While the government and the UN negotiated over a trial for former Khmer Rouge leaders, Hen Sophal embarked on his own plan for justice.
He unrolled a canvas, gathered his oil paints and created the worst scene his mind could conjure—a gleeful Pol Pot on a mountain of bones.
“This is the result of the regime,” Hen Sophal said. “He killed so many people, and he keeps smiling.”
At first glance, he says, the scene could be a garbage dump. “But as you look longer, you see that every level of people died under Pol Pot,” Hen Sophal said.
Mixed in the heap is a philosophy book, a monk’s robe, a guitar and a doctor’s instruments. A smashed camera shows how the Khmer Rouge cut ties to the outside world.
Some skulls are blindfolded. Most have bullet holes in them. A shackled hand reaches out of the pile. Black birds peck at the bones, eating the ghosts of the dead.
Pol Pot is seated squarely on the pile, a krama around his neck, his arms against his knees. His broad smile, Hen Sophal says, is a smile of success.
Behind him are Khmer Rouge cadre. Hen Sophal, 43, who runs a Phnom Penh art gallery and usually paints portraits and pastoral scenes, is one of a growing number of contemporary artists who are depicting the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime.
He says people can decide for themselves who the figures are in his painting.
“The people who stand behind Pol Pot are now powerful people,” he says. “If they live free, it is not fair to the Cambodian people who died and those who are still alive.”
“I am so worried that no one will go to trial,” he says.
Through painting the picture, he wants to push for an international tribunal, remind people they have a right to be angry for what the Khmer Rouge did and show younger generations, those who did not live through the Khmer Rouge, the face of Pol Pot.
Often there are pictures of Pol Pot in magazines and newspapers with a story about the Khmer Rouge. “That is not interesting to the young generations.
“This,” he said, “will interest them.”
Hen Sophal was born in Phnom Penh and attended the Tuol Sleng high school—the future torture center—until he was 17. A year later he and his family were split up and marched into the countryside. He and his brother spent three years planting rice and fruit trees in Kompong Cham.
Of his family of 12, a brother and sister were killed during the regime. “My family was more lucky than other families,” he says.
In the early 1980s, he was trained as an artist at the fine arts school behind the National Museum. The walls of his gallery on Street 178 are covered with paintings of apsara dancers, Angkor Wat and farmers leading cows. His depiction of Pol Pot, finished two weeks ago after two months of work, is his first painting of the Khmer Rouge regime.
“The painting is good,” says Phal Pourrisith, Hen Sophal’s 16-year-old son who is now learning to be an artist. “It shows the face of the Khmer Rouge.”