We at the Sri Lanka Peace and Justice Campaign are delighted that Ms Freeman has started a public discussion about the role of visitors to Sri Lanka in general, and writers and artists in particular, given the situation in Sri Lanka. But we are saddened that in her public response (http://rufreeman.com/2010/01/the-morning-after) to our letter, which she describes as “unsubstantiated”, she has made unsubstantiated claims about the Campaign and the briefing document we provided.
So far from being unsubstantiated, the briefing document about the current state of play on a number of issues in Sri Lanka, which the Campaign sent to her and the other writers attending the Galle Festival, was rigorously researched and foot-noted with two pages of references. It used a range of sources including the UN, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and reports for which the Sri Lankan government had itself provided data and interviews.
Nor were we “telling people what to say”. On the contrary, we said clearly that people should feel free to focus on what they cared about most. Unlike Ms Freeman, many of those attending the Festival from outside Sri Lanka have had no previous connection to the island. It was for their benefit that we provided some basic information about the country to which they were headed, including an overview of the events of the past year.
Equally clearly, we said what they choose to do with these facts was for each individual to decide. But several of them have already come back to us saying they were not really aware of the situation in Sri Lanka, and that they are pleased we have got in touch. They do not see our intervention as a threat to the Festival. Rather, they received the letter in the spirit in which it was sent – a spirit of open debate and sharing of knowledge, which we understand, is the spirit of the Festival itself.
We were astonished to see Ms Freeman paint such a rosy picture of the election process on the very day when even the government’s media machine could not paint over the farce of the opposition candidate’s possible disqualification/arrest immediately after the election. And we only wish the human rights abuses and injustices mentioned in our document were, as she chose to call them, mere “cautionary tales of doom and gloom”. Sadly, these things have happened and are still happening. She revealingly glosses over the remaining thousands of civilians in the internment camps, Sri Lanka’s ranking for press freedom that puts it as the lowest democracy in the world and the call by senior UN officials for a war crimes inquiry into actions by both sides. This was all contained in our briefing document, and Ms Freeman provided no evidence to counter these facts.
Rather, she describes the Campaign as a group of “ignorant individuals who want to keep enjoying their NGO junkets on our beautiful island and trivializing our tragedies by turning our complexity into sound bites for your rabid 24/7 news.” In fact, this Campaign is led by a distinguished international team of advisors who undertake this work in a purely voluntary capacity. Whether one agrees with the Campaign objectives is another matter. And the Campaign volunteers come from a huge range of ethnicities, including Tamils and Singhalese. We do not raise funds or send people on ‘junkets’ or even to literary festivals. To suggest that we do is not just an unsubstantiated allegation but deeply offensive and wholly incorrect.
The briefing – which is attached so readers can make up their own mind – concluded with two questions:
1. In parallel with wealth creation, can the creative arts help tap into another form of development, a social development that sees Sri Lanka move beyond the decades of ethnic violence and human rights abuses to a more harmonious future?
2. Will the organisers and past and future attendees of the Galle Festival be creative, concerned and brave enough to help make this positive scenario happen?
Instead of answering these perfectly reasonable questions, Ms Freeman contented herself with intoning Mahinda Rajapaksa’s slogan ‘api wenuwen api’ (‘us for ourselves’) which is at best, vacuous and at worst, deeply worrying. If there is one thing that can be said about Sri Lanka with certainty it is that blind adherence to dogma has befuddled too many Sri Lankans of all groups and made a just and lasting settlement in that much troubled country far more difficult than it needs to be.
Sadly, Ms Freeman would not appear to be alone. In the words of a respected Sinhalese analyst, Tisaranee Gunasekara, who has been consistently anti-LTTE: “So the bald truth is that Mahinda Rajapakse won the Presidential election not because of rigging but because a majority of the Sinhala people, intoxicated by war-euphoria, opted for a leader who had kept and promised to keep Tamils in ‘their place’.” http://www.asiantribune.com/news/2010/01/31/election-results
Surely, it is not too late to hope that a writer as gifted as Ms Freeman, would rather show compassion to the many thousands of Sri Lankans who have suffered bereavement, injury or loss of livelihood as a result of the war, and especially those who are even now languishing behind barbed wire, deprived of basic human freedoms, separated from their families, and intimidated by gun-toting soldiers and para-militaries?
Briefing for tourists on Sri Lanka: Idyllic Island, Pariah State or Both?