A couple of weeks ago Sri Lankan arts festival ‘Colomboscope’ presented a biased account of events that took place during the country’s bloody civil war, as well as its community today. The event was supported by British and German taxpayers through the British Council and the Goethe Institute.
Themed ‘Identities’ and funded in part by Standard Chartered Bank, the event was attended by an imposing abundance of military personnel, all in full uniform. They were given a platform to share books and video footage with the public that denied war crimes that have been attributed to the Sri Lankan Army. One Army spokesman was quoted as saying that ‘people should not be held responsible for collateral damage to civilians’. Many attendees accused ‘Colomboscope’ of becoming yet another platform for political propaganda and angry reactions on twitter demonstrated the extent to which participants felt they were being brainwashed.
Professor Rajiva Wijesinha and Malinda Seneviratne were given slots at the festival. Mr Wijesinha is a high profile apologist for the Rajapaksa regime with a record of vitriolic, if slightly mad, attacks on journalists and human rights defenders. For example here he uses a contrived Harry Potter analogy and very poor photoshopping, to attack those calling for an independent international investigation in Sri Lanka. More typical was his almost hysterical reaction to the release of the UN internal review where he rants at length about unrelated issues that took place some years before the incidents in question and flat out refuses to answer the interviewer’s questions.
Malinda Senevitatne is a much more sinister figure. He is Editor in Chief of “the Nation”, one of Sri Lanka’s most nationalistic newspapers. He also founded the organisation which went on to become the JHU: an extreme right wing Buddhist nationalist party. Although he left the party before it took this form, and there is some evidence his views have moderated recently, he is still widely regarded as being on the Sri Lankan far right, and his presence at the festival without any balancing force was concerning. Much more concerning is his record of being vehemently opposed to freedom of expression: his vitriolic attacks on Sri Lankans who are critical of the Government come close, in some cases, to incitement to violence – especially when one considers how willing pro-Government forces have traditionally been to physically attack their opponents. This article from last year attacking human rights defenders who went to the Human Rights Council is typical. You will note he is particularly keen to attack female human rights defenders, a trait he shares with Prof Wijesinha.
Frances Harrison wrote about the event here and you can judge for yourself by watching the video: One session saw discussion on the problems of war reportage and how figures assigned to fatalities can be massaged equally vigorously by both sides. The title was “Counting the Bodies”, a reference to Frances Harrison’s “Still Counting the dead” – although she was not made aware of the event until afterwards. Coverage of this sensitive topic was, as Groundviews put it lightly: ‘a tad one-sided…’ the panel consisting of two Army officials, a Government MP (the aforementioned Rajiva) and one heavily outnumbered journalist. Attendees were more struck, however, by its poor moderation, which saw members of the audience silenced and questions answered using bible references!
Meanwhile, there seemed to have been limited attempts at creating a balanced programme: only one Tamil and no Muslim authors were present in the ‘Colomboscope’ line-up, and we are aware of several interesting, critical, and minority authors who were not asked. A German rights group received an evasive reply upon sending a letter of complaint to the Goethe Institute. The British Council were similarly evasive in the run up to the festival, although we understand they may now be willing to work with more critical voices next year.
It is highly disturbing that British and German taxpayers have helped fund this farcical celebration of Sri Lankan “progress” that has so narrowly represented the country’s cultural identity and reinforced government falsifications of its recent history.