Sri Lankan novelist arrested over gay Buddhist monk story

Poet detained for broaching taboo subject, inciting religious hatred as Buddhists lodge complaint over risque plot line
Sri Lankan novelist arrested over gay Buddhist monk story

A file image of newly ordained Buddhist monks praying at a ceremony marking their entry into priesthood in Colombo on June 15, 2016. (Photo by Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP)

A post-modernist novelist has been arrested and charged with violating international human rights law in Sri Lanka for authoring a story about homosexuality and child abuse at a Buddhist temple.

Shakthika Sathkumara, 33, was arrested on April 1 after a group of monks complained to the police when he posted the short story called Ardha on his Facebook page and in local Sinhalese language publications.

Homosexuality is outlawed in the island nation, where about 70 percent of the population of 21 million identify as Theravada Buddhists and monks swear vows of celibacy.

The writer and poet was detained by Polgahawela police until April 9 after the monks refused to settle out of court.

He was charged by a local magistrate with inciting religious hatred and breaching the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a multilateral treaty adopted by the U.N. General Assembly.

The ICCPR prohibits advocacy of racial, national, religious hatred that helps incitement discrimination, hostility or violence.

The story makes only indirect references to homosexual behavior among Buddhist clergy, but this was enough to inflame local religious sensibilities.

The Free Media Movement (FMM), a rights watchdog, expressed its dissatisfaction over the incident and said police should not have such extensive powers to control or censor works of art.

It pointed to numerous occasions where the government, in deciding on works of art and literature by independent thinkers, has violated people’s freedom of expression.

"When Sri Lanka signed the ICCPR, the promise given to the people of the country and the international community was that freedom of expression would be further strengthened and protected by the charter," C. Dodawatta, convener of the FMM, said on April 3.

"But it is clear this particular charter challenges freedom of expression. When there is an issue with the content of a piece of art, it cannot be judged by a single point of view." 

Sathkumara was named the best Sinhala short story writer in Sri Lanka’s National Youth Literary Festivals of 2010 and 2014.

The FMM said the decision to immediately prosecute him shows how little respect Colombo has for basic human rights.

"Once again, the FMM appeals to all state officials not to proceed with this kind of arbitrary action," Dodawatta said.

In an opinion piece published in the Colombo Telegraph on April 3, Sarath de Alwis wrote: "In medieval times creators of beauty, truth and human squalor were persecuted. In the new age of fake righteousness attempted by statute and proclamations we seem to be returning to our tribal roots.

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"Our free press — print and electronic — did not report the incident. The incident has gone viral on the internet. The international news agency AFP has reported the Orwellian ordeal of Shakthika Sathkumara to the world."

Vijeykumar Vidhusan, 18, is also being detained for 10 months under the ICCPR for posting New Year’s wishes on his Facebook account on October 2018 showing pictures of the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Jayathilaka Kammallaweera, one of the leading short story writers in the country, said the authorities have abused the international covenant to clamp down on free speech. "Freedom of expression should be strengthened and protected. Sathkumara is not against the philosophy of Buddhism at all," he said.

Kammallaweera expressed concern about the extremist Buddhist group who filed a complaint against Sathkumara.

Tenison Perera, president of the Writers Organization of Lanka, said his network would rally behind the persecuted writer. "If he has done anything wrong, the Buddhist group can work according to the rule of law, but not violate his rights by force," he said.

Gamini Viyangoda, co-convenor of Purawesi Balaya, a civil society movement, said the monks hope to intimidate and silence the award-winning writer.

Meanwhile, human rights defenders have signed a petition demanding he be released.

"The ICCPR is intended to ensure citizens’ civic and political rights," they wrote. "It is not to be misused to intimidate artists and censor works of art in the guise of preserving religious harmony. The publication does not amount to any disrespect towards Buddhism.

"[His] arrest and detention is not merely a threat to our freedom of expression but also paves the way to creating a culture of regulating and censoring artistic expression based on the whims of religious and extremist groups." 

Sarath de Alwis wrote in the Colombo Telegraph that in ancient India homosexuals were simply identified as the third nature, trithya prakthi. "Whether it is a deviant practice or not is not the issue in Shakthika’s story. It is the realism embedded in the yarn that has upset the holy hornet’s nest."

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