‘I have seen the opposite of freedom. I have seen many people killed, the results of stupidity and cruelty, and the results of
The artist Ai Weiwei is referring here to his native China, but his words could easily apply to the current situation in Sri Lanka.
Ai Weiwei has been outspoken in his criticism of the Chinese government’s human rights record, leading to an attack by Chinese police in 2009 and a brain hemorrhage.
China has been one of Sri Lanka’s biggest global supporters, for example blocking debate at the UN Security Council Resolution
about Sri Lanka’s treatment of civilians during the 2009 conflict and using arms and money to gain influence over Rajapaske’s
regime. These and other elements of China’s role are analysed by Peter Popham in The Independent this past May in a feature
article entitled “How Beijing won Sri Lanka’s War”
In turn, Sri Lanka appears to be following the Chinese model of suppressing freedom of expression, with journalists and human
rights defenders regularly threatened and harassed in an attempt to silence criticism of the government. Edward Mortimer, Chair of the Sri Lanka Campaign, wrote a passionate piece on the dangers facing Sri Lanka’s journalists in The Guardian earlier this year.
Ai Weiwei’s involvement with the Beijing Olympics, designing the ‘Birds Nest’ Stadium, illustrates the tightrope artists walk
when dealing with censorious regimes. He wanted to be involved with the Games as he felt they were a good opportunity for
transparency in a notoriously opaque country. His higher profile following this project also allowed his criticism of the regime to
reverberate farther, but led to the violent rebuke by the police. Speaking after the attack, he said: ‘Nothing can silence me as long as I’m alive. I don’t give any excuse. It isn’t going to change my beliefs.’
Many of Ai Weiwei’s inspiring statements about the situation in China have echoes for Sri Lanka and this campaign:
‘One day people will wake up and find themselves unable to believe that we have been through an age of stupidity and humiliation.’
The Ai WeiWei installation, ‘Sunflower Seeds’, can currently be seen in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, London.