Hen Sophal points to the sullied saffron robe of a monk in this early incarnation of his Khmer Rouge memorial painting, which shows Pol Pot enthroned on a mountain of skulls and with a halo composed of Khieu Samphan, Nuon Chea and Ieng Sary. But Sophal has since blurred the features of the three still-living former KR bosses, fearing for his security.
OR 43-year-old Hen Sophal, all the talk about a Khmer Rouge tribunal has caused
one big change in his life. It has inspired him to undertake a project that he has
wanted to do for years: he has started to paint a picture.
Not that Sophal hasn't painted lots of pictures before. By profession, he's an artist
who exhibits and sells his work in a small shop along Street 178 in Phnom Penh.
But this one is different - very different - from the usual idyllic landscapes and
Angkorean temples on display in Sophal's shop. The motif on this one is a massive,
horrifying pile of bones and skulls, and circling vultures - enthroned upon it a
beaming Pol Pot with his associates. Sophal hopes that this painting will have a
noticeable effect on Cambodian society.
"I am painting this picture for several reasons," he says. "First,
I want the Khmer Rouge tribunal to be taken seriously. All former Khmer Rouge leaders
should stand trial. Second, I want to remind old and young Cambodians of the Pol
Pot regime. I want them to remember their anger against the Khmer Rouge as well as
attract the attention of the whole world . . .
"And third, I want to educate young Cambodians who did not live during Pol Pot
times. They don't know the real taste of the Khmer Rouge regime, but at least they
can learn about it by looking at my painting."
And Sophal is certain that the collective memory of Khmer Rouge atrocities is slowly
fading among many Cambodians. During the past month, as he was working on his painting,
many people passed by his shop. Foreigners stopped to ask questions about the picture,
whereas Cambodians though perhaps initially surprised by the skeletons, then look
"My painting is a good way to survey the memory of the people," says Sophal.
"Do they remember or do they forget the Pol Pot regime? From the reactions I
have seen, it looks like they forget."
Sophal says he didn't paint the picture to make money. He has worked on the painting
for more than a month now and is still adding and changing details. Before that he
spent three months developing his idea for the piece. In the same period of time
he could have painted four pictures to sell in his shop.
But Sophal wanted to do something different, and it took some time to work out the
right idea. Other artists like Tuol Sleng survivor Van Nath have painted pictures
of concrete situations during the Khmer Rouge regime, such as people being tortured
or executed. Sophal was aiming for something more symbolic.
"The painting had to represent the suffering and suppression of every level
of Cambodian society at the time," he explains.
Certainly, the painting is rich in detail and symbols. Among the skulls and bones
lie a torn saffron monk's robe representing the destruction of religion. Part of
a guitar symbolizes the devastation of the arts, and a piece of Angkorean rubble
shows the vandalism against Cambodia's cultural heritage.
A soldier's helmet stands for the Lon Nol soldiers who were the first to be purged.
Several books represent the educated and intellectuals who were later killed. A broken
camera and an open book reading "All people have the right to express themselves
freely" symbolizes the severed connections to the outside world and the loss
Last but not least, a hammer represents the workers and a sickle the farmers - the
people who Pol Pot said were the most important in his new utopian society, but who
nevertheless paid for the revolution with their innocent lives.
"It was very difficult to compose the painting. It was like creating a film,
only I had to act like the producer, the director and the actors all by myself. I
collected all my memories and all my feelings before I sat down and painted,"
says Sophal, who shares a past of four years of fear, hard work and dying family
members with hundreds of thousands of other Cambodians.
On top of the heap of skeletons and destroyed objects sits a smiling Pol Pot, dressed
in black pajamas and blue krama and holding Mao's Little Red Book in his hand. He
looks young and self-confident.
"When you are young, you have more passion and energy than when you are old,
so that's the way I wanted him to look. Besides, this was the way Pol Pot was, when
he killed so many people," explains Sophal.
To him, it was vital that the old Khmer Rouge supremo's face appeared in the painting.
"We must know and remember Pol Pot's face. I know we see it sometimes in the
papers, but to attract people's attention it is important to show it in a different
way than simple small photographs," says Sophal.
However, other faces have disappeared from the painting. Behind Pol Pot stands a
group of men who, when the Post photographed the painting, were Pol Pot's closest
surviving associates: President Khieu Samphan, Brother No 2 Nuon Chea, and Foreign
Minister Ieng Sary.
But Sophal has since changed the features of the faces, so that they are no longer
identifiable but look like any communist cadre.
"I changed them because I feared for my security," he says.
He is still not sure what will happen to the potent painting once it is finished,
but would like to see it exhibited in a place where many people will see it.
"I don't want to hang it in my shop. I will keep it hidden until it can be shown
somewhere else. Unfortunately, I don't think I have the resources to arrange an exhibition
myself. Most importantly, I have to finish the painting before a trial against the
Khmer Rouge starts," says Sophal.