Prolific Cambodian songwriter, poet, filmmaker and author Kong Bunchhoeun passed away yesterday in Norway at the age of 76. His death was announced by his family on Facebook.
Bunchhoeun composed over 200 songs during the 1960s and 1970s, writing for “Golden Age” greats, including Sinn Sisamouth. Most of his work centred on his hometown of Battambang, earning him the sobriquet “Master Poet of Songkae River”.
For most Cambodians, Bunchhoeun is most recognisable as a songwriter. “His loss is a great loss for Cambodia,” said Seng Dara, a music researcher and radio host. “He composed songs for so many singers: Ros Sereysothea, Pen Ron, So Saveurn, Eng Nary.”
But Bunchhoeun also wrote poems and novels, beginning when Cambodian literature flourished under the patronage of the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk. He survived the Khmer Rouge regime in part by taking a writing hiatus, according to Heng Sreang, the director of PEN Cambodia.
Even today, there is “no real record” of how many novels he may have written, Sreang said. And while he often remained out of the public eye, he at times became vocal on the page.
Bunchhoeun’s most well-known work of literature, The Destiny of Tat Marina, published in 2000, is a loosely fictionalised account of his niece Tat Marina’s affair with Svay Sitha, an undersecretary of state at the Council of Ministers, and the subsequent acid attack that left her suffering ghastly wounds. Marina identified Sitha’s wife, Khourn Sophal, as her attacker.
An arrest warrant for Sophal was signed, but she was never arrested. Bunchhoeun saw Marina’s story as an opportunity to speak out. “By highlighting the case of Tat Marina, we can hold up a mirror to the ills affecting Cambodian society,” he told the Post at the time.
It was the last book that Bunchhoeun would publish in the Kingdom. After receiving death threats, he sought asylum in Thailand and later in Norway, according to Sreang.
Bunchhoeun continued writing in self-exile, publishing at least 10 books from abroad, said Vong Socheata, a devotee of Khmer literature who counts the writer among her favourites.
“Less well known to most Cambodians are his novels written in the 1990s and early 2000s, but people who love novels love his work,” she said. “He touches on everything: philosophy, psychology, history.”
In the wake of Bunchhoeun’s death, many fans took to social media to express their grief. Among them, on Twitter, was film director Rithy Panh. Bunchhoeun counted filmmaking among his many modes of expression, Panh said, and some of his early novels were made into films after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime.
“We have lost one of our greatest authors, a remarkable poet and songwriter – and maybe the last contemporary one,” Panh wrote in an email.
Heng Sreang, of PEN Cambodia, noted the irony that he died outside of his home country.
“The sad thing is that Cambodia did not and has not taken care of its great writers. We have few surviving talented people – with little care from the government,” he said.
So Phina, head of PEN Cambodia’s women writers committee, said she hoped Cambodian writers might draw inspiration from his work.
She highlighted a particular poem, Chivit Ney Chivit (Life of My Life): “In my whole life, I don’t want anything more than freedom to write,” it reads.
He is survived by his wife, Uch Kolab, and three children.
Additional reporting by Kong Meta.