One of the two remaining survivors of Democratic Kampuchea’s brutal Tuol Sleng prison died Sunday, finally the victim of the regime that failed to kill him more than two decades ago.
Eam Chan, 60, never completely recovered from 26 days of torture he suffered in Tuol Sleng in the late 1970s, according to his wife, and had recently become increasingly ill—in part due to questions from the media about his imprisonment, his wife said.
“All the time, after he spoke to journalists, he became sick because he had to dig up a past of great suffering,” said Pol Davan, who married Eam Chan in 1979 and had four children with him. “His blood pressure rose and his head became numb.”
Long-time friend Chet Chan, who was with Eam Chan when he died at Calmette Hospital, said Eam Chan told him he did not want to remember the past because “it would make his life become shorter.”
Pol Davan said Eam Chan’s condition had worsened during the past two years, and that being force-fed large amounts of water and fish sauce by Tuol Sleng torturers caused a long-term stomach ailment.
Eam Chan survived Tuol Sleng, where more than an estimated 16,000 people were questioned, tortured and eventually executed, because of his skills as a sculptor. He created the large bust of Pol Pot that remains at Tuol Sleng today.
Only Van Nath, who stayed alive in Tuol Sleng by painting pictures for his captors, remains of the seven who survived.
Though Van Nath gained international recognition for later documenting Khmer Rouge atrocities with his art, Eam Chan quickly disappeared from the public’s view—ending up as a sculpture teacher in Phnom Penh.
“In the immediate post-regime years the survivors were potent symbolic figures but they became less so as the years passed,” Khmer Rouge scholar Craig Etcheson said Wednesday.
“[Eam Chan] was a very private person and had been quiet for quite some time,” Etcheson said. “Another part of the legacy passes into history.”
(Additional reporting by Seth Meixner)