Monday, April 20, 2009

Cloud cuckoo land

I hear that my least-favourite former Khmer Rouge cadre, Nhem En, has made the national press again today. His public relations office works as hard as that of Dengue Fever! This time he's offering a pair of Pol Pot's shoes and two of his own cameras, that he used to take pictures of the prisoners upon entry to Tuol Sleng, for no less than a cool 1/2 million dollars. Yes, US$500,000. He really does live in cloud cuckoo land. He's trying to raise funds for his own museum in the northern outpost of Anlong Veng, where he's the deputy governor. His museum will house his pictures of course, as well as a walking stick owned by Ta Mok, Pol Pot's toilet and the tyres used on his funeral pyre and a rice field - so far I'm not busting a gut to get to the musem. I think he needs to jazz that bit of the story up a bit more. His for-sale items will more than likely end up on eBay soon enough, and for a knockdown price, or for free, which is what usually happens when he attempts to sell anything, whether it be a photo or information. I was told once upon a time that a certain Khmer Rouge photographer could give me the inside story on the Christopher Howes murder (a British deminer killed by the Khmer Rouge in 1996) for the right price - I steered well clear.

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Thursday, April 9, 2009

Burnt with the rubbish

Pol Pot's cremation site outside Anlong Veng
Whilst there's little tangible to see, the cremation site of the Khmer Rouge's evil leader Pol Pot remains a priority site on the 'KR tourist circuit' in the northern former guerrilla stronghold of Anlong Veng. Pol Pot's fiefdom was in Pailin and out of his comfort zone, his demise came quickly at the hands of his former military chief Ta Mok, who put him on trial and house arrest before his convenient death in April 1998. The shack where his lifeless body was photographed before it was burnt on a pile of tyres and rubbish has disappeared, so has the toilet bowl that was still there on my last visit six years ago. The pile of mud and ash resulting from Pol Pot's funeral pyre and which sits under a rusty corrugated tin roof, has also reduced in size since I was last there, I'm told because lottery-ticket buyers have sought his bone fragments as lucky charms. Nearby a bundle of incense sticks and a neatly carved spirit house suggest his shrine receives visitors willing to revere his memory. It's hard to understand why, when this one man presided over the worst period in Cambodia's history that cost around 1.7 million lives in less than four years of Khmer Rouge rule. The site is easy to find as you arrive at the top of the escarpment and head towards the border crossing with Thailand, lying behind a newly-constructed guesthouse called Lichen. There was nobody tending the cremation site which seemed apt that the man responsible for Cambodia's darkest hour should be all alone in death.
The path heads towards Pol Pot's gravesite
A sign announces Pol Pot's cremation area
A spirit house stands near to the cremation mound
Flowers and incense sticks suggest the gravesite is tended to by visitors
A rusting corrugated tin roof covers the rapidly-disappearing grave
The spirit house and cremation mound of Pol Pot
The unremarkable and nondescript gravesite of the Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot
Bottles demarcate the edge of the funeral mound with flowers sprouting nearbyThe funeral mound of mud and ash looks like a strong wind could carry it away forever
A blue Ministry of Tourism sign announces 'Pol Pot Was Cremated Here'
One last look at the funeral site of the evil Khmer Rouge dictator, Pol Pot

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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Devoid of life

A view of the man-made lake from the 1st floor of Ta Mok's house
The main building at Ta Mok's residence, which contains the wall-paintings, two upper floors and a basement
Ta Mok's townhouse and the eerie man-made lake that surrounds it are completely devoid of life. Perhaps fitting for a man believed to have the blood of thousands on his hands when he died in 2006, cheating justice as did the former leader of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot seven years earlier. Whatever the residents of Anlong Veng may say, Ta Mok will be recalled as a brutal KR commander, who perhaps mellowed in his later years whilst in the comfort zone of his northern Cambodia fiefdom, but the history books will paint a very different picture of The Butcher. If plans for a museum in the former KR stronghold take root, it's important that the image it creates of Ta Mok is a clear one, not fuzzied by time or apparent reverence. Today the dam and lake he created, by drowning the blackened tree trunks that jut skywards, is a constant reminder of the death wreaked by this man throughout his life. But speak to one of his former charges in the town and you'll hear a very different story. Ta Mok's house is a regular stop on the Anlong Veng 'KR tourist circuit' that is just about all that is going for the place, though with its close proximity to the border with Thailand, the town has certainly prospered in the six years since my last visit. Sturdy tree trunks form the inside struts for Ta Mok's house, there's a profusion of western-style toilets, ceramic floor tiles and a small shrine with a few dusty incense sticks and a badly-eroded sandstone lion are all that remain, surrounded by the amateurish wall-paintings on two floors. Outside, and on three sides, the lake is deadly quiet and a lasting legacy left by the military chief of the Khmer Rouge.
The errie lake, devoid of life, surrounding Ta Mok's townhouse
Dead and blackened tree trunks are a reminder of the forest that once covered this area
At this time of year, grass is on show, but in the wet season, the whole area is under water
A desolate and apocalyptic scene in Anlong Veng
The two upper floors of the larger, main building, used primarily as a meeting place
One of the western-style toilets favoured by the one-legged KR military chief Ta Mok - I imagine it's easier to sit than squat if you have one leg
A rusted and broken truck - it looks like a prison wagon - inside the Ta Mok residence

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Artwork of The Butcher

Ta Mok's former townhouse in Anlong Veng is a tourist stop for Khmers and foreigners alike
Some of the wall-paintings on the 1st floor of Ta Mok's main residence in Anlong Veng
With the Khmer Rouge trials underway in earnest, one of the Khmer Rouge leaders who won't be up for public scrutiny is Ta Mok, the infamous one-legged KR commander, known for good reason as The Butcher. He died in custody in 2006. His personal fiefdom in the final years of the Khmer Rouge movement was in and around Anlong Veng in northern Cambodia. He ruled it with an iron-fist (just ask Pol Pot, oh sorry, you can't) as well as a deft-touch, judging by the schools and a hospital he apparently set up. I was there a couple of weeks ago and visited his large house in the middle of town, which is one of the main sights on the Anlong Veng 'tourist circuit', as well as his tomb and his retreat on top of the nearby escarpment. At the townhouse, which he built in 1994, the now-bare rooms reveal little of the man or the movement except a series of almost primitive wall-paintings that remain, surprisingly unscathed by graffiti. When his stronghold was overrun by the army they collected over sixty pieces of ancient Angkorean sculpture and transferred them to the Angkor Conservation depot in Siem Reap. Large sandstone blocks stolen from various temple sites still litter the yard of the townhouse. The paintings on display show an elongated Preah Vihear on the ground floor, Angkor Wat, a map of the country and an idyllic view of the Cambodian countryside. These rooms once hosted the KR hierarchy in the death throes of a movement that finally came to grief in 1998, including the trial and death of their former feared ruler Pol Pot. You can find many people in Anlong Veng who recall Ta Mok's memory with reverence, you can find a lot more that wish he had survived to face justice at the current trials. But fate is sometimes not that kind or just.
The painter of ths 1st gopura at Preah Vihear was a little limited on providing perspective in his artwork
Presumably Preah Vihear was a favourite temple of Ta Mok - it was certainly a temple that was in KR hands for long periods
Ta Mok collected sculpture from various temple sites, most likely including Preah Vihear
The 5th gopura at Preah Vihear shown in its mountainous location in this wall-painting on the ground floor of Ta Mok's townhouse
Perhaps important strategy decisions were taken using this wall-painted country map on the 1st floor of Ta Mok's home
One of two Angkor Wat paintings, this one a little worse for wear on the ground floor
A second Angkor Wat impression - remind me not to employ this artist for my own room
An idyllic countryside scene that never existed under the Khmer Rouge - they would've killed all these animals for their meat

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Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Dreams and Nightmares

Journalist and filmmaker Tom Fawthrop (pictured) gave an in-depth analysis of both the existing Khmer Rouge Tribunal and the circumstances surrounding his 1989 documentary at Meta House tonight, as an interested audience watched his Dreams and Nightmares: Cambodia Ten Years After Pol Pot film, which he directed and produced for Channel 4's Bandung series a decade after the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge regime. Fawthrop's first visit to Cambodia was in 1981 and he returned in late 1988 to film his 30-minute documentary with a film crew of just two others. The situation in Cambodia was on the change after the Vietnamese withdrawal and moves were afoot to agree some sort of peace accord between the warring factions. Hun Sen was the man in power within Cambodia but he was in no mood to surrender any ground to the Khmer Rouge or Norodom Sihanouk, who was still allied with the KR at the behest of China. The film includes interviews with Hun Sen and is clear in its message of displeasure at the international community who continued, at that time, to treat Cambodia as a pariah, favouring instead the Khmer Rouge coalition whilst conveniently ignoring the evidence of KR atrocities during the 70s. A shameful period in the history of the wider international community in my view. Screenshots from the documentary are shown here.
Skulls of Khmer Rouge victims exhumed from a mass grave
A youthful Hun Sen refuses to concede power to the Khmer Rouge
The rubbish-strewn streets of Phnom Penh after the Khmer Rouge fall

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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Not on trial

A mock-Angkorean temple stupa being erected to house Ta Mok's remains
With the Khmer Rouge Tribunal beginning again yesterday with the trial of Duch, it reminded me that last week I visited the final resting place of one of the most feared Khmer Rouge hardline leaders, who never managed to make it to stand trial for crimes against humanity, dying in custody whilst awaiting the formation of the Tribunal in July 2006. Ta Mok, The Butcher, Brother No 5 or Chhit Choeun to give him his rightful name, was the one-legged chief of staff and feared during the KR regime of the 70s and later ruled the northern part of the KR territory, operating out of Anlong Veng. To some of his followers he is remembered fondly, by others he's remembered with a cold chill as a murderer with the blood of thousands on his hands. As the KR began to unravel in the late 90s, it was Ta Mok who ended Pol Pot's command of the KR by placing him on trial, with the former Brother No 1 dying soon after during his house arrest. Almost a year later, in March 1999, Ta Mok was finally arrested and placed in custody awaiting trial. He never made it. And with his death, many felt robbed of justice. However, in Anlong Veng, Ta Mok is recalled with a degree of affection, owned a large house in the town which is open to the public to visit and his stupa, in the pagoda of Wat Srah Chhouk, is in the process of being upgraded, at the cost of his family, in a mock-Angkorean style. You can see the work being undertaken, which began four months ago, in these photos. More pictures from Ta Mok's house will follow soon.
The cement coffin of Ta Mok at Wat Srah Chhouk, just off the road towards the border
Ta Mok is recalled fondly by many residents of Anlong Veng
Tiles from the stupa roof are being glazed before being affixed
Setting the tiles in their mould before glazing takes place

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Monday, March 30, 2009

Vann Nath in Forbes

I missed this story about Vann Nath, the painter who survived the gruesome Tuol Sleng prison because he used his skills as an artist to outlast the Khmer Rouge regime, as I was away last week - coincidentally spending some time in the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Veng. The article appears on the magazine website here and has come in for some criticism for a few inaccuracies. Judge for yourself.

The Goya of the Cambodian Genocide -
by Lawrence Osborne

How painter Vann Nath reveals the truth of what happened.

It doesn't take very long living in Phnom Pehn before a 10-year-old boy with dog-dark eyes slips a plastic-wrapped book into your hand as you are sitting at an outdoor cafe and says, "Genocide, sir, genocide book. Five dollar." The child hustlers here are so charming in that Oliver Twist way that you always give in and buy a genocide book and, even more depressingly, you open it. There are certainly many of them being touted by the kids working the Sisowath Quay alongside the Tongle Sap river. There are the works of the American scholar Ben Kiernan, or the harrowing war memoirs of Jon Swain and François Bizot, or various other memoirs with titles like Pol Pot Killed My Sister or A Year in Hell. Genocide is big business in Cambodia; even the set price destination menus inside the tuk tuks feature the "Killing Fields" - the former Khmer Rouge extermination camp at Cheong Ek--as their No. 1 Phnom Penh attraction, followed closely by Tuol Sleng, the secret prison known as S-21.

For the last few years, the U.N. has been sponsoring a weary, bickering, increasingly fruitless war crimes tribunal to condemn the last five senior members of the Pol Pot regime. In the summer of 2008, I watched in disbelief as Ieng Sary, the former foreign minister, was judged "unfit" to stand trial for mental health reasons. This year, it has been the turn of the sinister Duch, the commandant of Tuol Sleng. The others on trial are Khieu Samphan, the former nominal head of state; Noun Chea, Pol Pot's deputy, and Ieng Thirith. But this month in Phnom Pehn I noticed that the papers were also filled with rumors that the UN was threatening to pull out of a trial seen as being manipulated by the nervous Prime Minister Hun Sen. The slippery Hun Sen is an ex-Khmer Rouge himself, after all, and he has many skeletons in his capacious cupboards.

On the streets, meanwhile, the most ubiquitous genocide book by far is a slender volume with the modest title, A Cambodian Prison Portrait: A Year in the Khmer Rouge's S-21. Unwrap the plastic and you enter the most harrowing memoir of them all, a first-person account of the Khmer Rouge years by a naive country painter named Vann Nath: one of only seven men to survive Tuol Sleng. Sixteen thousand others were not so lucky. Some have called Vann Nath the Goya of the genocide, which was contrived by the Maoist regime of Democratic Kampuchea between 1975 and 1979. It was a period in which the strange, secretive dictator Pol Pot - whose real name was Saloth Sar - tried to create what the British historian Philip Short has called "the first modern slave state." Upon emerging victorious from a long guerrilla war against the U.S.-backed government of Lon Nol, Pol Pot's militant Khmer Rouge emptied the cities and drove millions of people into the countryside to work in collective farms. Twenty thousand died on the road in the first few days of the regime and during the next three years and 10 months, 200,000 were executed as "traitors." In total, between 1.5 million and 2 million died. When the Vietnamese army finally drove Pol Pot back into the jungles of western Cambodia, the country was strewn with the remains of the so-called killing fields.

But the Khmer Rouge did not cease to terrorize Cambodia. Supported by China, Thailand and the U.S., Pol Pot himself fought on in the wild Cardamom Mountains near the town of Pailin, on the border with Thailand. Atrocities continued. In 1994, Khmer Rouge units attacked a train on the Phnom Pehn-Kampot line and executed dozens of people, including three westerners. In 1997, the former Khmer Rouge propaganda minister Son Sen was murdered with his wife and children on Pol Pot's direct orders--a lurid crime that led to the dictator's downfall inside his own movement. Only with Pol Pot's death in 1998 did the movement begin to peter out, and the almost supernatural fear he inspired begin to recede.

Vann Nath's electrifying, primitivist images inspired by Bollywood movie posters and drawn directly from memory, are the only testimony to what happened inside S-21, a former French school in the heart of the city where thousands were tortured and murdered under the eye of the psychopathic Duch. It's a paradox of torture (and genocide, for that matter) that it can rarely if ever actually be photographed as it happens. But it can be painted. Like Duch, Vann Nath is quite a well-known character in Phnom Pehn. He owns a large Khmer restaurant on Czechoslovakia Street with a dark dining room walled with bamboo and filled with the kind of miniature red-lit Chinese shrines that look like shrunken porn stores. He wasn't difficult to find in the end. A slightly stooped, white-haired man with a kindly, beaten-up face, he is to be found in his restaurant almost every day, self-effacingly holding court with a trickle of visitors and playing with his grandchildren.

You see at once the wounded, hunted eyes and the slight sense of bemusement--it's a face older than its years and yet somehow also younger. When you are one of only seven people who emerge alive from a killing machine that exterminated thousands, you inevitably wonder why it was you and not someone else. As Vann Nah explains in his book, he was only spared because he was a reasonably competent artist. Duch plucked him from the execution lists because he thought he might be able to produce a few decent propaganda portraits of Brother Number One, as Pol Pot was known. (The execution orders still survive, with Duch's signature at the bottom of a long list of Vann Nath's fellow prisoners and a red line under Vann Nath's name with a comment to one side suggesting that he be spared.)

We sat in the gloom of the dining room in the middle of the afternoon, under plastic vine leaves on trellises, while he ordered me a Khmer feast: mo-cou kroeung, a fiery sour soup, and spiced omelettes called pong teair. Vann Nath has his painting studio upstairs above the restaurant and, for all his odd celebrity, it's a quiet life now, by his own admission--daily painting, family and the business. Like most Khmers, he is reticent, refined, never raising his voice or making emphatic gestures. But from time to time he covers his face with a hand in a gesture of apparent nervousness. He said that he had never dreamed his life would turn out this way, that his work would become the most instantly recognizable icon of a surreal state crime. "I thought I would be painting landscapes. Indeed, I have now gone back to painting landscapes." On Jan. 7, 1978, the 33-year-old painter was arrested. As usual with the Khmer Rouge, there was no explanation, no credible charge; the whole process was somewhat mysterious.

Equally inexplicably, Vann Nah was tortured by electrocution. The questions were always the same. Was he a member of the CIA? The Vietnamese sympathizers? The KGB? He had never heard of any of them. He was then bundled into a convoy bound for Phnom Pehn, still with no idea what he had been arrested for. Instantly, he was catapulted into a Dostoyevskian world of secrecy, paranoia and terror. None of his fellow prisoners knew what they had been arrested for either. It hardly mattered. Decades later, many Khmer Rouge cadres freely admitted that most of the people they had murdered were innocent. Killing innocents was as important as killing the guilty. "Better to kill a thousand innocent people than let a single guilty one go," was one of the Khmer Rouge's cryptically absurd slogans. In the converted classrooms of S-21, prisoners were shackled together with iron bars. They were not permitted to talk, urinate, stand or even turn their bodies without asking permission from the ferocious teenage guards. If they ate cockroaches to supplement the appalling food, they were beaten savagely - sometimes to death. The guards knew, even if the prisoners didn't, that everyone there was doomed to die anyway.

Vann Nath's gripping paintings show many of these scenes: prisoners being flogged, water-boarded, their nails ripped out, their throats cut (it was rumored that blood was collected in this way and peddled to Phnom Pehn hospitals). In a 2003 documentary made by Rithy Panh, Vann Nath re-visited Tuol Sleng with some of the former guards, who were outwardly unrepentant. With demented enthusiasm, they re-enacted their cruelties - revolutionary children tormenting their elders. They stormed up and down the corridors for the cameras, screaming at the ghosts of long-dead prisoners. Vann Nath and Chum Mey, another survivor, watched them in stupefaction. "Pol Pot was always obsessed with the Cambodians disappearing as a race," Van Nath said in the restaurant. "There was this racial hysteria about the Vietnamese, about the Khmers being conquered and assimilated. But during that whole time I kept wondering if the Khmers were simply destroying themselves. I wondered, how can we do this to ourselves? Is it self-hatred? Are we trying to wipe ourselves from the face of the earth?"

We went upstairs to the open-air studio on the first floor - a terrace overlooking the tin rooftops. It was the rainy season and the skies lit up with monstrous flashes of lightning. The studio paintings were a mix: half political paintings, half idyllic, sunset-drenched landscapes filled with Ankgorian ruins, water buffalo and the timeless villages that seem to reside in the Khmer unconscious as a kitsch memory of a lost Eden. They are the kinds of images you see everywhere at Angkor Wat, sold by scores of artists by the roadside. But the Tuol Sleng images are something else. Also derived from memory, they have the gritty, driving force of a personal pathology. Among them stood one of the hallucinatory pictures of Pol Pot, clearly inspired by the iconography of Mao. Looking at it, I was reminded of a curious observation by the French writer Pierre Loti upon visiting the ruin of Banon at Angkor Wat, which is famous for its giant smiling faces of King Jayavarman VII. Loti found the temple terrifying because of those faces, which showed the smile of totalitarian power and cruelty, of calm implacability. When I told Vann Nath this he seemed to recognize the parallel. "Yes, I can see that. I made Pol Pot smile like that because that's what they wanted."

Like a miniature gulag, Tuol Sleng had its hierarchies, its survival strategies (futile in the end, of course) and its resident sadists. Over it all presided the cool, methodical, pedantic Duch, who took pride in the exactness of his bookkeeping. Every day he came into the studio, where a handful of artists were being kept alive for official purposes, and examined their progress. The executioners always came with him. I wondered how Vann Nah felt about Duch now. "Duch was always polite to me. He would come in and look at my portraits and admit that I was making a good effort. We both knew that if I didn't make that effort I would be taken out and shot with the others, but he could pretend to joke about it. He asked me to make Pol Pot look young and fresh. I ended up making him look like a teenage girl, with the pink cheeks. Duch was delighted. I was allowed to live."

Duch was himself a curious character. A former math teacher who had come under the sway of Maoism in the '60s, he was the same age as Vann Nath and had fought in the jungle army of Pol Pot for years. As it happens, he also interrogated the French scholar Francois Bizot in 1971 after Bizot was captured by the Khmer Rouge near Angkor Wat. The portrait of Duch in Bizot's book, The Gate, was unforgettable enough. Mildly sadistic and a fanatical Communist, Duch had spared Bizot because the latter could play chess and speak Khmer. This odd Frenchman was intriguing and Duch was too curious about him to have him shot. To Bizot, there was a cat and mouse quality to their relationship, and perhaps the same had been true for Vann Nath. Vann Nath's images are more than paintings, and they cannot be judged merely aesthetically. They are folk stories lit by a sudden flash of pornographic horror. His images of water-boarding, a technique used daily at Tuol Sleng, have recently found their way all over the Internet in the light of recent controversies, though few know the story behind them. For many in the West, it was their first actual image of the technique. It shows how the archaic tool of painting has once again become strangely powerful and relevant in the age of digital media.

The faded black and white photographs from 1975, "Year Zero" of the regime, often look like something from the distant past, like views of the Middle Ages. Our sense of distance from them is already extraordinary. But Vann Nath's brilliantly colored nightmares somehow remind us that most of us were alive at the time, living happy lives elsewhere. Pol Pot is not a figure from the distant past and memories are not digital. Last summer, I went every day to the trial out by the air force base. The defendants are ancient, but the machinery of U.N. justice has tried its best to be merciless toward the leaders of the genocide. (Nevermind about the thousands of subordinates who did the actual killing. They cannot be dredged up, for some mysterious reason, and they have slipped back into the population unnoticed: a thousand killers walking the streets with their shopping bags.) As the technicalities dragged on, many impatient Khmers in the audience began to hiss and mutter angrily. Many of them were survivors or relatives of the dead. One day, I was invited to accompany a group of relatives from a small country town called Takeo, who had been invited by the U.N. outreach program to visit Tuol Sleng. The idea was to teach them about what might have happened to their loved ones and to show them the place where they might have died.

Many of these aging farmers had never been to the capital before, and Tuol Sleng to them was just a terrifying word. They arrived at the museum at 8 a.m., a large group anxious at first to have their pictures taken on the neat lawns under the shade of the frangipanis. But soon the mood changed. Tuol Sleng is filled with hundreds of mug shots taken by the captors as the prisoners were being processed prior to being "smashed." There are men, women, children--wildly beautiful young girls, old men, defiant teenagers with bloodied faces, disillusioned Party members who seem incredulous, small boys with cherubic eyes. Each one has a number slung around their neck (there is a famous Vann Nath panting of these ghastly photographic sessions). And there are pictures of the killed, too, each one with his or her throat cut, their chests cut open. There is a girl who threw herself out of a window to commit suicide. And there are the pictures by Vann Nath at every turn, exhibited here as if to corroborate the evidence. The farmers were as shocked by Vann Nath's paintings as by the portraits of the dead - perhaps more so.

Then it happened. I was standing next to a series of photos of prisoners, one of which is quite well known: It shows a young woman sitting next to her baby, her eyes turned helplessly toward the camera. Most of the portraits are marked "unknown" and this was no exception. The woman next to me was also studying this photo with excruciating intensity, and finally she let out an ear-splitting howl of grief. Tears streamed down her face. She recognized the girl with the baby. The farmers gathered round and the U.N. officials came up quickly with their notebooks; it sometimes happened t-hat a visitor recognized a dead relative, and it had happened now. The girl in the picture - the number - had a name after all, and she was the woman beside Me's sister-in-law. She had had no idea what had happened to her all those years before. The girl's name was Ouk Sareth. In the photo, she was 29. The sister-in-law's name was Nob Chim. I spent a little time with Nob Chim. She was 50 now and said she remembered "every moment" of the Khmer Rouge nightmare. Her hands shook with rage; she felt dizzy and had to sit down. She remembered she had built dams and farmed rice for Pol Pot. Ouk's husband had worked in the Ministry of Forestry and as an official had been targeted by the Khmer Rouge. He had been dragged behind a car to begin with - a little warning torture, if you like. Later, he disappeared altogether.

Ouk was sent to Tuol Sleng, it seemed, never to return. Her baby was killed as well. It is only by listening to people like Nob that you finally begin to fathom how casually the state can kill. Duch had signed Ouk's death warrant; she had shared this small prison with Vann Nath, whose Pol Pot busts stood piled up in a corner of the same room. How intimate and suffocating these interconnections were. Yet the anonymity of the regime's cruelty is strangely connected to the anonymity of its prime instigator, the man born as Saloth Sar.

It is that same anonymity that Vann Nath - consciously or otherwise - has captured in his pictures. As Nob wept, I couldn't help looking over at the impassive, smiling faces of Pol Pot that Nath had created to save his life. They explained nothing. Or did they? Vann Nath's pictures of Pol Pot are the most unnerving of all because he has captured something about the man without even wanting to. Pol Pot was always shadowy and inscrutable. He was always a smiling face in a humdrum photograph, an elusive eminence grise who ruled from behind the scenes. (During his reign, Western analysts had only been able to ascertain that Saloth Sar was Pol Pot by examining photographs of one of his state trips to China.) Inside Cambodia, many didn't know him even at the height of his power, even as they were about to die at his hands.

When Duch asked Vann Nath to put a name to a picture of Pol Pot, the confused artist said "Noun Chea." The director was highly amused, for Comrade Number One often "disappeared." He was always the puppet-master, the hidden engineer of human souls. And in Tuol Sleng one cannot help asking the question: Who was he? In a remarkable 1997 video interview with the American journalist Nate Thyer, the deposed dictator admitted, "I am not a very talkative person. … I am not a special person." He meant it. He mentioned with a shy smile that the French author Jacques Vergès had known him for 30 years "as a polite, discreet young man" but nothing more than that. Saloth was nothing if not stunningly ordinary. "Am I a violent person?" he liked to ask. How secretive the torturers always are, screened by legalisms and pseudonyms and euphemisms, their operations always carried out behind walls and closed doors - from where images can rarely travel. "If I had not painted water-boarding," Vann Nath told me one night, "people would probably not believe it had happened at all." He paused, "Let alone sawing people in half."

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It makes sense

I've some news hot off the press for you: the first-ever Phnom Penh screening of Tim Pek's feature-film directorial debut, The Red Sense, will take place on Friday 24th April at 7pm at Meta House, next to Wat Botum. After receiving a Cambofest award when it got its first Cambodian screening in Siem Reap in December, Pek's made-in-Australia film about revenge and forgiveness when a women discovers the identity of the Khmer Rouge cadre who killed her father, will be very timely considering the ongoing Khmer Rouge Tribunal that begins again today in Phnom Penh. There were fears that the film's topic was too sensitive for some to be screened here, but it will now be shown afterall. You can find out more about the film here and I'll be bringing you additional news from The Red Sense camp closer to the screening date.

This Wednesday night (1 April) at Meta House, to coincide with the start of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, journalist/author/filmmaker Tom Fawthrop will present his rarely-seen documentary, Dreams & Nightmares: Cambodia Ten Years After Pol Pot, which he directed and produced for Channel 4 in 1989, and other films focusing on the Khmer Rouge legacy, beginning at 7pm.

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Monday, March 9, 2009

Inside the Poison Tree

Thida (left) and Beth (right) filming Out of the Poison Tree at Angkor
This coming Saturday (14th March), the first showing in Cambodia of the documentary film Out of the Poison Tree, will take place at Meta House (next to Wat Botum) at 6.30pm. Filmmaker Beth Pielert's beautiful and moving film follows Thida Buth Mam and her two sisters back to Cambodia to find out more about the disappearance of their father and to hear first-hand from Cambodians about the necessity for justice, a trial and forgiveness. The most poignant plea for justice comes from a teenage schoolgirl, Davey Heng, standing amongst her classroom peers, in a flood of tears, but determined to state her point of view. As the Khmer Rouge Tribunal readies itself for the trial of Comrade Duch, this film is aptly timed for the voice it gives to ordinary Cambodians as well as well-known figures like Youk Chhang and Aki Ra. Archive footage and music from Long Beach artist praChly complete the picture. I urge you to come along to Meta House and watch this film. Below is a two-person interview with Beth and Thida to give you more details about the film and their personal views.
Q. Where did the idea for the film come from?
A. [Beth] In 1998 when I finishing up my short film Kiss My Cleats, I was visiting family on the East Coast and I shared a ride to the airport with Henry King Jr., a former junior prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials. Meeting Henry sparked an idea for a film about 'Right Livelihood' where people who were exposed to great injustices like the Holocaust worked in careers that helped bring justice to the victims. The summer of 1999, I was spending time with Henry and researching other potential subjects when my mother handed me an article from the New York Times that featured Craig Etcheson and his work at the Yale Cambodian Genocide Studies Program. As I was in Connecticut already, I was able to meet Craig and interview him on camera. In doing so, I learned more details about the Khmer Rouge regime and the long-overdue need for justice. By that time, Craig had already co-created The Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) and encouraged me to get to Cambodia in person as the trial in his opinion was bound to happen soon (this was 1999). In 2000 I flew to Cambodia with my step-father Robb and together we spent 10-days exploring Phnom Penh and Siem Reap and interviewing survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime to better understand their desire for justice and what they had lived through. It was after we journeyed to Siem Reap and Robb discovered Aki Ra and the Landmine Museum that I became hooked on the story of healing and reconciliation for Cambodia. This was the year 2000 and personal stories of healing and reconciliation for survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime were not yet prevalent. I began production in earnest on Out of the Poison Tree in 2001.

Q. How did you and Thida meet?
A. [Beth] I met Thida Buth Mam in 2002 through Maureen Phalon who knew Anne Weills, co-creator of CORKR. By 2002 I had already shot interviews with the Director of DC-Cam, Youk Chhang and Aki Ra, in addition to a former Khmer Rouge soldier and loads of smaller interviews all of which made up the framework for the film. But, I was in need of a contemporary component, an arc that could join stories from the past with the present. I always thought this would be the Trial but, unfortunately for the people of Cambodia and the film, that was taking forever to materialize. Anne suggested I meet with Thida, who had lived through the regime and who could potentially serve as a consultant. Thida and her incredible family were so generous with their time and stories that Thida went from consultant, to translator to Associate Producer of the film. When Thida phoned one day in late 2004 to say that she and her sisters were returning to Cambodia specifically to look for her father Buth Choen, I requested that I film her and their journey and they generously agreed.

Q. When did filming take place in Cambodia? How long did the process take from start to finish?
A [Beth] There were 3 trips to Cambodia: the first was a research, pre-production trip in 2000, the second was the first production trip in 2001, and the third and final production trip took place in 2005 with Thida and her sisters.
The film took seven years from concept to completion: 1999-2006.

Q. What do you hope people will take from the film?
A. [Thida] For me, I want to tell the Khmer Rouge genocide story. If we look into the reasons the Khmer Rouge had which led to the genocide, they were all reasonable, especially when a nation is under dictatorship or oppression, it can happen again, especially in Cambodia. The Cambodians must know themselves well to prevent this from ever happening again. Also, I was hoping to give voice to the victims of Cambodia. I hope I represent them well. Cambodians should be fearful of the return of the Khmer Rouge the same way the Americans are afraid of another Vietnam War.
A. [Beth] There are several things that I hope people take away from Out of the Poison Tree, the foremost being - understanding. Understanding what it was like to be a country like Cambodia caught in the middle during a time of great political tension between the US and Vietnam. The fallout from economic stress caused by the US bombings, starvation and military dominance helped enable the Khmer Rouge to come to power. I also wanted to provide a sense for what it was like from the victim's point-of-view and how this unquenched justice spans the generations as you see with Heng Davey, the young school girl. I wanted to provide a sense for the 'choiceless choice' position many of the soldiers of the Khmer Rouge Regime were in - for many of the Khmer Rouge soldiers it was truly kill or be killed. Finally, I wanted to capture some of incredible beauty that is uniquely Cambodian both in landscape and in the Khmer people. My one regret is that I didn't adequately capture the humor of Thida and her sisters, a humor and lack of bitterness that truly amazes me to this day.

Q. Thida, is the search for your father now complete? What did your Mum think of the film?
A [Thida] No,
I decided to stop. I don't think I can deal with finding out more details. Every time we find out a small fact around my father's fate, I went crazy in my head and heart. I think it is best that I don't know. I have many years more to live and I don't want to live with that horrifying story of my father. Basically, I went searching the truth about my father and found the truth about me, I cannot handle the truth. As for my mum, she is like me, she cannot handle the truth. She discouraged us from going and never asks me about it. When I bring it up, she starts crying, so I stop bringing it up.

Q. What are your hopes for the Khmer Rouge Tribunal?
A. [Thida] M
any things, here is my short list:
1. They (all of the Khmer Rouge leaders) admit to their crime.
2. They apologize.
3. They explain to us why they did what they did.
4. They tell us who else was behind this. China? Vietnam? Thailand?
5. That this practice of law or justice, will make the Cambodian judiciary system better.
6. Acknowledgment of a brutal time in Cambodia where history will be well written and that my generation feel that we have done our best.
7. The Genocide story will stay alive.
A. [Beth] In many ways I wish that the Khmer Rouge Tribunal had been created in the image of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission out of South Africa. I think that granting amnesty to the perpetrators may have expedited the Trial and yielded more details about the 'how and whys' of the Khmer Rouge which would help create an accurate account for the history books, help the world understand how this could happen so as to prevent future Khmer Rouge and most important enable Khmer Rouge leaders to say to the Khmer people: 'I did this, this is why, I know it was wrong and I'm sorry'. That said, I know Duch just said he was sorry which is huge. Admission and remorse - finally! I also echo Thida's wishes and my hope is that there are clear consequences, however late they may be, for the egregious acts that were committed during the Khmer Rouge and that they are enforced and examples are set for a better government in Srok Khmer.

Q. Finally, Thida will you return to live in Cambodia?
A [Thida] I
have bought some land where I plan to build a home when I can afford it. I hope, in my retirement, to live in Cambodia most of the time. I hope I can contribute back to my homeland.

Note: If you wish to purchase the dvd, visit Beth Pielert's GoodFilmWorks website.

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Sunday, February 15, 2009

Child survivors

The screen capture is poor but so is the quality of my Year Zero dvd, but these are the 4 male survivors with the children in early 1979. Vann Nath is the tallest of the men.
I am a little bit confused, though it doesn't take much to befuddle me sometimes! It's concerning the recent flurry of press talk about the child survivors of Tuol Sleng, aka S-21, once the Khmer Rouge took flight as the Vietnamese army rolled into Phnom Penh at the beginning of 1979. It's been suggested that the fact that children were amongst the survivors of the horrific Tuol Sleng prison was only really identified when the Vietnamese recently donated archival footage a couple of months ago, of the first few days after Tuol Sleng had been liberated. Bullshit. Even I knew there were child survivors of Tuol Sleng way back in 1979, as footage of them appeared on John Pilger's documentary Year Zero: The Silent Death of Cambodia, when it was aired in October of that year. Four male survivors including Vann Nath and Ung Pech are shown with four tiny boys, as Pilger relates that just eight people survived from the thousands killed at the prison. Two of the boys, brothers Norng Chanphal and Chanly, have now been identified and have stepped forward to offer themselves as witnesses for the forthcoming trial of the S-21 chief Duch. In addition, Vietnamese photographer Ho Van Tay is helping in the hunt for the children, as he was one of the very first people to enter Tuol Sleng after the Khmer Rouge evaporated, and kept in touch with some of the children during the 1980s. It's his pictures that hang on the walls of the individual cells of Block A. So my question is, had no-one thought to seek out these children before now, and it sounds like the answer to that question is a resounding no.
Another poor quality screen capture but it shows the 4 men and the 4 young children, quoted as S-21 survivors by John Pilger in 1979

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Monday, February 2, 2009

Mekong Run

After I spent yesterday afternoon on a boat on the Mekong River, it was timely that the Sunday Times in the UK published an archive report from Jon Swain in yesterday's edition, that provided an insight into life on the Mekong River during the year, 1974, before the Khmer Rouge finally gained control of Cambodia. Jon Swains' superb book, The River of Time, is a must-have book for any collection of stories from that period in history.

From the archive: Dodging Khmer Rouge bullets on a Mekong run - by Jon Swain
March 10, 1974: the world's most dangerous boat trip, to Phnom Penh.

I joined Convoy TT173 at Saigon and selected a freighter called Bonanza Three: her wheelhouse, our refuge during the attack, was protected by a thick wall of sandbags and her skipper, Captain Herri Pentoh, was a “real crackerjack”, according to a US aid official on the Phnom Penh run. Captain Pentoh, a wiry 27-year-old Indonesian with long, greasy hair, stood in the wheelhouse gazing awkwardly at the river bank through binoculars, partly because the solid wall of sandbags restricted his vision, but mostly because, like Nelson, he had only one good eye. The other, made of glass, gave a wild, staring accent to his face.

Bonanza Three, anchored in the oily waters of Saigon harbour, seemed an ugly, rusty old tub, fit for the scrapyard, and that was the reason why she had been chosen for the Mekong River run: her owner thought her expendable. Happily for him, the American government is committed to Phnom Penh’s survival and, so far at least, it has always made it worth his while to gamble the ship and the lives of his crew for a quick return. “The risks are high, but generally so are the profits,” explained Johnny Khoo, manager of the Singapore-based shipping company that runs her. It is understood that profits fluctuate around £17,000 a trip.

The big joke aboard Bonanza Three was the loo. Apart from making privacy a farce, fist-sized shrapnel holes in the door and wall made it all too obvious that the consequences of using it at the wrong moment could prove disastrous. Happily, the Khmer Rouge gunners, notoriously bad shots, have never caught anyone with their pants down. The ship’s radio officer, I was told, was “absent”. Only later did I discover that the poor fellow had been killed two months before, blasted in his cabin by a rocket. Members of the crew had scooped up the pieces in a plastic bag and are still trying to erase this from their memories.

The convoy passed the first big danger point almost unchallenged. At Peam Chor, 15 miles beyond the frontier, the Mekong suddenly curves and narrows to a 500-yard channel – an ideal and frequent ambush spot. Conspicuous to our straining eyes were the hulks of two ammunition barges sunk 10 days before, during the last run. All that remained were pieces of rusty machinery poking from the sluggish water. With the sleepy little town of Neak Leung just a fading smudge to stern, the danger seemed over. Even Captain Pentoh relaxed, unzipping his flak jacket and pulling off his helmet, for he knew that no convoy had been hit on the home run for nearly a year. The ambush came quickly, with a rocket attack on the lead ship, the Monte Cristo, as she steamed past the Dey Do plywood factory only 12 miles from Phnom Penh.

From the wheelhouse on Bonanza Three, two ships astern, it was impossible to assess the damage, but flames and a feather of black smoke on the Wing Pengh, the ship 300 yards from our bows, denoted that she, too, had been hit. Machine-gun bullets clanged and rattled off the hull. In the wheelhouse, the little Cambodian pilot carried on with his instructions, his voice as steady as a rock, his fear betrayed only by his delicate fingers tightly wrapped round a small ivory Buddha. The words “starboard easy” had just left his lips when the rocket burst aft. The explosion felt like a heavy blow in the back. Nobody moved or said anything, except the captain, who said, “Bloody hell, we’ve been hit”, then looked around embarrassed.

Nobody bothered to leave the wheelhouse and inspect the damage until we were safely tied up at Phnom Penh’s dirty brown waterfront an hour or so later. The rocket had missed the steering column by a fraction of an inch; had it hit, Bonanza Three would have been sent circling out of control. A winch was badly damaged and there were a lot of holes, but she had survived yet another Mekong River run. Pinned to a blackboard in the press briefing centre in Phnom Penh that evening, the Cambodian high command’s communiqué tersely read: “A convoy of five cargo ships, two petrol tankers and three ammunition barges has anchored at the port of Phnom Penh after passing up the Mekong without incident.”

The Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh in 1975. Millions of Cambodians died in the “killing fields” massacres that followed.

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Sunday, January 4, 2009

Survivor memoirs

In anticipating the forthcoming publication of Bou Meng's memoir, Bou Meng: A Survivor from Khmer Rouge Prison s-21, to be published by DC Cam sometime very soon, and as I keep getting asked questions about survivor accounts and memoirs from the Khmer Rouge years, I'm listing below the memoirs of that time that I'm aware of. I'm sure I've missed some out, so let me know if you spot any omissions. I have asterisked the Top 10 books I recommend you buy. And my favourite, well it must be the incredible A Cambodian Odyssey of Haing S Ngor with Roger Warner.

**Denise Affonco: To The End of Hell: One Woman's Struggle to Survive Cambodia's Khmer Rouge (2007)
Var Hong Ashe: From Phnom Penh to Paradise: Escapr from Cambodia (1988)
Joan Criddle & Teeda Butt Mam: To Destroy You Is No Loss: The Odyssey of a Cambodian family (1987)
**Dith Pran; Children of Cambodia's Killing Fields: Memoirs by Survivors (1997)
Adam Fifield: A Blessing Over Ashes: The Remarkable Odyssey of My Cambodian Brother (2000)
**Chanrithy Him: When Broken Glass Floats: Growing Up Under the Khmer Rouge (2000)
Sokreaksa Himm: The Tears of My Soul (2003): After The Heavy Rain (2007)
Vannary Imam: When Elephants Fight: A Memoir (2000)
Bree Lafreniere: Music Through The Dark: A Tale of Survival in Cambodia (2000)
Bun T Lim; Surviving Cambodia, The Khmer Rouge Regime (2007)
Richard Lunn: Leaving Year Zero: Stories of Surviving Pol Pot's Cambodia (2004)
**Somaly Mam: The Road of Lost Innocence (2007)
Someth May: Cambodian Witness: The Autobiography of Someth May (1986)
Nancy Moyer: Escape from the Killing Fields (1991)
**Vann Nath: A Cambodian Prison Portrait: One Year in the Khmer Rouge's S-21 (1999)
**Haing S Ngor & Roger Warner: A Cambodian Odyssey (1987)
Kim Chou Oeng & Marchelle Hammack: Climbing Back Up: The Killing Fields of Cambodia and Phnom Dangrek The Untold Story (2003)
U Sam Oeur: Crossing Three Wildernesses (2005)
Chileng Pa & Carol A Mortland: Escaping the Khmer Rouge: A Cambodian Memoir (2008)
Clare Pastore: Chantrea Conway's Story: A Voyage from Cambodia in 1975 (2001)
Laurence Picq: Beyond The Horizon (1989)
Sydney Schanberg: The Death & Life of Dith Pran (1985)
Vione Schow: Phay Vanneth: Dead or Alive? (2002)
Theary C Seng: Daughter of the Killing Fields (2005)
Vatey Seng: The Price We Paid (2005)
Gail Sheehy: Spirit of Survival (1986)
Darina Siv: Never Come Back: A Cambodian's Journey (2000)
**Sichan Siv: Golden Bones: An Extraordinary Journey from Hell in Cambodia to a New Life in America (2008)
Dara O Sok: The First 22nd Years (2008)
Sam Sotha: In The Shade of A Quiet Killing Place (2007)
Sophal Leng Staff: Hear Me Now: Tragedy in Cambodia (1996)
**Martin Stuart-Fox & Bun Heang Ung: The Murderous Revolution: Life & Death in Pol Pot's Kampuchea (1985)
Molyda Szymusiak: The Stones Cry Out: A Cambodian Childhood 1975-80 (1987)
Vek Huong Taing: Ordeal In Cambodia (1980)
Champ S Teng: Cambodia, As I Remember: The True Story of a Beautiful Country Under War (2002)
Saoran Pol La Tour & Vivian Kirkbride: Vantha's Whisper (2002)
**Loung Ung: First They Killed My Father (2000); Lucky Child (2005)
Ma Vany: Life In Danger (2002)
Oni Vitandham: On The Wings of A White Horse (2006)
Carol Wagner: Soul Survivors - Stories of Women and Children in Cambodia (2002)
Usha Welaratna: Beyond the Killing Fields: Voices of Nine Cambodian Survivors in America (1993)
Ly Y: Heaven Becomes Hell: A Survivor's Story of Life Under the Khmer Rouge (2000)
**Pin Yathay: Stay Alive, My Son (1987)
Bun Yom: Bun's Story - Tomorrow I'm Dead (2005)

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Friday, January 2, 2009

The French

One author who I won't be reading anytime soon despite having written two books on her experiences under the Khmer Rouge and her eventual return to Cambodia over twenty years later, is Claire Ly (right). The reason for my tardiness is that they are both in French, with her first book also available in Italian, Polish and Khmer. But not in English, which is a shame. The author published Escape From Hell: Four years in Khmer Rouge Camps, in 2002 and followed that up with Return to Cambodia in 2007. She's also recently completed an illustrated children's book, Kosal & Moni, about how two children find out about the past. Claire Ly was a professor of philosophy when the Khmer Rouge confined her and her family to work camps after 1975. Her father and husband were murdered and she lost other close family members before she finally reached a refugee camp, from where she emigrated to France, her home today. The experiences she endured altered her Buddhist beliefs and she was baptized as a Catholic in 1983. More here in French.

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What's on

Events coming up in Phnom Penh include veteran Vietnam War photographer Tim Page's exhibition of photographs, as well as documentary screenings, Q&A's and so on at the Meta House, beginning this coming Sunday (4th) from 6pm. Also at Meta House from Saturday 3rd will be a collection of drawings titled Raining at Preah Vihear by Battambang artist Srey Bandol, who already has his drawings in print by Reyum in the book Looking At Angkor and another book aimed at children, In The Land of The Elephants. The 6pm opening on Saturday will be followed by a film/photo presentation of fellow artist Vandy Rattana.
Over at the Bophana Center on Saturday 3rd, a 4pm screening of a documentary on the late Cambodian artist Svay Ken will take place, in Khmer but with English subtitles, followed by another film, Two Neighbors.
Wednesday 7th is a national holiday here in Cambodia (Victory over Genocide Day). It will actually be the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime and I'm sure this landmark occasion will be acknowledged by a plethora of documentaries on tv but the main celebration of the anniversary will be at the Olympic Stadium in the city, where it's expected over 60,000 people will attend a mass rally. There's some grumbling here that 20,000 students are being forced to attend and it's little more than a rally in support of the CPP, but I'm sure the kids will enjoy their day off school, I know I used to. I loved the comment from a CPP lawmaker who said pointedly to the opposition whiners; "Only those people with a mental problem oppose Jan 7."

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