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The Poster Boy For Democracy | The Cambodia Daily

The Poster Boy For Democracy

Cartoonist’s Artwork Attacks Corruption, Educates Voters

If Sam Sarath had stood on the floor of the National Assembly and denounced the legislators’ 50 percent pay raise as cruelly unfair to underpaid civil servants, he’d have irritated somebody.

If he’d gone on to depict parliamentarians as bouncing with goofy glee at their own good fortune, he’d have irked many more people.

But Sam Sarath did all of that on the September cover of the Center for Social Development’s monthly bulletin, with nary a squawk of protest.

Such is the power of political cartoons, which can often state graphically what the bravest dare not utter.

What’s the harm, right? It’s just a cartoon.

Sam Sarath, staff artist for the Center for Social Development, may be on his way to becoming the best-known artist in Cambodia, as copies of his compelling, stark, and hard-hitting drawings circulate around the country.

Over the years, he has designed a series of powerful posters for the CSD, illustrating such not-overtly-sexy topics as judicial reform, transparency and corruption.

A new series of four posters, illustrating the ways corruption drains and debilitates society, has just been issued.

“I don’t do it to make the government angry, I do it to improve things,” says Sam Sarath, a serious, almost grave man who at first seems too humorless to be a cartoonist.

But ask him about the sillier elements in his work—like the goofy depiction of a parliamentarian, flashing a Nixonian victory sign as he leaps like a monkey—and he breaks into a broad grin.

“For the sake of democracy, we are not afraid to make them angry,” he says. “Not many Khmer people know how to read, so we have to do it in a cartoon.”

Like all Cambodians of his generation, 50-year-old Sam Sarath has lived several lives. Before the Khmer Rouge came to power, he was an art student and artist in Phnom Penh. During the regime, he was a laborer in Battambang, his artistic training and ability was something best kept to himself.

But in 1979, when the Vietnamese drove the Khmer Rouge into the jungles, he resumed life as an artist.

He’s done many kinds of art in the years since—renderings of Angkor Wat and village life for the tourist trade, portraits of the Buddha and other religious scenes for pagodas, billboards for the military and other government entities.

He has worked for the Ministry of Health as an administrator, and for a series of non-governmental organizations. Since 1994, he’s worked with the Center for Social Development, illustrating booklets and the monthly bulletins, and producing posters.

He also produced artwork for other agencies on a variety of topics, from the Unesco to the Adventist Development and Relief Agency.

Sam Sarath’s work is gaining attention, not only in Cambodia but abroad. He recently returned from Canada, where seven of his posters were displayed along with works from 110 countries in an exhibition sponsored by Trans­parency International.

It was the first time Cambodia had participated. The crowds liked Sam Sarath’s work so much that 30 copies of each poster—all they had taken with them—were snapped up.

He says the CSD is thinking of reprinting some of his works in a booklet, or even of mounting an exhibit. The problem, as always, is money, he says.

Of all the work he has done, he says he doesn’t really have a favorite, although he is proudest of the court and corruption posters.

“People like to look at the humor better, but I prefer the pictures that illustrate the problems in society,” he says.

The court poster shows a puppet judge, manipulated by the hands of the wealthy, trampling on a poor man who has stolen a chicken while an armed thug in designer jeans, clutching a wad of $100 bills, somehow slides by him.

The corruption poster shows a man lugging huge sacks of corrupt money trampling on bodies labeled Economy and Democracy, while an array of axe-wielding foes—Legislative, Executive, Courts and Media—stand ready to fight.

He’s looking forward to future campaigns, such as working to educate voters about the upcoming communal elections. He did a series of posters for the Committee for Free and Fair Elections showing village people how to vote for the 1998 elections.

This time around, he will be working with the NGO Women For Prosperity to persuade women to run for office, in addition to his work with the CSD.

“We must [work] for democracy, even though it makes some people happy and some people not.”





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