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Writers Say Illiteracy Makes Uninformed Citizens

“The majority of the illiterate are poor,” Pal Vannariraks, who has written novels, poems and other works, told “Hello VOA” Monday.

Cambodia’s illiteracy rate remains high, contributing to uninformed citizens and a lack of development, two Cambodian writers said Monday.

“The majority of the illiterate are poor,” Pal Vannariraks, who has written novels, poems and other works, told “Hello VOA” Monday. She called illiteracy “an enemy of human beings,” leading to a lack of wisdom or strategies on how to lead a good life.

Kho Tararith, a writer who is now studying at Harvard University, said illiteracy can also mean a lack of understanding of laws, regulations and services provided by modern society. He urged the Cambodian government to pay closer attention to literacy and reading.

“So many people in Cambodia are illiterate,” he said. “Therefore, we must promote education so that we have more educated people who can help develop the country.”

Both writers spoke ahead of International Literacy Day, which is a Unesco holiday that began in 1966 and is held each year on September 8.

Up to 774 million adults lack functional literacy worldwide, according to the UN agency: one in five adults, and perhaps two thirds of them women. An estimated 75 million children do not attend school, and many who do attend often drop out before they complete their educations.

Kho Tararith said Cambodian literature has barely been able to survive in the current environment.

“When people know how to read and write, they can write what they want, read what they want,” he said. “They then can see what is really happening in their society, how democracy actually works, as well as human rights and other issues. So they can change society democratically.”

“The writings of those authors are mountains of ideas, mountains of knowledge,” Pal Vannariraks said. Books are “honest friends,” she said, “and schools without vacation, meaning readers can open a book at any time.”

She said that even though Khmer-language literature survived the Khmer Rouge and the subsequent communist regime, writers in those times were limited by the party line and ideology. Still, some writers, like herself, continued to write in secret, by hand, penning works that were opposed to the principles of the communists.

These days, writers are hard pressed to earn a living. Cambodian writers are now seeking new ways to promote their work, finding compilations like “In the Shadow of Angkor,” an English-language book edited by Frank Stewart and Sharon May. Such books make Cambodian works accessible to international readers.

But Cambodian writers must also compete with new media, Pal Vannariraks said, including TV and the Internet.

The key factors to preserving Cambodian literature, she said, are writers, who should improve the quality of their work; publishers, who need to pay writers more; and readers, who should pass good reads along.