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, August 2019.
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.
On 5 August 2019, after more than four months in detention, writer Shakthika Sathkumara was granted bail by the High Court in Sri Lanka. However, he currently remains detained and the charges against him have not yet been dropped. Please help us to keep up the pressure ahead of his next hearing, tomorrow 6 August.
Spread the word
Share PEN’s call to action with friends and colleagues and on social media with the hashtag #FreeShakthika.
Show your support
Join PEN and the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice in showing your support for Shakthika by sharing a photo of yourself with this campaign print-out or your own #FreeShakthika sign. Please include the hashtag and tag @englishpen and @SLCampaign.
Write to the authorities
Please send appeals urging the Sri Lankan authorities to:
- Release award-winning novelist Shakthika Sathkumara immediately and unconditionally;
- Drop their baseless investigation of Shakthika Sathkumara;
- Take steps to safeguard freedom of expression in line with international standards and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Sri Lanka is a State Party.
Send appeals to:
Mr. Maithripala Sirisena
Fax :- +94 112 430590
Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe
Fax: +94 112 575310 / +94 112 574143
Minister of Justice & Prison Reforms
Ms. Thalatha Atukorale
Ministry of Justice and Prison Reforms – Sri Lanka
Superior Courts Complex
Fax: +94 112 435 294
Mr. Dappula de Livera
Fax: +94 112 436421
Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka
Dr. Deepika Udagama – Chairperson
Fax: +94 112 505591
Send copies to the Embassy of Sri Lanka in your own country. Embassy addresses may be found here: https://embassy.goabroad.com/embassies-of/srilanka.
Please reach out to your Ministry of Foreign Affairs and diplomatic representatives in Sri Lanka, calling on them to raise Shakthika Sathkumara’s case in bilateral fora.
Please inform PEN of any action you take and of any responses you receive.
- Publish articles and opinion pieces in your national or local press highlighting the case of Shakthika Sathkumara and freedom of expression in Sri Lanka;
- Promote Shakthika Sathkumara’s writings.
Solidarity is a key component of our campaigns for writers at risk and in detention. Please send messages of support via Emma Wadsworth-Jones (firstname.lastname@example.org)