The significance of the Galle Literary Festival statement that I signed recently is now clear; it’s caused massive debate at the event itself and forced the question of Colombo’s appalling human rights record to the fore:
During a lunchtime session at the Galle Literary Festival, one isolated-looking teenager sat among the audience.
He watched for a while before getting up and joining his mother standing at the back.
They were the 16-year-old son and the wife of Prageeth Eknaligoda, a journalist-come-cartoonist missing since 24 January 2010.
They visited the annual festival to lobby its participants on his plight – a plight which has inspired some to call for a festival boycott and provoked a debate in Sri Lanka.
Mr Eknaligoda, who had written articles critical of the government, was apparently abducted on his way home from the office and has not been seen since.
‘Not given chance’
After the session, Sandhya and Sanjaya Eknaligoda handed out leaflets to as many people as they could.
In the pamphlets, Sandhya said that her husband – a Sinhalese – worked ceaselessly to expose human rights abuses against minority Tamil civilians during the war against the Tamil Tigers “including the use of chemical weapons against civilian communities by government forces”.
The government denies using such weapons. It also denies any involvement in Mr Eknaligoda’s disappearance but says it has made no progress in investigating it.
The family gave out more leaflets at the festival’s cafe before returning to Colombo.
“I’m not 100% satisfied with our trip to Galle as I expected to speak to the whole crowd, at least for five minutes,” Sandhya Eknaligoda told the BBC.
“We were not given a chance to do that. But we did manage to give out leaflets, and I’m happy we spread some awareness at least.”
Two groups – the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the Berlin-based exile group Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS) – urged writers to stay away from the Galle festival because, they said, many writers in Sri Lanka were being attacked, threatened or intimidated because of what they wrote.
The government, however, denies victimising journalists.
Mrs Eknaligoda said it was up to individuals whether or not they turned up.
She felt that a total boycott might have helped highlight human rights issues but hoped that those attending would intervene in her husband’s case, seeking more information or getting their governments to do so.
‘Legitimising status quo’
During the festival in the quaint 17th century fort town, there has been much talk about the call to boycott.
Dozens of writers had to make a quick decision on whether to pull out.
The only one who did so explicitly heeding the stayaway message was South Africa’s Damon Galgut.
Canada’s Lawrence Hill addressed an audience on his novel that draws on his own father’s ancestry as a slave in America.
“It’s shocking what has happened to this disappeared journalist and so many other people who died or were made to disappear during the war or after,” Mr Hill told the BBC.
But he decided to support the festival as he believed it was a forum for free speech.
He thought he could fulfil the family’s request that he return home and “spread word of these abuses and speak about them with a little more authority and credibility, having been here”.
But the organisations calling for a stayaway say that having so many renowned authors in Sri Lanka will sustain the government’s message that all is well in the country – something they say is not the case.
If they “failed to express their concerns about the precarious conditions faced by the fellow writers and journalists… it simply legitimises the status quo,” the JDS said last week.
The festival’s founder, Geoffrey Dobbs from Britain, said he “really sympathised” with Mrs Eknaligoda and the criticisms of the human rights situation.
But, he said, the problems would not be solved through “a call to go to the barricades and shut down an event”.
“I think what the festival does is it does promote discussion,” he told BBC News.
Some, though by no means all, of the festival events had political overtones.
Sri Lankan poet Vivimarie Vanderpoorten read from her works, including a horrified reaction to the still unsolved killing of newspaper editor Lasantha Wickrematunga.
In a further discussion, three Sri Lankans read from their own novels, highlighting the events of July 1983 in Colombo when Tamils were burnt to death because of their ethnicity.
There was an airing of topics and opinions that often fail to get publicity in Sri Lanka – a country where meetings or seminars regularly get cancelled either by the authorities or by organisers, fearing a negative reaction from the state.
But this was not a conference and there was never going to be a unified statement of concern of the type that human rights groups might have liked.
A more official view, published in Sri Lanka’s Sunday Times, just wants us human rights campaigners to shut up and enjoy Sri Lanka’s glorious post-war freedoms:
For 30 years the country went through a kind of hell and endured untold economic and cultural deprivation. Now, with things looking up, we need all the friendly input we can get from well-meaning outsiders. Let the writers and the artists and the goodwill ambassadors come here and brighten up our lives, for Heaven’s sake. We have had enough dark days as it is.