How should an artist or writer act in a police state? How should a tourist? What’s the moral response?
Here’s a great piece by Jacinda Woodhead in Overland which tackles the thorny questions in a thoughtful way. I was asked to comment:
Listening to 3RRR’s Aural text on Wednesday, I heard alicia sometimes mention the four-week residency opportunity in Sri Lanka that Writers Victoria is currently promoting. ‘Why not take a month off to write?’ is how it’s being sold.
We hear a lot about Sri Lanka, the island slightly smaller in landmass than Tasmania that sits to the west of Malaysia, though mostly what we hear is that it’s a source of The Boats. The residency in question is located at the idyllic Templeberg Villa, a plantation-style house and garden on a hill near Galle, about an hour and a half below Colombo, and seven hours south of Jaffna, the tiny, isolated region up the very top of the island – like a hand reaching out to the Indian coast – that was once LTTE terrain.
‘The colonial Templeberg accommodation stands for a bygone British era in Sri Lanka,’ promises the website in a curious appeal to would-be guests – but picture island greens and fluttering palms, fronds as long as your arm and large wooden doors propped open to let the cleansing sea-air rush inside, and you get the idea.
Sri Lanka is one of the most dangerous countries in the world in which to work in media in the world, which is partly why a number of writers refused to attend the literary festival there in 2011. The boycott was organised by Reporters Without Borders and the Sri Lankan organisation Journalists for Democracy (JDS). According to JDS, at least 39 media workers have been murdered under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency. This year, Reporters Without Borders ranked Sri Lanka 162 out of 179 in its annual press freedom index – just in front of Saudi Arabia.
For all these reasons, the residency had been worrying me since news of it turned up in my inbox a few weeks ago. I’d been tossing up what, exactly, to do about it – ask Writers Victoria to withdraw their support? Write an article about my concerns? Find out where other writers stood?
I started with the other writers. Antony Loewenstein was one of the people to boycott the Galle Literary Festival in 2011. But he isn’t against writers travelling to Sri Lanka per se, even as part of an official residency.
‘Sri Lanka remains a brutal police state where journalists, politicians, Tamils and general citizens are routinely repressed,’ he said. ‘As writers and artists we should not presume that we are apolitical or disinterested individuals. If people apply for this residency, they should not see it as an extended holiday.’
He suggested talking to Tamil communities, and learning about the history and present of Sri Lanka before applying. ‘Question whether the position will whitewash the ongoing abuses in the nation and ignore Australia’s tawdry relationship with Colombo in “stopping the refugee boats”. Get informed. And only then is it possible to determine whether Sri Lanka is the place to write that new book. I participated in a boycott campaign against the Galle Literary Festival in 2011 because I believed that literary and cultural events in Sri Lanka shouldn’t be used to ignore ongoing abuses by the regime. The situation has only worsened since then.’