This article is taken from the Reconciliation Website, www.peaceinsrilanka.org which subsumes the old site www.peaceinsrilanka.lk used by the former Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP).
In asking me to comment on the reported boycott of the Galle Literary Festival by two writers, Sirasa TV also wanted some background information on the Festival, in particular as to whether it was of service to Sri Lanka. I had been told before about the call by Reporters beyond Borders that the Festival be boycotted, on the grounds that media freedom in Sri Lanka is under threat. I had also been sent the robust critique of that call on Groundviews, a media outlet that exemplifies the freedom the media in Sri Lanka enjoys. It was suggested too that I write something on the issue, but I had wanted, on a Saturday, to work on Sri Lankan Poetry. However, having done an interview for Sirasa, I felt there was no good excuse for not putting pen to paper.
With regard to the Festival itself, I believe it is of great benefit to Sri Lanka. When the Festival was started, way back in 2007 I think, there was much criticism in various quarters, including that it was basically a money making exercise for its founder, Geoffrey Dobbs. But there should be no objection to people making money, so long as they provide services to others that give value for money. It seemed to me that Dobbs was doing that.
A second objection was that the Festival had nothing really to do with Sri Lanka. This seemed to me a more valid objection, since in that first year there were I believe no Sri Lankan writers involved, excepting expatriates. It was also difficult, given the cost of events, for most Sri Lankans not out of the top financial bracket to attend.
Given the other criticisms, including claims of sharp practice, I thought it best not to raise questions publicly, since I knew nothing of the details, but I did call someone who had been involved and mentioned the second objection above. To my surprise, there was very positive action about this the following year. A bright young lady from India, who was in charge of some of the arrangements for 2008, called to ask about Sri Lankan writers, and they featured a great many of them that year, including Jean Arasanayagam and Punyakante Wijenaike. This has continued over the years, with Yasmine Gooneratne becoming a Patron of the festival, while Sinhala and Tamil writers have also participated. This year for instance, if I have read aright, A Santhan from Jaffna (whom I had recommended in 2008) and Amarakeerthi Liyanage from Peradeniya will take part.
Secondly, they began a scheme in 2008 of giving cut-price tickets to students. I believe many have benefited from this, and that the practice still continues. Of course the ordinary cost continues high, but the majority of those who attend do not find this excessive, and believe they are getting good value for their money. And for the many foreigners who attend, the costs are very low, for the great spread of literary talent they are exposed to.
This is another of the benefits to the country, and we should be particularly grateful to the organizers for keeping the event going during the years when foreigners were being advised not to come to Sri Lanka. Those who ignored the warnings found that threats to them were minimal, and many travelled elsewhere in the country too, which helped our flagging tourist industry. They also spread the word and, since they belonged to the category of high-spending traveler, any impact they might have had would have been extremely helpful.
Scuttling such benefits to the country may be one reason for the extraordinary demarche of the Reporters. But I believe there is another reason too, which is that the last few weeks have seen a great increase in criticism of Sri Lanka by those NGOs that follow trends, regardless of consistency. Just a couple of nights ago, for instance, the BBC in London rang me up to ask about the most recent effusion of Sam Zarifi of Amnesty International, while just before that the BBC in Colombo had wanted me to comment on a report by Minority Rights Group International.
The timing of all this is not coincidental. This week Sri Lanka presents in Geneva its report on the Convention to Eliminate Discrimination Against Women. And then there is the regular meeting of the Council in Geneva in March, before which those who are bitter against Sri Lanka believe that the UN Secretary General’s Panel will unveil a report on the basis of which they can bring a hostile resolution. Building up feeling against us might help to sway votes if, now that memories are fading of the forceful and broad coalition Ambassador Jayatilleka built up, another attempt is made to condemn us.
If that is the game plan, it is not surprising that the Reporters have ignored the fact that the Galle Literary Festival in fact provides a forum for those who wish to attack the government. Indeed, those who delight in conspiracy theories might well claim that the government has fed the Reporters false information in order to destroy a centre of dissent. Understandably, given the social background of the Sri Lankans who flock to the festival, it has connections with the opposition, with Maithri Wickremesinghe having been made a Co-Patron of the Festival with Yasmine Gooneratne. Since she was then a comparatively junior lecturer at Kelaniya University, it was clear that Dobbs wanted her political rather than aesthetic patronage.
But she also perhaps helped to introduce another dimension to the event, which was the presence of the self-proclaimed Human Rights Defenders with whom she was closely associated. Each year there is an event (at least one, often more) at which a collection of these characters unite to lambast the government in their various ways. I was in fact asked to one in 2008, where Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu and Sanjana Hattotuwa held forth in their usual fashion. This was on language policy, if I recollect aright, and I suspect the organizers had intended to accuse the government of being monolingual and chauvinistic. My revelation of the manner in which this government had, for the first time, made bilingualism compulsory for new public servants, came as a shock. Understandably enough, I have not been invited again.
Most tellingly, the session was chaired by Rama Mani, the darling then of the chattering classes, whose claim to literary skills lay in the writing of execrable romantic poetry. Amusingly, since her double dealing was being exposed at the time, she took advantage of the Festival to get people to sign a petition in her favour, through false pretences as the then Head of the UN’s Regional Office said to me in writing, when I pointed out how inappropriate had been his rushing to her defence.
I could quite understand then the angst expressed in ‘Groundviews’ at the apparent attempt of the Reporters to do down the Festival (though I hasten to add that Sanjana now seems more balanced, and was not as involved in the Sarath Fonseka nonsense as his erstwhile mentor). But I think he need not worry, since the Festival will go ahead. Indeed, I believe that, for the NGO groupies, this year’s star attraction will be Sunila Abeysekera, who had a similar role during Louise Arbour’s visit in 2007. The Reporters meanwhile will derive much publicity from those writers who do not show up.
I gather that amongst them will be Kiran Desai and Orhan Pamuk. The reasons for them not appearing are not entirely clear, but doubtless there will be publicity to the effect that they have joined in condemnation of the Sri Lankan government. I am sorry for those attending that Pamuk will not be there, since he is one of the most impressive writers in the world today, but I suspect, given his political views, that he would have been easy to get to, and sadly we do not have the same capacity to communicate as those opposed to us have.
More serious is whether this will contribute to the feelings that are supposed to be roused against us. I believe government is aware of potential problems, and my former Minister has been tasked to reproduce the role he fulfilled so well for several years. He and the present Foreign Minister in combination will be a tremendous force, as Ambassador Jayatilleka showed when he would invite them in turn to address relevant bodies. I suspect however that, to ensure maximum impact, they will need to involve Dayan again in their deliberations, as well as their activities, though that should not be too difficult since he is now resident in Paris as our Ambassador.