By Roma Tearne –
In the midst of a Brexit frenzy it feels more or less impossible to think beyond our own crumbling borders. And, in this increasing insularity it is hardly surprising that the outside world has faded, slightly. But in another far-away place, seven thousand miles from Britain, life goes on in its own peculiar and misguided ways. The violence, injustice and oppression that unfold unchecked in Sri Lanka remains largely unchanged.
Once I lived on its shores and its people remain my people. And so I feel I have some right to speak out, to inform our indifferent world of the extent of the foolishness hidden in this empty paradise.
The story is not a new one. Shakthika Sathkumara is, I understand, a young writer and a poet, an observer of human behaviour, undoubtedly a man of courage and idealism. Without such attributes it would not have been possible for him to write. But write he did, at least until the authorities arrested him in April of this year. He has languished in police detention for 127 days. And though Shakthika was today granted bail, he continues to face the imminent threat of indictment and prosecution.
His crime? A short story which he published on Facebook, a piece that seems (I have read the English translation) utterly innocuous! But someone, somewhere, stupid to the point of lunacy, complained about this story and the authorities, with equal lunacy, arrested him. It is claimed that he defamed the Buddhist clergy. Reading the story several times in order to write this piece I see no reference to anything defamatory. Who are these uneducated people who seem incapable of rational thought? Are they simpletons or is there another agenda afoot? For in the spoiled Garden of Eden that is Sri Lanka, if the written word does not conform to some obscure religious doctrine, writing suddenly becomes a crime.
How laughable are these people who live in such a poisoned paradise. What on earth do they hope to achieve in imprisoning an innocent writer? How backward is this place? I understand that it was some fanatical Buddhist organisation that lodged the complaint in the first place. Do these individuals not understand what Buddhism is actually about? That first and foremost it is a philosophy? Secondly, a most noble religion, with its wonderfully vivid jathaka stories that sends out an appeal to humanity to practice a gentler way of life? To put a man to prison for writing a story is not merely profoundly stupid. It denies a whole nation the possibility of thinking for itself. It is a way of hijacking literature in the name of quasi-religious beliefs while using that same noble religion to keep corrupt politics alive. It is a trick as old as mankind itself, in order to rule, not by charm or intelligence, but by the use of fear. It is, in other words, censorship. Something one would have hoped had been eradicated by the 21st century.
Stories are the lifeblood of any society. Through stories we learn the difference between what should and should not be. Narrative is the moral compass that creates a decent life. To censor our stories is to destroy all that is rich and cultured within a society.
I have long thought of Sri Lanka and its ongoing pettiness as being a hollow paradise. Its sweeping beaches and pristine sands hide unpalatable things, and until it can grow up, be mature enough to take a long hard look at its faults, until it can clean up its legal system and release innocent writers such as Shakthika Sathkumara, it will remain poisoned. The kind of place no decent, educated person will want to visit.
The freedom of expression enjoyed by those living in this beautiful land has been repressed for many decades, but it is within the powers of the current government to offer change. To show mercy to one innocent writer and to release him. For did not Shakespeare say that mercy is twice blessed? That it blesseth him that gives and him that takes… So in the true spirit of Buddhism, I appeal to the government of Sri Lanka to do the right thing. To immediately drop all charges against Shakthika Sathkumara, and to begin taking the poison out of paradise.
*Roma Tearne is a Sri Lankan born novelist, painter and filmmaker. Her seventh novel was The White City. She is working on her eighth novel.