Anlong Veng, Oddar Meanchey province – “The world should thank me for my work,” Nhem En told the makers of the recent Academy Award-nominated documentary “The Conscience of Nhem En.” But praise is probably not on the way.
For about two years starting in 1976, if the teenaged Khmer Rouge soldier Nhem En took your photo it almost certainly meant that you were about to enter hell. As chief photographer at the notorious Khmer Rouge prison S-21, thousands of men, women and children were tortured and killed after being captured by Nhem En’s camera lens.
Defiantly, Nhem En told the filmmakers that his photos are the reason that the world cares one jot about Cambodia and the suffering it went through. His photos, Nhem En says, were the important evidence that spoke to the viciousness of the Khmer Rouge regime-a cruelty he says he never personally witnessed but was forced to partake in.
Many of those haunting photographs are on permanent display at the complex that housed S-21, better known as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which has become one of the bigger tourist attractions in Phnom Penh, drawing hundreds of visitors each day.
Now, Nhem En, who is currently deputy governor of Anlong Veng district, has dreams of attracting tourists to a Khmer Rouge museum of his own up near the Thai border-a project that he says will benefit Anlong Veng as a whole and hopefully generate a tidy profit for himself.
In an interview last week at the site of his future museum and photo gallery, Nhem En said that he expects a “sample” version of his “National Museum of Anlong Veng” to be completed by the end of the year.
The museum will consist almost entirely of photographs of the Khmer Rouge movement, particularly its leaders, from 1975 to 1998, Nhem En said, with 90 percent of his 2,000-strong photo collection having been taken by himself. His Tuol Sleng photos, he said, will likely not be included.
Should it prove successful, the museum may expand to include other attractions, perhaps even wax sculptures of Khmer Rouge leaders like Pol Pot or Ta Mok, but he said that for now he only has Ministry of Culture permission to exhibit the photos. As one of its last strongholds, Anlong Veng has had a long association with the Khmer Rouge, giving it what Nhem En calls a “notorious” reputation that could attract curious tourists.
The area is already home to a number of macabre attractions including the cremation site of Pol Pot and the burial stupa and mural-filled home of Ta Mok, a prominent Khmer Rouge military commander and the leader of the movement in its final months.
“When I look back at the world…some like Hitler, he killed foreigners, not his own people. It’s quite unique in Cambodia, Pol Pot killed his own people,” Nhem En said.
“In the world there are two things: good leaders, and people praise them, and also those leaders who are bad, and people want to know about them,” he added.
With the road to Anlong Veng from Siem Reap town now being entirely paved, save perhaps the last kilometer, Nhem En believes that Khmer Rouge tourism in the far north can be a reality.
“Say there are 2 million tourists in Siem Reap, maybe we will get 200,000 of them,” he said.
Eight kilometers outside Anlong Veng town, Nhem En has cleared a 12-hectare patch of sparse woodland to erect his museum. By year’s end the 8 meter by 30 meter temporary wooden museum should be in place, costing Nhem En and his family $50,000, he said. The wood has already been secured and crews are already digging a pond on the property, he added.
If he can secure enough funding, Nhem En said he plans to construct a more ambitious, permanent structure that he estimates will cost $320,000. Plans for this more elaborate Khmer Rouge showcase are prominently displayed on a billboard not far outside the center of Anlong Veng town.
To cobble together funds for the museum Nhem En has made appeals, he said, to 192 governments around the world, but will gladly accept offers from anyone interested in a joint venture. He at one point had a jewelry shop as a partner, but it backed out.
On film and in person, Nhem En is a man of contradictions, at once proud and pitiable, defiant and deferential.
He says he joined the Khmer Rouge in 1971 as a child of just 11, and remained with the group to practically the bitter end, when the vast majority of the waning rebel movement defected to the government in 1998. In 1976, at the age of 16 he was selected to go to China to study photography, film, and map drawing. Upon his return, he worked for a Khmer Rouge magazine and newspaper before being appointed to S-21.
When asked how he viewed his 27 years with the Khmer Rouge now, he said, “If I look back to the past, it was a bitter life.”
As for his days photographing those soon to die at Tuol Sleng, Nhem En said that he only did what he was told: “Everything I did was just following the regime’s orders,” he said. But at the same time Nhem En clearly has a deep pride concerning the work he did for the Khmer Rouge and the Democratic Kampuchea regime, and when it came to following orders, he says that he did so far better than most.
“Among millions of people, if we talk in terms of discipline, they chose the best children [to study in China],” he said.
“So the Khmer Rouge would talk about 12 disciplines…. I was very disciplined; I had a good ethic. Compared to the regime, even current monks cannot compare to the way that I complied with all the disciplines.”
In director Steven Okazaki’s “The Conscience of Nhem En” the photographer tells his interviewer that the work he did at S-21 was “necessary,” because the regime had to know who its enemies were.
Asked last week what unique qualities earned him the photography job at S-21, Nhem En responded: “I’m disciplined and had a good social ethic…that made everyone like me…. The most important thing is that I worked so hard…. That’s why the powerful people gave me the job. They gave me a good job and I had enough rice to eat and I had a chance to learn new skills.”
But Nhem En also said that he believes those same leaders that saw promise in him deserve to be put on trial for what happened from 1975 to 1979.
“As a leader, if you committed something wrong the world won’t turn a blind eye at you, as you see in Bosnia and Iraq. It’s correct to bring those [leaders] to justice,” he said, when asked if he supported the Khmer Rouge tribunal.
Nhem En said that his museum would not lionize the Khmer Rouge leadership, but merely try to document what they did year by year.
“We don’t praise the Khmer Rouge, but we will preserve the history of the Khmer Rouge,” he said, adding that the museum would have a logbook so visitors could register their thoughts about the Khmer Rouge and the content of the museum. And unlike the state-run Tuol Sleng, all profits from Nhem En’s museum would go to himself. And true to form, in recent years the 46-year-old has developed something of a reputation as a man who doggedly pursues money.
In 2007, he publicly lambasted the Khmer Rouge tribunal when he felt they didn’t give him a sufficient allowance when he came to Phnom Penh to testify.
“[Tribunal] Judges, prosecutors, police and staff are paid thousands of dollars. But for me, as a Khmer witness, I am paid only $5,” Nhem En complained at the time.
And for participating in this story, he requested before, during and even hours after last week’s interview for up to $200 to be interviewed. He ended up, however, speaking without receiving payment.
Sitting against a wooden pole in a small shelter at the museum site last week, Nhem En said he had no concerns about potentially profiting off of the tragedy of the Khmer Rouge.
“No one is behind me in establishing this museum, I am doing it on my own,” he said. “And even the trash collector, he also wants his history written for people to know.”
He added that he is thinking about the community at large and not just personal gain with this project, as it could bring tourism dollars to Anlong Veng district that could forward development and local businesses.
“Some people have the conscience to spur development and they contribute, there is nothing wrong with it. But some critics always criticize those who contribute to society, saying they are corrupt,” Nhem En said. “Those who contribute money, they try their best, just like me. For me, why if I spend my own money on this project and I have to sit here in the heat, why shouldn’t I keep the money for myself. This is my conscience. This is my wisdom.” “If you go fishing you supply bait,” he added. “When you fish you don’t want to catch only water, you want fish. You can catch either small fish or big fish. If I have a big fish I make soup [for everyone] and if I have a small fish I grill it [for myself].”
“Even Buddhist people still criticize Buddha, so I don’t care much about what critics say.”