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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The art of politics

The art of politics

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."

Political opium

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."

Surviving

the Khmer Rouge

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."

Constraints on the press

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."

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