Phnom Penh: Cambodia's sobering reminder of Pol Pot's rule 

click to flip through (2) A Buddhist stupa houses the exhumed skulls of the victims of the Khmer Rouge on 17 glass-encased levels
  • A Buddhist stupa houses the exhumed skulls of the victims of the Khmer Rouge on 17 glass-encased levels

The horrific legacy of the first person convicted in the mass murder of an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians has become one of this city's top tourist attractions. Kaing Guek Eav, a.k.a. Comrade Duch, a one-time teacher who became the head of Phnom Penh's notorious Security Prison 21, confessed to ordering the murders of thousands of men, women and children at Choeung Ek, the killing fields on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, between 1975 and 1979. In July 2010, he was sentenced to 35 years in jail for crimes against humanity in Cambodia's Khmer Rouge genocide. After credits for time served, he will be behind bars an estimated 11 hours for each of the 14,000 murders he ordered.

Four decades on from the murders, tourists in tank tops and flip-flops wander through the two-hectare killing fields at Choeung Ek, which had been a Chinese cemetery before Pol Pot's regime made it a place of infamy. Chhut Phearith, a university student in his fourth year of a tourism degree who works for LMN Travel Tours in Phnom Penh, says the killing fields are one of the capital's most popular tourist attractions. "People are upset, and they want to know the history of the Khmer Rouge."

The killing fields today have a benign look. Butterflies dance across the coarse grass. Chickens and geese dart about, the latter vocalizing lustily. An imposing Buddhist stupa houses the exhumed skulls of Khmer Rouge victims on 17 glass-encased levels, as well as the clothing they were wearing when they were exterminated. There's something jarring about the elegance of the structure — it has a roof made of coloured tiles ornamented with delicate finials, as seen on palaces and temples — and the grisliness of its contents. Nearby, signs urge visitors not to tread on the mass graves, not all of which have been excavated. Even more incredibly, scraps of victims' clothing still lie on the dusty paths.

The Khmer Rouge under its leader, Pol Pot, ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, attempting to recreate the country as an agrarian communist utopia. To that end, Pol Pot ordered the deaths of all he felt opposed him, including intellectuals, the religious and foreigners. The order extended to women, children and babies. One sign draws visitors' attention to a tree against which executioners dashed infants, holding them by their ankles.

There are some unintentionally funny things at this most sobering of Cambodian tourist attractions. At the site's museum, for example, a notice asks visitors not to bring in shoes, hats, cameras, guns or hand grenades. Hand grenades? Could anyone possibly be carrying one and, if so, would that person heed a sign?

Still, visitors can't help but leave sobered. What happened at Choeung Ek was one of history's tragic aberrations. And it's not over. Like the Nazis before them, some Khmer Rouge cadres have escaped, while others have gone underground or taken new identities. Comrade Duch, now a born-again Christian, is expected to be a key witness in the trials of at least four who have been apprehended.

Popular painter's fans include royalty

It's no wonder that Québec artist Stéphane Delaprée is making Cambodians — and tourists — smile. His happy-face paintings have given the country a new way of seeing itself and have even won praise from the country's late king, Norodom Sihanouk, who died in October. Where most contemporary art in this southeast Asian country once depicted its famous Angkor temples, now a host of Cambodian artists shamelessly copy Delaprée's hugely popular cartoon style.

The French-born Quebecker was upset when the imitations began appearing 10 years ago. "But finally this French specialist in image and advertising told me, 'Stéphane, be proud of it. They copy Louis Vuitton and Chanel, and in Vietnam they copy Picasso and all the masters. There are a lot of other artists in Cambodia now and they don't copy them.'" So Delaprée, who has lived in Phnom Penh since 1994, concluded that his imitators legitimize his simple, colourful style, which he often describes as mignon, or cute, but not quite kitsch.

His large acrylic paintings and smaller silkscreen prints show women carrying fruit on their heads; saffron-robed Buddhist monks walking in single file; whole families on motorcycles, often carrying chickens or pigs; palm trees, water buffalos and elephants.

In Québec, he'd been a cartoonist and edited Bambou, a cartoonists' magazine. "In my cartoons I used a realistic style. It's funny because 20 years afterward I started to be a painter and I used a cartoon style."

He favours bright colours, including azure, yellow, orange and cotton-candy pink. He starts by drawing on the canvas with a felt pen, and the black outlines remain in the finished work. Everyone he depicts, even the animals, wears a U-shaped smile. Eyes are smaller semi-circles and no one has a nose. He leaves them out, he said, because many Khmers are sensitive about their noses, feeling they're too broad and flat.

Delaprée, born in 1956, signs his work "Stef" and makes enough of it to stock four Happy Painting galleries in Cambodia. His two-metre-high canvases sell for as much as $4,000, but most tourists go for the smaller, matted pieces that they can take home for a few dollars.

He employs 16 people — one of them a chauffeur for his black Lexus — to perform the tasks he doesn't enjoy. "Me, I just want to live from what I do," said Delaprée, who once received a letter from Sihanouk thanking him from his "noble contribution to the social and cultural development" of Cambodia.

A modest man, he used to think he was "not a real artist, but just a guy who had a small talent who was able to live, thanks to tourists." Recent commissions from corporations and art collectors say otherwise.

He believes people enjoy his work because "it's simple to understand and carries good vibrations. For me, the world is completely crazy and very far from what it should be. And this is just simple: beautiful woman, beautiful papa, little boy, little girl, nice vegetation — just cute."


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