Ruana Rajepakse, from the Island, 6 February 2011
Candace Brushnell in Galle
Two writers who were not scheduled to take part in this year’s Galle Literary Festival, namely Arundhati Roy and Noam Chomsky, called on the writers of the world to boycott the Festival. They were joined in this call by the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontieres or RSF) and the German-based Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS). According to the organizers of the event which is now in its fifth year, only one writer, Damon Galgut from South Africa, heeded the call. A few others who cancelled at the last minute pleaded other reasons such as visa issues and therefore cannot be considered boycotters by conviction. One such, namely Kiran Desai, was at pains to emphasize how much she had enjoyed her previous visit to Sri Lanka.
A boycott of a literary festival on the grounds of State suppression of the media would only be justified if the event was sponsored or controlled by the State. The Galle Literary Festival has always been a private sector organized event which only enjoys State facilitation. Decisions about who is invited and who speaks on what topic is a matter for the non-State organizers.
Therefore it is useful to examine the credentials and antecedents of those who called for the boycott. Let us take RSF first. It is a well-known organization that claims to campaign for press freedom around the world, although critics accuse it of being selective in its targets. Its members protested the killing of newspaper editor Lasantha Wickrematunga and the disappearance of journalist Pradeep Ekneliyagoda when these events happened in 2009 and 2010 respectively, and have continued to criticize the apparent lack of progress in bringing the perpetrators to book.
Thus their stand has been consistent from the inception. Where they have erred is in their choice of event to call for a boycott.
The Galle Literary Festival is a free speech event, albeit with the focus on literary or creative writing rather than journalism. It makes no sense to call for a boycott of such an event in the cause of press freedom.
In the words of well-known human rights campaigner Sunila Abeysekera who attended the festival, “Calling for a boycott of the GLF constitutes an act of silencing that I find totally unacceptable. It is extremely disappointing to find those who defend media freedom in Sri Lanka playing a role in depriving us of an opportunity to express ourselves and our desire for a democratic and peaceful environment in which to live and work with a broader community from outside.”
To that extent RSF has erred in their target even if they can be said to have a cause. However to make such a wanton error is unfair, especially since the privileges of the press only attach to those who get their facts right.
The credentials of the Berlin-based JDS are more dubious. The organization is said to consist of a few Sri Lankan exiles, one of whom is married to a senior official of Amnesty International which organized the “cricket ball protest” against Sri Lanka at the last Cricket World Cup in the West Indies, against all international sporting norms.
Now let us turn to the other two leaders of the failed boycott, namely Arundhati Roy and Noam Chomsky. Neither of these persons was conspicuous in condemning the killing of Lasantha Wickrematunga or the disappearance of Pradeep Ekneliyagoda when these events happened, two years and one year ago respectively.
The Galle Literary Festival has been an annual event from 2006 but these two writers wait till Sri Lanka’s internal conflict is over and tourism is picking up, to call for a boycott.
Indian born Arundhati Roy is well known for barging into ongoing campaigns where other people have done the ground work, and then making the loudest noise.
Her claim to fame in the West rests on winning the Booker prize with her first and only novel “The God of Small Things” in 1997, in which she paints a uniformly unflattering picture of her native Kerala society.
Having got that “handle,” she appears to have more or less abandoned creative writing in favour of campaigning on sundry issues from the Narmada Dam and Kashmir in India, to US foreign policy around the world, and now to press freedom in Sri Lanka.
Her hostility to Sri Lanka is nothing new. In interviews given in 2009 to the Guardian and the Daily Mail in the UK, Roy described Sri Lanka’s internal conflict which was then in its last stages as “a brazen, openly racist war” and claimed that the “Government of Sri Lanka is on the verge of committing what could end up being genocide.” She described the Sri Lankan IDP camps where Tamil civilians were being held as “concentration camps”.
Her modus operandi on the Narmada dam issue was also controversial. In 2002 she made a contemptuous statement of the Indian Supreme Court at a time when the anti-dam protesters were looking to the Court to halt or modify the project. She ended up paying a fine of Indian Rs.2,500 and spending one day in jail.
Noam Chomsky is a Professor Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a critic of many things, mainly pertaining to his native USA and its role in the world. However amongst his many published works and interviews listed on the Internet, this writer has not been able to find anything that indicates that he has studied the situation in Sri Lanka in any depth. On the other hand, he was the subject matter of a very flattering essay by Arundhati Roy in 2003.
However there is also a sour postscript to these events that cannot be ignored. In the early hours of last Monday morning, the day after the Galle Literary Festival ended, the office of the Lanka e-News organization was set on fire. This follows similar attacks on the MTV complex and the Sunday Leader offices in the recent past. There was also an incident where a Government Minister led a gang that assaulted staff at the State-run Rupavahini Corporation.
As long as such incidents continue, it is an interference with the right of Sri Lankans to receive and impart information freely, and it is also grist for the mill of this country’s many detractors.