Bou Meng: A Survival Because of Pictures, Told in Words

Biography of S-21 artist to launch Sunday in Phnom Penh

Bou Meng’s life can be traced in the pictures that saved him.

An inmate at the 1970s Khmer Rouge death camp S-21, Mr Meng owes his life to his ability to paint portraits of Pol Pot.

“If I could not draw well, they would have killed me. Many other people died,” Mr Meng said by phone from his home in Kandal province this week.

Unlike his wife, Mr Meng was among the few to survive S-21, where some 14,000 men, women and children were tortured and later executed.

The prison camp’s commander Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, needed painters and ordered Mr Meng to produced portraits of the Khmer Rouge leader for propaganda purposes. Surrounded by the living hell of S-21, Mr Meng worked quietly in a room with three other artists including fellow survivor Vann Nath.

He was completing his fourth portrait of Pol Pot when the regime was toppled in January 1979. Only a few years ago he returned to S-21, now a museum, to draw the atrocities that were once perpetrated there.

Those memories, now recorded in words by Huy Vannak, fill the biography “Bou Meng: A Survivor From Khmer Rouge Prison S-21,” which is being launched at Monu­ment Books on Sunday.

Mr Vannak, a researcher with the Docu­mentation Center of Cambodia, which is devoted to documenting the Pol Pot years, first met Mr Meng in 2003 when he reappeared at the Toul Sleng genocide museum to deny reports that he had passed away.

Ghostwriting the book in the first person on behalf of Mr Meng, Mr Vannak said he felt himself become part of it as he accompanied Mr Meng to his home village and S-21 during the research phase of their work together.

“I got to know the suffering and it also hurt me,” Mr Vannak said, explaining that together they tried to reconstruct the events of that time and make sense of what happened.

“Now I regard him as a grandfather and he shares stories with me as if I was his son or grandson,” he said.

Much of the work represents Mr Meng’s emotional reactions to events as they unfold in simple language. Mr Meng’s personal story is also framed by information on the ongoing Khmer Rouge war crimes tribunal and some final pointers toward hopes of reconciliation.

Artists were considered imperialist and killed during the Khmer Rouge period unless they promoted its ideology with traditional Khmer techniques, said Youk Chhang, director of DC-CAM.

In one incident recounted in the biography, during torture with electric wires and bamboos sticks, a Khmer Rouge interrogator shouts at Mr Meng: “You’re an artist, so you clearly have [US Central Intelligence Agency] contacts.”

Mr Meng’s portrait of Pol Pot, reprinted on the inside cover of the book, depicted the Khmer Rouge leader as calm and presidential. Prints of the portrait are displayed at S-21 but these have to be re­placed every three months or so because visitors deface them, Mr Chhang said.

The portrait of Pol Pot is often blinded with Khmer words such as “deepest hell” scrawled across the eyes.

“People don’t want to see that face looking respectful,” Mr Chhang said, noting that the portrait was used to create a presidential image of Pol Pot toward the regime’s end when the leadership felt most under threat.

There is nothing presidential about the painting, Mr Meng said.

“Now it is a valuable image of the people’s killer,” he said, explaining that just like his earlier portraits his biography would ensure that people never forget what happened.

Mr Meng and Mr Vannak will be on had to sign copies of their book at the launch on Sunday.

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