Monday, January 8, 2007

The story of cartoonist Bun Heang Ung

The following story appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald in Australia on July 20, 1985:

Life under the Vietnamese-occupied Cambodia: The story of Cambodian Cartoonist Bunheang Ung
by Peter White

A set of Vietnamese buck teeth brought a Kampuchean illustrator and cartoonist, Bunheang Ung, within a hair's breadth of arrest and "political re-education". Bun, who escaped from Kampuchea in 1979, now lives in Australia and works for a film animation company. In 1979, after surviving the terror and slaughter of the Pol Pot regime, he was working in the Ministry of Information in Phnom Penh. Like all areas of government, the ministry was controlled by the Vietnamese forces and Bun had been given the task of drawing cartoons for animated propaganda films lauding the benevolence of Vietnam in liberating Kampuchea from the Khmer Rouge. Before Pol Pot's victory in 1975, Bun had worked for 5 years as a political cartoonist for a leading independent Phnom Penh newspaper. With a typical cartoonist's liking for humorous exaggeration and caricature, he had developed a style of drawing Vietnamese with rabbit-like front teeth. Unfortunately, Bun was unable to suppress this tendency when drawing for the propaganda films of his communist masters. He was accused of deliberately poking fun at the Vietnamese. His job, according to his Vietnamese masters, was to show smiling Vietnamese soldiers helping Kampuchean peasants. They claimed Bun was secretly in sympathy with the prohibited policies of the former regime and was trying to stir up nationalist sentiment against the Vietnamese. The charges were serious and Bun's fellow workers were assembled to criticise Bun's work. Imprisonment and deportation to a re-education camp seemed inevitable.

The story of Bun's struggle to survive against the odds is a remarkable one. It is one in which his profession sometimes brought him close to death but at other times was his salvation. Bun was born into a prosperous middle class family. From a young age he wanted to become an artist, hot art bad little status among the Kampuchean middle class. When he entered the Phnom Penh school of fine arts it was against a chorus of complaints from relatives who felt he should be pursuing a career in law, medicine or engineering. That rebellious decision was to be Bun's salvation. When Pol Pot's forces burst into Phnom Penh in 1975, Bun fled with his family into the countryside. He threw away his pen and paper and worked in the rice paddies to provide enough food to keep the family alive. But no-one was safe. The Khmer Rouge began a systematic persecution of the former professional classes who were held to represent the decadent bourgeois values which had no place in Pol Pot's new Kampuchea. Doctors, engineers and lawyers were tracked down and executed. As a former fine arts student, a career usually followed by the poor and lower classes. Bun escaped suspicion. "When I started fine arts, my uncles blamed my father for allowing it. They said I should follow a proper career. But when Pol Pot came, they were always being chased by the Khmer Rouge; their lives were always under threat. I'm sure that if I had become a doctor or an engineer as they wanted that I would never have survived," he said. And while it was Bun's art work that angered the Vietnamese, it was also his artistic skills which enabled him to escape. After the incident over the buck teeth, he did his best to placate his outraged Vietnamese bosses. "I said, 'Yes I am terribly sorry for drawing like that'. I said that it was because there must be something wrong with my brain, that all my suffering under the Khmer Rouge must have damaged my brain and that was why I drew the Vietnamese like that," he said. But he knew that his days were numbered and so turned his artistic skills to forging official travel papers which would enable him to travel freely into the countryside. His copy was a good one and he and his family arrived safely in a town near the Thai border. From there it was only a short Journey to the safety of a Thai refugee camp and then, six months later, settlement in Australia. Now Bun has co-operated with the former Australian Indo-China correspondent Martin Stuart-Fox to write and illustrate a personal account of his experiences under Pol Pol and the Vietnamese in a recently published book called The Murderous Revolution.

You can read more about Bun Heang Ung here. You can also see his handiwork, focused on yours truly, here.

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