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)

 

Nobel prize winner pulls out of Galle festival

January 22, 2011 § 1 Comment

Radio Netherlands – Writer’s block: Nobel winner Pamuk boycotts Sri Lanka festival

The Hindu – Pamuk, Desai to miss Galle literary fete

AFP – Stars pull out of S. Lanka book fair under pressure

Nobel-winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk and fellow writer Kiran Desai have pulled out of Sri Lanka’s main literary festival, Pamuk’s publisher said on Friday, following pressure from press freedom groups.

Reporters Without Borders and a Sri Lankan rights group had targeted foreign writers in a campaign that called on them to boycott the Galle Literary Festival because of restrictions on free speech in Sri Lanka.

The campaign said that attending the event later this month would “give legitimacy to the Sri Lankan government’s suppression of free speech.”

Pamuk and his partner Kiran Desai, a Booker Prize-winning author, are attending the Jaipur Literary Festival in northern India and had planned to travel on to Sri Lanka for the Galle event that starts on January 26.

“They won’t be attending the Galle festival,” Hemali Sodhi from Pamuk’s publisher in India, Penguin, told AFP by telephone. “They won’t be commenting on this any further.”

Pamuk had declined to take questions from journalists while speaking at an event in Jaipur earlier in the day.

The Galle boycott campaign has been backed by Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy, Ken Loach, Antony Loewenstein and Tariq Ali.

A total of 17 journalists and media workers have been killed in Sri Lanka in the past decade and many local reporters exercise self-censorship to avoid confrontations with the authorities, according to rights groups.

Sri Lanka, ruled by Mahinda Rajapakse since 2005, remains under a state of emergency, giving police wide powers to detain suspects and allowing the government to crack down on people perceived as dissidents.

Pamuk, author of “Snow” and “The Black Book,” became the focus of a campaign backed by Reporters Without Borders for greater freedom in his homeland after becoming a victim of laws that restrict writers’ ability to criticise Turkey.

He was prosecuted for telling a Swiss magazine that 30,000 Kurds and a million Armenians had been killed during World War I under the Ottoman Turks, although the case was ultimately dropped on a technicality.

Galle Festival appeal hits the news

January 22, 2011 § 1 Comment

AFP (21/01) – Pamuk, other writers ‘legitimising S. Lanka suppression’

Leading media freedom group Reporters Without Borders on Thursday accused Nobel-winning author Orhan Pamuk and other writers of legitimising repression in Sri Lanka by attending a literary festival there.

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said it was “disturbing” that Sri Lanka should celebrate literature while suppressing freedom of expression and attacking independent journalists and writers.

Dozens of foreign writers, including Turkey’s Pamuk — a free speech campaigner once charged with “insulting Turkishness” — are due in Sri Lanka for the festival in the southern town of Galle from January 26.

“RSF finds it highly disturbing that literature is being celebrated in this manner in a land where cartoonists, journalists, writers and dissident voices are so often victimised by the current government,” the group said.

“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,” it told the attending authors.

The RSF launched the campaign with Sri Lanka’s Journalists for Democracy (JDS).

They have been backed by authors Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy, Ken Loach, Antony Loewenstein and Tariq Ali, according to the rights groups. More

Hinudstan Times (21/01) – Writers’ block at the Galle Literary Festival

Indian Express (20/01)  – Arundhati Roy joins call to boycott Lanka literary festival


Say “NO!” to Sri Lanka

July 19, 2010 Comments Off on Say “NO!” to Sri Lanka

Reuters Blog – Tamil forum calls for boycott of Sri Lanka

‘ABC Unleashed’ balances false claims in ‘the Australian’

July 14, 2010 Comments Off on ‘ABC Unleashed’ balances false claims in ‘the Australian’

ABC Unleashed – Real terrorists enter via airports, not on leaky boats

So some asylum seekers are terrorists are they? Well yes, according to The Australian today. But for a host of reasons we should be very cautious in accepting the veracity of those who make claims that people fleeing conflict are in fact zealous members of terrorist organizations…

…Mr. DeSilva-Ranasinghe’s views should not necessarily be accepted as gospel. After all he made the extraordinary claim in the same paper on 7 April this year that “there is strong evidence that since the defeat of the Tamil Tigers in May 2009 Sri Lanka has moved towards stability and inter-ethnic reconciliation, rather than widespread or institutionalised persecution of its Tamil population.”

This is certainly not what the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says in its latest country assessment of Sri Lanka, issued on July 5. While noting that steps are being taken to normalize the country the report also notes that detention without trial, torture of suspects, rape and other forms of sexual abuse of women and children is happening and that there is “severe overcrowding and lack of adequate sanitation, food, water and medical treatment” in prisons. Hardly a rosy picture!

As to whether or not there are terrorists on leaky boats trying to get to Australia, one might want to consider a recent case in Canada where a similar claim was made about a group of 25 Sri Lankan asylum seekers who were detained last October after arriving on a boat in Vancouver by the Canadian Border Security Agency (CBSA) because they had been told the men were members of the Tamil Tigers.

The Vancouver Sun revealed last weekend that when it came to having their cases assessed by Canada’s migration review system the CBSA suddenly dropped their allegations and the men have been released into the community under conditions. A spokesperson for the CBSA told the Vancouver Sun last Saturday that the “CBSA was not in a position to substantiate arguments for continued detention and the [review tribunal] began ordering release.”

More broadly, the difficulty with making claims that an asylum seeker is connected to a terrorist group is that it is such a sweeping statement. In countries like Sri Lanka and Afghanistan many people have contact with, and associate with, the Tamil Tigers and the Taliban or Al-Qaeda respectively. It is, or was, physically almost impossible not to in certain parts of that country. If they are young, they might even train with one of these groups.

But is it seriously being suggested that simply because someone has an association with a terrorist group that makes him or her a danger to Australia? If it is then why did we allow hundreds of thousands of Irish Catholics who directly, or through friends and families, had connections with the IRA, come to our shores? More

M.I.A. attacks NY Times through song

January 15, 2010 Comments Off on M.I.A. attacks NY Times through song

Rolling Stone – New M.I.A. Song “Space Odyssey” An Attack on “New York Times”

The video M.I.A. posted on her Twitter earlier this week is in fact a newly recorded track called “Space Odyssey” that the Kala singer-rapper quickly wrote and recorded as an angry response to a New York Times story, the artist’s publicist tells The Fader. “Space Odyssey,” produced by M.I.A. and Rusko, will likely appear on M.I.A.’s upcoming third album.

Listen to song here

The Huffington Post – MIA: F*** New York Times!!!!!!

Sri Lanka topped a recent NY Times list of ’31 Places To Go In 2010,’ but one of the country’s most famous natives doesn’t agree.

“FUCK NEW YORK TIMES! DO YOU THINK YOU NEED TO GO HERE ON VACATION?” MIA tweeted, with a photo of a pile of mangled bodies (graphic and seen below).

“ONCE AGAIN FUCK NEW YORK TIMES !!!!!!!!! GET YOUR PRIORITIES STRAIGHT,” the singer continued along with the gruesome photo below.

A bloody civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the insurgent group Tamil Tigers technically ended in May when the Tigers admitted defeat after 25 years. MIA’s father, a Tamil tiger, spent much of MIA’s childhood in hiding from the Sri Lankan army. In 1986, MIA, her mother, brother and sister moved to London where they were housed as refugees. More

More on SL Camps: "Deeply Distressing"

October 9, 2009 Comments Off on More on SL Camps: "Deeply Distressing"

bbc

Sri Lanka refugees plead for freedom

Rapidly built up for the Tamil refugee influx last spring, Menik Farm has pylons, banks, even cash machines – and thousands upon thousands of tents in the cleared arid lands west of Vavuniya in northern Sri Lanka.

Since my earlier visit in April, the camp has swollen to cover some 10 zones, the number of camp-dwellers has ballooned to a quarter of a million, while over 20,000 have been resettled or more informally released, the government says.

This was the BBC’s first chance to view all this infrastructure close-up.

Distressing conversations

A government intensely sensitive to outside criticism or suggestions, and wary of any outsider’s intentions in wanting to visit the camps, was now giving the BBC admittance, alongside the UK’s Development Minister, Mike Foster. That in itself seemed like notable progress.

And yet, just five minutes of conversation with the camp-dwellers was deeply distressing.

Starting by talking to us through our car-window, women, one after the other, piled on tales of hopelessness in the Tamil language.

Click here for full artice

This article appeared in Sri Lankan media. Please note we cannot verify the independence of the information in this report.

Lanka News Web – Tamils make history at the UK Labour Party Conference

Tamils made history in the UK with a momentous passing of an emergency resolution on Sri Lanka at the Labour Party Conference on Thursday, 1 October 2009.

The sitting government party passed a resolution condemning the treatment of Tamils in Sri Lanka by that government. Resolution was passed unanimously by thousands of delegates at the conference and in front of millions of live TV viewers.

The notable resolution was delivered by Mr Paul Kenny, General Secretary of GMB, Britain’s general trade union, representing over 5 million members through its affiliate bodies. Delivering a bold, yet passionate speech, Mr Kenny was able to clearly articulate the desperate
situation faced by Tamils locked up in ‘internment camps’ in Sri Lanka.

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