The responsibility we have to the Galle Literary Festival

June 16, 2011 Comments Off on The responsibility we have to the Galle Literary Festival

Overland 203 – Boycotts and literary festivals by Antony Loewenstein

‘For thirty years the country [Sri Lanka] went through a kind of hell and endured untold economic and cultural deprivation. Now, with things looking up, we need all the friendly input we can get from well-meaning outsiders. Let the writers and the artists and the goodwill ambassadors come here and brighten up our lives, for Heaven’s sake. We have had enough dark days as it is.’

Richard Prins, The Sunday Times (Sri Lanka), 30 January 2011

A desire for normality is not unusual in a country that has experienced civil conflict. Hundreds of thousands of Tamils and Sinhalese have been killed or maimed in Sri Lanka over the past decades. What better way to celebrate the end of war than the Galle Literary Festival, an annual event that brings local and international artists and writers together for five days of debate?

But cultural events don’t take place in a vacuum. This year, the festival became the centre of a global effort to highlight human rights abuses in Sri Lanka in an episode that highlights the complicated politics of literary boycotts.

In January, Reporters Without Borders and a network of exiled Sri Lankan journalists, Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka, issued an appeal signed by a number of prominent figures, including Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy, Ken Loach, Tariq Ali and me. It called on participants in the festival to consider the message their attendance sent:

We believe this is not the right time for prominent international writers like you to give legitimacy to the Sri Lankan government’s suppression of free speech by attending a conference that does not in any way push for greater freedom of expression inside that country … We ask you in the great tradition of solidarity that binds writers together everywhere, to stand with your brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka who are not allowed to speak out. We ask that by your actions you send a clear message that, unless and until the disappearance of [cartoonist] Prageeth [Eknaligoda] is investigated and there is a real improvement in the climate for free expression in Sri Lanka, you cannot celebrate writing and the arts in Galle.

The statement did not directly ask writers to boycott the event but instead urged them to reconsider their participation. The hope was that moral pressure would provoke serious thought about the situation in Sri Lanka. The war’s official end had not brought liberation for the Tamil minority; President Mahinda Rajapaksa still rules over an authoritarian state. Colombo recently tried to ban the Tamil version of the Sri Lankan national anthem, and in late December 2010 an education officer in Tamil-majority Jaffna was murdered by Sinhalese thugs for refusing to instruct students to sing the Sinhalese version. Corruption is also rife throughout the health, university and entertainment industries. Independent journalists are routinely snatched from the streets in white vans and often never seen again. Thousands of Tamils remain incommunicado in concentration camps in the north and there has been no war crimes investigation into the many serious allegations against senior members of the government.

For me, the Galle statement was part of an ongoing struggle to insert human rights into a world that I now inhabit: the literary and cultural festival scene. It is too easy to simply visit a city and event, to enjoy the luxurious hospitality and not consider the wider context. Who is excluded and why? Is my presence condoning the actions of organisers or the state (that often partly funds such events)?

I was particularly concerned about Galle after reading reports by Australian journalist Eric Ellis that the founder of the festival, Geoffrey Dobbs, had not fully accounted for money he had gathered after the devastating 2004 tsunami. Ellis expressed scepticism that the ‘Condé Nast Traveller crowd’ who came to the literary extravaganza would see the event as nothing other than ‘marrying the yuppie fervour for exotic foods with a neo-colonial languor and the presumed intellectual glamour of being in close quarters with famous wordsmiths’.

The festival responded with outrage. Curator Shyam Selvadurai told Sri Lanka’s Sunday Leader that he ‘disagreed with the method of using the festival as a platform to voice disapproval’. When asked why a proposed panel on media freedom had been cancelled, he responded that it was simply too difficult ‘because it has to be fair and balanced. You have to give voice to both sides … We stand above all this partisan politics.’

I wondered if he believed that victims of war crimes should be given equal standing to those who commit them?

Selvadurai released a major statement in late January in which he claimed his voice had been ignored by the Reporters Without Borders:

I am Tamil and the festival takes place in Galle, the deep Sinhala south, which has seen some of the worst violence committed against the Tamils [in fact, the worst massacres occurred in the east of the country in 2009, with tens of thousands murdered]. I am, in addition, openly gay, and in fact was the first person to come out publicly in Sri Lanka. This, in a country where homosexuality is still illegal.

His call for dialogue was moving and forced me to seriously consider the purpose of the statement.

I felt comfortable with applying pressure on a festival that was backed by Colombo, an event used as a symbol of the postwar recovery advertised in tourist brochures across the world. Tourism is a massive industry in Sri Lanka. It helps normalise the international image of the nation if people return from the island to talk only about its beauty. When a writer explained in Sri Lanka’sSunday Times that the ‘infectiously feel-good, let’s-have-a-party character’ of Galle was sufficient enough reason for its success, it became clear that many Sinhalese and white visitors resented having their enjoyment interrupted with the inconvenient question of war crimes.

The aim of the statement was to highlight the world’s silence since the official end of the civil war in May 2009. Reporters Without Borders chief editor Gilles Lordet acknowledged that a boycott was ‘never a constructive solution’ but ‘it is a way to focus attention on a country that has been forgotten … Galle is one of the main tourist towns and you could imagine that everything is fine in the country, but that’s not the reality’.

South African writer Damon Galgut was the most high-profile withdrawal from Galle, declaring his discomfort with Sri Lanka’s human rights record and support of our statement. He was already in the country when he pulled out. Galgut told me personally at the Perth Writers Festival in March that the statement had alerted him to the grim reality of life in today’s Sri Lanka, a country he presumed had returned to semi-normality. Once he discovered the truth, he felt he had no choice but to withdraw.

Sri Lanka-based British travel writer Juliet Coombe praised the petition campaign to Agence France Presse because ‘there is a self-induced fear; not only among journalists and writers … Sometimes negative campaigns like this work. I had people calling from abroad, asking about the festival, about media suppression.’ (more)

 

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