Eluding censors, a magazine covers Southeast 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 titles from Britain, Australia, France and the United States.
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.& A.s 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 Mr. 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, Mr. Bui Jones’s hometown, where he resettled in 2016 after living for nearly a decade in Britain, Cambodia and Thailand.
But Mr. 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.