Groundviews

Voting for Lasantha Again, 26 Years Later

Photo courtesy CNN

A quarter century ago, as an eager first time voter, I cast my maiden vote for a young journalist friend who had recently taken to electoral politics. Lasantha Wickrematunge was contesting in the Colombo District from the main opposition party, SLFP, at the General Election of 15 Feb 1989.

It was the first general election in Sri Lanka in a dozen years. And it was being held in conditions far from ideal. A fully-fledged youth insurrection was raging in Sri Lanka’s south, with its instigator JVP threatening to kill anyone who dared to vote. The Indian Peace-keeping Force (IPKF) was taking on the Tamil Tigers in the north (not too successfully).

Machan, mata support ekak ona (buddy, I need your support),” Lasantha had grinningly told me when we met socially during the campaign. I had already decided to vote in favour of his party, and was trying to decide which of its candidates should receive my three preferential votes. Lasantha urged me to give it only to him (for some strategic calculation I have long forgotten). I happily obliged.

Voter turnout was low by Lankan standards (63% of registered voters). The ruling UNP won it with 50.7% of votes and 125 seats in Parliament. SLFP came second with 67 Members of Parliament, 6 of who were from Colombo. Lasantha was not among them.

That initial setback didn’t deter Lasantha. After a few more years in active party politics, he moved into full time journalism again in mid 1994 by founding The Sunday Leader. With his brother as publisher and himself as Chief Editor, Lasantha soon turned the newspaper into a force to reckon with.

Not everyone liked his aggressive style of journalism, and some completely hated his guts. Despite regular vilification, government sealing of his office and being shot at more than once, he kept making ripples for 15 years. In that entire time, no one could successfully sue the newspaper for defamation or damages.

Lasantha’s career ended abruptly on 8 January 2009 when he was brutally murdered in broad daylight, on a busy street in a high security area. The four killers got away. The dastardly act shocked the Lankan nation and was condemned worldwide.

Lankan authorities initiated a criminal investigation which, unsurprisingly, didn’t go very far. Six years on, no one has been convicted.

Tragically, Lasantha was not the first or last journalist to be killed for a holding a dissenting viewpoint or for doing courageous acts of journalism. In the past few years, in particular, Sri Lanka has ranked among the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists.

I don’t believe that the government realized it until too late that the Presidential Election 2015 was scheduled for the exact 6th death anniversary of Lasantha – a day of infamy and a reminder of monumental failure of rule of law and media freedom in Sri Lanka.

With the incumbent president obsessed with superstition, the election date was fixed on astrological advice. January 8th was said to be rather ‘auspicious’ for him. We shall soon know…

Evidently, the palace astrologers didn’t do their job well enough: they simply missed the political-quake on 21 November 2014, when Maithripala Sirisena emerged as the newly united opposition’s common candidate.

As I type this, the ending of this saga – organised around the social media hashtag #PresPollSL — is being collectively written by millions little men and women who walk into thousands little polling booths spanning across the island to mark a little cross on a little piece of paper using a little pencil (actually, a pen this time).

I was one of them. I went to vote early and was done by 7.30 in the morning. At least in my neighbourhood, in suburban Colombo, voting was peaceful and orderly. As I tweeted shortly afterwards, it was a perfect way to start the day. I can only hope that 15 million other Lankans eligible to vote today have equally pleasant experiences exercising their democratic right.

Yes, I voted advisedly, but my secret ballot must remain so. Within a day or two, I shall know whether I have voted for a winning presidential candidate for only the second time in my life. More often than not, I have used my vote as a protest.

For the past few days, I have had a recurrent thought: what would Lasantha have made of all this political intrigue? He would have been in the thick of everything and got a huge kick out of it all.

In the unprecedented cacophony on mainstream and social media around #PresPollSL 2015, we miss him — for all the right reasons.

So I did the only thing that a little man could do. A quarter century on, I just voted for Lasantha Wickrematunge once again.

Nalaka Gunawardene is an indefatigable day-dreamer who tweets at @NalakaG and sometimes blogs at http://nalakagunawardene.com/