S-21 Photographer’s Book Sales Banned at Museum

Former S-21 prison photographer Nhem En has been banned by the Culture Ministry from selling his new book inside the infamous Khmer Rouge security center, according to a letter from the ministry obtained Thursday.

In the February 23 letter to Mr. En—whose haunting photographs of S-21’s estimated 12,000 victims line the walls of what is now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum—the ministry cites, as reasons for the ban, the photographer’s dubious claims to victimhood and possible use of plagiarized photos in the book, “Nhem En’s Personal Memoir at S-21.”

Nhem En, a former photographer at Phnom Penh's S-21 prison, speaks Thursday outside the compound, which has since become a museum. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
Nhem En, a former photographer at Phnom Penh’s S-21 prison, speaks Thursday outside the compound, which has since become a museum. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

“The ministry does not permit those who are not real victims to sell their work in Tuol Sleng prison,” the letter reads.

The letter also says it is unclear whether Nhem En actually took all the pictures he used in the book.

Speaking in a bookstore across the road from Tuol Sleng on Thursday, Mr. En said he had sought permission to sell his book inside the prison grounds so that he could meet and talk to tourists there.

He said that if he were not allowed to sell his memoirs there, former inmates Chum Mey and Bou Meng should also be banned from doing so.

“This is discrimination…. If they do not allow me to sell inside, then please ban all who are selling inside S-21, even those selling beverages,” he said.

“I want to ask: Are the only victims Chum Mey and Bou Meng? There are many victims nationwide,” he added.

Mr. En, who was a teenager when he was stationed at the prison in 1976, denied appropriating photographs that were not his and lamented the ban would have on his book sales.

“I was formerly at Tuol Sleng, so if I cannot meet with tourists, do I meet with ghosts? I am also a victim,” he said.

Thai Noraksathya, a spokesman for the Ministry of Culture, said officials decided to ban the sale of Mr. En’s book because it had not been established that he was a victim of the Khmer Rouge.

“We have not yet judged him to be a victim and he has not yet shown he is a victim,” Mr. Noraksathya said. “He was an official working for the regime.”

Mr. Mey, who sells his book, “Survivor,” from inside the razor-wire-topped walls of Tuol Sleng, said he supported the decision.

“[Mr. En] is a fake person, he is cadre…. He is not a victim, he was a subordinate of Duch,” Mr. Mey said, using the alias for Kaing Guek Eav, who oversaw the prison and was found guilty of crimes against humanity in 2010.

“I never saw him tortured at Tuol Sleng,” he added.

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