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Making fun of politicians has long had a home in the media landscape of liberal Western democracies. Monty Python, The Daily Show, Charlie Hebdo — each lampoons those in power for comedic effect, but also to drive home criticism of government policy.
Political satire has also had its place in Southeast Asia, but many of those sticking it to their leaders through cutting comedic commentary often lack the space to do so. The strongman politics dominating the region, from Hun Sen in Cambodia to the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, is making satire a difficult pastime.
It’s telling that some of the most outspoken critics of Cambodia’s authoritarian Prime Minister Hun Sen are operating online, and from abroad. Since 2011, Hun Sen’s Eye has sought to satirize Hun Sen and his cronies via Twitter, Facebook (before the account was closed) and a Tumblr account.
In a rare email interview, the owner of the accounts noted that anonymity afforded a level of protection not granted to critics operating inside the country.
“A lot of government critics use the grey area of interpretation as protection against retribution (though that didn’t work very well for Kem Ley),” the owner said, referring to the government critic who was shot dead in Phnom Penh in 2016.
“Kem Ley’s fables are a perfect example of Cambodians’ capacity to express allusion and irony. And Kem Ley’s murder is a perfect example of why they should keep it to themselves.
“Since I’m an eyeball, I have to opportunity to be a bit more pointed. The governance of Cambodia just happens to be ridiculous, in the saddest way.”
Because the output is in English and primarily on Twitter, which reaches a small number of people in Cambodia, the Eye has a limited impact inside the country, explained a Cambodian journalist who asked to remain anonymous in order to speak freely in Cambodia’s increasing restrictive media environment. Hun Sen’s Eye has almost 10,000 followers, which puts it among the top Twitter users in Cambodia.
“Its funny, but I don’t think many Cambodians get it; its in English, but also very different humor to people here,” the journalist says. “Dirty comedy, violent things are funny here.”
“It’s very dangerous to make fun of our leader,” he adds. “You can say Donald Trump is a dickhead or has a small penis, but you can’t say Hun Sen is stupid, as his image is that of being the smartest man in the country.”
In Malaysia, “punk rocking graphic artist/activist” Fahmi Reza’s satirical art landed him in legal trouble. Arrested in June 2016 for drawing and sharing an image of then-Prime Minister Najib Razak as a clown, he is currently on bail but faces up to a year in jail and a $12,000 fine. He is unapologetic about the work he does, seeing it as part of a struggle for social change.
“I think the political climate under Najib was a climate of self-censorship. The persecution of political cartoonists like Zunar [since dropped] and design activists like me created a culture of fear, and a chilling effect on satirists, activists and everyday citizens,” he explains.
“Satire has traditionally been used as a weapon by the powerless against the powerful… I see the work that I do as continuing this revolutionary tradition of graphic dissent and visual disobedience.”
Elsewhere in Asia, social media is reshaping the way satire is produced, how it is distributed, and how governments strive to contain it.
Hong Zhang, associate professor of East Asian Studies at Maine’s Colby College, says that government monitoring in China has pushed the sharing of political satire to become more sophisticated.
Images with embedded text, for example, are used to bypass the filters on the popular Wechat platform.
“Most of the messages in more recent years are more subdued and indirect, perhaps due to the concern that overt and sharp political satire may get people in the Wechat group into trouble,” she says.
Despite China’s onerous media controls, satirical messages still draw upon the same kinds of themes you would see elsewhere in the world.
“Obvious ones are the call for political reform, democracy, making fun of the current leader and its policy, [but] any topic can all of a sudden become off limits if the Party-State arbitrarily things so,” she says.
Social media is creating a push-and-pull effect in the fraught relationship between political satirists and governments across Asia. Story by @PeteAFord.
Sanjay Rajoura, one of the team behind the satirical Indian TV show Aisi Taisi Democracy, sees social media as having both positive and negative elements for sharing their blend of stand-up comedy, song and biting political satire. Targets include Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP party, as well as leading political and business figures in India.
“Things have become both easier because times like these give you a lot to speak about, you are more relevant,” he says, “[and] tougher because… authorities have more control.
“But, at the same time, it is also a chance to refine your craft so much that it is able to bypass the authoritarian scrutiny. And that’s how fine satire comes into being.”
For Malaysia’s Fahmi Reza the risks have brought about reward, with his arrest garnering widespread public attention.
“The investigations, the arrests, the court charges and the travel ban that they’ve placed on me only added fuel to the fire, amplifying the popularity and prestige of the clown image as a protest symbol even more,” he says.
“The whole experience taught me that satire and humour is effective because it breaks the fear barrier. It taught me that political satire can agitate and mobilize people towards political action.”
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