Framing hopes in Cambodia: a discussion of the artist Vann Nath and the Khmer Rouge Tribunal.
Paper short abstract:
This paper discusses the life of the Cambodian artist Vann Nath, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge S-21 prison, against the background of the ongoing Khmer Rouge Tribunal. It uses this as a springboard to ask how politico-cultural processes frame what may be hoped for in a post-conflict setting.
Paper long abstract:
This paper is written in honour of the Cambodian artist Vann Nath, who died on 5th September 2011. Vann Nath was among the seven survivors of the notorious S-21 Khmer Rouge prison in Phnom Penh, where an estimated 14,000 people were tortured prior to execution. His autobiographical narrative and an interview I conducted with him shortly before his death form the basis of the ethnography presented here. I shall describe how, although his paintings depict such horror and hopelessness, Vann Nath appeals to deeply rooted Khmer notions of righteousness that offer hope of restoring harmony in a profoundly disordered world. I shall set this against the background of the ongoing Khmer Rouge tribunal, at which the Director of S-21 has been sentenced to 35 years in prison. While the tribunal was ostensibly designed to offer hope of "justice" to Cambodians and lay history to rest, it continues to be fraught with internal and political conflicts. I suggest here that Vann Nath's story and its context present us with important questions about how politico-cultural processes frame what may be hoped for in this post-conflict setting.
Ethnographies of hope