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Cambodian painter Vann Nath, died last Monday age of 66

Few artists have worked from more dramatic and tragic inspiration than the Cambodian painter Vann Nath, who died last Monday at the age of 66.  He was one of only seven survivors of the Khmer Rouge

prison known as S-21, where in the years from early 1975 to late 1978 as many as 16,000 people were tortured and killed for having violated some ambiguous precept of the Khmer Rouge regime.  In all nearly 2 million deaths due to overwork, starvation and execution are attributed to that regime.

Before Vann Nath was arrested and taken to Tuol Sleng, a school-converted-to-prison for ‘enemies’ of the Khmer Rouge and its leader Pol Pot, he had been making a living as a relatively undistinguished sign painter.  The records that exist indicate that he would have been executed at some point if not immediately, but his paintings won him a reprieve; he was kept alive on condition that he supply portraits of Pol Pot and other leaders.

Vann Nath spent about a year at S-21, and he watched and experienced the tortures and deprivations inflicted on the prisoners.  When Vietnamese forces overcame the Khmer Rouge in 1979, there were only a handful of prisoners still alive and with the death of Vann Nath only two are still living.  However, while the artist lived he created a momentous legacy of art depicting the horrors of that regime and that prison.

He was also the first to testify as an eyewitness at the trial of Kaing Kek Lev, the man known as Duch, who was the prison chief at S-21.  In June 2009 he spoke to the court about the evils propagated by Duch and his cohorts, and his words were compelling, but his pictures are even more so.  Vann Nath spent the years from 1979 until his death painting detailed and horrifying scenes of the remembered hell of his prison.

He also wrote a vivid memoir of his experiences, titled A Cambodian Prison Portrait, and spent most of his time, even when battling ill health, speaking and writing in his passionate desire to express his experience as a reminder and warning to his countrymen and the world of the physical, psychological and spiritual damage that man is only too capable of wreaking upon his fellow man.

The tribunal that has been dealing with Khmer Rouge crimes is entitled to try and sentence those who were “most responsible” for the genocide and accompanying atrocities of the regime.  Last year the prison chief Duch was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison for crimes against humanity, but four more accused criminals like him have yet to be tried, and there is concern amongst some human rights organizations that they never will.

For Vann Nath, that would be a sad commentary on the judicial system and the UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal (called the Extraordinary Chambers), as the trials have been so long in process that some believe the participants just want to be done with it, and the remaining accused are getting more support from sympathizers while the victims of their crimes wait for justice that is too long in coming.

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