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).
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.