‘Spotlight’ shines for the first time in the new year. Although devoted in principle to films, film personalities and film-related matters, the column will deviate in practice this week to focus on a renowned Sri Lankan newspaper Editor whose contribution to his country and people has been immeasurably immense.
An outstanding member of the Fourth Estate who was professionally qualified as a lawyer but instead preferred the vocation of journalism to give voice to the voiceless. A fearless scribe who dedicated himself to the task of speaking truth to power and remained unbowed and unafraid to the very end. A dynamic personality who was my friend, colleague, Editor and above all one of the most courageous human beings in Sri Lanka.
‘Spotlight’ beams this week on Lasantha Manilal Wickrematunge, who was brutally murdered on a public road in broad daylight by cowardly assassins 10 years ago.
Lasantha Wickrematunge was murdered on 8 January 2009. On that fateful morning, a domestic aide had detected signs of potential danger. Some unknown men dressed in black on motorcycles were hovering around in the vicinity of Lasantha’s residence. The domestic aide warned Lasantha. When Sonali Samarasinghe, his wife, heard about the hovering motorcyclists, she pleaded with Lasantha not to go out of the house at that time. But Lasantha refused to do so and started out in his car to office, asking Sonali to come later in her car.
The motorcyclists had followed the vehicle and Lasantha had telephoned an ‘influential’ person on his mobile phone and told him of the suspicious activity of the ‘motorcycle men’. Lasantha’s car was on Attidiya Road near the Bakery Handiya (junction) when the stalking assassins got into action. They converged around like predators encircling prey when the vehicle was close to the Malagalage Junior School.
According to some eyewitness accounts, there were four motorcycles in all. Two had cut across in front of the car blocking Lasantha and forcing him to brake suddenly. Two other motorcycles moved up on either side of the car. The assassins in black wore helmets. Like the four horsemen of the apocalypse, these messengers of death closed in on Lasantha. The windscreen was smashed. The assassins then yanked the door open. Pulling out their instruments of death the black souls launched their cowardly attack against the unarmed journalist whose only weapon was his pen writing the bold truth.
The assassins then mounted their bikes and sped away. There was a sentry point manned by the Air Force about 100 metres away. Several onlookers saw the terrifying assault. But the assassins simply vanished. The unconscious Lasantha was bleeding profusely. He was first taken to the nearest Kalubowila Hospital. An ambulance was prepared to take him from Kalubowila to the National Hospital.
The doctors found his condition too critical to move him. So emergency surgery was done at Kalubowila with a team of doctors rushing to Kalubowila from Borella. The medical personnel strove hard for hours to resuscitate him. After four hours of battling for life, Lasantha passed away. Thus ended the saga of one of the bravest human beings I have ever known. Thus ended the life of a fearless scribe, crusading for justice and peace. An irredeemable loss for journalism and Sri Lanka.
Though 10 years have passed the circumstances of his demise linger in memory. I vividly remember that long night in Toronto on 7/8 January 2009, which was daytime in Colombo. The telephone rang while I was reading a magazine article on the wildlife in Sri Lanka. It was Dushi (freelance journalist Dushiyanthini Kanagasabapathipillai). She broke the news that Lasantha had been shot and injured on his way to work. The phone rang again just as I replaced the receiver. It was Marianne (Daily FT Deputy Editor Marianne David). She too had the same news. Later more friends from Sri Lanka called with the sad news.
The next few hours were agonising as I kept ringing and emailing people in Sri Lanka to find out more. In between these calls and mails were the numerous queries pouring in from different parts of the globe about Lasantha’s fate. I answered them briefly. It was a long, terrible night!
I prayed endlessly in my home as doctors struggled to save his life in hospital. I begged God that “Lassie Boy” as I called him should come out of this alive. After a while I heard from authoritative medical sources that he was brain dead and would be a “living vegetable” even if he survived. That would indeed have been a cruel stroke of fate for an active, vibrant Lasantha, so full of lively, vigorous energy.
My prayers changed. I now begged the almighty that Lasantha be spared the plight of a vegetable-like existence on earth and that his soul should get “Nearer my God to Thee”. I later learnt that several other friends of the Christian faith too had been praying on similar lines after hearing of what was to be expected if Lasantha survived. It was the night of Gethsemane again as we prayed that the cup should depart if it was indeed God’s will. After battling for life for over four hours Lasantha Manilal Wickrematunge passed away on 8 January 2009.
“When Kilinochchi falls they will kill me”
It is hard to believe that 10 years have passed since Lasantha passed away. To his family and his friends, comrades, colleagues and protégés of the Fourth Estate, Lasantha has not passed away. A recurrent feature of my conversations with such friends and fellow comrades of the journalistic fraternity is some amusing, wistful or complimentary reference to him. Anecdotes are repeated. He lives forever in our thoughts and our hearts.
Lasantha’s 10th death anniversary comes in the wake of 10th anniversaries of the military victories against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Paranthan, Kilinochchi and Elephant Pass. In a sense those victories and his death are linked.
I recall a conversation with him in October 2008 where we were discussing the military situation of that time when Kilinochchi was the prime target. Quoting a Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP of that time enjoying close relations with the Tigers, Lasantha said: “Kilinochchi will never fall.” I replied saying it may not fall directly to the military but could certainly be abandoned by the LTTE if the Army captured Paranthan. I pointed out that if Paranthan was taken by the Army, then the LTTE could not hold on to Kilinochchi to the south of Paranthan as well as Elephant Pass to the north of Paranthan. “The Tigers will fall back from Kilinochchi if Paranthan falls,” I said then. I had also written of that possibility in those days.
Lasantha thought a while and agreed. He then said: “Machang, when Kilinochchi falls, they will kill me.” He explained that the impact and consequences of killing him would be lessened in the war victory euphoria over Kilinochchi. I was not in touch with him in December 2008 when he got married to Sonali Samarasinghe or during the first week of January 2009.But I did think of what Lassie Boy said when Paranthan fell on 31 December 2008.
The LTTE withdrew from Kilinochchi and Elephant pass as I expected. The Army took Kilinochchi on 2 January 2009 and Elephant Pass on 6 January 2009. News of Elephant Pass being retaken was not announced on 7 January. Instead it was announced on 8 January to coincide with the assassination of Lasantha. It appears that Lassie Boy was right on that.
Lasantha Wickrematunge was brutally assassinated in broad daylight on a public road by cowardly minions for courageously speaking truth to power. Refusing to be silenced by the powers that be, the fearless Editor of The Sunday Leader fought valiantly against overwhelming odds to expose corruption, nepotism, mis-governance, racism and militaristic triumphalism. The motto of The Sunday Leader was ‘Unbowed and Unafraid’. Lasantha personified the motto in every way and remained to the very end unbowed and unafraid.
He was one of the bravest human beings I have ever known. Lasantha was a fearless scribe, crusading for justice and peace. An irredeemable loss for journalism and Sri Lanka. Cry, beloved country!
A huge personal loss
His death has been a huge, personal loss to me! He and I were colleagues at The Island in the eighties of the last century. We were also residents of Kotahena then. Later I was for many years a columnist at The Sunday Leader, which he edited. But Lassie Boy was a friend in every sense of the word. It was indeed my privilege and good fortune to be closely associated with him for many years. Apart from a brief period of estrangement our friendship endured the trials of time. How I miss him!
I used to call him “Lassie Boy” because there were two guys with the name Lasantha at The Island Editorial those days. To differentiate, I shortened his name to “Lassie” which amused many colleagues. He objected vehemently saying “Lassie” was a girlish name. To his utter chagrin I compromised by adding “Boy’ after Lassie to emphasise his masculinity. “Lassie Boy” it was forever.
Professionally, my relationship with him has been of four phases. The first was our working together at The Island; the second was when he started The Sunday Leader and I wrote for the paper from Canada. Since I was editing my own Tamil weekly at that time I couldn’t continue for long. But it was illustrative of Lasantha’s innovative outlook and confidence in me that he thought I could write a regular column on Sri Lankan politics from Canada for a Sri Lankan newspaper.
The third phase was when I began functioning in 1997 as the ‘Roving Correspondent’ of The Sunday Leader, writing the ‘Searchlight’ column. The fourth phase was in 1999 when I started writing under my own byline for his paper. This went on till September 2007. The important point in writing for “Editor” Wickrematunge was the absolute freedom he allowed his columnist. He has never blue-pencilled me. Except for rare requests he has never asked me what I was going to write upon.
What endeared him to me most was his utter lack of racist consciousness. Lasantha was one who had no racist or chauvinist thinking in his psyche. He was fully aware of the problems faced by the minority ethnicities in Lanka. He had particular empathy for the Tamil predicament. This worldview and mindset was reflected in his journalism and the general editorial thrust of his paper. The newspaper was boldly critical of majoritarian hegemony and strongly supportive of the legitimate aspirations of the Tamil people.
A little-known fact about Lasantha is that he was a good cricketer like his brother Lal. Lasantha played for the under 16 at St. Benedict’s College, Kotahena and shone. Unlike elder brother Lal who was a pacey, Lasantha was a left arm leg spinner. But he went off to Britain when he was 16. Thus he could not continue his cricket. I used to tease him frequently that he was now bowling his “googlies” and “dhoosras” in journalism.
Lasantha Wickrematunge was not unaware of the dangers he faced. He had encountered innumerable problems in the past. After Richard de Zoysa was killed by former President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s henchmen, Lasantha was among the journalists whose lives were threatened. He went to Australia where he stayed for some time. He returned after a while and in 1994 co-founded The Sunday Leader.
The newspaper under Lasantha’s unprecedented editorial drive and direction charted out a new course in Sri Lankan journalism. He pulled no punches in a zealous quest to cleanse the Augean stables. Lasantha was no Hercules. Yet he went about his task with indomitable courage. Like Prometheus he defied the “gods” (of the political realm).
For a decade-and-a-half the popular Sunday paper pitched into the powers that be. In the finest embodiment of journalistic values, Lasantha Wickrematunge and his Sunday Leader spoke truth to power. In the process he did not merely ruffle feathers but stripped the “birdies” bald. From Chandrika Kumaratunga to Mahinda Rajapaksa, the highest in the land were all targets of his journalistic archery. He was a virtual one-man opposition. Under his editorial leadership his staffers and colleagues worked together as a dedicated team for the common good of this country by upholding liberal democratic values.
In the process he underwent much hardship and danger. Thugs assaulted him in the presence of his first wife Raine; machine gun fire was sprayed at his house. The paper was sealed under emergency regulations; numerous Court cases were filed; a blatant attempt to arrest him was made; he was the target of hate mail, abusive calls and death threats; arson attacks were launched against the printing press; he and his loved ones were targets of vulgar attacks in sections of the media. Still he battled on, unbowed and unafraid.
He was uncommonly brave or foolhardy depending upon how one looks at it. The fact that he never had bodyguards or sought protection was illustrative of his defiant spirit. Except on rare “official” occasions he drove his own car. Each day he would walk 45 minutes for exercise along the road, sticking to the same routine. Even on that fateful morning he opted to go out alone regardless of consequences.
I was always concerned about the danger to his life and would caution him. I am sure many others would have done so too. But he would flippantly dismiss them. “Machang,” he would joke, “there are two things where you gotta go when you have to go. One is the toilet and the other is the grave.”
There was also another source of inner strength for this courage. Very few know about the “spiritual” side of Lasantha. Most people think of him as a hard-headed, cynically rational person. But there was a metaphysical aspect to him. I was surprised when he told me face to face in Canada, “Don’t worry machang. Nothing will happen to me because there is a divine power watching over me. That’s my protection.” I first though he was joking but later realised he was very serious. This was due to a spiritual experience.
Lasantha on one of his trips to Canada underwent a spiritual experience. Thereafter he, like Saul being transformed into Paul on the road to Damascus, was changed. He even introduced me to his Pastor Rev. Angelo once. This spiritual experience steeped him in faith and provided strength and solace to him.
His killers may think that the gun has silenced the pen, but as a fellow scribe and friend I want to remind his killers that the last word about his death has not been written yet. There will come a time when justice would be meted out to his killers, both the arrow and the archer. Until then, we who loved and admired Lasantha shall not forget or rest
Lasantha fully realised the dangers he faced. He could have gone abroad to save his life. He was a lawyer and could have simply donned the black coat and built up a lucrative practice; he could have capitulated and compromised his journalistic integrity; he could have allowed himself to be bought over by or co-opted into the power structure. These he did not do and instead opted to go along the straight but narrow, difficult path. Finally the end came in a gruesome fashion. In the Sri Lanka of old the barbarians were at the gates. Now they were inside the gates occupying positions of power.
Lasantha lived for only 50 years and eight months on this planet. Yet, he achieved many, many things in that short life-span. He changed singlehandedly the state of journalism in this country. Lassie was controversial in death as in life. His ‘Editorial from the grave’ made waves around the world of journalism and human rights activism.
If there is justice for Lasantha, there could be justice for all
Lasantha Wickrematunge’s murder was not the only act of injustice that was perpetrated during the presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Lasantha paid the supreme price but he was not the only victim from the Fourth Estate fraternity. Prageeth Eknaligoda was made to disappear; Poddala Jayantha was white-vanned and assaulted; Keith Noyahr was abducted and tortured; Upali Tennekoon and his wife were attacked; and the plight of Tamil media personnel has been terrible. Several journalists have been reportedly killed in the past. Although a large number of journalists have been killed, made to disappear, assaulted and tortured in the past, the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge has received the greatest attention on a national and international scale.
The main reason for this is that Lasantha Wickrematunge was the most high-profile journalist or Editor to be killed in Sri Lanka. He was a fearless Editor who spoke truth to power and by doing so irked the powers that be. The brutal cold-blooded mode of his murder and the means adopted by the Rajapaksa regime to stifle and obstruct investigations indicated very clearly that Lasantha could not have been murdered without the sanction of those in power at that time. Hence the assassination of Lasantha Wickrematunge is regarded as an emblematic case symbolising the state of impunity in Sri Lanka. If there is justice for Lasantha, then there could be justice for all. If there is no justice for Lasantha, then there can’t be justice for the others either.
Therefore the tardy ‘progress’ made by the current Government in prosecuting those allegedly responsible for killing Lasantha Wickrematunge has been most disappointing and disheartening. The lack of an indictment in courts so far has in a way been an indictment of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe regime in the court of public opinion. In the aftermath of the political crisis which enveloped the country on 26 October last year, it remains highly unlikely that the perpetrators of this ghastly crime would be brought to book in the near future.
His killers may think that the gun has silenced the pen, but as a fellow scribe and friend I want to remind his killers that the last word about his death has not been written yet. There will come a time when justice would be meted out to his killers, both the arrow and the archer. Until then, we who loved and admired Lasantha shall not forget or rest.
(D.B.S. Jeyaraj can be reached at [email protected].)