Vann Nath, Famous Survivor of Cambodian Torture Prison, Dies at 66
Painter and writer Vann Nath, perhaps the most recognizable survivor of Cambodia’s infamous Tuol Sleng torture prison, died this week at the age of 66 from heart attack. One of only seven known survivors of the Khmer Rouge’s most horrific facility, the outspoken and creative Nath has been publicly mourned across the nation this week. A part of Cambodia’s most painful period in history has died with him.
A professional artist before he was taken into the Tuol Sleng as a “political enemy” on non-existent and paranoid charges, Nath managed to survive the ordeal by way of his art. Nath’s talent was recognized by his Khmer Rouge jailers a month into his stint in the prison, and he was soon pressed into service by the Khmer Rouge as a portrait-painter, sculptor, and propaganda artist, skills that would save him from the deaths that 14,000 other inmates of the paranoia-driven facility met during its four years of existence.
Pol Pot’s megalomania and dreams of turning Cambodia into a communist utopia may have saved Vann Nath’s life. As part of his duties at Tuol Sleng, Nath created some of the only extant busts and paintings of Pol Pot, objects which may have been a preamble to the usually secretive Pot’s attempt to create a Mao-like personality cult around himself.
After the Khmer Rouge fell to the Vietnamese in 1979, Nath turned his artistic skills against the regime that had imprisoned him. His graphic and unsparing portraits of daily life at Tuol Sleng and the tortures he and his fellow inmates suffered now hang on the walls of the prison-turned-museum, contributing to what David Hawk of the New Republic called “a museum of the Cambodian nightmare.”
To museum visitors, Nath’s paintings provide a vivid and harsh painted testament, images that stick in the mind long after you’ve seen them. A naked and emaciated man is moved from building to building, his hands and feet tied to a pole which two guards carry. Shackled prisoners are laid head-to-foot on the floor of a classroom-complete-with-blackboard, an armed guard keeping watch.
Guards rip a child from a mother’s arms, while other children are bashed to death with metal rods. Stony-faced guards dunk a half-naked man headfirst into a pot full of excrement, while another is strung up from between two poles. These torture devices still stand in the tropical courtyard of Tuol Sleng, brought to horrific life by Nath’s paintings.
More than a painter and visual artist, Nath also wrote the widely-read and widely-referred to memoir “A Cambodian Prison Portrait: One Year in the Khmer Rouge S-21 Prison,” which is now sold in bootleg copies on the street just about everywhere in Phnom Penh. (You can buy it at this link).
Nath also worked on the documentary “The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine” with film-maker Rithy Pan, where he can be seen fearlessly interviewing former Khmer Rouge prison guards at Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek.
In 2009, in one of history’s more pleasing turn-arounds of justice, Nath was finally able to give evidence at the Khmer Rouge war tribunal against Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, the chief of Tuol Sleng and his former torturer. Duch was sentenced by Cambodia’s ECCC tribunal to 35 years in prison, 18 of which have already been served. Cambodia does not, perhaps appropriately, have a death penalty.
One of Nath’s last paintings – which he did want released publicly prior to his death – shows the former Tuol Sleng prison chief sitting amidst a sea of skulls, starring at the guilty verdict placed before him, a desolate landscape in the immediate background. It is impossible to know if Nath ever found peace after the horrors he suffered, but family members have some idea. “Even now, I believe my father is happy with what the court has done so far,” said Nath’s son-in-law in recent interviews with the Cambodia Daily newspaper. “It is…justice for him, because he saw the court convict Duch.”
Vann Nath’s relatively early death has become a moral issue in the minds of many Cambodians. As dictated by international human rights regulation, elderly ex-Khmer Rouge authorities imprisoned by the ECCC receive top notch medical care. Nuon Chea, Pol Pot’s former second-in-command, is regularly allowed to leave the ECCC’s courtroom if he is feeling unwell, and medical staff are available to him and other ECCC detainees 24 hours a day—services which are paid for by the Cambodian government.
Vann Nath was not so lucky. After the artist slipped into a coma—which he would not reawaken from—his family was forced to seek donations from the public to foot his growing medical bills. The city grapevine and an online funding drive were quickly set up in an effort to save him and ease his families financial burden, but it was too late. Mr Nath died at 12:45, his passing coinciding with a powerful Phnom Penh rainstorm.
No one know if Nath’s life could have been saved by better medical care, but it’s impossible for observers to ignore the contradiction between Vann Nath’s treatment —and the expenses his family suffered—and that of his former torturers. Reparations have not been provided for in the ECCC’s proceedings against Duch, as the former Tuol Sleng jailer had no money to pay for them.
The debate over how much consideration should be afforded to the imprisoned perpetrators of war-crimes will rage on, but Vann Nath’s artistic legacy will last far past his death, and for as long as history is interested in the crimes and deranged psychology of the Khmer Rouge. As an artist and witness, every visitor to Tuol Sleng—and there will be, should be, many—will remember Vann Nath’s name.
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