Posted by: lialeendertz | August 20, 2010

I’m not going to Sri Lanka

I have been invited on a press trip to Sri Lanka. This is by far the most glamorous offer I have had in the course of my career. The closest equivalent would be the all expenses paid week touring Bayer’s German chemical works which I attended when I worked for Horticulture Week, which was every bit as delightful as it sounds (in its favour, the gorgeous Martyn Cox and Leigh Hunt both trudged around the corridors and experimental greenhouses with me, but then so did Peter Seabrook). So I’ve had this offer, a week-long ‘small, specialist trip’ paid for by the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau, taking in botanic gardens, orchid collections, nurseries, forest reserves and more, following Sri Lanka’s success at the Chelsea Flower Show. Sounds like heaven.

But even while a part of my mind was already preparing for a child-free week of palm-fringed beaches, dense, steamy jungles, and almost unbearable amounts of lush greenery, something in the back of that same mind was nagging at me that I couldn’t go. It isn’t current news, so it’s taken a little delving around, but the picture appears to be this: the civil war that has been raging on the island for 25 years ended last year, but this hasnt ended the civil rights abuses carried out by the majority Sinhalese government against the Tamil minority. Many of the 150,000 civilians held in dreadful conditions in internment camps have recently been released, but the country has a horrendous record of disappearances, abductions and murders of those who speak out against the regime (look at the Boycott Sri Lanka website for more details, and to find out what you can do) with one political journalist going missing as recently as January of this year. It is also, according to media watchdog Reporters Without Borders one of the most dangerous countries in the world in which to be a journalist. Not a Western horticultural journalist, of course, on a lovely jolly around the botanic gardens of the island. It’s your local journalists that are living in fear.

It is obvious that the island wants to rehabilitate itself in the eyes of the world, and to get the tourists back, and it sees the promotion of its undoubtedly fabulous horticulture as a fine way of doing this, via Chelsea, and such ‘small, specialist trips’, which will no doubt result in a flurry of beautifully photographed, luscious pieces appearing in gardening magazines next year. But I massively object to horticulture being used as some sort of a pretty carpet under which to sweep such issues. Stopping the disappearances and murders, and fully investigating and prosecuting the perpetrators of the many human rights violations, as Amnesty International has called upon Sri Lanka to do, seems like – to put it mildly – a more sensible first step. Do that, THEN invite a bunch of horticultural journalists around.

I realise that this isn’t a particularly interesting post if you are here looking for horticultural information, but I reckon that when opportunities come to speak out on behalf of those living less fortunate lives, we should grab them, and this one rather fell into my lap. I also realise I am not likely to get invited on any more glamorous press trips.


  1. Good for you X

  2. A brave & personal decision which probably warrants a wider readership. Is that likely ?

  3. Lia, I am proud to know you, even if only through your blog and Twitter. It takes integrity to make decisions like that and courage to announce it so publicly. Well done, you. xxxxx

  4. We are a group of Sri Lankan journalists and human rights defenders working in exile to highlight the grave human rights situation in Sri Lanka.

    We highly appreciate your simple and well written eye opening article on Sri Lanka, which we too have re-posted on our website:

    Your article sets an important moral example to many other journalists in the west who would jump at the opportunity to grab the offer unhesitatingly.

    This is just to say “thank you” for your strong message of solidarity.

  5. Great post and decision Lia. I wonder, did Bell Pottinger have anything to do with the offer?

    On one of my political hobby horses, I’m pretty disgusted that our government’s been happy to spend money on promoting arms sales to Sri Lanka.

    And here’s hoping you get another invite to somewhere glamorous and acceptable.

  6. I had absolutely no idea Lia, so thank you for enlightening me. And for being so brave.
    I am full of admiration.

  7. Bravo. My hat is off to you as well. Will retweet your post.

  8. Gosh you’re cute!

  9. You’re afraid of flying really arent you….

    Ah, Sri Lanka, birthplace of me dad. Friends landed on the day the tsunami hit, sat in a hotel for two days and flew home. Then went back a year later. It’s a tricky one as there are some organisations out there who urge us westerners to go – to contribute to tourism and their economy etc – as the country opening up some more is probably the only way it’ll be held more widely accountable. Ive no idea whether that’s real or not, but it’s a good one you can use if you fancy going back on yr decision though. When Im rich and famous I’ll be on that ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ program and I’ll have to go there, forced of course, but I will let you know if it was nice

  10. That’s amazing, Lia, good for you. A good example for us to emulate if we want our principles to go right through to the middle, not just be a frosting.

    I’ll retweet your post, too.

    Sheila Averbuch – Stopwatch Gardener

  11. It will be interesting to see who does go, because they obviously don’t have your high standards! Well done 🙂

  12. A thoughtful and thought provoking post Lia,
    Thank you.

  13. Kate – thanks

    Simon, Gilly, Ann-Marie – thank you. I am never sure about the use of the word ‘brave’ in these situations. I mean, they’re not going to actually come over here and have a go at me, are they? *starts to get a bit worried*. I am not sure that I would be brave if I was actually threatened with any of these things myself. Which i suppose is why i think those of us in comfy, secure places should make the best use of our position, when we get the chance.

    Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka – it is very moving to have this comment from you. thank you. And you are of course welcome to use this on your website.

    frugilegus – Thanks. Dont know anything about Bell Pottinger, and they werent a part of this, no. Would love to know what that’s about…DM me?

    jodi – welcome, and thanks for the RT

    trisket – i am indeed *winks*

    MarkD – I am afraid of flying, as it happens, and dont like to fly on environmental grounds either (and neither should you, by the way). It’s an interesting point, about tourists making the country more accountable, I hope I havent missed the point somewhere. It rather smacks of self-justification to me, but i could be wrong.

    Sheila – thanks, that’s what I’m kind of aiming for, lifewise.

    emma – …and then we can all point at them and make them feel really uncomfortable… hooray!

    Karen – thank you

  14. Hi Lia,

    As usual such a story, with its many important and relevant undertones, is vastly under reported in our fantastic media. I had no idea that things were still that bad in Sri Lanka.

    I guess that when it comes to the crunch you have to weigh up the pros and cons and in this case it is not only risky, for you and family, but also contradicts your personal moral standpoint. Good for you!


  15. If you are interested to find out the connection between Sri Lanka and Bell Pottinger, read:


  16. Your principles do you credit.

    Sadly, I bet loads of fatheads take up the offer.

    Can you find out who and list them on your blog?

  17. I’m impressed and enlightened. Good for you.

  18. hello Lia
    under the guise “war against terror ” Sri Lankan racist government has killed countless people for years.
    Unfortunately, this message does not report large in the european grayling country
    to keep their war crimes hidden , they try by all means to attract tourism.
    it would be good if many people like you investigate as well as the other side of paradise
    I admire your moral adjustment and thank you very much for your article

  19. Good stuff. And if the mags are full of the resulting pics and ‘garden stories’ next year do we boycott them too?

    Time to stop treating gardens as somehow on a different, morally neutral, planet?

  20. Dear Lia,

    thank you for raising awareness and spreading the message about the suffering of the
    Tamils in Srilanka and the atrocities committed by the Sri Lankan Government on the Tamil civilians.

    Those journalist in Sri Lanka, who had the same moral responsibility like you and reported about the alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed against the Tamil People, have been killed.

    Again many thanks for your decision not to travel to Sri Lanka! Sri lanka is a paradise for tourists but the same paradise has become a sanguinary hell for the Tamils.

  21. I think this is a difficult one but I also think you have made the right decision. I had the same thoughts as MarkD that there is a belief that opening up a country to tourism can actually be a force for good.

    We visited Iceland some years ago at a time when there was a lot of talk about them restarting whaling for ‘scientific research’. We debated whether we should visit a country that was pushing to partake in something we found so repugnant. In the end we went, did a whale sighting cruise and visited the incredibly interesting whale museum at Husavik. The people at the museum felt that the more the Icelandic whaling industry became about tourism the less it would be about slaughtering whales.

    After our visit we wrote to the Icelandic Ministry of Tourism to express our views on the situation and to reinforce the idea that extending the numbers of whales killed for so-called ‘research’ was totally at odds with promoting Iceland as a whale watching destination and that they were in danger of losing a considerable amount of tourist revenue if this went ahead. I don’t know if we weren’t being rather naive but we did what we thought was best.

    Obviously I don’t equate this example with the horrors that happen in Sri Lanka. I believe I would have made the same decision as you about going. Nevertheless, I would be hesitant about castigating those who do decide to go who may believe, rightly or wrongly, that they are doing the best thing. At least if they read your blog they will have no excuse to plead ‘ignorance’ of the matter and will hopefully have given it further through.

  22. It is interesting to consider that one might be being naive to think that ones voice for the moral high ground and sticking to ones principles, no matter how solitary, might be naive.

    If this is the case, then thank god for the naiveté of some people!

  23. Ryan – thanks. i dont know why we dont all know about this/. Perhaps it is that news organisations need something new, and an ongoing awful situation isnt dramatic enough for them.

    JDS – Very interesting links. Fascinating that this is actually a part of a wider picture of UK PR agencies accepting tourism-promotion work for dodgy regimes around the world. For shame.

    BlundstonedLove – Hmmm…interesting! But I dont think I’m going to do that. I do need to work again in this town. With luck it will all become apparent without a need for me to actually name and shame.

    the bedsock – thank you!

    sangar – thank you so much for your comment. I am glad you think I have done the right thing.

    now Anne, you’re not just looking for an excuse to boycott the gardening magazines, are you?! But I love your comment about gardening not being on a different, morally neutral planet. That is exactly what I wanted to say, and couldnt find the words.

    Vithiya – thank you for finding this and for commenting. I think the situation is far more horrific than I had even realised.

    Arabella – I was a bit worried about this following Mark’s comment and so I emailed Bashana, who comments above as Journalists for Democratic Sri Lanka. He doesnt know of organisations urging this in Sri lanka’s case and asks ‘How can a tourist make the sri Lankan government realize the importance of ‘accountability’ by lying on a sunny beach?’ The problem being, if I’m not being too ungenerous on the average Western tourist, that most are not as thorough as you in investigating and thinking through the consequences of visiting their chosen destinations, and are unlikely to use it as a platform to voice their concerns, as you did.
    And don’t worry, I am not planning on starting a witch hunt of those that do go on the trip, but yes I do hope this is read by others that have been invited, so they can make a fully informed decision.

    Rosalind – Indeed. Lone voices dont stay lone voices for long, as the wonderful response to this post rather proves!

  24. eeek…now i know yr afraid of flying my comment doesnt look like the intended lighthearted thing I shouldve. And i wasnt trying to sday i thought it was goos to go just that i knew people who said that. Am i making myself any less clear? I suspect so. Anyway, well done you.

  25. Interesting post. When I visited Mombassa in Kenya some years ago, we were keenly aware of the poverty in the shanty towns we travelled through to get to our plush 5 star hotel. We talked to staff at the hotel who lived outside the hotel, not quite in the shanty towns but not far off, we raised this issue with them and their response was that if the tourists didnt come they would have no work and no economy. Some countries need tourism its key to their economy. However, the situation in Kenya, then, wasn’t like the situation in Sri Lanka is presently and I think if I had been aware of a serious human rights issue in Kenya I really wouldnt have gone. As tourists and in your case, someone being employed to promote tourism, we have to be aware that there is a fine line in this matters and nothing is completely black and white

    As I said interesting and thought provoking post

  26. hello lia,
    here is one story which is good to understand the situation in sri lanka
    it is not only dangerous for the tamils also for the sinhalese who will not accept the dirty game of the present sri lankan goverment against the humanity , even beggers could not live….. for more information

    And also

    • I hope you dont mind Sangar, but I have edited your comment. The story was a bit long for the comments box and I managed to track it downon the interweb and put in a link to it instead. Thank you. These stories really help to bring home the seriousness of the situation to those of us that are just learning about it now.

  27. Hardly feel entitled to add a comment after the previous one!
    Just to say :Tis what I would have expected of you in particular. Well done for standing up for your principles!
    Best Wishes

  28. mark – thanks for clearing that up!

    Helen – i am sure you are right that in a lot of cases tourism is a valuable part of struggling economies, and yes, this does seem to be different (sangar’s link, above, seems to suggest that – on top of everything else – beggars are also being killed in an effort to ‘clean up’ the island for tourism). To be honest my reaction to the offer was a bit of a gut instinct that I didnt want to be involved, and I wasnt at all sure what actual sri lankans would want when i wrote this, and I probably should hve checked with some sri lankan sources first. but I think it’s the right decision in my case, in that this wouldnt be simply about being a tourist, this would – by its very nature – involve actively promoting sri lanka as a tourist destination.

    Thanks Robert/Lesley

  29. Another message clearing stuff up… just in case.. I didn’t intend to imply that you had any intention of starting a ‘witch hunt’. It just that some of the comments were heading that way.

    Sadly, I don’t think your comments about the average Western tourist are ungenerous at all.

  30. during the war situation was very bad, due to suiside bombmers, both sides got strong precautions as like in Ireq and Afganistan, now the place is quite good and improving fast. except some interference in judiciary and complains on obstructions on midia.

  31. I think you’re brilliant – putting right and fair first. I’m proud to know you’ve done that.

  32. Good for you is all I can say. I just hope the RHS take note, not that I’m holding my breath.

  33. I admire you Lia for taking a stand and thank you for another eye-opening horti-political post. Kenya, Sri Lanka – I think there could be a whole seam of controversial stories for the gardening mags. We probably don’t need to even get on a plane. On the recent Vista trip to the beautiful Waltham Place gardens, owned by the Oppenheimer diamond family, someone pointed out that we were visiting somewhere built with money made from the apartheid era. Perhaps some of the other journos on the Sri Lanka trip will look beyond the botanical gardens and do a bit of real digging?

  34. Funny, smart and with a strong moral core – is there no end to your loveliness?

    On a similar theme, my parents have just set off to visit the States – a trip they have delayed for more than 8 years because my dad didn’t approve of that ‘W Bush Chap’ – although that was more a boycott against stupidity…

  35. Would advise to go and experience it. Report on what you find. It’s a complex situation and no way ideal at the moment but it’s polititions are making huge steps in the right direction.

    I lived in Sri Lanka for 2 years at the start of the troubles and found the people kind, generous and gentle. Basically a Buddist country with a history of tolerance and getting along together that was plunged into escalating violence for a period and has only just started to emerge.

    It’s goverment has only just begun to relax from a wartime footing. Its reason for being in power is allready on the wane. Previous goverments tried to negotiate and compromise a peaceful solution which was never attained. Sri Lankans ended up voting in this ‘strong arm’ style of goverment with it’s focus on winning the war.

    With peace re-established the need for draconian measures is no longer needed and instead finds itself in a whole new situation faced with reconcilliation and rebuilding. Probably not the best goverment for winning the peace.

    The sooner the country ‘normalises’ the better. After war the next basic security for the Sri Lankan peoples is the economy. Goverments come and go. With peace and a rising economy Sri Lanka is bound to revert to its natural Buddist state and a goverment of that nature will follow suit.

    Sri Lanka did not get any help from the outside world during all these years of conflict. It’s people feeling let down and puzzled by
    the indifference of old partners like the UK or the UN. This may explain the lack of goodwill this present goverment has shown to the UN and UK

    By visiting the country and meeting Sri Lankans and then writing about it will achieve much more to the good.

  36. First time I’ve visited your blog, wonderfully full and informative discussion generated by your thoughtful and interesting piece. Thanks all!

  37. Peter and Nick – thanks for your comments. It is very interesting to get your points of view. I realise there is something to be said for visiting and ‘normalising’ a country, and certainly for writing about what you see, but I suppose it didnt feel right in my case as the very nature of such a garden-visiting press trip would be essentially to write about how beautiful the gardens are. I cant imagine that a trip designed to show people around the gardens of the island would be particularly enlightening regarding the current situation. Garden magazines are not generally particularly political beasts. Perhaps they should be, but that’s another discussion.

    camillap – you make a really interesting point regarding the above. I have just tried to write a sensible reply but it came out so long I have scrapped it and will save it for a future blog post all of its own!

    scattered gardener, dawn, simon and bloominggardens – thanks so much for such lovely comments.

  38. Yes I remember I had the same offer of a press trip. At first it sounded a wonderful opportunity but I started to get cold feet mainly about my own personal safety and when I couldn’t get answers and details from the company I let it drop. My reasons were more about self preservation than human rights but I agree garden writers and journalists need to wary about being used as whitewash – or greenwash!

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