Four decades on, Cambodia is still grappling with its past — not just the tragedy of the murderous Khmer Regime, but also the civil war that followed and continued through until the late 1990s.
Whilst many Cambodians are still seeking a cathartic release from the terrible events of the past, the country’s entrenched government continues to politicize the events, inhibiting efforts to obtain an objective understanding of what happened. With the government’s control of information, it is very hard within Cambodian politics to have an open and honest conversation about recent history.
None of this matters much to Mr Bou Meng, however, a former inmate of the country’s most notorious Khmer Rouge centre of interrogation and execution (Tuol Sleng Prison), who has little appreciation of politics. Once a farmer, Bou was incarcerated, tortured and yet spared a prison death sentence because of his talents as an artist as he quite literally, painted for his life, producing artworks of Pol Pot and historical communist figures. He was one of just seven adult prisoners to survive the ordeal when Tuol Sleng Prison was evacuated on the 7th January 1979.
Today Bou ekes out a living as a painter and writer. Through his work, memories of one of humanity’s most horrific periods are preserved and have become primary source evidence in the pursuit of justice documented through his art the brutality of the regime. Since the end of the regime in 1998, Bou has served as a witness in the United Nation’s sponsored tribunal that is trying to bring to justice the now, very small number of surviving Khmer Rouge leaders for their roles in the deaths of some two million of their compatriots.
“As long as I am alive to tell my story, what happened here cannot be denied. I am a Tuol Sleng survivor and a living witness. That is why I come here.”
In recent years, Bou has returned to the former Tuol Sleng prison every day that his health allows, to tell his story to those who will listen. He often sits opposite the original gates he first entered as a prisoner, not far from where he and his wife were tortured. There, he relives his harrowing ordeal in the hope that history will not be forgotten, and lessons will be learned.
Note: Student Educational Adventures can arrange prison survivors or former prison staff to talk to our student groups to explain their ordeal. Themes of perpetrator/victim, guilt and justice will be discussed as well as time for Q&A.