Photographer at Khmer Rouge Torture Center Enters Politics

Nhem En, former chief photographer at a torture center run by Cambodia's Khmer Rouge, poses for photo with dozens photographs of former prisoners in a room at the Tuol Sleng genocide museum in 2007 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Photo: Heng Sinith / Associated Press

PHNOM PENH — A former Khmer Rouge member who was chief photographer at a prison where about 20,000 people were tortured before being executed says he is forming a political party to contest Cambodia’s 2018 general election.

Nhem En, 57, said Wednesday he is establishing the Khmer Family Party after concluding that leaders of Cambodia’s ruling and opposition parties are not sincerely working for the benefit of the people and nation.

An estimated 1.7 million people died from torture, starvation, exhaustion or lack of medical care under the Khmer Rouge’s rule of the country in 1975-79.

Nhem En took haunting portraits of prisoners at Tuol Sleng prison and his images are now displayed at the site, which has been turned into a genocide museum.

He served as deputy district governor in the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Veng after the communists laid down their arms in the late 1990s, but he resigned in 2005 and for a time joined the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party. Many former Khmer Rouge members joined the ruling Cambodian People’s Party of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Critics says Nhem En tried to profit on his notoriety by offering to sell the late Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot’s sandals and toilet seat, and by opening his own Khmer Rouge genocide ‘museum’ in Anlong Veng.

Nhem En said he doesn’t regard other political parties as adversaries.

“It doesn’t matter whether my party wins the general election in 2018 or not, but at least my name and party will be remembered by the voters,” he said.

The late Ieng Sary, who was the Khmer Rouge’s foreign minister, had set up another political party in 1996, but it did not contest the 1998 election and faded into oblivion.

Story: Sophen Cheang