Tuesday, 21 October 2014
Home Tamil Affairs International Affairs Editorial Opinion Feature Culture & Community Interviews
Latest Entries:
Self indulgent hypocrisy
Sivakami Rajamanoharan Tamil Guardian 12 February 2011 Print ArticleE-mail ArticleFeedback On Article
   

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. 

 
Share on Facebook Print ArticlePrint Article E-mail ArticleE-mail Article Feedback On ArticleFeedback On Article
 
 
HIGHLIGHTS
  Tamil Affairs
Tamil Guardian 21 October 2014
Mother of man killed by military prevented from leaving Sri Lanka

The mother of Suntharalingam Gajatheeban, also known as Theiveegan, who was killed by the Sri Lankan military in April, was prevented from leaving Sri Lanka on Tuesday, despite being in possession of a valid visa, the Daily Mirror reports. [more]

Tamil Guardian 21 October 2014
EU defends annulment of measures against LTTE, as Sri Lanka decides to appeal decision

The European Union has defended the annulment of the measures in place against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in a statement released on Tuesday, saying the moves were of a legal nature and not political. [more]

Tamil Guardian 21 October 2014
TNA only remaining obstacle to peace Sajin de Vass

Ruling party MP Sajin de Vass Gunawardene accused the Tamil National Alliance of obstructing peace in Sri Lanka.

Speaking at parliament at the second reading of the Land (Restrictions on Alienation) Bill on Monday, [more]

Tamil Guardian 21 October 2014
BBS to contest parliamentary elections

The Buddhist group Bodu Bala Sena said on Tuesday it will contest parliamentary elections in Sri Lanka.

General Secretary Gnanasara Thero said monks will not contest, [more]

Tamil Guardian 20 October 2014
School girl reported missing in Jaffna
A 17 year old high school student has been reported missing in Jaffna after she failed to return home from a tuition class, reports the Uthayan. Sivanesan Perani, [more]

Tamil Guardian 20 October 2014
Diaspora attempts to oust president through lifting EU proscription on LTTE says Rajapaksa
The recent European Court of Justice ruling to lift restrictions placed on individuals and organisations allegedly linked to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is a result of “pro-LTTE” diaspora and opposition parties attempting to oust the current presidency said the Sri Lankan president on Monday.   "European Union has lifted the ban on the LTTE. It happened within two weeks of certain opposition leaders having talks with the pro-LTTE diaspora. They are working with foreign forces to oust me. They have gone and met them in Europe. They have promised action to fulfil pro-LTTE diaspora demands, [more]

Tamil Guardian 20 October 2014
Travel restrictions to North will stop diaspora funded war against government says SL official
Travel restrictions have been placed on the North to prevent foreign elements funding another war against the Sri Lankan government, said the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) coalition party's general secretary on Monday. [more]

Tamil Guardian 20 October 2014
Travel restriction to North designed to prevent Tamils giving evidence to UN inquiry says TNPF
The Sri Lankan government's re-introduction of travel restrictions to the North, preventing all foreign citizens from entering the region without prior written permission from the Ministry of Defence, [more]


Print Editions

 
 

Contact Tamil Guardian
www.tamilguardian.com