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Eluding censors, Mekong Review covers Southeast Asia’s literary scene

Copies of Mekong Review inside the home of Minh Bui Jones, the magazine's editor, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Oct. 25, 2017. Mekong Review’s contributors include some of the best-known authors, journalists and academics who follow the region.
Copies of Mekong Review inside the home of Minh Bui Jones, the magazine's editor, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Oct. 25, 2017. Mekong Review’s contributors include some of the best-known authors, journalists and academics who follow the region. Omar Havana/The New York Times

Eluding censors, Mekong Review covers Southeast Asia’s literary scene

At the capital’s Monument Books, the magazine racks are stacked with copies of The Economist and other titles from Britain, Australia, France and the US.

But one top-selling magazine there was founded in Phnom Penh and takes its name — Mekong Review — from the mighty river that runs beside the city’s low-rise downtown.

Mekong Review was first published in October 2015, and each quarterly issue has featured a mix of about 10 to 20 reviews, essays, poetry, fiction, Q&As and investigative reports about the culture, politics and history of mainland Southeast Asia. Supporters say it is a welcome platform for Southeast Asian writers and scholars of the region, as well as a sharp political voice in countries where speech is perennially threatened.

"It’s an incredible beacon of light to see someone bring something like the Mekong Review into being, and I just hope it can continue,” said William Bagley, a manager at Monument Books, which has nine stores across Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar and caters to tourists, expatriates and English-speaking locals.

Minh Bui Jones, Mekong Review’s founding editor and publisher, said he saw the magazine as a vehicle for cross-border connections in a region that lacks a sense of a shared historical narrative.

According to Bui Jones, it also aims to be for Southeast Asia what he said The New York Review of Books and The London Review of Books had been since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001: “brave, trenchant critics of their respective governments.”

Mekong Review is a long shot on many levels, not least because it covers a region where English literacy is patchy, postal systems are unreliable and newspapers that are not controlled by governments tend to struggle against censorship and chronic financial constraints.

One such newspaper in Phnom Penh, The Cambodia Daily, closed in September, after 24 years in operation, amid allegations by the government that it had not paid millions of dollars in taxes. The closure was widely seen as linked to a steady loss of free expression in the country.

Mekong Review would not be subject to the same direct pressure because it is based in Sydney, Australia, Bui Jones’ hometown, where he resettled in 2016 after living for nearly a decade in Britain, Cambodia and Thailand.

But Bui Jones faces other challenges, including a shortage of manpower. He said that while his wife and father-in-law, along with a friend who lives in Kashmir, help out with copy editing, he edits and commissions all of the articles. “It’s a very modest enterprise,” he said.

Then he must arrange delivery of the magazine’s 2,000-copy print run to Southeast Asian cities that are hundreds of miles apart. Bui Jones said he has an ad hoc distribution system that relies on friends who “mule” copies by plane, bus, tuk tuk and motorbike, and that he also moonlights as a deliveryman when he visits the region.

For its fall issue, Mekong Review expanded its editorial focus beyond mainland Southeast Asia — Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam — to include Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. It also switched to a printer in George Town, a former British colonial outpost in the Malaysian state of Penang, from one on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

The switch has further complicated delivery logistics. “Now we have the South China Sea to contend with,” Bui Jones said with a chuckle.

But the magazine punches above its weight: Its contributors include some of the best-known authors, journalists and academics who follow the region, including Viet Thanh Nguyen, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, and Emma Larkin, the pseudonym for a Bangkok-based American writer who has published several nonfiction books on Myanmar.

Larkin said that Mekong Review avoids the “easy clichés through which the West views Southeast Asia and offers instead a rich, in-depth and nuanced portrait of the region.”

Mekong Review is unique in part because it serves as a bridge between the academic world and Southeast Asia’s literary scene, said Judith Henchy, the head of the Southeast Asia section at the University of Washington Libraries in Seattle. “It’s an attempt at a kind of regional cosmopolitan voice,” she added.

The magazine’s reviews have covered books about Khmer history, Asian street-food culture, the Thai monarchy, ethnic-minority communities and much else. The spring issue included a translated excerpt from “Crossroads and Lampposts,” a 1960s novel by Tran Dan, a Vietnamese writer whose works were banned in Vietnam for decades.

Other articles take deep looks at local news. The fall issue includes Facing the End, a diary of The Cambodia Daily’s last days by Jodie DeJonge, the newspaper’s last editor-in-chief, and a Q&A in which the blogger Nguyen Chi Tuyen criticises Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party and describes what he says is repression by its secret police.

Bui Jones said he struggled with that Q&A because he worried that the Vietnamese authorities might punish Tuyen for making such provocative comments. But he decided to publish anyway, he said, because he felt that it highlighted an important human rights issue.

“I anticipate a lot more repression in the days ahead” in Vietnam, he said.

Mike Ives/The New York Times

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