[Editors note: We were sent this personal letter from Sunila Abeysekara addressed to a leading signatory of the RSF/JDS appeal to boycott the Galle Literary Festival. She kindly agreed to publish it on Groundviews for a wider appreciation. As noted in our response to the RSF/JDS appeal, Sunila is an outspoken and award winning human rights activist. Amongst a number of other awards recognising her work, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan presented Sunila with a UN Human Rights Award in 1999. See a video interview with Sunila conducted by Groundviews for Human Rights Day in 2009 here.]
I am writing to you after seeing your signature on the petition circulated by the JDS (Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka) and RSF (Reporters without Borders) calling for a boycott of the Galle Literary Festival. I was really sorry to see your signature there.
As you know I have dedicated the past thirty years of my life to defend human rights and media freedom in Sri Lanka, and continue to live and work in this country. The past years have been very difficult ones, especially as we face continuing attacks and intimidation from both state and non-state forces in the aftermath of the war and in the absence of any credible process of political negotiation with the Tamil community, let alone any process of reconciliation or healing.
2011 is the first year which I agreed to play an active role in the Galle Literary Festival, although I had attended random sessions in the past. I did so because I felt that the festival was one of the very few spaces available to us to engage in a broad discussion and dialogue regarding art and culture and contemporary social issues in Sri Lanka in general, with a group of internationally known and published creative writers, and through this, bring to their attention the real situation of the country, including the situation confronting cultural workers and activists and media persons.
While I accept that you have every right to your opinion, and to the expression of that opinion, and while I think that as many organizations as possible around the world should continue to call for respect for human rights in Sri Lanka, it is hard for me to accept the argument that by coming to Sri Lanka, the writers who have been invited for the GLF will ‘give legitimacy to the Sri Lankan government’s suppression of free speech’. In fact, calling for a boycott of the GLF constitutes an act of silencing that I find totally unacceptable.
In my opinion, the GLF creates spaces for moderates and liberals from all communities in Sri Lanka who are interested in the arts and culture to come together with colleagues from around the world to talk, to share and to enjoy each other’s company and accomplishments. In an environment in which there is so much silencing going on, the presence of key figures from the international literary world acts as a catalyst for us, opening up relatively ‘safe’ spaces for literary and political exploration and debate and allows Sri Lankan writers and artistes to learn from other experiences.
I wish that colleagues of the JDS and RSF, who know me well, and who work together with us on defending human rights and media freedom issues, had spoken to me, and others involved with the GLF 2011, before making their statement. It would have given us all an opportunity to be more strategic about how we could use the opportunities afforded by the GLF to draw attention to our common concerns regarding human rights and media freedom in Sri Lanka. It is extremely disappointing to find those who defend media freedom in Sri Lanka playing a role in depriving us of an opportunity to express ourselves and our desire for a democratic and peaceful environment in which to live and work, with a broader community from outside the country.