Vann Nath was a Cambodian painter who endured torture as a prisoner of the Khmer Rouge and whose life was spared to paint portraits of the Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot. His paintings depict the excruciating violence he witnessed as a prisoner and became a precious visual testimony of Cambodia’s darkest page.
April 17 is the anniversary of the Cambodian genocide at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot. Between 1975 and 1979, Cambodia saw one of the most violent and devastating mass killings of the 20th century.
On April 17, 1975, the Communist Party of Kampuchea, also known as Khmer Rouge, took complete control of Cambodia by seizing the nation’s capital, Phnom Pehn. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge aimed at turning Cambodia into a Maoist agricultural commune dominated by farmers. Anyone who remotely looked educated and for any reason was not a manual worker was considered an “enemy of the people”. For this reason, politicians, intellectuals, teachers, representatives of the former regime, those who had education or even just wore glasses, a sign of literacy, were killed straightaway. The survivors were deported to the countryside and forced to grow rice and jute, under penalty of death.
Between 1.5 and 1.8 million people lost their lives in the Cambodian genocide, with the Khmer Rouge killing nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population in just four years through starvation, lack of medical care, overwork, tortures, and mass killings. Paradoxically, the Khmer Rouge spared the life of a painter called Vann Nath, who, through his art, would have borne witness to the Cambodian genocide’s atrocities.
Born in 1946 in Phum Sophy, a village in Battambang province, Vann Nath came from a poor family who could not afford his education. He served as a Buddhist monk for some years and was trained as an artist in the 1960s, later making money as a painter of portraits, movie posters, signs, and billboards.
Like many others, when the Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975, Nath was deported to the countryside and forced to work in a rice field. With no reason, he was inexplicably arrested in 1978 and transferred to Tuol Sleng prison, code-named S-21, a Khmer compound term for “security police”. Pol Pot’s secret prison, S-21 is known for having been a horrific institution where thousands of people, including women and children, endured grisly tortures and were later put to death. According to the records, of the at least fourteen thousand people held by S-21, only a dozen were exempted from death, seven of whom later came forward with memoirs about their experience.
Among those, there was Vann Nath. Once transferred to S-21, Nath was photographed, imprisoned, and tortured, but his life was spared when the prison guards discovered that he could paint. Until the end of the Khmer Rouge regime, Nath was recruited to paint portraits of Pol Pot while remaining in prison and witnessing the atrocities of the genocides, often painting while hearing the screams of those tortured.
Nath fled the S-21 prison on January 7, 1979, when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge regime came to an end. A year later, the S-21 interrogation and detention center was turned into the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. This memorial site preserves the memory of Cambodia’s darkest page “with the aim to encourage visitors to be messengers of peace”. To this end, the museum commissioned Nath to paint the atrocities he had witnessed as a S-21 prisoner.
With great sufferance, Nath pieced together his memories of the arrests, tortures, and killings into a powerful and precious visual testimony of the Cambodian genocide. Nath devoted his life as a free man to memory. Permanently exhibited at the museum in Phnom Penh, his paintings later became part of his memoir A Cambodian Prison Portrait: One Year in the Khmer Rouge’s S-21, published in 1998 and translated from Khmer in several foreign languages. Nath died in 2011 after having testified in an UN-baked court against Kaing Guek Eav, the former S-21 prison commander known as Comrade Duch, who was convicted on charges of genocide.