Zunar new 3

The cartoonists who helped take down a Malaysian prime minister

Zunar new 3
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia CNN  — 

A humongous pink gemstone perches on a woman’s finger, matched only in extravagance by her hair, which is half the height of her body. A pendulous necklace and Hermès handbag hang from her other arm.

For Malaysians, the figure pictured is instantly recognizable as Rosmah Mansor, wife of disgraced former Prime Minister Najib Razak and – according to prosecutors in the US and Malaysia – a modern day Imelda Marcos who accrued luxury goods worth millions of dollars using money embezzled from the state investment fund, 1MDB.

A cartoon of former Malaysian first lady Rosmah Mansor by Zunar is seen in a gallery in Kuala Lumpur.

Also instantly recognizable is the artist behind the picture, which has pride of place at an exhibition in the country’s capital, Kuala Lumpur. Political cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Haque, better known as Zunar, has spent most of the last decade lampooning Najib and Rosmah, even as the risks for doing so grow ever greater.

Zunar’s work welcomes visitors to “Democracy in Action,” a recent exhibition that would have been impossible to stage only a year ago. In one cartoon, a hand holding chopsticks marked “China” reaches over to pluck Malaysia off a platter marked “1MDB scandal.” In another, a huge diamond ring, a handbag and a bag of cash come together, Transformers-style, to form an image of Rosmah.

At the center sits Zunar’s motto: “How can I be neutral … even my pen has a stand.”

That motto has been severely tested in recent times. Just last year, it seemed almost certain that Zunar would end up in prison. A number of his books had been banned, and while his work was still widely shared online, the artist faced multiple charges of sedition and committing acts deemed “detrimental to parliamentary democracy.” Unknown assailants attacked him at a gallery show, police seized his works and he was banned from leaving the country.

Then, in a shock election result, a coalition of opposition parties turfed Najib out of office, promising to clamp down on corruption and reverse the country’s turn toward authoritarianism.

Now Zunar is watching as his the political figures who were once his nemeses and muses face decades behind bars themselve