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The mysterious Sri Lankan world of Arthur C. Clarke

  • @peterpopham
The science-fiction author Arthur C Clarke yesterday denied a newspaper claim that he is a paedophile. None the less, he asked that his knighthood ceremony be postponed so not to embarrass the Prince of Wales. Peter Popham reports.

Arthur C Clarke is still going to be Sir Arthur but the ceremony may have to wait for his reincarnation in another galaxy. That seemed the implication of the announcement from the seaside home of the prophet of the Space Age yesterday, as the impact of the Sunday Mirror's story slowly sank in to this sleepy corner of the global village.

On Sunday the newspaper declared Clarke to be a self-confessed paedophile. He was quoted admitting as much, and a Sri Lankan "friend" - head of current affairs at the Sri Lankan Broadcasting Company - alleged that Clarke was still having sex with boys "a few months ago". Clarke claimed he had not been sexually active for 20 years.

Yesterday it was announced that he had requested the conferment of his knighthood to be postponed, to avoid embarrassing Prince Charles. The request was accepted. The ceremony was due to be at the British High Commission tomorrow. Clarke was also said to be discussing the Mirror's story with his lawyers. In Sri Lanka, even the astrophysicist operates at a sedate, pre-modern pace, so 36 hours after the Mirror's story broke it was my duty to bring it to the attention of the director of the institute that bears Clarke's name. Professor Sam Karunaratne was visibly stunned.

"I can't even believe that a person of the calibre of Dr Clarke would be descending to things of this nature," he said. "It's unimaginable ... People are going to be, what do you say, flabbergasted about this."

I also showed the story to Sri Lanka's most energetic campaigner against paedophilia, Maureen Seneviratne, who was equally appalled. "It was the general opinion in the country that he was gay, but a paedophile... it's beyond my comprehension. He is one of the people that nobody could touch. A highly reputed figure, very influential."

There are seedy aspects of foreign involvement with Sri Lanka. Elsewhere in Asia, paedophilia means sex tourism. In Sri Lanka some Europeans have come into the country posing - and even performing - as businessmen or philanthropists. They set up homes close to the idyllic west or south coast beaches, and also close to communities of impoverished former fishermen. They then win the trust of local boys and begin abusing them, paying them tiny sums of money in return.

A German man is serving a two-year sentence and two other cases are going through the courts, and up to 100 suspected paedophiles are deported every year. Ms Seneviratne's organisation Peace (Protecting Environment and Children Everywhere) believes that as many as 7,000 children are involved in the trade at any one time. "Previous governments didn't even look into it, because all they were concerned about was tourism," said Ms Seneviratne.

"When we began working on the problem six years ago people thought the foreign paedophile was a wonderful fairy godfather giving out presents - so why were we rocking the boat? People were only outraged when the facts were brought to light."

The government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga has now taken Peace's research to heart and a presidential task force is investigating. Clarke has indeed been a wonderful fairy godfather for Sri Lanka. He set up the Arthur Clarke Centre for Modern Technologies 15 years ago with the money he received with a Marconi International Fellowship, and in a country that is still in many cases crushingly poor it is an inspiring success. Thanks to the centre, and Clarke's generosity with his contacts, many Sri Lankan scientists punch well above their nation's weight in research and development.

Whatever Clarke's past activities, his friends at the centre insist that he now lives a life of intense respectability.