Writers and repression in Sri Lanka

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.

A day earlier, I’d been listening to the same station and had heard the lawyer David Manne on the continuing persecution of Sri Lankan Tamils. He spoke of the torture he has heard about from the lips of those applying for refuge, and criticised the Australian government’s public position on the island since late 2012. Where once politicians asked Sri Lanka to be more transparent on the treatment of citizens past and present, they now return asylum seekers to the country without processing their claims (a practice condemned by numerous human rights organisations and bodies because of fear for the safety of asylum seekers once returned).

In April, Amnesty International released the report Sri Lanka’s assault on dissent, which documents suspected war crimes and crimes against humanity that took place under the current government; the UN has also asked for an investigation into these crimes. The civil war ended in 2009 – violently, horrifically – and, Amnesty says, much of the torture, threats and intimidation presently occurring are attempts to eliminate the risk of those crimes being uncovered. ‘One of the holdovers from Sri Lanka’s armed conflict,’ they write in the report, ‘is a security regime that criminalizes freedom of expression, and an official attitude that equates dissent with treason. Sri Lankan officials and state-owned media employ the term “traitor” with alarming frequency against detractors, often threatening death or injury to the person accused.’

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.

But this isn’t only about silencing criticism or the acts of bodily violence that happen when a government attempts to extinguish a minority population. It’s about dispossession, too: the Sri Lankan government and military are now ‘seizing’ land from around Jaffna (an estimated $2billion worth).

Land seizure

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.’

Next I contacted Dr Noel Nadesan, the former editor of a Tamil newspaper, who Writers Victoria had consulted with about the residency. I outlined my thoughts on the subject in an email. He replied that while there was much still to be ‘settled politically’ in Sri Lanka, things were much better than since the war. He tried to explain his perspective by comparing my view on Sri Lanka to his perception of Australia before he immigrated here in the 1980s. ‘I was told Australia was full of racists and they already finished off the Aboriginal people. I found [an] Amnesty report on the treatment of Aboriginal [people] and black deaths-in-custody. So I reluctantly immigrated but found this was the best country on earth.’

Lastly, I asked journalist and activist Trevor Grant, of the Tamil Refugee Council. He believed the residency would need the approval of the Sri Lankan government (Writers Victoria denies this is the case), and so was not something with which writers should be involved. Only a couple of months ago, he pointed out, an investigative journalist from the Sunday Leader was shot when armed men invaded his home. He had been investigating government fraud in the power industry. (The paper’s tagline is, ‘Unbowed and unafraid’.)

‘Any decent journalist,’ said Grant, ‘could not go to Sri Lanka without demanding to investigate the killings of these journalists, as well as the constant reports of torture, jailings, disappearances and beatings of Tamil people by the CID.’ He spoke of the people he’d interviewed in the Tamil community who had been victims of torture, including ‘Kumar’, the subject of a recent 7.30 Report, who was kidnapped and tortured when he briefly returned to Sri Lanka. ‘He was held for four days in a police station, naked, bound and blindfolded while they bashed him, crushed his testicles, put ice cubes in his anus, and burned his back with iron rods heated up on a gas stove kept in the room for this purpose.’

Grant stressed that the situation in Sri Lanka wasn’t only about human rights abuses. ‘Few Governments have deliberately targeted their own civilians, and in such numbers, as did the Sri Lankan government at the end of the civil war,’ he said. ‘At least 40,000 men, women and children died.’

To me, part of the job of a writer is to encourage questions about the world in which we live, and to help people to relate to the experiences of others. When refugees are being criminalised for seeking asylum, that strikes me as a time we need writers the most. We live in a country where the two major political parties have managed to make refugees an unrelenting election issue, as though this is the most pressing thing Australian citizens have to fear: people needing sanctuary. (It’s a costly fear too: at last count, $2.3bn had been spent on offshore detention centres.)

By taking this holiday to write a novel or screenplay, we risk tacitly supporting Australian policies on refugees, and normalising the continuing violence in Sri Lanka. Of course people should visit Sri Lanka independently, but a writing-break such as this makes life appear normal there.

Sri Lanka is not a safe country for writers. It’s also not safe for Tamils or Muslims or activists, many of whom would have to seriously consider their safety before applying for this residency.

But irrespective of how we react to this one, short residency in Sri Lanka, I want us in the writing community to talk more about what our responsibilities as writers are.


Thanks to Kate Larsen, Dr Noel Nadesan, Antony Loewenstein, Wendy Bacon and Trevor Grant for their time and candour.


Earlier today, I received this response from Writers Victoria:

When the Australian-based owners of the Templeberg Villa approached us to help them promote this opportunity to Victorian writers, we were presented with both a fantastic opportunity and a serious ethical question.

While the advice from DFAT was to proceed with caution, we were of course aware of the country’s human rights situation, potential boycotts and calls for ethical tourism practices.

We discussed whether the organisation should make the decision not to tell our members and networks about the opportunity, or whether we should create a space for the residency (and the conversation around it) to happen and to encourage well informed, meaningful debate.

We chose to open up the opportunity while giving our members the information they need to make an informed choice. We hope the residency will bring positive benefits to the local communities in Sri Lanka and Melbourne, as well as giving the resident writer unique access and insight into the Sri Lankan arts community, culture, and the broader geo-political situation.

Both Writers Victoria and Templeberg Villa want to create a safe and productive environment for a writer. Neither organisation wants to whitewash the situation, nor do we want the residency to send the message that all is well in the country.

We will continue to monitor the situation as plans for the residency progress. Any writers interested in finding out more are very welcome to contact us.

Jacinda Woodhead

Jacinda Woodhead is a former editor of Overland and current law student.

More by Jacinda Woodhead ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. I think this is a really critical piece, and engaging, but I’m quite concerned that as a writer and presumably one who chooses words carefully, you chose to state the name of the ‘writer’ who was supposedly spruiking the residencies on RRR. As this article is talking about our responsibilities as ‘writers’, and you’re clearly articulating her name only and in the beginning of the piece, I really felt as though you were laying blame on her in some sense. I don’t actually know her, but if I was in this position, I would be asking why you chose to write her name specifically and not simply leave it at the radio station name.

    1. Hi Lee, that was unintentional. RRR, Writers Victoria and Aural Text are all things I deeply respect, and I think alicia does a great job (and btw, I’m a member of Writers Vic and a subscriber to RRR). I was merely trying to place it in a Melbourne writing context, and assumed people would be familiar with the show (which is specifically for writers and poets and is hosted by alicia).

  2. You make some great points here Jacinda. However, I don’t think boycotting such opportunities is necessarily very useful unless it’s part of a co-ordinated approach (as in the case of Israel).

    I thought about this issue a lot when I travelled to China on an Asialink residency in 2010. During that time I was very conscious of my position in China, reading Chinese books translated into English which were banned in Chinese. A more important writer than myself had recently withdrawn from a Beijing festival due to political issues. During my time there, Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and I was able to report from within the country about censorship there. I felt it was important to approach the potential of communication in that context, rather than aim for some sort of moral purity. Of course, if I was in a position where my withdrawal might have more of a public impact, that would affect my decision.

    I do agree that writers need to be very conscious of the interests at stake. And the presentation here does seem to be one of writing as a politically disengaged leisure activity, and that is insensitive – to put it mildly – to the situation in Sri Lanka.

    It’s different for fiction writers and journalists. But perhaps it’s an opportunity to subvert that depoliticised mode. I’m applying for this and being pretty specific in my application about having an interest in the political situation in Sri Lanka. I would encourage other writers to try, whenever possible, to maintain some ethical vigilance, but also to see things for themselves.

    1. Thanks Jen, but I think I disagree. I really don’t see this as an issue of ‘moral purity’. I see this Sri Lankan situation as different, precisely because the Australian govt is using Tamil refugee lives as a political football. The government is trying to profit politically from the demonisation of refugees, to the extent that Carr says ‘Yes, I am satisfied it is safe [in Sri Lanka]. And I would warn that human rights groups may become zealous about an issue that isn’t there.’ And Australia is then returning people to the country to be tortured, something the UK HIgh Court deemed unlawful.

      This is not about telling people not to visit Sri Lanka, it’s about not going in an official capacity, one that benefits Australia and/or Sri Lanka (being critical can often make it look as though the countries involved are practicing democracy-in-action). Taking the residency may not mean a direct endorsement of the government’s actions, but from the outside, it can appear as endorsement of policy.

      There have also been larger calls to boycott Sri Lanka, first with the Galle festival and Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (who describe the civil war as ‘ongoing’) and the attempts to prevent the Sri Lankan cricket team being welcomed here.

    2. Also, what’s happening in our political discourse at the moment is that the Australian government is using Tamil refugees to create a racist atmosphere, which then helps the Sri Lankan government avoid answering questions about war crimes committed only a few years ago – even as attempted ethnic cleansing continues there.

      I do take your point about China: there are of course refugees from China for various reasons, and many human rights abuses there. But they’re not being used in the same way in the current political climate.

      These movements have to start somewhere. And there comes a point when it is our responsibility to say, No, I’m not going to help sanitise the image of Sri Lanka or Australia. This is about the Australian government, and their supporting of crimes either directly or indirectly.

  3. An interesting and timely article. You are quite right that press freedom in Sri Lanka is severely diminished (something I discuss in my blog on Sri Lanka for those interested*). You are correct that it is incoherent for foreign nationals to write freely in Sri Lanka but that Lankan nationals are themselves are not free to do so. This absurdity should not persist.

    However, I am not entirely convinced that a boycott will be helpful here. It seems to me that the presence foreign journalists is important for several reasons:
    First, it ensures that there is at least one independent body reporting on Sri Lanka.
    Second, it provides the conditions by which greater freedoms might be realised. Events like the Galle Writers Festival does expose the country to a greater range of ideas and literature, and also provides the grounds for greater critical enquiry. A boycott only makes sense if the action being boycotted directly supports an unfair establishment. If anything, I think the presence of foreign journalists and foreign writers indirectly counteracts media suppression. After all, Sri Lanka is not Burma – it is open to the world and wants to be more connected. The more connections Sri Lanka makes the greater the chance of some change being realised.


  4. I agree with James. I attended the Galle Writers Festival as part of the (much depleted) press. The boycotts were mentioned in passing but the message wasn’t clear and their impact felt, at least to me, nominal.

    The festival program, on the other hand, tackled important ideas like post-war reconciliation, trauma and forgiveness. Sure, it was mostly upper-crust Colombo 7 types who were present – but it is the upper-crust that’s influential (I noticed a former President and several government ministers there).

    When I was a teenager I was turned against the Australian cricket team, the various writers and musicians who refused to turn up in Colombo for political or security reasons. To me, it was a personal slight. I felt rejected.

    While I understand there are valid reasons for non-attendance, I have to question the efficacy of boycott as protest. If anything, I feel the Sri Lankan government would be glad to know another writer has been turned away from their shores.

  5. Thanks James and Rajith. Your comments go to the complexities of issues involved here, but I must stress that I’m not calling for a boycott of Sri Lanka. I’m specifically talking about this one official residency (and similar apolitical cultural events that normalise relations between Australia and Sri Lanka, and attempt to discredit the claims of refugees: how can it be acceptable to have ‘a month away to write’ while others are fleeing for their lives?)

    I agree that journalism is crucial to exposing everyday injustice, and atrocities such as war crimes (‘The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka’, for instance, was a harrowing and important documentary). But just as with WikiLeaks – reporting the problem is only part of the solution. Governments do not stop ethnic cleansing because a journalist writes that it is happening.

  6. I think this is a very interesting issue, that Jacinda has raised. And whether writers should boycott Sri Lanka or not, Writers Victoria description of a retreat in Sri Lanka as ‘a month off’ really begs a lot of questions – as does its description of the venue as something from a bygone age – and its reply to Jacinda’s query.. An ‘ethical question’ can easily be something neatly peeled away from a ‘political question’ as though they were separate entities. To me the idea that the writers can ‘make an informed choice’ about the event that WV are promoting looks like a buck passing exercise as though WV were just a neutral provider, as though it were a market vendor selling a product made by indentured labourers but leaving it to consumers to make the decision whether to buy it or not.
    If creative writers can’t situate the political at the centre of their work, then I think the description of writing literature as a disengaged leisure activity is a fair one. The production of literature is not an apolitical exercise. Not at any stage.

  7. A few questions to ask these writers before they take up residence:

    Do they intend staying in the south, among the palm fronds, or will they ask to see the secret rehabilitation camps in the north, where university students and others are deposited for lighting candles to remember their war dead ?

    Will they be able to interview the family of a 24-year-old Tamil woman who recently was sexually assaulted and murdered just after joining the Sri Lankan army’s civil defence force? Will they be able to interview women in the north who can no longer walk the streets at night because rape is now commonplace in a region where there is one Sinhalese soldier for every five Tamil people — four years after a war and in a place where the Government says it is pursuing “reconciliation” ?

    Are they asking to interview the police chiefs in Colombo about the progress into the investigations of the deaths of 39 media workers since 2004 — people who write, like they do, or did, until they were murdered. Maybe they might ask why not one of these cases has reached a courthouse ?
    Perhaps they might ask about the investigation into the murder of the editor of one of the biggest newspapers, the Sunday Leader in 2009. Maybe they might ask why is it that after four years there has been no-one brought to trial, even though this was murder conducted in broad daylight in front of hundreds of commuters on a busy Colombo street ?

    Will they ask to talk to the Tamil MP who recently had had his offices in Kilinochchi ransacked and his staff jailed? Will they talk to the writers and editors of the Jaffna newspaper who had their presses smashed and burned last month?
    Will they seek to investigate sacking of the Chief Justice on a pretence, and replaced by a Govt-friendly solicitor without any experience in the higher courts ?

    Can they go to Batticloa and write stories about the current controversy over the erection of a huge Buddha statue in a place where few Buddhists live, and can they ask about the destruction, by the military, of more than 250 Hindu temples and monuments, in the past year or so ?

    Can they interview the Defence Minister, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and ask him about the ASIO information, as reported in The Australian in December, 2012, about a close relative of the president Mahinda Rajapaksa having a major role in the people-smuggling trade from Sri Lanka ?

    When they are able to do this, and write freely about it, then it would be a worthwhile trip.

  8. I’d encourage the trip. Who knows, maybe the experience will encourage some great political writing, at the time or in the future. Just one piece even would make the residency worthwhile.

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