Before arranging a meeting in a Phnom Penh coffeeshop, Chamnap Chhun laid out a list of what to avoid: pictures, mention of age, legal name and hometown.
“I play two different people,” he explains. One is an anonymous poet whose platform is social media; the other is the man that shows up to work each day to sell agricultural products in the countryside.
In his free time Chhun is a poet. Since he began writing three years ago, his socially conscious poems – which often include pointed criticism and political commentary – have been shared thousands of times through Facebook. He publishes by posting pictures of his manuscripts – meticulously calligraphed on A4 printer paper with a blue ballpoint pen, and accompanied by a hand-drawn illustration.
“At the beginning I did not write about anything related to politics, but later on I noticed there are so many issues in this society, and I thought that using my art combined with my poems would attract people’s interest,” he says.
One of his poems, Wondering Iron, is a melancholy introspection – meant to be sung – on deforestation and the perils of modernisation. In it, Chhun laments that back when Cambodians used old-fashioned charcoal irons to press their clothes, despite their reliance on wood, high-grade timber species like beng and rosewood abounded.
“Now we use electric irons/we plug in, but there is no more forest/I am worried and scared/With brand new irons, where are the forests?” he asks, using a complex rhyming structure in Khmer built on the seventh and fourth syllables of each verse.
Even though the café is empty, Chhun speaks softly, punctuating his quiet with peals of laughter. On Facebook his fans call him om – a respectful word for uncle, usually reserved for someone who is at least in their 50s. They assume he’s a well-educated and venerable master.
“I taught myself . . . I didn’t really study at a higher education institution,” he says. Nonetheless, his works show a degree of mastery that drew praise from a respected Cambodian poet and a professor at the Royal University of Fine Arts, who requested anonymity due to the sensitive nature of Chhun’s subjects.
“The poems are quite good and they strictly follow the rules of form,” he said. “Their meanings touch on many issues in society – some are good and some are very heavy.”
Thon Thavry, author of the socially critical A Proper Woman, said his work is “impressive” and “inspired”, and expressed sympathy for Chhun’s desire to keep his identity secret.
“I think it is reasonable that he is trying to hide his identity. Cambodia is not a safe place for such work,” she said.
Although he keeps details of his life sparse, Chhun shares that his mother died when he was 14 following a divorce, and at 15 he dropped out of school to go to work and support his four siblings.
He never thought that many years later he would draw on his few high school poetry lessons to compose verses in traditional Khmer forms.
“In the daytime I’m a seller of equipment and fertiliser to farmers, and at night from 9pm to 1am I do this work for society,” he says. He’s from a rural farming village by a river, has four siblings, and goes to the pagoda a few times a month.
“When I do this work I am alone, and nobody knows.”
He is not a fan of life in Phnom Penh – which in one of his poems he sarcastically refers to as “the crystal city” – or ti krong kunch in Khmer.
His secrecy, he says, has shielded him from personal threats, but also reflects his desire to stay above the fray of party politics. Poetry, he says, is a means to get the message across and a technique he finds more novel than political demonstration.
“I’m not into any political parties, but it’s clear from what I do now that I don’t like the government,” he says, emphasising that his aim is to be constructive in his criticism. “At one point, [CNRP Deputy Vice President] Mu Sochua asked me to reveal my identity and do more for society, but I refused. I wanted to be centrist; if I agreed to Mu Sochua’s proposal, I wouldn’t be in the centre.”
Contacted by email, Sochua said Chhun had good reason to maintain his independence and to protect himself, pointing to last year’s assassination of popular analyst Kem Ley.
She compared his poetry to the socially conscious Khmer writer Kong Bunchhoeun, whose work – especially surrounding a high-profile acid attack in 1999 against singer Tat Marina – eventually forced him into exile in Norway, where he died last year.
“Poetry has lost almost all its influence in society in the past three decades as poets are fearful,” she wrote. Indeed, several other high-profile poets and professors declined to comment for this story out of fear.
His friends, neighbours and even his family, outside of his siblings, are unaware of his talent. “In real life I’m playful,” he quips. Contemporary Khmer poetry is nearly always about landscapes, scenery or love. Chhun, on the other hand, writes about everything from mistress culture, to drugs, to corruption and politics. That said, he considers himself to be a fairly average news consumer, usually just skimming the headlines.
“I’m not ahead of the major turning points in politics,” he says. One of his most celebrated poems, Dr Kem Ley, was published the day after the beloved political analyst was murdered and was later performed by a singer in a Radio Free Asia broadcast.
His latest poem, Evil Doctorate, is a biting critique of how – in his view – some of Cambodia’s most respected intellectuals, or more generally the highly educated, have sold out.
“Don’t be proud of your doctorate/And be inconsiderate,” he writes. “You’re ignoring your nation and religion.”
He first started writing after the protests and fervour of the 2013 national elections, when for months people took to the streets in a display of political dissent hardly seen before in the Kingdom’s history.
“I wanted to be involved in that kind of change,” he says.
That change has proved elusive, though, and in its absence, he will continue writing and drawing in the secrecy of his home – for now at least. “Maybe after the election I will reveal myself,” he says. “If nothing changes, how long can I go on hiding?”
Additional reporting by Rinith Taing and Kong Meta