On literary boycotts, Palestine, Sri Lanka and the politics of dissent

My following essay appears in the latest edition of literary journal Overland (a shorter version is published on ABC online):

”˜For thirty years the country [Sri Lanka] 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.’

Richard Prins, The Sunday Times (Sri Lanka), 30 January 2011

A desire for normality is not unusual in a country that has experienced civil conflict. Hundreds of thousands of Tamils and Sinhalese have been killed or maimed in Sri Lanka over the past decades. What better way to celebrate the end of war than the Galle Literary Festival, an annual event that brings local and international artists and writers together for five days of debate?

But cultural events don’t take place in a vacuum. This year, the festival became the centre of a global effort to highlight human rights abuses in Sri Lanka in an episode that highlights the complicated politics of literary boycotts.

In January, Reporters Without Borders and a network of exiled Sri Lankan journalists, Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka, issued an appeal signed by a number of prominent figures, including Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy, Ken Loach, Tariq Ali and me. It called on participants in the festival to consider the message their attendance sent:

“We believe this is not the right time for prominent international writers like you to give legitimacy to the Sri Lankan government’s suppression of free speech by attending a conference that does not in any way push for greater freedom of expression inside that country ”¦ We ask you in the great tradition of solidarity that binds writers together everywhere, to stand with your brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka who are not allowed to speak out. We ask that by your actions you send a clear message that, unless and until the disappearance of [cartoonist] Prageeth [Eknaligoda] is investigated and there is a real improvement in the climate for free expression in Sri Lanka, you cannot celebrate writing and the arts in Galle.”

The statement did not directly ask writers to boycott the event but instead urged them to reconsider their participation. The hope was that moral pressure would provoke serious thought about the situation in Sri Lanka. The war’s official end had not brought liberation for the Tamil minority; President Mahinda Rajapaksa still rules over an authoritarian state. Colombo recently tried to ban the Tamil version of the Sri Lankan national anthem, and in late December 2010 an education officer in Tamil-majority Jaffna was murdered by Sinhalese thugs for refusing to instruct students to sing the Sinhalese version. Corruption is also rife throughout the health, university and entertainment industries. Independent journalists are routinely snatched from the streets in white vans and often never seen again. Thousands of Tamils remain incommunicado in concentration camps in the north and there has been no war crimes investigation into the many serious allegations against senior members of the government.

For me, the Galle statement was part of an ongoing struggle to insert human rights into a world that I now inhabit: the literary and cultural festival scene. It is too easy to simply visit a city and event, to enjoy the luxurious hospitality and not consider the wider context. Who is excluded and why? Is my presence condoning the actions of organisers or the state (that often partly funds such events)?

I was particularly concerned about Galle after reading reports by Australian journalist Eric Ellis that the founder of the festival, Geoffrey Dobbs, had not fully accounted for money he had gathered after the devastating 2004 tsunami. Ellis expressed scepticism that the ”˜Condé Nast Traveller crowd’ who came to the literary extravaganza would see the event as nothing other than ”˜marrying the yuppie fervour for exotic foods with a neo-colonial languor and the presumed intellectual glamour of being in close quarters with famous wordsmiths’.

The festival responded with outrage. Curator Shyam Selvadurai told Sri Lanka’s Sunday Leader that he ”˜disagreed with the method of using the festival as a platform to voice disapproval’. When asked why a proposed panel on media freedom had been cancelled, he responded that it was simply too difficult ”˜because it has to be fair and balanced. You have to give voice to both sides ”¦ We stand above all this partisan politics.’

I wondered if he believed that victims of war crimes should be given equal standing to those who commit them?

Selvadurai released a major statement in late January in which he claimed his voice had been ignored by the Reporters Without Borders:

“I am Tamil and the festival takes place in Galle, the deep Sinhala south, which has seen some of the worst violence committed against the Tamils [in fact, the worst massacres occurred in the east of the country in 2009, with tens of thousands murdered]. I am, in addition, openly gay, and in fact was the first person to come out publicly in Sri Lanka. This, in a country where homosexuality is still illegal.”

His call for dialogue was moving and forced me to seriously consider the purpose of the statement.

I felt comfortable with applying pressure on a festival that was backed by Colombo, an event used as a symbol of the postwar recovery advertised in tourist brochures across the world. Tourism is a massive industry in Sri Lanka. It helps normalise the international image of the nation if people return from the island to talk only about its beauty. When a writer explained in Sri Lanka’s Sunday Times that the ”˜infectiously feel-good, let’s-have-a-party character’ of Galle was sufficient enough reason for its success, it became clear that many Sinhalese and white visitors resented having their enjoyment interrupted with the inconvenient question of war crimes.

The aim of the statement was to highlight the world’s silence since the official end of the civil war in May 2009. Reporters Without Borders chief editor Gilles Lordet acknowledged that a boycott was ”˜never a constructive solution’ but ”˜it is a way to focus attention on a country that has been forgotten ”¦ Galle is one of the main tourist towns and you could imagine that everything is fine in the country, but that’s not the reality’.

South African writer Damon Galgut was the most high-profile withdrawal from Galle, declaring his discomfort with Sri Lanka’s human rights record and support of our statement. He was already in the country when he pulled out. Galgut told me personally at the Perth Writers Festival in March that the statement had alerted him to the grim reality of life in today’s Sri Lanka, a country he presumed had returned to semi-normality. Once he discovered the truth, he felt he had no choice but to withdraw.

Sri Lanka-based British travel writer Juliet Coombe praised the petition campaign to Agence France Presse because ”˜there is a self-induced fear; not only among journalists and writers ”¦ Sometimes negative campaigns like this work. I had people calling from abroad, asking about the festival, about media suppression.’

Sri Lankan-born Roma Tearne also refused to appear. The event would, she said, bring nothing to the ”˜poor and the displaced, the bereft and the victims of Sri Lanka’s war’, and ”˜celebrity-seeking writers’ should not delude themselves otherwise.

The withdrawal of Nobel Prize-winner Orhan Pamuk and his partner, writer Kiran Desai, was initially reported as a response to the petition but may have resulted from visa complications or other personal reasons. I’d approached them both at the Jaipur Literature Festival in India in late January and Pamuk arrogantly refused to talk about Galle.

Nonetheless, during the festival itself, the human rights situation was debated in ways that would arguably not have occurred without our intervention. A BBC South Asia report by Charles Haviland confirmed that ”˜dozens of writers had to make a quick decision on whether to pull out’.

Sandhya Eknaligoda, the wife of disappeared cartoonist Prageeth, was not allowed to present at the festival but handed out flyers to participants about her missing Sinhalese husband. It read in part:

“I welcome you to a country where thousands of women and children weep silent tears for a nation of innocent civilians who have been killed or disappeared on account on their ethnicity. Welcome to Sri Lanka.”

She alleges that her partner was abducted because he exposed the use of chemical weapons by Colombo in its war against the Tamil Tigers.

A few weeks later, Sandhya Eknaligoda emailed me personally to thank me for signing. It made me feel the petition provided comfort to some people in Sri Lanka who needed it most.

Throughout the Galle controversy, I was a guest at the Jaipur Literature Festival where I spoke about Palestine, Wikileaks and the Middle East. Some of the sponsors were multinationals with dubious human rights records (such as Shell), while Merrill Lynch, a key player in the global financial crisis, sponsored one of my events with the New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson and the Washington Post’s David Finkel on ”˜reporting occupation’.

A counter-statement issued by supporters of the Galle festival pointed out the supposed hypocrisy of people like me being selective in our outrage. What about Indian government abuses in Kashmir? they asked. Why wasn’t I boycotting Jaipur if I felt so strongly about human rights?

I asked festival director William Dalrymple about the sponsors and he honestly acknowledged that he simply hadn’t considered the issue but would for future events. I took comfort in a statement made by Naomi Klein when defending her backing of boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel: ”˜Boycott is not a dogma; it’s a tactic.’

When are boycotts appropriate? Who decides? And what gives an unelected group or individual the moral legitimacy to demand or ask a participant to not appear?

In my view, boycotts should not be a personal protest but a considered position with indigenous support from within the host country itself. Does the event receive government funding and if so, what actions are potentially worth protesting? Are there calls for a boycott – or at least a protest – from citizens of the particular country? How effective will a boycott be? If an individual simply doesn’t turn up at a festival or refuses an offer to attend, a private protest may be pointless. Will the decision receive media coverage, or can the news be broadcast to local media?

Today, the best example of a vigorous cultural and academic boycott movement is that directed at Israel for its ongoing violation of Palestinian human rights. In 2004, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) issued a major call endorsed by the vast bulk of Palestinian civil society groups:

“Since Israeli academic institutions (mostly state controlled) and the vast majority of Israeli intellectuals and academics have either contributed directly to maintaining, defending or otherwise justifying the above forms of oppression, or have been complicit in them through their silence ”¦ We, Palestinian academics and intellectuals, call upon our colleagues in the international community to comprehensively and consistently boycott all Israeli academic and cultural institutions as a contribution to the struggle to end Israel’s occupation, colonisation and system of apartheid.”

Examples abound of Israel making cultural life for Palestinians a daily grind. For example, in May 2009, Israeli troops tried to close the Palestinian Festival of Literature in Jerusalem by shutting a theatre on spurious procedural grounds.

”˜We’re so taken aback. It is completely, completely independent,’ said Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif, who chaired the event. ”˜I think it’s very telling. Our motto, which is taken from the late Edward Said, is to pit the power of culture against the culture of power.’

The campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) is a way to protest these violations.

PACBI has become highly effective in the past few years, applying moral force and practical, non-violent pressure on musicians, filmmakers, academics and writers either planning to visit Israel or receiving Israeli government funding. Musicians who have agreed to cancel appearances in Israel include Elvis Costello, Faithless, Santana, Gil Scott-Heron and Pete Seeger, while Canadian writer Naomi Klein only agreed to publish her best-selling The Shock Doctrine in Israel in 2009 with Andalus Publishing, a small imprint that specialises in Arabic literature. Her tour of the country and Palestine was specifically designed with publisher Yael Lerer to avoid backing any state-funded Israeli institutions.

Costello, arguably the most high-profile adherent to the PACBI call, explained his cancellation of dates in Tel Aviv in May 2010:

“I must believe that the audience for the coming concerts would have contained many people who question the policies of their government on settlement and deplore conditions that visit intimidation, humiliation or much worse on Palestinian civilians in the name of national security. Sometimes a silence in music is better than adding to the static.”

BDS is now a relatively long-standing and global campaign, supported by those directly affected by Israeli occupation. It’s not something being imposed by outside forces to bully Westerners to comply. BDS against Israel is catching on across the world, including here in Australia, with unions and even a major local council in New South Wales signing up (until the decision was overturned).

It’s sometimes argued that cultural boycotts have little effect. But American journalist Max Blumenthal and Israeli activist Joseph Dana recently explained why BDS was so vital, because it:

“disrupt[ed] the apathy that pervades middle class, urban Israeli society. Apathy allows Israelis to live in comfort behind iron walls while remaining immune to the occupation and inoculated from its horrors.”

Other common arguments are that engagement with locals can only bring better understanding and that entertainment/sport/pleasure shouldn’t mix with politics. Elton John, for instance, refused to heed the PACBI call on this basis. During his concert in Tel Aviv in June 2010, he told the audience, ”˜Musicians spread love and peace, and bring people together. That’s what we do. We don’t cherry-pick our conscience.’

But precisely the same arguments were raised during the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Back then, Elton John played (alongside other well-known acts such as Queen) in Sun City, located in Bophuthatswana, a nominally independent Bantustan. As South African critic Peter Feldman told the Brunei Times in 2008, ”˜they [the musicians] used to say, “We’re doing it for our fans, we’re not politicians,” but the truth is they didn’t care. They were being paid millions to perform there.’

It is true that many public figures resent being placed under moral pressure. Novelist Margaret Atwood was asked by the Palestinian Students’ Campaign for the Academic Boycott of Israel to refuse the Dan David Prize for literature from Tel Aviv University. Before receiving the award, she said categorically, ”˜We don’t do cultural boycotts. I would be throwing overboard the thousands of writers around the world who are in prison, censored, exiled and murdered for what they have published.’

But a short time later, perhaps feeling guilty about accepting the million-dollar prize, she wrote in Haaretz that Israeli society was becoming less democratic, more intolerant of difference and ”˜the concept of Israel as a humane and democratic state is in serious trouble’.

British writer Ian McEwan faced similar criticisms in 2011 for accepting the Jerusalem Prize and attending a ceremony with Israeli President Shimon Peres. He refused to boycott and Palestinian writers refused to meet him during his stay. During his speech he condemned the ”˜nihilism’ of both Israel and Palestinians, as if both sides were occupiers.

Closer to home, the case of the Melbourne International Film Festival illustrates how the growing BDS movement forces consideration of issues around Palestine. Festival director Richard Moore, whose son served in the IDF, received money from Israel in both 2009 and 2010 to pay for an Israeli director to visit Australia. In 2009, British filmmaker Ken Loach was outraged to find out his film would screen in a festival that received backing from a nation that brutalised Palestinians. In a letter to Moore, Loach mentioned the ”˜illegal occupation of Palestinian land, destruction of homes and livelihoods’ and ”˜the massacres in Gaza’ as reasons behind the boycott. Last year the makers of an Iraqi-set feature film Son of Babylon wrote to Moore after discovering the Israeli connection, demanding he not show their film.

Moore refused both requests but his decision led to pro-Palestinian pickets outside cinemas during the festival.

In my view, the BDS call against the Melbourne International Film Festival was wholly acceptable, a legitimate way to question the acceptance of money from a state that desperately wants to use culture and art as a distraction from its rapacious policies, just as the campaign around Galle was. South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said, ”˜If you choose to be neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.’ It’s a responsibility that artists should feel, whether in Palestine or Sri Lanka.

Antony Loewenstein is a Sydney independent journalist and the author of My Israel Question and The Blogging Revolution

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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