On Thursday, on the day of its formal launch, controversy hit the fifth edition of the Galle Literary Festival (GLF) from a neighbourhood it least expected disturbance from – fellow authors, commentators and rights activists.
Participants in the upcoming four-day fest, that include Nobel-winning author Orhan Pamuk and India's Kiran Desai, were accused of legimitising a regime in Colombo with a poor human rights record.
By evening, the GLF organisers and local writers and activists were fuming at the joint statement from the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF) and Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS), a network of self-exiled journalists that gave a call to boycott the GLF.
No, many Colombo-based pundits don't believe that the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime has a spotless human rights record; their argument was if the festival was boycotted, it would further shrink Sri Lanka's precious liberal space.
But the statement said at least 46 eminent analysts and authors – including Noam Chomsky, Arundhuti Roy and Tariq Ali -- had endorsed the appeal to shun the festival in a country where freedom of expression was severely impaired.
The statement said the arts should not be celebrated where journalists were killed or have disappeared.
"RSF and JDS find it highly disturbing that literature is being celebrated in this manner in a land where cartoonists, journalists, writers and dissident voices are so often victimized by the current government. The signatories of this appeal ask them to consider this grave situation before deciding to go to the Galle Festival," it added.
Shyam Selvadurai, author and GLF curator, said the RSF campaign was unfair. The festival was the "voice of plurality, tolerance and multiculturalism. It is not a carnival for the rich," Selvadurai said.
Author Ameena Hussein told HT that GLF wasn't a government initiative. "The GLF gives us space…a forum to speak our minds. It should not be targetted," Hussein said.
"We could not find similar appeals by RSF to stay away from the Jaipur Literature Festival over India's human rights violations in Kashmir and elsewhere within its borders, as Arundhuthi Roy, a signatory to this appeal, knows better than most," Groundviews, a citizen journalists' initiative, wrote.
GLF was a brave effort that began in 2007 at the peak of the civil war. Whether it could brave this new controversy is what the story about its fifth edition could well be all about.