Celebrating literary brilliance in the region, the prestigious Mekong River Literature Awards took centre stage in the Lao capital Vientiane on December 20. 

Notably, Lek Sothear, an esteemed Cambodian poet who currently serves as undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, clinched an award for his outstanding contributions to the literary realm.

“Engaging in the competitive literary arena has enabled me to fulfil my dream of being recognised as a poet. Moreover, it has provided me with a platform from which to express my perspectives on the development along the Mekong River, particularly in Cambodia,” Sothear shares.

Established in 2007 by writers’ associations in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, the literature awards seek to foster camaraderie and collaboration among writers in the region. 

Initially centred on the three nations, the awards have since expanded to embrace talents from all Mekong countries. This year’s ceremony, featuring categories in poetry, short stories and diary entries, celebrated two winners from each participating country, a departure from the SEA Write Award’s single prize for all ASEAN nations. The awards ceremony, now a significant cultural event, moves to different locations each year, with this year’s festivities held in the Lao capital.

Sothear’s triumph not only highlights his literary prowess but also sheds light on his insights into regional development. 

His winning short story, The Last Journey, weaves a poignant narrative about the natural migration of Mekong giant catfish from the Tonle Sap Lake to the Upper Mekong for spawning. Along this journey, the fish encounter various obstacles before reaching their destination, where they spend time spawning and returning to the Tonle Sap. 

The story also captures the uniqueness of the people and culture along the river, exploring locations like Phnom Sopor Kali, Kroch Koh Trong, Kralan Thmar Kre – all in Kratie province – reefs and cascades that span parts of Kratie and Stung Treng provinces.

Literary legacy

“I aspire to witness our young people engage in writing, reading and using their time productively – gaining knowledge and conducting research. It’s crucial to steer clear of drugs, alcohol and gambling,” Sothear tells The Post.

His transition from a leadership role in the Grassroots Democratic Party (GDP) to his current position in the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and his active involvement in shaping agricultural policies underscore his dedication to enhancing Cambodia’s agricultural landscape. 

His efforts centre on advancing production, ensuring market access and promoting sustainability in the sector – an essential contribution to the nation’s economy and the well-being of its farmers.

Beyond literary acclaim, his victory signifies his commitment to inspire Cambodian youth. He routinely encourages them to participate in constructive activities such as writing and reading while avoiding negative influences. This accolade also symbolises his belief in the influential role of literature in addressing social issues and reflecting the realities of modern life.

Proeung Pranit, president of the Khmer Writers Association, notes the rigorous selection process that led to Sothear’s selection. 

The award’s inclusive nature is further underscored by the translation of winning works into English and Lao, ensuring accessibility and broad appreciation.

“We all know that creating an innovative and creative work of literature requires a clear level of basic knowledge,” he says. 

He adds that a clear understanding of the social context in all areas, especially the culture, civilisation and real-life experiences of the people in the region, is essential for the literary work to be realistic. 

“We’ve consistently acknowledged that enduring and meaningful literature is the type of work that depicts and juxtaposes real-life social events in society,” he shares with The Post.

Mekong’s essence

Pranit says the gathering represents an ongoing effort to build friendships, share new experiences, gain fresh knowledge and foster understanding among regional writers. 

Under the theme “Life and Sustainability of the Mekong River”, this event is of great significance to the nations along the Mekong.

For Sothear, writing transcends a hobby; it serves as both a medium to express his thoughts on social issues and contribute to national development.

“[Former Prime Minister] Hun Sen’s accomplishment is acknowledged for liberating Cambodia from the genocidal regime of Pol Pot and initiating reconstruction for development,” he says.

He also cites the accomplishments of other politicians, like Yang Saing Koma, who he says demonstrates “excellence” in agriculture and organic farming. 

Driven by a love for writing, Sothear chose to wield his pen to craft poems that mirror the current realities of Cambodian society. 

“Being a writer is one of my life aspirations,” he says. 

His journey commenced with the Mekong River Literature Awards, serving as his first venture into writing essays for this international competition.

“To me, the awards programme serves two primary goals: Promoting the literature of the six countries around the Mekong and collectively conserving the natural resources along the river. This includes preserving the literature, culture and traditions of the people in the region,” he says.

Sothear observes that the river faces threats from developments impacting fishermen and indigenous people who rely on it. He envisions writers coming together to safeguard, preserve and advance natural resources, culture, traditions and art.

Cambodia has hosted the competition three times – in 2009, 2014 and 2021.