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Lasantha Wickrematunga: Remembering “Lassieboy” on the Fourth Anniversary of his Death

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by
D.B.S. Jeyaraj

It was on January 8th 2009 that Lasantha Wickrematunga the Editor of “The Sunday Leader” in Colombo was killed by “unknown” assassins. He was my colleague, editor, friend and above all a kindred soul.

How I miss him!

There is big vacuum in the media scene after his departure.

Four years have passed but there has been no progress whatsoever in the investigations into the brutal murder. This was to be expected as those responsible are ensconced in the seat of power. Lassie Boy as I called him was one who spoke truth fearlessly to power

The powers that be waited for the right opportunity and got him killed. Thereafter they engaged in a massive cover –up exercise that is still going on.Statements are made from time to time about continuing investigations.

We of the fourth estate are not strangers to this verbal hypocrisy and can only take these assertions not with the proverbial pinch but a fistful of salt

We do not have illusions. Notwithstanding whatever promised or pledged the media will not get anything delivered on a platter

We have to struggle and fight for our rights.

We have to face fearful odds in striving to unravel the truth behind various assaults on the media including the dastardly assassination of Lasantha.

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 “Lassie Boy” shall not rest.

This is not a challenge, threat or boast but a simple statement of fact.

On the fourth anniversary of his death I am re-producing the article I wrote about him for “Daily Mirror” in Colombo immediately after his death.

It is mainly a personal account that provides some insight into Lasantha. I have edited it slightly and made a few changes.

Lasantha:The Courageous Editor who Fearlessly spoke Truth to Power

by
D.B.S. Jeyaraj

Lasantha Manilal Wickrematunge was brutally assassinated in broad daylight on a public road. He was murdered on January 8 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.

Fateful Morning

On that fateful morning, a domestic aide had detected signs of potential danger. Some unknown men on motor cycles 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 some friends on his mobile phone and told them of the suspicious activity of the “motor cyclemen”.

Lasantha’s car was on Attidiya rd 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.

Four Motor Cycles

According to some eye-witness accounts there were four motor cycles in all. Two had cut across in front of the car blocking Lasantha and forcing him to brake suddenly. Two other motor cycles 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 simple 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. Cry, the beloved Country!!

Personal Loss

His death is a huge, personal loss to me.

He and I were colleagues on “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” as I called him was a friend in every sense of the word. How I shall miss him!

Needless to say, Lasantha was a controversial-larger than life-character whose journalism evoked various reactions in various people. Some loved him, some hated him; Some admired him while others condemned him.

But the real Lasantha Wickrematunge was totally different to the “image” many had of him due to negative perceptions. He was friendly and easy to get along with. What I want to do in this column is to portray the lesser known side of Lasantha. Something close and personal.

Lassie Boy

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.

This temporary break came in 2007 when I broke ranks from “The Sunday Leader” and switched to “The Nation”. This rift on a personal level lasted only a few months.

He extended his hand of friendship and I grasped it firmly. Once again we were buddies! I am glad and grateful that we reconciled as his loss would have been even more unbearable had there not been rapprochement.

I used to call him “Lassie Boy”. This was 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. Some others too followed suit.

Teetotaller Rarity

Lasantha Wickrematunge joined “The Island” in 1982 shortly after the Presidential elections in October. He had cut his journalistic teeth on the now defunct “Sun,” but joined “The Island” because he was given a very raw deal there.

When the presidential elections got underway, Lasantha was assigned to cover Hector Kobbekaduwe’s electoral campaign. This he did with gusto and passion thereby incurring the wrath of “Ward place” circles. There was much pressure and the management caved in. Hence, the crossover.

Our friendship began and grew while working as reporters on “The Island”. For some reason he took a liking to both Ajit Samaranayake and myself. Both of us were four years elder to him but we got on famously .We were not his mentors. He needed none.

Unlike both of us, Lasantha was a teetotaller , a rarity those days among scribes. Still that did not prevent his joining us sometimes when we quenched our thirst in waterholes. He would sip a soft drink while we imbibed the hard stuff, chatting away.

But Lasantha and I got even closer as we were reporters which Ajit was not. Also we were residents of Kotahena. I had moved from Wellawatte to Galpotha roadin Kotahena to be within walking distance of Upali newspapers at Bloemendhall road. He was a native of Wasala road.

This enabled us to interact more closely. We were young and bachelors then. More importantly Lasantha had a car of his own. Thus we travelled about in his vehicle to many places and events having fun. I was also a frequent visitor to his home.

All-Party Conference

Among the pleasant memories of “The Island” experience was the time when the All-party conference was held in 1984. Both of us were assigned to cover it.

Unlike some scribes who depended only on the press conferences and press releases to write their news stories we delved deep into our sources about what really transpired in the conclave. Our editor at that time Vijitha Yapa who was himself bold and unconventional, encouraged our approach.

We pooled our resources and because of our friendship combined to write our stories. Our coverage was the best and the official spokesperson Lalith Athulathmudali would laughingly tell us at the APC press conference “You people don’t need me”.

Abiding Interest

He revealed to me then his abiding interest in politics. We were alike in that respect but unlike me he wanted to be an active politician. This was due to his family background.

Lasantha’s father, Haris Wickrematunge had been a municipal councillor for three decades. He was at one time deputy mayor of Colombo. Uncle Haris had also contested Colombo North as an independent and lost in 1970.

Lasantha also wanted to engage in politics. Uncle Haris had crossed over from the UNP to SLFP with AHM Fowzie and others. This and the bitter experience he suffered at the hands of JR and cronies propelled Lasantha into the SLFP. He was also assigned to cover that party for the paper thus developing his SLFP links further.

It was this which made him contest the 1989 Parliamentary polls in the Colombo district. He didn’t make it then. Later he worked as private secretary to the then opposition leader Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike.

In retrospect, I am glad that he couldn’t shine in active politics. Otherwise he would not have had his “avatar” as Sunday Leader Editor. He grew into his role as editor and was really conscious of the historic role he was playing.

There was a time when he wanted to be a cabinet minister in a future UNP government. But when the prospect loomed large on the political horizon, Lasantha opted to remain as a journalist and editor rather than be a politico-minister. This was because he had become very fond and devoted to his editorial role. Despite the dangers he preferred that to full time law or politics.

Lasantha 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.

The Sunday Leader

He went to Australia where he stayed for a while. 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” (with clay feet)

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.

One-man Opposition

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 wife; machine gun fire was sprayed at his house. The paper was sealed under emergency regulations; numerous court cases were filed; the press was burnt down.a blatant attempt to arrest him was made, he was the target of hatemail, abusive calls and death threats. He and his loved ones were targets of vulgar attacks in sections of the media. Still he battled on, unbowed and unafraid.

Finally the end came in a gruesome fashion. In the Sri Lanka of old the barbarians were at the gates. Now they are inside the gates occupying positions of power. 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; 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 and instead opted to go along the straight but narrow path.

Uncommonly Brave

He was uncommonly brave or foolhardy depending upon how one looks at it. The fact that he never had bodyguards or sought protection is illustrative of his defiant spirit. Except on rare “official” occasions he always drove his own car.

Each day he would walk 45 minutes for exercise, along the same road sticking to the same routine. Even on the 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, “Dont 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 he underwent.

Spiritual Experience

Lasantha’s parents and all three sisters and families reside in Canada. One of his sisters had a “problem” of sorts, which was resolved through the prayers of an evangelical Christian mission. This made other members of the family to embrace the faith.

Lasantha himself 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 Angelo once. This spiritual experience steeped him in faith and provided strength and solace to him.

Lasantha used to visit Canada every year during late spring to see his sisters and parents. This gave me annual opportunities to meet him in person and have heart to heart conversations. He would also call me when he was abroad in other countries. We would then engage in prolonged conversations without fear of telephones being tapped

Four Phases

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 bluepencilled me. Except for rare requests he has never asked me what I was going to write upon.

There have been only two occasions during an eight year stint that he asked me not to write on two matters. One was about a Tamil politician and the other a Sinhala Army general.

Particular Empathy

What endeared him to me most was his utter lack of racist consciousness. In this he was influenced by his father and Kotahena upbringing. The ward contested by Uncle Haris is multi-ethnic. So too is Colombo north.

This resulted in Haris Wickrematunge having very good rapport with the Tamil, Muslim and Burgher communities in the area This rubbed off on Lasantha too I guess. Besides the cosmopolitian St. Benedicts College environment also was conducive.

As a result 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.

This policy was not hypocritical based on attracting sales. It came from the heart. This naturally made him and the paper popular with readers from the minority communities who recognized a kindred soul.

On the other hand racist and chauvinist elements among the majority community resented this. They hated Lasantha vehemently.

Unlike many who pursued military solutions to political problems while paying lip service to the concept of a political settlement, Lasantha genuinely believed that there was no military solution to the Tamil national question. He boldly took on those militaristic proponents thereby incurring their anger and hatred.

I remember his telling me in October 2008 that “they” would target him if and when Kilinochchi and/or Elephant pass fell. As he had stated Lasantha was assassinated within days of the fall of Kilinochchi and Elephant pass.

Investigative Skills

Another facet to his journalism was his investigative skills. I am not underestimating the talents and efforts of his staffers but it was common knowledge that the pivotal force in all exposures done by the paper was Lasantha himself.

In the days of old, newspapers worked on an investigation for weeks, One good investigative feature uncovering a corruption or mismanagement came only once a month or twice. But the “Sunday Leader” broke new ground with its investigative articles.
It was not merely one per week but a case of three or four in a single issue. From a journalistic perspective this was indeed fantastic.

A little-known fact about Lasantha is that he was a good cricketer like his brother Lal. Lasantha played for the under 16 at SBC and shone.

Unlike Lal who was a pacey Lasantha was a left arm leg spinner. But he went off to Britain when he was sixteen. Thus he could not continue his cricket.

I used to tease him frequently that he was now bowling his “googlies” and “dhoosras” in Journalism.

Dont Cry For Me

Lasantha was born on April 5th 1958. He had lived for only fifty years and eight months on this planet. Yet, he achieved many, many things in that short life-span. He changed single-handedly the state of journalism in this country. His name will be remembered when the history of journalism in Sri Lanka is written.

One of Lasantha’s favourite songs was “Dont Cry for me Argentina”.from the musical “Evita” by Andrew Lloyd-Webber. This was before Madonna singing in the movie “Evita” in 1997.

He would often bawl out the line “Don’t cry for me Argentina” in a not so musical voice.

After his demise old memories come back and that line echoes again and again.

I can hear Lasantha singing out there “Dont cry for me Argentina…..but Argentina is now replaced by Sri Lanka.

Farewell Lassie Boy, I salute you my friend , I salute you, Lasantha!

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