Nhem En is trying to rehabilitate his former boss’s legacy.
He was once the chief photographer and propagandist for Pol Pot’s notorious Khmer Rouge, a regime that killed at least 1.5 million Cambodians.
So Nhem En is spearheading an effort to build a memorial to Pol Pot. In it, he plans to display 2,000 photographs of Pol Pot and more than 500 songs composed by the despot as well as personal artifacts such as sandals, hats, and uniforms. The project is also slated to include a replica of the regime’s notorious collective farms and labor camps, sometimes called the “killing fields“.
It might sound a delusional to build a memorial to one of the greatest villains of the 20th century. But the Khmer Rouge never left Cambodia. And the U.N.-backed war crimes trials against a handful of former regime leaders have helped prompt a resurgence of interest in the organization. The planned memorial is also supported by the government.
Nhem En, now a bureaucrat in Cambodia’s Interior Ministry, still speaks with respect about the man responsible for one of the 20th century’s worst genocides. In a rare interview with a Western journalist, he describes Pol Pot as “’calm, gentle and highly intelligent” man with sincere intentions for all Cambodians before he became ”secretive, distrustful and brutal’”.
Time has not, apparently, changed Nhem En’s view of the victims of the regime. Although he claims to remember every snapshot he has taken, Nhem En says he cannot describe what is means to him to have taken the photographs of 10,000 prisoners who were sent to their deaths. ‘I had no feelings about that … I had the responsibility to do my work 100 per cent for the organization,’ Nhem En says, referring to the Khmer Rouge.’I must work, think, talk, walk, eat for the organization and not speak to anyone.’
Nhem En’s also spoke about his country’s need to move beyond the atrocities of the Khmer regime. Like the current Cambodian government, he opposes any additional cases against leaders of the Khmer Rouge. ”It’s time for peace and reconciliation,” Nhem says. “More trials will divide Cambodians once again.”
Which begs the question, what impact will a memorial to Pol Pot have on Cambodian society?