BOU Meng may be one of only a handful of inmates who escaped from Tuol Sleng prison with his life, but that doesn’t mean his time there was any less intense than that of the estimated 16,000 who perished.
In a biography released Sunday, the artist describes how he was imprisoned and tortured, and how the assignment that saved him – painting portraits of Pol Pot and other Communist leaders – also came with the pressure of knowing that his work was being scrutinised by fiercely dedicated revolutionaries.
He recalls in the book that prison guards warned him: “If the portrait is not lifelike, you will be dead.”
Written by researcher and Cambodia Television Network news director Huy Vannak, the biography – titled Bou Meng: A survivor from Khmer Rouge Toul Sleng Prison S-21; Justice for the Future, not just for the Victims – traces the artist’s life from an impoverished childhood in Kampong Cham province to an emotional encounter with Tuol Sleng prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, nearly 30 years after the Khmer Rouge fell from power.
It tells the story of how a self-described peaceful artist who “never dreamed of joining any political movement” was swept up in the Khmer Rouge revolution in 1971, after hearing a radio broadcast in which Prince Norodom Sihanouk called for citizens to help “liberate” a country that had been overtaken by the Lon Nol regime the previous year.
After six years of service to Pol Pot, Bou Meng and his wife were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng, a turn of events he says he still doesn’t understand. “It is hard to describe my suffering,” he says in the book. “We had devoted everything, even our happiness to the revolution. We were rewarded with suffering and remorse.”
Bou Meng was separated from his wife upon arrival at the prison, and though he never learned the details of her fate, it is assumed that, like many prisoners, she was tortured before being executed and buried in a mass grave.
He was also separated from his two children, and has no idea of what happened to them.
After two months of detention, Bou Meng was interrogated and tortured for two weeks before the staff put him to work painting portraits for the regime.
Huy Vannak, who began work on Bou Meng’s biography in 2003, said in an interview Sunday that the same skill that saved the artist’s life was integral to the process of transmitting his life story to the page.
“During the writing process, he painted more than 100 paintings about his life history during the Khmer Rouge. I asked him to paint pictures so that he could restart his memories,” Huy Vannak said. “Sometimes, he would just paint a picture and then the story would come out by itself.”
The process was often a painful one, the author recalled.
“Sometimes he cried when he spoke about the misery. Especially when he talked about his wife. But also when he talked about the way the Khmer Rouge tortured him, the way the Khmer Rouge dehumanised him,” he said.
Huy Vannak writes in the book that “every family in Cambodia, from the King to the peasants, lost at least one member during this regime”, and that victims and perpetrators across the country are now living side by side, often uneasily.
He said Sunday that the personal histories of survivors such as Bou Meng effectively complement the trials unfolding at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. Individual stories, he said, can potentially reach a broader audience, and thus facilitate reconciliation in a manner that legal proceedings can’t.
“This book is another side of the history and the justice and healing process. I don’t think [the trial] alone can provide the truth, the whole truth of the Khmer history,” he said.
“At least we now all have a chance to acknowledge their suffering. When people suffer and you acknowledge their suffering, this is the way you can help victims to move forward, to move on.”
The first Khmer Rouge leader made to sit in the dock at the tribunal – Duch, Bou Meng’s former tormenter – was due to be sentenced early this year, but the verdict has not yet been reached.
Bou Meng said Sunday that he is concerned that he and other survivors – including fellow artist Vann Nath, who has been struggling with various illnesses – will not live to see justice served.
“I wish to God to help Vann Nath stay alive, at least until the court decision about Duch’s trial,” he said. “I want the court to do it quickly before my friend dies so he can know and feel better.”
In the meantime, he added, he is eager to see how the public responds to his book.
“I have never thought that I would have the opportunity to do this work when I was this age, and I hope that I live longer to see the book of my history being read by many people,” he said.