The following article on the outstanding animator, cartoonist and friend of this blog/website, Bun Heang Ung appeared in the Phnom Penh Post newspaper (Issue 16/10) recently.
Cambodia: Critical Cartoonists Deterred by Defamation Suits, Imprisonment Threat
From to Pol Pot to Winnie the Pooh, this pencil-wielding polemicist has made cartooning his life's' work-his political satires incite laughter and controversy.
Few dare caricature Hun Sen, but Ung Bun Heang does. Cambodia's press is marked by a smattering of biting political cartoons, but the ruling elite, royalty and the Prime Minister in particular are adverse to satirical critique. The threat of defamation suits and imprisonment is a powerful deterrent to cartoonists with a critical bent. But from the comfortable distance of Sydney, dissident cartoonist Bun Heang, 55, is providing a restive counterpoint to constraints on the press, with searing critiques of Cambodia's political scene on his blog Sacrava Toons.
After surviving the Khmer Rouge regime, Bun Heang used his artistic skills to forge travel documents and left Cambodia as a refugee in 1979. He now focuses from afar on the political life of his homeland. And no one is safe from his caricature - not Hok Lundy, not Hun Sen, not even King Father Norodom Sihanouk. In Australia, Bun Heang has worked as a children's book illustrator, as well as an animator for film studios, including Walt Disney, winning a daytime Emmy as part of the production team for "The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh." But politics is his real passion. "My father warned me to not get involved with politics because it would lead to jail, assassination, or political asylum," Bun Heang told the Post by email. "But I believe it's been my destiny to have been involved with Khmer politics - not as a politician but as an observer with a pencil."
Bun Heang has published a graphic history of life under the Khmer Rouge and was an editorial cartoonist for the Far Eastern Economic Review from 1997 to 1999. Although many Cambodians are only now beginning to discover his work, he has been dissecting the Kingdom's politics with his pencil since the Lon Nol coup in 1970. As a student of painting at Phnom Penh's Fine Arts School from 1965 to 1975, Bun Heang sought an outlet for his real passion. "I loved to draw cartoons but we didn't have any course or animation studio in Phnom Penh so I went to some newspapers to show them my work," he said. Soth Polin, novelist and editor of the independent newspaper Nokor Thom, gave the 18-year-old a job as an editorial cartoonist. Working alongside journalists, economists, and university professors, Bun Heang remembers his four years in the newsroom as a period of intellectual ferment. "I was a good listener and from those years, I became addicted to this political opium. It's all inside my body, my mind, and even my dream," he said. "But I'm glad I'm hooked to it." Each Thursday night he worked until dawn to produce a cartoon for the front page of the paper. He continued to work for Nokor Thom until its last issue in 1974, when Polin fled the country. Sam Sarath, the senior cartoonist and illustrator for the Center for Social Development, remembers clearly Bun Heang's Nokor Thom cartoons, which he adopted as a model for his own work. "I admired his work a lot more than any other cartoonist," he said. "His cartoons were political, meaningful and easy to understand."
When the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh and forcibly evacuated the city, Bun Heang put down his pencil and headed for his home village in Prey Veng province. Hiding his background as a "bourgeois intellectual," he worked the paddy fields and built dams. He witnessed executions, purges of Khmer Rouge cadre, and the massacre of more than 30 relatives. He also married and with his wife survived until the arrival of the Vietnamese in 1979. They returned to Phnom Penh and Bun Heang found work with the Vietnamese-backed regime in the Ministry of Information. His job was to draw cartoons for animated propaganda films that lauded Vietnam's liberation of Cambodia. "My job was to show smiling Vietnamese soldiers helping Kampuchean peasants," he recalled. When his superiors took offense to his habit of caricaturing the Vietnamese with bucked-teeth, he was hauled before a committee, who accused him of being in sympathy with the Khmer Rouge and of stirring up nationalist sentiment against Vietnam. Bun Heang apologized profusely and narrowly avoided internment in a re-education camp.
Soon after, he forged travel documents for himself, his wife and five-month old daughter, as well as his mother and two sisters. In December 1979 they headed to the Thai border and after a perilous ten-day journey arrived at the Khao I Dang refugee camp. After six months they were resettled in Australia. "When the plane took off from the runway, my heart told me that I would be a free man again," Bun Heang recalled. During his first two years in Australia, Bun Heang drew 90 intricate drawings of his experiences during the Khmer Rouge regime."I put so much detail on each drawing because I wanted to them tell their own story. Each took 12 to 14 hours to finish," he said. Working with Martin Stuart-Fox, a former Vietnam war correspondent, he published the drawings with the story of his experience under the Khmer Rouge in the book Murderous Revolution: Life and Death in Pol Pot's Kampuchea. "While working on the book I spoke to Martin using broken French and English plus my body language. It was a fun and unforgettable experience," he said. In 1995, Bun Heang began posting political cartoons online called Khmer Sweet. As his audience grew, he launched Sacrava Toons in 2004. As more Cambodians log on, his cartoons are becoming increasingly well known, particularly among youth. His work now appears both on his blog and on the popular KI Media website.
Bun Heang last visited Cambodia in 1994, but was warned against staying. "One of my old teachers told me: 'Go back to Australia. There's no room here for people like you. You'll be killed at any time'," he said. He now remains in touch with the Kingdom via the internet. "I contact Khmers in Cambodia every hour and receive news from inside CPP, the Royal Palace, and rural Cambodia," he said. "There is a Khmer patriot network and thanks to the mighty IT tunnel, we can be in touch in less than five minutes." Bun Heang's work focuses on what he considers the major issues affecting the country, including corruption, "fake democracy," deforestation, lawlessness, impunity, land grabbing and what he perceives to be an overreaching influence of Vietnam. His cartoons are highly critical of the ruling Cambodian People's Party. "Hun Sen always reminds Khmers to thank CPP but forgets that it's his government's duty to protect Cambodia's interests," Bun Heang said. "They all get paid to do a job and they ought to thank the Khmer people who provide them with the best living-style, while millions of Khmers live in poverty. What I can see is that everyday they're not serving Khmers, but oppressing them." Despite his critique of the ruling party, Bun Heang said he was not aligned with any opposition party. Describing himself as "a diehard Khmer republican," he said his brother, Ung Bun Ang, a former Sam Rainsy Party senator, once tried to persuade him to join SRP but he refused. "I said no because no one controls my head - only Cambodia and its people," he said. "I'm an observer. I like to poke fun at anyone or any government who doesn't do the right thing for Cambodia, even Rainsy." Bun Heang's work is often anti-Vietnamese and includes blatently racist caricatures and epithets, but he's adamant his attacks are not racially motivated but political. "I admit that my cartoons are always anti-Vietnam but I'm not against the Vietnamese people," he said. "I'm against the policy of Hanoi towards Cambodia. It's nothing to do with the Vietnamese people, who love peace just as Khmers do."
Ou Virak, head of the Alliance for Freedom of Expression, a coalition of 28 NGOs, said that while Bun Heang's work was often controversial, he was making an important contribution. "You don't always have to agree with what he says - and I don't always - but the act itself is what's important," he said. "Freedom of expression should be welcomed regardless of whether you like it or not." Virak said it was unlikely Bun Heang's work could be published in Cambodia, as the government was not ready for such searing satire. "They're critical political cartoons, which we don't see in Cambodia. They're conveying a message and are probably doing it better than any of us here can," he said. "It would be a plus for Cambodia if they could [be published]. It's a tremendous way to convey political opinion to illiterate people." Sarath said it was a "great thing" that Bun Heang's work was now becoming known in Cambodia. "Not many people know his work from the Lon Nol period because most of those people have died," he said. "I would like to be able to draw critical cartoons like his new work but in order for my security I need to avoid it." Bun Heang has now moved away from his finely detailed drawings and instead produces multimedia cartoons. "With new technology, like Photoshop, I can draw cartoons within an hour, which is fun for an old dinosaur like me," he said. Bun Heang now places his hopes for Cambodia's future on the youth. "Everyday I'm so pleased to receive comments from yoBun Heang Khmer. It's my message to Khmer kids to learn our past, present and prepare for the future," he said. Despite his outspoken critique, Bun Heang said he had never felt in danger in Australia, and vowed to continue Sacrava Toons "until the last minute of my life." "Everyday I'm surrounded by my beautiful family and that makes me think of Khmer families in Cambodia who have no chance to enjoy prosperity like mine," he said. "Their suffering is what inspires me to draw for free everyday." [courtesy of Phnom Penh Post]