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)


A powerful piece on boycotting Galle Festival

February 20, 2011 Comments Off on A powerful piece on boycotting Galle Festival

Roma Tearne is an advisor to the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice

Roma Tearne’s blog (19/02) – The Galle Literary Festival: A Cultural boycott?

I wasn’t going to say anything. The news from the place where I was born is old news. What I feel about the civil war in Sri Lanka is an old story, too. And anyway, here, in Britain we have enough problems of our own to bother about some pretty island in the Indian Ocean. But then, I read a sentimental little piece about the Galle Literary Festival written by a Sri Lankan writer and it became impossible to stay silent. The writer is Tamil, not born in Sri Lanka but living in the US and her inability to think either clearly or analytically is disturbing. Her article, written with ‘swimming eyes’, in gushing prose, and her reasons for attending the Galle literary festival, are as thin as rice paper.

Author joins call to boycott Galle festival

January 27, 2011 Comments Off on Author joins call to boycott Galle festival

AFP – S. African author Galgut boycotts S. Lanka lit fes

South African award-winning novelist and playwright Damon Galgut has boycotted a literary festival in Sri Lanka because of concerns over the country’s rights record, organisers said Thursday.

Galgut, a winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2003 for “The Good Doctor”, set in post-apartheid South Africa, declined to take part in the Galle Literary Festival despite arriving in Sri Lanka this week, organisers said.

“We are sorry to announce that Damon Galgut has decided to lend his support to the ongoing international campaign by rights activists to highlight shortfalls in human rights here,” Shyam Selvadurai, the festival curator said.

“It’s an unfortunate situation for us that Damon heeded this ridiculous campaign,” Selvadurai told reporters. “But the festival will go on, with over 60 writers participating.”

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and a Sri Lankan right group last week asked foreign writers to boycott the five-day Galle festival because of alleged rights abuses in Sri Lanka.

Galgut, whose latest novel, “In a Strange Room,” is shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize, was not immediately available for comment.

RSF said Wednesday that “hundreds” of Internet users had signed a boycott petition led by Noam Chomsky, Arundathi Roy, Ken Loach, Antony Loewenstein, Tariq Ali, Dave Rampton and R Cheran. More

India says Galle Visa stories untrue

January 23, 2011 Comments Off on India says Galle Visa stories untrue

The Hindu (22/01) – No re-entry restrictions on Pamuk, Desai: India

India waived its visa re-entry restrictions on writers Orhan Pamuk, Kiran Desai and others, so that they could participate in the Galle Literary Festival, the Indian High Commission in Sri Lanka said on Saturday.

“Every conceivable problem related to re-entry into India of foreign writers was discussed at length and sorted out,” an official said.

On Friday, two of the main stars of the festival, Mr. Pamuk and Mr. Desai announced that they will not attend and the festival organisers quickly blamed India for the decision.

The festival organisers said on Friday: “It is with great regret that we have to announce that Orhan Pamuk and Kiran Desai will not be attending the Literary Festival in Galle due to Indian re-entry visa restrictions. We have been trying to resolve the issue with the Indian Immigration authorities for the last three weeks but it has just not been possible.”

Responding to the accusation a full 24 hours later, the official said that the Government of India and the Indian Mission in Istanbul had helped in every way possible to make sure that there was no problem for any author to participate in the GLF. More

Sunday Leader – A GLF With A Twist

A day after announcing the final line-up of the 5th Galle Literary Festival, organisers are having to deal with the double disappointment of Nobel Laureate, Turkish author Orhan Pamuk and his fellow writer and partner Booker Prize winner Kiran Desai pulling out of the Festival.

Both Pamuk and Desai appear to have pulled out of attending the festival following an appeal early last week by Reporters Without Borders and Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka which called for those who intend attending the Festival to reconsider the situation of the entire media community in the country.
The RSF/JDS joint appeal said, “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 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 appeal was signed by: Noam Chomsky (American linguist, philosopher, cognitive  scientist, and political activist), Arundathi Roy (Indian novelist, essayist and activist), Ken Loach (British film and television director, known for highlighting social issues),  Antony Loewenstein (Australian political activist, journalist, author and blogger), Tariq Ali (British Pakistani historian, novelist, filmmaker and political campaigner), Dave Rampton (lecturer, he has completed his doctoral research on Sinhala nationalism in Sri Lanka and is based at the Department of Politics and International Studies, at School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London), and R. Cheran (Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Windsor, Ontario, Canada, poet, author and journalist). 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

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