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.
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
"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
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.
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
"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."
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."
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
"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.
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.
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
"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
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
"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
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
"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
"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."
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
"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
"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
Virak said it was unlikely Bun Heang's work could be published in
Cambodia, as the government was not ready for such searing
"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
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."
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."