VOA's Michael Bowman reports, a full slate of legislative business awaits them, from keeping the federal government open to resolving a battle with the White House over the admittance of Syrian refugees.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video After Terrorist Attacks, Support for Refugees Fades

The terrorists who killed and injured almost 500 people around Paris this month are mostly French or Belgian nationals. But at least two apparently took advantage of Europe’s migrant crisis to sneak into the region. The discovery has hardened views about legitimate refugees, including those fleeing the same extremist violence that hit the French capital. Lisa Bryant has this report for VOA from the Paris suburb of Cergy-Pontoise

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

As Thailand takes in the annual Loy Krathong festival, many ponder the country’s future and security. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

VOA Blogs