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A public literary sphere under construction

Credits Text: Ola Larsmo Translation from Swedish: Christina Cullhed Illustration: Kajsa Nilsson April 18 2017
We all know that large parts of the world have poor international media coverage. We also know that history is always in the making and that incidents that in the future may be recognized as decisive can at first pass by unnoticed.
Parts of South East Asia have for some time been poorly covered in Western media. However, possibly because Thailand is a magnet for tourists, we can follow the political crises there, while the tragic development as concerns democracy and human rights in countries like Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia are very sparingly covered – if at all. This is paradoxical; forty to fifty years ago these countries were at the centre of world politics. Especially Cambodia had the sympathy of a whole world until this sympathy began to wane in the aftermath of the attempts to reconstruct a whole society that had first been ravished by U. S. bombings and then by the Khmer Rouge’s regime of terror in 1975-79 that killed two to three million people. The destruction of a society’s whole infrastructure and the terror regime’s deliberate extinction of academics and intellectuals left the question unanswered as to how it is possible to reconstruct a whole civic society – and a whole literary tradition.
Amnesty International has drawn attention to the Cambodian Government’s increasingly harsh treatment of those in opposition and of human rights workers; a treatment that has led to indiscriminate arrests and show-trials. Reporters Without Borders place Cambodia as number 132 in their freedom of press index (out of 180 countries in total) and they note that in the country important media are completely controlled by the state and that journalists’ attempts to report about corruption and environmentally hazardous industries (such as the exploitation of forests) are being hindered. Just as in many other parts of the world without a free press, blogging and Facebook have come to play an increasingly important role – and therefore the Government, according to RUG, are creating laws to regulate and control the Internet.
But there is also another development taking place. Cambodia is a nation of young people where the majority of its citizens are under thirty years of age – a demography that is partly due to the 1970s genocide. And lacking a free press it is this younger generation who are turning to digital and social media. As Jens Rosbäck writes in his article, the attempts to silence and control the digital sphere contribute instead to the resistance against it – if social media is the only way to get news that are not merely propaganda (that too of course) one is probably prepared to defend them.
The reconstruction of a public literary sphere is an on-going process forced to begin from scratch during 1980-90. Several articles in this issue discuss how well-functioning literary institutions are necessary in a democracy – not only because they contribute to the possibility to think and speak openly but also because they help writers to reach out, bringing issues such as distribution, technical solutions, literacy, and even lighting into the picture. Both Teri Yamada and Socheata Huot discuss these issues – what is needed for a meaningful freedom of expression to take shape at all? As regards the writing of Huot it is for a Swede of course also interesting to see the role Pippi Longstocking plays around the world as an anarchistic freedom symbol. And finally, in an analysis of a collection of discarded national anthems, the expert on Cambodia, David Chandler, manages to paint a picture of Cambodia’s 20th century history.
PEN/Opp has always wanted to function in this way: to open portholes and windows on a world where ordinary media do not always reach to – windows to the world for writers who want to find a wider audience. A diversity of perspectives helps us to understand the complexity of a society and that it can never be neatly fitted into one box. In these texts from Cambodia and about Cambodia we are also reminded how the struggle for the freedom of expression in various parts of the world is interconnected – even though it takes on many forms it is still the same freedom.

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