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Unbowed and Unafraid, Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge Spoke Truth to Power

By
D.B.S.Jeyaraj

Twelve years ago on 8 January 2009, Lasantha Manilal Wickrematunge, 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 a huge vacuum in the media scene after his departure. It is yet to be filled adequately. I doubt that it will ever be filled.

A dozen years have passed since his demise but his killers are yet to be brought to justice. This is to be expected in a land where those suspected of being responsible for his murder strut about pompously in the corridors of power. Lasantha Wickrematunge was one who spoke truth fearlessly to power regardless of who was ensconced in the seat of power. Hence there was no real or genuine progress or interest shown by those in bringing to book the perpetrators of the crime.

It was during the presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa that Lasantha was assassinated. The years passed and there was no effective breakthrough in the investigations. Everyone knew why. Then came the ‘Yahapalanaya’ Government of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. That Government had derived much political mileage in its election campaign by promising justice for Lasantha. It so happened that the 2015 Presidential Election itself was held on 8 January, the day of Lasantha’s death.

The coincidence made some of us feel optimistic about prospects of poetic justice. Alas! That was not to be. A team of dedicated sleuths did engage in a serious probe and it was widely reported then that investigations had reached a point where a comprehensive indictment was imminent. But there was no political will to prosecute. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government dithered and ultimately withered away ending “unwept and unsung”.

The second phase of Rajapaksa rule spearheaded by Gotabaya Rajapaksa was ushered in over a year ago. Few expected miracles to happen vis-à-vis the Wickrematunge assassination case. What happened however was unbelievably terrible. The sleuths probing the Lasantha killing and other media related offences were replaced. Many were transferred or demoted. Some were penalised. At least one officer fled the country with family. On the other hand persons implicated as suspects were cleared and even promoted.

We Have No Illusions Yet We Live In Hope

Under these circumstances there is little chance of any justice for Lasantha in the current context. We have no illusions yet we live in hope. The ‘audacity of hope’ to borrow Barack Obama’s phrase is all that we have. Let me reiterate therefore what I have been saying in the past and will continue to say so in the days to come also.

“Lasantha’s killers may think that the gun has silenced the pen but as a fellow scribe and friend I want to remind those responsible 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 – the archers and the arrows. Until then, we who loved and admired Lasantha, will wait in hope. This is not a challenge, threat or boast but a simple statement of fact.”

Lasantha Wickrematunge

A few days after Lasantha Wickrematunge was killed on 8 January 2009, I wrote an article about him in the ‘Daily Mirror’. Passages from it were reproduced in subsequent articles about Lasantha. I wish to share a modified version of the original article with readers on the occasion of his 12th death anniversary. After editing out the portions relating to his killing, this modified version becomes mainly a personal account providing some insight into Lasantha.

“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.

The Lasantha Wickrematunge I Knew

Lasantha Wickrematunge 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.

Lasantha Manilal Wickrematunge (5 April 1958 – 8 January 2009)

It was indeed my privilege and good fortune to be closely associated with him for many years. I used to call him “Lassie Boy”. This was because there were two guys with the name Lasantha at The Island Editorial in 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.

Lasantha Wickrematunge joined The Island in 1982 shortly after the Presidential Elections in October. He had cut his journalistic teeth on the now defunct The Sun, but later crossed over to The Island, edited then by Vijitha Yapa. 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 Road in 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.

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 together 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.”

Lasantha 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, Harris Wickrematunge, had been a Municipal Councillor for three decades. He was at one time Deputy Mayor of Colombo. Uncle Harris had also contested Colombo North as an independent and lost in 1970.

Therefore Lasantha also wanted to engage in politics. Uncle Harris had crossed over from the UNP to SLFP with A.H.M. Fowzie and others. This and the bitter experience he suffered at the hands of some JR cronies while working for The Sun propelled Lasantha into the SLFP in those days. He was also assigned to cover that party for the paper thus developing his SLFP links further at that time.

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 Sirimavo Bandaranaike. In retrospect, I am glad that he couldn’t shine in active politics. Otherwise he would not have had his “avatar” as The 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 of and devoted to his editorial role. Despite the dangers he preferred that to full time law or politics.

Lasantha Fully Realised The Dangers He Faced

Lasantha was not unaware of the dangers he faced. He had encountered innumerable problems in the past. After Richard de Zoysa was killed during the time of President Ranasinghe Premadasa, 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” (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.

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 hate mail, 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.

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. 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.

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 too. 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 he underwent.

Lasantha’s parents and all three sisters and their 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 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 spiritual guide 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/early summer to see his sisters and parents. This gave me annual opportunities to meet him in person and have heart-to-heart chats. 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.

My Professional Relationship With Lasantha

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 the ‘Cross Currents’ column 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 on rare occasions he has never asked me what I was going to write upon. There were only two occasions during an eight-year stint with Lasantha where he requested me not to write on a topic. One was about a Tamil politician and the other a Sinhala Army General. Even then he explained his reasons and left the decision to me. I obliged him then.

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 Harris is multi-ethnic. So too is the Colombo north electorate. This resulted in Harris 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 cosmopolitan St. Benedict’s College environment was also 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 recognised a kindred spirit. On the other hand, racist and chauvinist elements among the majority community resented this. They hated Lasantha vehemently.

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 most exposures done by the paper was Lasantha himself. In the days of old, newspapers worked on an investigation for weeks with one good investigative feature uncovering corruption or mismanagement coming only once or twice a month. 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 Lalraj Wickrematunge. Lasantha played for the under 16 at SBC and shone. Unlike Lal who was a pacey (In 1968 STC was bowled out for 41 with Lal getting 6 wickets for 7 runs), 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.

One of Lasantha’s favourite songs was ‘Don’t 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, “Don’t cry for me Argentina…” but sadly Argentina is now replaced by Sri Lanka.

Lasantha was born on 5 April 1958. He had lived for only 50 years and nine months on this planet. Yet, he achieved many, many things in that short lifespan. 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 truthfully.

DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at dbsjeyaraj@yahoo.com

This article written for the “Political Pulse” Column appears in the “Daily FT” of January 6th 2021. It can be accessed here:

http://www.ft.lk/columns/Unbowed-and-unafraid-Lasantha-spoke-truth-to-power/4-711215