Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Beloved writer Kong Bunchhoeun dies



Beloved writer Kong Bunchhoeun dies

Cambodian music, poetry, film and literature lovers are in mourning for the loss of Kong Bunchhoeun, who died yesterday aged 76. Photo supplied
Cambodian music, poetry, film and literature lovers are in mourning for the loss of Kong Bunchhoeun, who died yesterday aged 76. Photo supplied

Beloved writer Kong Bunchhoeun dies

Prolific Cambodian songwriter, poet, filmmaker and author Kong Bunchhoeun passed away yesterday in Norway at the age of 76. His death was announced by his family on Facebook.

Bunchhoeun composed over 200 songs during the 1960s and 1970s, writing for “Golden Age” greats, including Sinn Sisamouth. Most of his work centred on his hometown of Battambang, earning him the sobriquet “Master Poet of Songkae River”.

For most Cambodians, Bunchhoeun is most recognisable as a songwriter. “His loss is a great loss for Cambodia,” said Seng Dara, a music researcher and radio host. “He composed songs for so many singers: Ros Sereysothea, Pen Ron, So Saveurn, Eng Nary.”

But Bunchhoeun also wrote poems and novels, beginning when Cambodian literature flourished under the patronage of the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk. He survived the Khmer Rouge regime in part by taking a writing hiatus, according to Heng Sreang, the director of PEN Cambodia.

Even today, there is “no real record” of how many novels he may have written, Sreang said. And while he often remained out of the public eye, he at times became vocal on the page.

Bunchhoeun’s most well-known work of literature, The Destiny of Tat Marina, published in 2000, is a loosely fictionalised account of his niece Tat Marina’s affair with Svay Sitha, an undersecretary of state at the Council of Ministers, and the subsequent acid attack that left her suffering ghastly wounds. Marina identified Sitha’s wife, Khourn Sophal, as her attacker.

An arrest warrant for Sophal was signed, but she was never arrested. Bunchhoeun saw Marina’s story as an opportunity to speak out. “By highlighting the case of Tat Marina, we can hold up a mirror to the ills affecting Cambodian society,” he told the Post at the time.

It was the last book that Bunchhoeun would publish in the Kingdom. After receiving death threats, he sought asylum in Thailand and later in Norway, according to Sreang.

Bunchhoeun continued writing in self-exile, publishing at least 10 books from abroad, said Vong Socheata, a devotee of Khmer literature who counts the writer among her favourites.

“Less well known to most Cambodians are his novels written in the 1990s and early 2000s, but people who love novels love his work,” she said. “He touches on everything: philosophy, psychology, history.”

In the wake of Bunchhoeun’s death, many fans took to social media to express their grief. Among them, on Twitter, was film director Rithy Panh. Bunchhoeun counted filmmaking among his many modes of expression, Panh said, and some of his early novels were made into films after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime.

“We have lost one of our greatest authors, a remarkable poet and songwriter – and maybe the last contemporary one,” Panh wrote in an email.

Heng Sreang, of PEN Cambodia, noted the irony that he died outside of his home country.

“The sad thing is that Cambodia did not and has not taken care of its great writers. We have few surviving talented people – with little care from the government,” he said.

So Phina, head of PEN Cambodia’s women writers committee, said she hoped Cambodian writers might draw inspiration from his work.

She highlighted a particular poem, Chivit Ney Chivit (Life of My Life): “In my whole life, I don’t want anything more than freedom to write,” it reads.

He is survived by his wife, Uch Kolab, and three children.

Additional reporting by Kong Meta.

MOST VIEWED

  • Prince Norodom Ranariddh passes away at 77

    Prince Norodom Ranariddh, the second son of the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk and former First Prime Minister of Cambodia, has passed away in France at the age of 77. “Samdech Krom Preah Norodom Ranariddh has passed away this morning in France just after 9am Paris-time,”

  • General’s gun smuggling ring busted

    The Military Police sent six military officers to court on November 22 to face prosecution for possession of 105 illegal rifles and arms smuggling, while investigators say they are still hunting down additional accomplices. Sao Sokha, deputy commander of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces and commander of

  • Rise in planned flights lifts travel hopes

    Six airlines have applied to resume flights in December, while two others have put in for additional flights and routes, according to State Secretariat of Civil Aviation (SSCA) head Mao Havannall on November 29. These account for 43 new weekly domestic and international flights in December, up 16

  • Cambodia, Thailand to discuss border reopening

    Cambodian authorities from provinces along the Cambodia-Thailand border will meet with Thai counterparts to discuss reopening border checkpoints to facilitate travel, transfer of products and cross-border trade between the two countries. Banteay Meanchey provincial deputy governor Ly Sary said on November 22 that the provincial administration

  • More Cambodians studying in US

    The number of Cambodian students studying at US colleges and universities in 2020-21 increased by 14.3 per cent over the previous year despite the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a recent US government report. The 2021 Open Doors report on International Educational Exchange showed that 848 Cambodian students studied

  • Hun Sen: Manet to be candidate for prime minister

    Prime Minister Hun Sen has reaffirmed that his oldest son Hun Manet will be his successor as Prime Minister if he is elected. Speaking during the inauguration of a new sewage treatment facility in Preah Sihanouk province on December 2, Hun Sen said Manet will be