Archive September 2011
|BAYES THEOREM AND A MYSTERIOUS BAG OF BANGKOK BAGELS
There was a recent court
case in England involving a murder conviction based on expert witness testimony
premised on Bayes’ Theorem. That theory, of course you will recall, comes from
an 18th century English mathematician whose name coincidentally was
named Bayes. Actually the theory is intended to give a mathematical probability
that given one event has happened suggests the relationship with a related
event. Often it has been suggested that Bayes’ Theorem supplies the math to
demonstrate what our common sense, logical mind tells us is the connection
between things related in time.
For example, the cop pulls
over someone who has run a red light and the driver has alcohol on his breath.
The cop asked, “Sir, have you been drinking?” The driver slurs his words, “Not a
drop, officer.” The driver smells of beer and there is an open bottle of beer on
the passengers seat that is half empty. You don’t need to be a mathematician to
draw a conclusion that the probability is high that the driver is lying and that
indeed he has been drinking.
But a recent UK court
decision threw out a murder conviction on the basis the footwear expert’s faulty
calculations and poor explanations concerning footprints left behind by the
murderer. The evidence came down to whether the accused had worn the Nike
running shoes that had left tracks at the murder scene. If the judgment had been
left that the expert had got it all wrong, then Bayes’ Theorem would remain in
an expert’s arsenal and effective weapon at that. But court attacked the
As the Guardian
reported, “In the shoeprint murder
case, for example, it meant figuring out the chance that the print at the crime
scene came from the same pair of Nike trainers as those found at the suspect’s
house, given how common those kinds of shoes are, the size of the shoe, how the
sole had been worn down and any damage to it. Between 1996 and 2006, for
example, Nike distributed 786,000 pairs of trainers. This might suggest a match
doesn’t mean very much. But if you take into account that there are 1,200
different sole patterns of Nike trainers and around 42 million pairs of sports
shoes sold every year, a matching pair becomes more significant.”
The problem was the expert
couldn’t testify as to the precise number of the type of Nike trainers had been
sold in England. He relied on what the Guardian called “rough national
estimates.” The judge decided that unless the underlying statistics were “firm”
the Nike shoeprint evidence wasn’t reliable enough to justify a murder
The analysis of the court
has led others to conclude that there is a misunderstanding between judges,
prosecutors and lawyers on the one hand, and mathematicians on the other. Many
criminal cases are based on circumstantial evidence. The question is how to
assess such evidence, and place it in a context that ranks the odds of the
evidence pointing to the guilt of the accused. Bayes’ Theorem can never provide
a certain, fixed connection. It can only give the odds of such a
Something like Bayes’
Theorem is a likely companion for law enforcement agencies. Profiling has a
Bayes’ Theorem backbone, suggesting that the odds of catching a bomber increases
in the presence of certain age, gender, racial and other personal
characteristics. This is why at airports you are told the searches are ‘random’
because many people are uncomfortable with the idea of being profiled. Though
from a Bayes’ Theorem point of view, calculating the odds by taking into account
such factors may increase the odds of catching a bomber before he/she has set
off the bomb.
On Tuesday, I was riding
the BTS from Chidlom Station to Asoke Station. I had been to meet a friend for
lunch, and afterwards, I stopped to buy 18 bagels for a friend who lives in
Chiang Mai. The bagels were put in a brown bag and the brown bag slipped into a
clear plastic bag, which I carried. On the train, I noticed two police officers
had cornered a black man on the Nana Station platform. One of the cops flipping
through what looked like a passport. I figured the cops had profiled him: black,
T-shirt, jeans, young and in the Nana area of Sukhumvit Road.
When I got off the train
at Asoke, I walked toward the MRT (the underground train in Bangkok) only to be
immediately joined by a uniformed Thai cop. He saddled up beside me. “What’s in
your bag?” he said. “Bagels.” He looked at me. I asked him, “Do you know what a
bagel is?” Apparently not wanting to admit he didn’t, he said, “Bagels.” I said,
“Bagels.” Then he reached toward my bag and started squeezing the bagels. Not
once, but two or three times. The top, the middle and close to the bottom of the
bag. It was bagels all the way down.
In Thai cop school there
must be a class where the resident Bayesian expert teaches street cops that
bagels have a certain squeeze identification factor that increases the odds that
indeed they are bagels as opposed to drugs, a bomb, pirated CDs, body parts, or
any number of things that cops think that foreigners traveling between the BTS
and MRT might be transporting.
Then he asked (in English)
where I was from. “Canada,” I said. And I asked where he was from. “The South,”
he said. He asked where I was going. I told him my soi number. Then I asked
where he was going. He shrugged. The policeman didn’t seem to have any place in
mind as to where he was going next.
Having had a good squeeze
of bagels, he looked slightly disappointed. He said that he was from the South
of Thailand. If there was one place, where a good theory based on Bayes’ Theorem
ought be used, it was in the South, where daily bombing and assassination is an
odds on certainty. I left him watching as I walked through the scanner frame to
the MRT and the security were waiting. I took off my backpack, which has
multiple zipper pockets, unzipped one of the smaller ones, the security guard,
glanced, turned away and I walked through. He had no interest in my bagels.
Didn’t ask to look. Didn’t request a squeeze. Come to think of it, the cop never
asked me to open my backpack.
When you come to Bangkok,
you need to understand that Bayes’ Theorum is colored by local culture and what
might seem odds on a bag of bagels to you, is something quite sinister to a Thai
cop who by the way didn’t seem to know where I could buy lox and cream
|Fishing Inside the Brass Cow: Offshore Violence and Murder
In advance of publication, Steven Pinker’s new book The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes has been getting stellar reviews. The Guardian’s David Runciman has weighed in with such a review. The premise of the new book is that until the Enlightenment, the world was an exceptionally violent place.
Murder was common. Violence was the usual result of strangers meeting. Torture was widely practiced. As David Runciman noted in his review of Pinker’s book, murder was often a spectator sport. A victim might be stuffed inside a ‘hollow brass cow’ and roasted alive over a raging fire. The brass cow had an open mouth to amplify the screams of the person cooking inside, providing entertainment to those in attendance: a primitive jukebox broadcasting the lyrics of a victim being roasted alive. Remember: these people, both victim and audience, were our ancestors (may be not the victims unless they had reproduced prior to entering the brass cow). We come from this heritage. Historically our species killed each other on an epic level. We watched and were entertained by the slow death of others. Next time someone tells you they wish to return to the glorious past, mention to them what they thought about the ‘brass cow.’
The obvious question by the person in the back of the classroom, “Professor Pinker, What about all the people killed in the two world wars in the 20th century?” He’s well-prepared for that one. Those wars and the slaughter only revealed what amateurs we are in the murder business. The killing was small change compared to the past. Also we tend to pay more attention to events closer to our own life times and invest that knowledge as having a privileged position.
What I’d like to find out when I finally have my copy of the new book is whether Pinker addresses killings that take place on the high seas. I’m prepared to accept that most of the slaughter racked up by our collective ancestors likely occurred on the ground, in forest, mountains, pastures, and the like. But I also have a hunch, and it is only that, the killing that happened offshore in many parts of the world remains locked in the old ‘brass cow’ cycle.
Thailand’s fishing industry, which is heavily reliant on use of Burmese and Cambodian immigrant workers for crew is a case in point. The BBC reported Thai fishing boat captains workplace consisted of drugs put into drinks, routine beatings and random acts of violence. Burmese crews worked under these conditions 20-hours a day for weeks and months, some even years. The BBC also reported an eyewitness who saw three of his fellow Burmese crewmembers killed on a Thai fishing boat.
The Bangkok Post quoted Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch, who wrote the report, saying “marine police in one Thai coastal area told him they found up to 10 bodies a month washed up on the shore.” That leaves unanswered how many more crewmembers were killed and their bodies have been recovered.
It’s not only the Burmese who get a bullet in the head for displeasing the captain on a Thai fishing boat. The Cambodians who are impressed into working as crewmembers on Thai fishing boats report receive similar treatment. The Bangkok Post reported, “In a 2009 study, more than half of Cambodian migrants trafficked onto Thai boats surveyed by the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP) said they had seen their captains killing one of their colleagues.”
The eyewitness accounts are difficult if not impossible to independently verify. And that is a major part of the problem. A fishing boat offshore is an island into itself. What happens on the boat though seems to indicate a page out of Lord of the Flies. There are no authorities around. There are no bystanders who heard the shot. The bodies are found in the street or alley. This is starting to look like ancient life before civilization took root.
While Thai fishing industry spokesman have said it is ‘impossible’ to have forced labour on the fishing boats, and Burmese and Cambodian crewmembers who found their way onto boats through brokers have ‘volunteered’ for the job. NGOs dispute the Thai fishing industry position saying that thousands of people have been trafficked onto boats over the last decade. The reality of their employment conditions however they got onto a fishing boat it turns out wasn’t exactly what they had in mind. No one told them once they left dry land they had entered the domain of the ‘brass cow’ which roam the open seas. The US has placed Thailand on a ‘watch list’ for the past two years due to the problem of human trafficking.
The Thai government has acknowledged a problem. It has done what governments normally do when faced with a difficult problem: they set up a commission to study the problem.
If the land under our feet has generally become far less dangerous, the planks under the feet of immigrant workers on Thai fishing boats are a reversion to that dangerous world us land lovers no longer experience.
How does one go about bringing the law of the land to the fleets of fishing boats? While Thailand has an acknowledged problem, it might be reasonable to assume in the competitive world of fishing, other countries may have fishing fleets that are floating ‘brass cows.’ Part of the problem is that the smaller fishing boats can stay at sea for months, delivering their catch and receiving supplies (and fresh crew) from a mother boat. Once someone is on such a boat, there is no telling when he will ever see land again. Workers on fishing boats outside of Thai waters are exempt from labor protection under Thai law. The brass hard cold reality is they are exempt from all laws.
Would an industry regulation requiring CCTV camera monitoring on fishing boats reduce the problem? Some would say it’s not practical, or too expensive, and unless a camera covers every angle and has night vision, the captain would find a way to dispatch a crewmember with a bullet in the head. If cameras don’t work, then why not use Radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology? The workers have electronic tags that use radio waives to identify and track their movements. If we can use RIFD to track hotel linen or our pet dogs and cats, why not require fishing industry workers to have such a means of identification, for their protection? The problem is the chip needs an external GPS device to work. Such a device might be disguised as a key chain, watch, or bracelet. Those could be easily removed and thrown away by the captain, and even if undetected, the battery life on a ship that might be on the seas for months wouldn’t be sufficient. Sanctions or boycotts are unlikely to work either. Changes in government policy in places like Burma and Thailand extending protection to migrant workers is possible, but enforceability remains a real issue.
Until there is either a technological break through that allows offshore monitoring of fishing boat crews, or an incentive given to captains as a bounty not to kill members of his crew, it is likely that bodies of Burmese and Cambodian fishing crewmembers will continue to wash up on the shore and many other bodies will be lost and forgotten. Somalia pirates have shown the world a picture of how vulnerable others are on the high seas. Thai fishing boats have demonstrated the perils of cheap, bonded labour. I have a feeling this is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the reach of law to the high seas where kidnapping and murder is a profitable business model.
Pinker’s ‘long peace’ post-1945 might just need a footnote: onshore peace. Offshore the murdering seems to continue just like in the good old days on land, in that distant mist, the place where those who fear the future wish they could return. But as Pinker suggests going back in a time machine, we’d find ourselves in a place not unlike the deck of a Thai fishing boat.
|Faking it in Bangkok: Dummy CCTV cameras
Most people are aware of
the presence of CCTV cameras in major cities. Bangkok is no exception. There are
apparently 10,000 of these eyes tracking your every move. CCTV cameras play the
modern role of medieval gargoyles, staring down, watchful, vigilant as you go
along your way. Looking to keep you safe, out of trouble, and like a good Nanny
ever mindful of your welfare. CCTV cameras have become that Orwellian eye that
will never let you out of sight once you step into the street.
Let’s put this way, some
Nannies are better sighted than others.
The news of 500 fake CCTV
cameras has local officials scrambling for an explanation. This is the tentative
number. Like many round numbers it may well balloon as the investigation
continues. And as one would expect, some of the explanations sound as real as
the cameras. One official did what you would probably do: pass the buck to the
Traffic and Transportation Department telling them to address the problem and
explain to the public about the fake cameras.
Sure enough the department
complied, saying that fake cameras were set up near hospitals, schools and areas
where political rallies were normally held. Those are exactly the areas I’d
choose to put fake cameras. If you can fool anyone, it’s got to be the ill,
students and demonstrators. These people see a camera and believe it is watching
them hobbling down the broken pavement on crutches, or clutching schoolbooks, or
carrying banners and hand clappers.
As with many of these
stories, the more they explain the more you wonder if the real cameras ought to
be inside the office of the official explainers. We are told that those who had
been a victim of a crime had asked for footage. Something that might be useful
to identify the wrongdoer. The crime victims were told the cameras were ‘broken.
The original story surfaced on Pantip website and the mass media seeing blood in
the water dove in. Nothing better than a story about ‘fakes’ in Bangkok to start
a feeding frenzy.
In a broad definition
(remember Clinton’s definition of ‘sex’?) the CCTV cameras were indeed broken.
But it is a bit like saying the life scale dummy of a police officer at a busy
intersection can’t testify as a witness to a road accident because he’s
Officials have said that
many dummy cameras can be found on Ratchadamnoen road along with real CCTV
cameras. Makes one wonder whether there are any casinos along that road? Just
“I’m sorry for the people
who asked police for footage and images from security cameras for evidence
against suspects but the BMA told them that the cameras were broken when the in
fact they were dummy cameras.”
Dummy cameras they are
admitted to be, but “don’t call them fakes,” says the Bangkok Governor MR. Sukhumbhand
Resisting the word ‘fake’
in favor of the word ‘dummy’ is a slippery slope. If it were a story about a
‘fake’ cop would the good Governor counsel that the press should refer to the
person as a ‘dummy’ cop? Given this is Bangkok, it is understandable the desire
to avoid the word ‘fake’ as that does draw a lot of international attention that
authorities would wish to avoid.
A great cartoon appeared
in the Thai-language popular daily ThaiRath :
The poster (with the image
of MR. Sukhumbhand on the lower left) reads: “Prepared to take care of
Bangkokians for life”
The caption (on the upper
right corner) reads: “Taking Care… In Fake Style”
But Bangkok citizens have
been assured by the city authorities of their commitment to replace the fake
cameras with the real ones. We don’t exactly have a timetable when this will
happen but I am certain in six months someone will pop the question as to
whatever happened to those ‘fake’ I mean ‘dummy’ CCTV cameras, and I will yet
have more material for another blog.
Bangkok Post reports:
Sukhumbhand Paribatra said on Tuesday the fake cameras were intended to help
scare off criminal activity. Later, when City Hall, had the budget funding, it
installed real ones.” The Governor has watched over the installation of 10,000
CCTV cameras, and promises another 10,000 will be installed on his
What remains to be
released by authorities is the cost of the fake cameras. Did they get a discount
from the price of the real cameras? And how did the workers installing them know
whether a camera was a fake or not? Were they told? Could the workers have mixed
them up? Is there someone assigned to go around and test the camera? Will that
test distinguish the real and fake cameras? Would some owners pay to keep the
fake cameras in place? What will they do with the fake cameras? Auction them?
Burn them? This could get quite interesting.
Fake CCTV camera need to
be placed in context. There is a bit of a history to recall. Bangkok watchers
will remember the GT200 devices (from the UK) purchased in large quantity and at
major expense for soldiers to use in detecting and clearing roadside bombs in
the South. The company making the GT200 got into hot water in England after it
was disclosed the devices couldn’t distinguish a frog or banana from a
What was the reaction in
Thailand when it was discovered there was no science at work inside the GT200?
Denial. First thing to remember is all of GT200s were ‘fake’ in the sense that
they didn’t work. Only they weren’t bought as ‘fake’ devices but as the real
thing. But apparently the fakes did give ‘comfort’ much like an amulet gives
comfort. Officials at the time said they many soldiers had ‘belief’ or ‘faith’
in GT200 devices as assisting them in finding unexploded roadside bombs. That
seemed to close the debate down.
So far no Thai official
has come out and said they had ‘faith’ that the CCTV fake cameras worked, but
apparently officials had ‘faith’ the fakes would fool the public. Indeed Apriak
the prior Governor, and M.R. Sukhumband, the current Governor, have taken the
position that the dummies who live in Bangkok were deterred by the fake, I mean
dummy, CCTV cameras.
Now that it is disclosed
there is (at least) a one in twenty chance that the CCTV camera watching over
your illegal casino is fake, you can play the odds. Take a flutter. Big Brother
might just be faking it. He’s not really watching you. But there is a nice
symmetry at work: Fake cameras watching over roadside vendors selling fake Rolex
watches, fake Viagra, and fake perfume to a number of fake tourists who are
really ‘brand’ agents seeking evidence for a bust.
What do we hear from City
Hall about the fate of the fake cameras?
Bangkok Post, “We’ll replace the
dummy cameras with actual CCTV cameras as soon as possible,” said Mr
He added that 10,000 CCTV
cameras under the Pracha Wiwat scheme were operational and 20,000 more cameras
will be installed in the capital within next year.
Sukhumbhand Paribatra said on Tuesday the fake cameras were intended to help
scare off criminal activity. Later, when City Hall, had the budget funding, it
installed real ones.”
If it turns out that one
out of twenty of those beautiful Thai smiles are also fake, that’s probably a
better ratio than in most other countries. Still it is a worry for the Tourist
Authority of Thailand, which may have to go back to the drawing boards for a new
campaign to bring travelers to the Land of Smiles. “Thailand Mostly
Real” or “Enjoy! You’re Safe with Our Dummies.”
|Novelists Twittering Across the Multiverse : Skinny tails and Fat tails
I have a Twitter account
under the name “Bangkok007.” Exhibit A in a future trial to prove my maturity
stalled like a glider in a sudden updraft. Every so often I find a notice in my
email inbox that someone has decided to ‘follow’ me. As I rarely tweet anything,
I wonder why anyone would bother. I suspect there are lists that people choose
names from like one of those Sukhumvit Road buffets: olives, imported cheese,
bread sticks, mashed carrots, lamb—you get the idea. There’s always room on the
plate for a tab of @Bangkok007 as he’s pretty quiet and the name and number
looks rather nice between the salad and meat dishes.
Yesterday I received a
notice of a new follower David Harry who has written two novels set on S. Padre
island which I gather is somewhere in the hurricane path off Texas. One of his
titles, The Padre Puzzle, is the top selling book on the island. If
every man is an island, then every island needs a writer to record the toiling
of the bell. I can’t promise David Harry much by way of “twitter wisdom.” A term
that sounds vaguely as if belongs in the same category as military intelligence.
Today I received yet another follower who describes herself as an “eBook
novelists of historical thrillers & foreign intrigue.” These two new Twitter
followers may be the beginning of a trend for Bangkok007, and trend or not are a
good enough reason to fulfill my Friday blog commitment.
When a writer decides to
set a series of crime fiction on an island (Britain and Australia being
exceptions) there is a risk of a local bestseller but one that doesn’t bring in
droves off non-islanders to queue at the local bookstore (if one still exists in
the readers’ neighborhood). The same kind of problem I faced when determined
against all market research to set my fiction in exotic foreign locales such as
Thailand, Burma, Vietnam and Cambodia (you start to see an emerging pattern:
Bangkok007, exotic locations, no long queues at the bookstore, and not enough
imagination to pick an island).
The hardcore reality is
that while people love to dream about a holiday on an island with one of those
funny red drinks with a tiny bamboo umbrella and staring at the sea, or in
visiting different countries with unusual languages, customs, food and elephant
polo matches, their armchair interest isn’t necessarily matched with their
armchair reading interest in crime fiction.
Crime fiction really has
no middle. The body is absent. But it has two long tails. Crime fiction is
basically the skinny tail and the fat tail. That makes for a funny looking
snake. But there it is. What biology can’t contemplate, capitalism creates out
of pure imagination. One end of that tail (the under-nourished, shivered-up end)
sells loads of books to the locals who can’t wait to read about each other,
places they know, and crimes and lapses of morality that have happened in
spitting distance from their old high school. The problem is there are only a
handful of locals and most of them borrow books or buy them secondhand. The
other end of the tail (where the champagne and Cuban cigars wait) is the
bestselling crime fiction authors who continue to mine ore from the old
coalfaces in London, Edinburgh, New York, and Los Angeles. Lesser cities trail
like vapor from these fast moving city super jets. You almost never find them
writing about islands.
There is, however, a wild
card. Like a lottery winner who is your neighbor and know longer talks to you.
This happens in fiction, too. That parochial crime novel with its local setting
and local story ignites an international imagination. It rattles like a freight
train with the brakeman dead and the dead man’s throttle malfunctioning.
Everything in its path—reviewers, readers, postman, and booksellers—become a
series of railway ties on the way to the bank. Read the press and you find how
these elements of the book trade spread themselves out on the tracks. They
celebrate in a unified voice how glad that this postage stamp of a place has
become an irreplaceable part of their literary lives.
Then Alexander McCall
Smith comes along with a series set in remote dusty village in southern African
village and sells millions of copies. Or Stieg Larsson is buried just as his
Swedish crime fiction set in a remote town in Sweden hits like a giant vacuum
cleaner, sucking millions of dollars from the pockets of readers around the
world. How these writers mutated from skinny tail to fat and rich cat tail
remains an evolutionary mystery. They are examples of how the long tail at the
extremely profitable end of crime fiction is a creature sprung from the jaws of
the quantum uncertainty principle.
If David Deutsch (The
Beginning of Infinity, which is not a crime fiction novel) is right, then
somewhere in the infinite multiverse you are selling crime
fiction as if you were Alexander McCall Smith or Stieg Larsson, and they are
selling fiction to audiences like that of David Harry, myself, and a thousand
other skinny tailed crime authors. The beautiful thing about David Deutsch’s
theory of the multiverse is you don’t have to do the hard work of actually
writing that crime fiction novel, you only have to think about writing it and
imagine yourself a bestseller, with complimentary fruit baskets and flowers in
your hotel suite, groupies hounding you for autographs, and a waiting limo to
take you for a guest appearance on the Daily Show. That is already happening to
one of your “you’s” in one of the infinite multiverses. The Padre
Puzzle has been Number 1 on The New York Times Bestseller list for
638 weeks in one of those places, and so is yours.
Now we’ve established that
crime fiction publishing is really about monsters that suddenly appear out of
the shoals without warning, raise their heads and sink their teeth into your
wallet. Don’t resist. Fork out the fee for being bitten. Read the book. Or at
least the 50 first pages. We can relax as writers, readers, reviewers,
publishers and the rest of those interested in crime fiction because somewhere
in one of the universes, your monster has just washed up on a big shore and is
devouring readers like killer whales feeding on shrill.
As a novelist you’ll find
your choices are limited to one of two classes: the killer whale or a shrill,
depending on which universe you find yourself. Get use to the fact that because
you’re a shrill in a huge cloud of fellow shrills fleeing the mouth of a killer
whale, and in that other universe invisible at the end of your fingertips you
are that killer whale. Take that piece of wisdom and reduce it to 140
characters. And remember Bangkok007 doesn’t ever tweet much about anything and
that’s why he continues to attract legions of new followers who are bestsellers
somewhere in the multiverse.
There is an awful redundancy in the linkage to Khmer Rouge and Noir. Paired with a city whether Bangkok, New York, Moscow or Berlin, noir defines a mood, a texture of menace, despair, loss and doom. How does any artist, writer or painter capture on a page or canvas the vast abyss of darkness that represented the crimes of the Khmer Rouge against their own people? How can any number of words or images express the amount of suffering, pain and terror of those caught in the ideological madness of the Khmer Rouge?
Question, so many questions float to the surface when the stone of Khmer Rouge is thrown into the lake of our common humanity.
The death of Cambodian artist Vann Nath, aged 65, on 5th September 2011 is the right occasion to ask these questions. Vann Nath was a painter. He was born into a poor family and was raised amongst the rice fields of Battambang province. The family lacked resources to provide schooling for him. After four years in the monkhood he enrolled in a painting school. Before the Khmer Rouge came to power he painted landscapes and cinema posters. If history had been different, no one would likely have heard of Vann Nath or his paintings.
In 1978 he was arrested by the Khmer Rouge and sent to S21 (since 1980 it has been preserved as the Tuol Sleng Memorial and Genocide Museum) in Phnom Penh. Of the 15,000 prisoners who entered S21 only a handful survived. Vann Nath was one of them. The head of the prison Duch spared the painter in order that he could paint Pol Pot. In other words, Vann Nath lived because Duch sought to appease the vanity of his boss.
After the Khmer Rouge fell, Vann Nath painted many canvases depicting the scenes of torture and brutality that he had witnessed while an inmate. Many of them are on display at Tuol Sleng as graphic reminders of what had gone on inside the prison during the time of the Khmer Rouge. In later years, Vann Nath had the chance to examine on film the S21 guards for a documentary film The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003). He also testified in the historic trial of Khmer Rouge leaders in Phnom Penh where he was able to confront in the courtroom, Duch, the man who ran S21 and who had also spared his life. The Guardian’s Tom Fawthrop quoted him as saying in the courtroom that “I hope by the end that justice can be tangible, can be seen by everybody.”
If there ever was a noir artist, it was Vann Nath. Witness to the very worst treatment that man is capable of inflicting on others. His canvases record a long nightmare. A dark interior filled with fear, hatred, mistrust, suffering and death. A place where every heart beat of the men, women and children jailed at S21 counted the brief moments before their turn came. Van Nath’s art captures that heartbeat, their relentless dread and foreboding of the victims.
It is unimaginable to us who look at Vann Nath’s images that these images seared into his consciousness had realized themselves through his art, one that could be shared with millions around the world. Vann Nath’s noir shapes our way of seeing what the Khmer Rouge did. They are the guides into a world that is quickly fading into history. Vann Nath made certain that this descend into evil, into the heart of hopeless, that neither he nor we would ever forget.
There are many lessons to learn from Vann Nath’s life as a Cambodia’s most famous noir artist. The one that I like to think applies to segment of other noir artists and writers around the world. There are writers and artists who write or paint for the money. There is nothing wrong with earning a living. Indeed that is normal. That is easier done, though, in the developed world; it is easy to avoid the pockets of noir. One can just drive around them or fly over them. Or dart in and out for the images and story, and sleep at home in safety. But there are parts of the world where that isn’t possible. In these places, there is no place to hide, no safe place to sleep. In this world noir envelopes all time and space.
Vann Nath lived in one of those places at the wrong time in history. Then there are those like Vann Nath, whom fate had selected to be a witness, chose him and his talent of expression as a vehicle so the rest of us would remember, understand, and learn the lessons from those periods when madness haunts the land, brutality and murder are the rule, and ideological purity demands absolute conformity or death. Through these images and writings, we stand a chance of instructing a new generation exactly what means we are capable of employing to reach a political utopia and the clear and present danger of those who preach that all life must be organized around principles of purity torn from the absolutist handbook.
Vann Nath, noir artist extraordinaire, RIP.
In 1993 as a journalist I covered the UNTAC period of administration in Cambodia, and was embedded with UNTAC civilian police. Along with them, I entered the old prison system. Zero Hour in Phnom Penh drew upon my experiences during this period of transition. Some years later I spent a week in the field with Cambodian mine officials in Vann Nath’s home province: Battambang.
I also recently edited the first anthology of noir tales of Bangkok: Bangkok Noir.