Vann Nath Denied Visa To Visit US

Vann Nath may well be Cam­bodia’s most prominent witness to the Khmer Rouge genocide. He also may be its best-known artist. One thing he is not, is welcome in the US.

In spite of an invitation from a well-known college, 14 letters of recommendation and worldwide renown as one of only a handful of men to walk out of Tuol Sleng prison alive, US Embassy officials Wednesday denied Vann Nath, 56, a visa to tour with some of his art and lecture audiences on his experiences.

The decision, which comes daily for the throngs of Cam­bo­dians who wait in hopes of going to the US, came as a shock to Vann Nath’s friends and supporters—and Vann Nath himself.

“The dream I’ve been planning to fulfill for years was dissolved in three or four minutes,” Vann Nath said Wednesday.

An embassy official told the artist, whose graphic paintings of the slaughter in Tuol Sleng still hang on the walls of the former prison as testimony to the brutality of the Khmer Rouge, that his job as a painter made him a risk to stay past his visa, both Vann Nath and supporters said.

But some officials and activists said Wednesday that the rejection may have had little to do with Vann Nath and more to do with a set of scandals that shook the US Embassy last year.

In October, US officials were embarrassed when seven members of a touring dance troupe from the Royal University of Fine Arts refused to return to Cam­bodia. Around the same time, it emerged that several Cambodian officials were using support-staff visas as a way to sneak friends and relatives past US immigration.

An embassy official Wednesday defended Vann Nath’s rejection by saying consular officials have to be wary when granting visas and must balance many factors.

“There’s no one checklist. It’s all very subjective, but you have to have a basis,” the official said, adding that Vann Nath can still appeal the decision.

Visa applicants have to prove they are a “good risk” to return home when the visa expires and the best way officials have of determining that risk is through the brief interview, the official said.

“It’s fine and good for a wheelbarrow of information to come out now, but that information should have been provided at the time of the interview and not in tomorrow’s newspaper,” the official said.

But Vann Nath’s rejection shows how warped the US system is, critics have countered. US officials have to work their way up from counselor services and therefore the least experienced employees are handling visas in a virtual assembly line.

“I think the embassy here should rethink how they handle applications,” said Ingrid Muan, co-director of the Reyum Institute of Arts in Phnom Penh, whose organization wrote a recommendation for Vann Nath. “It’s just appalling.”

Vann Nath was one of only seven prisoners who left Tuol Sleng alive when the Khmer Rouge fell in 1979. An estimated 14,000 men, women and children died from starvation, disease, torture or execution on the grounds of the former high school.

Of the seven survivors, only Vann Nath remains. His memoir on his life in the prison has made him internationally famous among human rights activists. His work as an artist also may have spared his life, as the Khmer Rouge put him to work on portraits of Pol Pot and other leaders of the ultra-Maoist regime.

In March, Providence College, in the US state of Rhode Island, invited Vann Nath to lecture and to open an art show featuring his works and those of five other artists. He also planned to raise funds for a center for the elderly he wants to build in Cambodia, supporters said. The show is scheduled to open in October. Vann Nath was also scheduled to receive a Human Rights Watch award in a ceremony in New York in November.

All of those plans remained in limbo Wednesday afternoon, which have left Vann Nath crushed.

“I’m disappointed and ashamed. I’m not sure if I want to apply for a visa again,” Vann Nath said.

Vann Nath’s rejection also represents a loss for the US audiences, Documentation Center of Cambodia Director Youk Chhang said.

“He’s been talking about this for 20 years. It is important for people to hear from him,” Youk Chhang, himself a US citizen, said. “He can bring us back to the dark chapter of Cambodian history. Nothing is better than hearing directly from a survivor.”


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