Asean Literary Festival celebrates art, free speech and 50 years of regional cooperation
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Asean Literary Festival celebrates art, free speech and 50 years of regional cooperation

“FOR 50 YEARS, Asean was no more than a slogan and a series of meetings of elites. If we want to be a real community, we have to work at the grassroots level,” said Indonesian novelist Okky Madasari on Monday.

The Asean Literary Festival (ALF), which was held from Aug 3 to 6 – the same weekend as the region’s top annual security forum – brought together writers from more than 30 nations, celebrated freedom of speech and the rich literary traditions of Southeast Asia.

While foreign ministers and diplomats deliberated upon thorny issues like North Korea, the South China Sea and human rights in Manila, artists from across Southeast Asia converged upon Jakarta’s Kota Tua old town for four days of discussion panels on everything from beat poetry and feminism to Wikileaks and the Iranian Revolution.

SEE ALSO: Malaysian PM thinks Malay should be the language of Asean

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‘Beyond Imagination’ was the theme of the 2017 Asean Literary Festival. Source: Max Walden

The festival was established in 2013 by Madasari and her husband Abdul Khalik, a Jakarta Post newspaper former editor, to promote freedom of expression and discuss contentious issues in a region that has long grappled with authoritarian politics.

“We came up with the idea about how to make nations in Southeast Asia get more connected as we realised actually we don’t know each other,” Okky told Asian Correspondent.

She said Abdul had attended many high-level meetings on diplomatic and economic cooperation in his work as a journalist, but observed politics alone had failed to engender a meaningful sense of understanding or community among the peoples of the region.

SEE ALSO: Asean releases joint communique against Chinese expansion in South China Sea

This year’s ALF focused on contemporary issues for the region including radicalism, blasphemy and persecution of minorities.

“Since the beginning, the festival aimed to promote a free and just society in Southeast Asia.” – Okky Madasari

In 2015, for example, the festival organisers released a statement on Rohingya refugees in which it expressed “grave disappointment” with Asean governments for not accepting those fleeing persecution.

“This is a betrayal of Asean community’s basic principles as enshrined in its charter and values held high by the festival,” it declared.

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Suspected Rohingya migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh rest at Rattaphum district hall in Thailand’s southern Songkhla province, in 2015. Source: Reuters/Surapan Boonthanom

“Freedom of expression is still a big issue in every Southeast Asian country,” Okky told Asian Correspondent. “We will always give room to these kinds of issues in our society to be discussed at the festival.”

Over time, the ALF has grown, with this year being its largest incarnation yet. In 2017, the festival was endorsed by Indonesia’s Culture and Education Ministry as well as the Foreign Ministry.

“This year is more special because of the 50th anniversary of Asean and we wanted to make the festival part of the celebration. Now the festival belongs to not only the people of Indonesia, but Southeast Asia as a whole.”

SEE ALSO: Malaysia: Ministry bans ‘Despacito’ over sexually-charged lyrics

Prominent Malaysian author Faisal Tehrani – whose six books have been banned by the government in his homeland – delivered the opening speech at ALF 2017 about the experience of writing in a politically and religiously repressive environment.

In addition to being targeted by Malaysian authorities, Tehrani regularly receives death threats from Islamic conservatives for openly exploring issues around the Sunni/Shia divide.

In another session on Sunday, Australian journalist Andrew Fowler discussed his writings on Wikileaks founder Julian Assange – another figure who has been targeted by governments, albeit the purportedly liberal democratic ones of the United States, Australia and Britain.

Writers Tra Nguyen, Clara Chow and Alanda Kariza from Vietnam, Singapore and Indonesia, respectively, meanwhile discussed their experiences writing as women in highly patriarchal cultural contexts.

While previous festivals had drawn the ire of hardline Muslims for providing a forum for the discussion of controversial issues like communism and LGBT rights, Okky said no such problems were faced in 2017.

“I hope this is a sign our society is more mature now,” she said.

In addition to its staunch agenda to promote freedom of speech, the festival also aimed to promote a love of reading and writing among the wider community in Indonesia and elsewhere in the region.

A 2016 study from Central Connecticut State University ranked Indonesia 60 out of 61 countries for reading interest, right below Thailand and above only Botswana.

“Indonesia doesn’t need ambitious dreams of becoming one of the world’s great literary nations,” wrote the founder of Makassar International Writers Festival Lily Yulianti Farid last year.

“What Indonesia does need, however, is to recognise creativity and innovation are urgently needed to address the reading crisis.”

The ALF 2017 may have had some success in doing this. “I can’t move on yet from the ALF 2017,” lamented one Twitter user on Sunday.