Malaysian car­toon­ist says he’s de­fi­ant to ‘last drop’ of his ink


Malaysian po­lit­i­cal car­toon­ist Zu­nar faces a pos­si­ble 43 years in pri­son for sedi­tion, but the de­fi­ant artist says that loom­ing threat won’t stop his hard-hit­ting car­i­ca­tures lam­poon­ing the rul­ing estab­lish­ment.

“You can chain my hands, you can chain my legs, you can chain my neck or my body. But I will keep drawing,” said Zu­nar, 52, hold­ing a car­toon show­ing him­self shack­led yet still work­ing with a pen clenched in his teeth.

“I will keep drawing un­til the last drop of my ink,” he added dur­ing an in­ter­view at his Kuala Lumpur of­fice.

Malaysia’s best- known po­lit­i­cal car­toon­ist, whose real name is Zulk­i­flee An­war Ul­haque, has be­come a sym­bol of a widen­ing gov­ern­ment drive to throt­tle its crit­ics that has seen dozens of peo­ple hit with sedi­tion in­ves­ti­ga­tions over the past year.

Zu­nar has been ar­rested pre­vi­ously and his works, which skewer the gov­ern­ment’s re­cur­ring cor­rup­tion scan­dals and al­leged re­pres­sion, have re­peat­edly been seized by po­lice in what he calls a “po­lit­i­cal vendetta.”

But the pres­sure es­ca­lated dramatically on April 3 with the fil­ing of nine sedi­tion charges — a sin­gle-day Malaysian “record,” ac­cord­ing to his lawyers.

They could po­ten­tially land Zu­nar in jail for 43 years, his lawyers say, though the penalty is not ex­pected to be that harsh.

Few have ac­tu­ally been jailed in the sedi­tion blitz, which po­lit­i­cal an­a­lysts view more as a bid by the 58-year-old gov­ern­ment to cow and si­lence ad­ver­saries as it loses ground to a re­form-minded op­po­si­tion.

Tight­en­ing the screws, Prime Min­is­ter Na­jib Razak’s gov­ern­ment this month pushed through even tougher sedi­tion penal­ties and an anti-ter­ror­ism bill that al­lows detention with­out ju­di­cial re­view.

Amnesty In­ter­na­tional said the moves are turn­ing Malaysia into a “hu­man rights black hole.”

A Sin­gu­lar Voice

Jail­ing Zu­nar would muzzle an artist who has be­come a sin­gu­lar com­men­ta­tor in a coun­try whose main­stream me­dia is gov­ern­ment-gagged and where ro­bust po­lit­i­cal car­toon­ing is rare.

Zu­nar feels car­toons con­vey ideas more clearly and widely than print, es­pe­cially to an In­ter­net- savvy younger gen­er­a­tion of Malaysians — he draws for lead­ing news por­tal Malaysi­akini — and less-ed­u­cated ru­ral vot­ers who are the gov­ern­ment’s vote bank.

“So that’s why the gov­ern­ment are very wor­ried, be­cause the peo­ple in the vil­lage, they still can read this book and they can un­der­stand,” the short, stocky Zu­nar said while hold­ing up one of his banned col­lected works.

Of­fi­cially, the sedi­tion charges against him re­late to Twit­ter com­ments crit­i­ciz­ing the Fe­bru­ary im­pris­on­ment of op­po­si­tion leader An­war Ibrahim.

An­war was jailed for five years for sodomy in a case he in­sists was fab­ri­cated by Na­jib’s gov­ern­ment.

The pre­mier has ad­mit­ted meet­ing An­war’s ac­cuser be­fore the charges were brought, but de­nies ma­nip­u­lat­ing the case.

But Zu­nar, whose late par­ents were shop-own­ers in a ru­ral north­ern state and sup­port­ers of the rul­ing United Malays Na­tional Or­gan­i­sa­tion (UMNO), says his car­toons are the real rea­son for the sedi­tion charges.

“They want me to stop drawing car­toons and to stop pro­duc­ing this type of car­toon that the gov­ern­ment doesn’t like,” he said.

‘We will win’

Robert Rus­sell, who heads the Car­toon­ists Rights Net­work In­ter­na­tional, said bold car­toon­ists world­wide are un­der in­creas­ing pres­sure, as shown by the deadly attack on French satir­i­cal mag­a­zine Char­lie Hebdo in Jan­uary.

“When I sug­gested to Zu­nar that he should just leave the coun­try, he be­came in­dig­nant, say­ing: ‘Why do they (au­thor­i­ties) have more right to be here than I do?’” Rus­sell said, call­ing him “coura­geous.”

A regular sub­ject of Zu­nar’s mer­ci­less, bold-lined, black-ink draw­ings is what he calls the “con­spir­acy” to elim­i­nate An­war.

Be­fore join­ing the op­po­si­tion, An­war was a UMNO star who was ousted and jailed in a late-1990s power strug­gle.

The episode deeply di­vided Malaysia and in­spired Zu­nar, a for­mer med­i­cal lab tech­ni­cian, to turn his car­toon­ing hobby into a full-time ca­reer.

Zu­nar also reg­u­larly lam­poons one of the coun­try’s most sen­si­tive scan­dals, the 2002 pur­chase of French sub­marines un­der then De­fense Min­is­ter Na­jib.

The deal al­legedly in­volved kick­backs to Malaysian of­fi­cials — de­nied by the gov­ern­ment — and has been linked to the mur­der of a Mon­go­lian woman in­volved in the ne­go­ti­a­tions.

No of­fi­cials have yet been called to ac­count in the af­fair although two po­lice of­fi­cers, mem­bers of an elite unite that guards top min­is­ters, have been con­victed over the killing of 28-year-old model and in­ter­preter Al­tan­tuya Shaari­ibuu.

But Zu­nar’s fa­vorite sub­ject Na­jib’s wife, Ros­mah Man­sor.

He takes mer­ci­less aim at her al­leged lux­u­ri­ous tastes, widely ru­mored con­trol of Na­jib and mane of dyed black hair. His lat­est book of car­toons — banned and seized by au­thor­i­ties — calls her his “muse.”

A pre­lim­i­nary court ap­pear­ance in Zu­nar’s sedi­tion case is set for May 20.

Mean­while, he prom­ises even more un­spar­ing car­toons, and says the UMNO-dom­i­nated rul­ing coali­tion will fall some­day.

“I al­ways tell Malaysians this strug­gle is like an end­less marathon. The im­por­tant thing is you keep your­self on the track and move for­ward. We will win,” he said.



Malaysian car­toon­ist Zulk­i­flee An­war Ul­haque (Zu­nar) poses for pho­tog­ra­phers dressed in a mock pri­son jump­suit and a set of hand­cuffs mock­ing his sedi­tion charges at a court­house in Kuala Lumpur on April 3.

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