When Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS) called upon literary figures to boycott this year’s Galle Literary Festival, they were undoubtedly prepared to face the ire of the Sri Lankan state. What they would not have anticipated was the angry response provoked from event organisers and a small but prominent group of liberal advocates in Sri Lanka. What was particularly striking about the backlash was the hypocrisy inherent to the arguments about free speech and inter-ethnic harmony marshalled in defence of the GLF.
Sri Lanka’s unabashedly repressive government is desperately trying to feign a situation of normalcy whilst ruthlessly suppressing criticism and dissent (quite apart from its continued visitation of deprivations on the island’s Tamils). The torching of the Lanka-e-News office is but the latest in several years of attacks on critical media.
As such, any internationally promoted event on the island – entertainment, sports or, in this case, literary celebration – undoubtedly directly serve the regime’s interests. Quite apart from furnishing it with international legitimacy, they help the cash-strapped state attract foreign tourists.
The claim that "the government has nothing to do with [such events]" could have been made in the case of every repressive state (remember the international boycott of sports events in Apartheid South Africa?) and turns on denying the wider contribution of such events towards the state's international image. (See also senior government official Rajiva Wijesingha's comment here). As RSF chief editor Gilles Lordet pointed out, "Galle is one of the main tourist towns and [from here] you could imagine there that everything is fine in the country, but that's not the reality."
Ironically, whilst actually having said almost nothing about Sri Lanka’s repression either during orafter the war, the GLF’s organisers and its supporters didn’t respond to the logic of the RSF-JDS petition. Instead they attacked the boycott call as itself an attempt to stifle free speech. It was, of course, nothing of the sort: the petition was simply a principled appeal – it was up to the festival’s participants to either respond or ignore.
As it happens, some leading literary figures did not turn up. Nobel laureate Turkish-born Orhan Pamuk and Kiran Desai pulled out first, and later so did South African novelist Damon Galgut, who explicitly linked his no-show to both the RSF-JDS appeal and Sri Lanka’s conduct. These developments, however, neither provoked a rethink by the organisers, nor any support for these actions.
Instead, the GLF’s defenders focussed on ridiculing and downplaying the RSF-JDS petition. In doing so, their efforts became a de-facto defence of the Sri Lankan state and its conduct, and have thus served to add force to Colombo’s repression and limit its victims’ ability to resist.
Moreover, while defending the GLF, festival co-curator Shyam Selvadurai allowed himself to be exploited as a poster boy for a fictional inter-racial harmony in Sri Lanka. His assertion that the GLF is the “voice of plurality, tolerance and multiculturalism” read like a government pamphlet. His protest that the event is “not a carnival for the rich” (some tickets cost $50) did nothing to address the wider implications of staging an international event in a country where state-led majoritarianism is fast deepening.
The claim the GLF is a rare bastion of free speech in Sri Lanka is itself simply disingenuous. Since its inception in 2007, the GLF has focused on the celebration of literary works and writers. The festival, which began amidst the resumption of Sri Lanka’s military campaign and an unfolding humanitarian crisis in the Northeast, has never been a forum for rebellion against Sri Lanka’s suppression of free speech. Instead such issues are sidelined into fringe meetings on human rights and the occasional speech, such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s this year. (See pictures from the event here.)
Adichie's view is that "the way to deal with bad speech is to talk about it." But the GLF’s is only marginally concern with defending free speech. Indeed, nothing exemplifies this more than the case of Prageeth Eknaligoda, a cartoonist critical of the government. The anniversary of his ‘disappearance’ in 2010 coincides with the GLF. It was even suggested his wife could use the event to publicise his case. She was reduced to wandering about the venue with her sixteen year old son, handing out leaflets. As she later told the BBC: "I'm not 100% satisfied with our trip to Galle as I expected to speak to the whole crowd, at least for five minutes."
The assertion that the RSF-JDS boycott call would prevent international media coverage of such supposed resistance to Sri Lanka’s repression could not be more false. International media reports about the boycott call – and the exit of key speakers - raised far more attention about Sri Lanka’s conduct than those covering the festival itself – indeed, the latter usually only touched briefly on it.
Meanwhile, another suggestion, that the GLF is about literature, rather than the controversial pursuit of media, again missed the point of the boycott call: it was against the event’s legitimising the Sri Lankan regime’s wider repression, not literature per se.
The distinction between media and literature is not one shared by the Sri lankan state anyway – as exemplified by the police’s torching of the Tamil literary works and historic manuscripts in the Jaffna library in 1981. Consider also Sri Lanka’s Sinhala-Buddhist ideological policing of history textbooks and other works. As British writer Juliet Coombes told the AFP, ""Sri Lankans like to talk about their loss of freedom in private, but not through literary works or in newspaper columns."
Until the Sri Lankan state ends its repression, any international event in the island to celebrate literature or anything else contributes to the veil of legitimacy for it to continue. As such, it is the deeply symbolic value of such events that serves the regime’s interests. One attack on the RSF-JDS petition admonished them saying: 'Events like GLF are sadly rare. Let us enjoy them in peace’. This argument encapsulates the contempt for the past and ongoing suffering and persecution of the Tamils in the island that celebrations like the GLF embody.