Magazine eludes censors, covers South-east Asia's literary scene

HONG KONG • At Monument Books, a bookstore in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the magazine racks are stacked with copies of The Economist and other foreign titles.

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.

It was first published in October 2015 and each quarterly issue has featured a mix of 10 to 20 reviews, essays, poetry, fiction, question-and-answer segments and investigative reports about the culture, politics and history of South-east Asia.

Supporters say it is a welcome platform for South-east Asian writers, as well as a sharp political voice in countries where free speech is perennially threatened. "It's an incredible beacon of light to see someone bring something such as the Mekong Review into being and I just hope it can continue," said Mr William Bagley, a manager at Monument Books.

Mr 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.

Mekong Review is a long shot on many levels, not least because it covers a region where newspapers that are not controlled by governments tend to struggle against censorship and 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.

Mekong Review would not be under the same direct pressure because it is based in Sydney, Australia - Mr Bui Jones' hometown - where he resettled last year after living in Britain, Cambodia and Thailand.

But he faces other challenges, including a shortage of manpower. He said 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.

For its autumn issue, Mekong Review expanded its editorial focus to include Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. It also switched to a printer in George Town, Penang, from one on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

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 non-fiction on Myanmar.

The autumn issue includes Facing The End, a diary of The Cambodia Daily's last days by Jodie DeJonge, the newspaper's last editor-in-chief.

Mr Bui Jones also liked to recruit South-east Asian writers whose work could guide a reader through their respective countries' cultural "labyrinths". He pointed to Life As A Shopping Mall, an essay by Thai writer Pim Wangtechawat, about consumer culture in Bangkok - an aspect of Thai society that Mr Bui Jones said was poorly understood by outsiders.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 12, 2017, with the headline 'Magazine eludes censors, covers South-east Asia's literary scene'. Print Edition | Subscribe