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Power of the pen: political cartoonists in Cambodia

Power of the pen: political cartoonists in Cambodia


How the artists see themselves: self-portraits of Sen Samondara, above, and Sam Sarath. The cartoonists say the current political climate in Cambodia forces them to take considerable precautions to avoid upsetting powerful officials and political elites. They say the Prime Minister has a particular dislike of any drawing that might be thought to resemble him.

Clad in well-pressed shirts and clutching colorful plastic files, Sen Samondara and

Sam Sarath look like average Cambodian office workers.

It's only after they sit down and spill out the contents of their folders that their

true colors are exposed: the two men are political cartoonists.

They work for the Center for Social Development (CSD) and their sketches depict Cambodia

in caricature. Theirs is a pen-and-ink world peopled by downtrodden villagers, greedy

tycoons, and shady politicians up to no good.

Samondara is the smaller of the two. His compact frame is dwarfed by Sarath, who

peers down from his height through a pair of rimless spectacles.

Their tales are told in spurts and false starts, with each artist eager to ensure

the other has the opportunity to speak. But as they settle into their chairs, and

their stories, an account emerges of what life is like as a political cartoonist

in Cambodia, and why they both believe work such as theirs is imperative to the country's


Sarath, 56, was born in Prey Veng province. Inspired by the political cartoons he

saw under the Lon Nol regime, he began drawing at a young age. His formal training

was interrupted by the Pol Pot era when, like many other artists, he was forced to

lay down his pen. After the ouster of the regime in 1979, he enrolled at the Royal

University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh and graduated in 1982. He began drawing cartoons

for CSD in 1994.

"All of the cartoons I draw now focus on four concepts: transparency, governance,

management, and corruption," he said. "Why? Because CSD knows that many

people in the provinces have little ability to read. They realized cartoons would

be an effective way of giving these people information on these key issues."

But cartoons are effective for other reasons, Sarath said. Corruption is still something

that the majority of the population dislike, but are too afraid to resist, he said.

"People don't want to live in a country that is corrupt and badly governed,"

he said. "They see these problems in their country and they don't want them.

Yet they don't know what to do. My cartoons show the problems people experience every

day, people can identify with the drawings as they express a broader discontent with

the way things are."

Seeing familiar problems parodied can have a positive effect on the overall psyche

of the population, he said.

"Before, people were very afraid to speak out against corruption," he said.

"But with our cartoons we show people what corruption really means, and how

it affects them and their society. As they learn about this, gradually, people become

more able to assert their rights, less scared to speak out about things that affect


Samondara, 42, was born in Phnom Penh and received his artistic training in Bulgaria.

He lived in the then Soviet-bloc country from 1983 to 1989, before returning to home

to begin work as a professional artist.

"In Bulgaria, I was studying fine art, but drawing cartoons," he said.

"I have always drawn cartoons on political issues. Initially more international

issues like Cold War politics, the arms race and my desire for world peace. My cartoons

are sometimes funny, but they all have an important meaning. I don't like war [and

so] I have drawn cartoons of guns with doves sitting on them, or with flowers coming

out of the barrel."

Samondara has managed to avoid ever getting into trouble with authorities for his

work. Sarath hasn't been so lucky.

"Since I started drawing cartoons I've been in trouble once," he said.

"I drew a cartoon of a Cambodian court which depicted it as a puppet on strings.

At first the [Cambodian judiciary] were very angry with me, but when I talked to

them and explained the real meaning of the cartoon - that it wasn't just saying that

courts are corrupt but was trying to show people what happens if a court is not fully

independent. After that, they understood and didn't mind the cartoon so much."

The current political climate in Cambodia forces the artists to take considerable

precautions to avoid upsetting powerful officials and political elites.

"I think we have freedom of the press but a limited freedom," said Samondara.

"We can't draw something that criticizes anyone directly."

Sarath agrees that attacks on powerful individuals, in particular the Prime Minister,

are unwise.

"One thing our Prime Minister doesn't like is cartoons that resemble him, so

we avoid that," he said.

CSD is careful to ensure that neither Samondara nor Sarath's work arouses the ire

of powerful individuals, the artists said.

There are three stages to creating a cartoon at CSD. First, a unit head will give

the pair an idea or subject they would like illustrated. Then, they plan a cartoon

and draw initial sketches. Finally, the cartoons are examined by a team of CSD staffers

who consider them in the light of the current political atmosphere and brainstorm

to predict the likely response of the government.

"If our cartoon is published and the government bans it, then it is a problem

for us," Sarath said. "We want our cartoons to reach the most people possible,

so we have to be careful of the meaning."

Samondara agrees that it is important to be aware of the messages contained in the

finished work.

"Before any of my drawings are published we check and, if necessary, change

the content," he said. "We control the meaning, because we don't want to

irritate powerful people."

As a result, the pair has oriented their work at CSD more towards "educational,"

rather than overtly critical, cartoons.

"I have used cartoons to both criticize and to educate," Sarath said. "But

if we use cartoons to criticize, for example, if we draw something that depicts someone

as corrupt, we need evidence to back that up or we run the risk of being prosecuted

for defamation. We are not afraid to say people are corrupt, but now we have turned

to education rather than just criticism."

The pair have been focused on the recent release of the CSD Anti-Corruption Picture

Book and calendar. This is a booklet full of depictions of everyday corruption and

techniques to best overcome it.

"Cartoons are a good means of educating people," Sarath said.

"All of the cartoons I draw are about common occurrences, about problems people

are experiencing in their daily lives. We draw cartoons so people will know what

is wrong and what is right. We help them to learn how to deal with these situations

themselves. In the book, we show both the negative and the positive."


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