Colombo, Media and Communications, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance


“…The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity…

…And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

WB Yeats, ‘The Second Coming’

I have a particular problem with the murder of journalists, especially editors of newspapers. The Editor’s Guild and Publishers Society of Sri Lanka annually host an awards ceremony at which the final presentation of the evening, the pinnacle prize (distinguished by a different hue from the others), is for Journalist of the Year. That award is named after my father, Mervyn de Silva. It was not donated by me or any member of his family. It was instituted by the premier organizations of the profession to which he dedicated his life. Lasantha Wickrematunge was an Editor of a mainstream English language newspaper. He was thus a member of that tribe of which my father was a renowned elder.

I do not know who killed him, but I must disclose that I do know something about his killers and those who ordered the killing. They were cowardly barbarians. They were cowards because they killed an unarmed man, and anyone who intentionally kills an unarmed man or woman is a coward. They were barbarians because they expressed their disagreement with what Lasantha wrote and did, not by opposing his ideas with the same weapons of words, but by butchering him. That conduct places one outside the borders of humanity and universal values of civilization.

There are those who may think that these are values that cannot be upheld in times of war, especially a war against terrorism. That is nonsense. One of the finest acts of humane, civilized conduct I am aware of was by one of the bravest, most daring soldiers we have amongst us, General Gamini Hettiaarachchi, iconic head of the Special Forces, highly respected by the US Green Beret trainers based at Fort Bragg, and mentor of generations of Sri Lankan Special Forces operators, including the legendary “long rangers”. His brother, a planter, was decapitated by the JVP, but when he apprehended JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera at gunpoint, he did not even deal the latter a blow, and ensured the safety of Wijeweera’s family.

Let’s say it straight out. Lasantha’s paper was, in stridency of tone, a tabloid masquerading as a broadsheet. More controversially, he and his paper were not merely soft on the LTTE but were arguably pro-LTTE. None of that justifies his murder. Lasantha did not kill anyone. He did not even carry a weapon. If his paper was objectionable, it should not have been read. Perhaps it should have been boycotted. If his writing was distorted as indeed it often was, it should have been subject to withering criticism in writing. If he had dubious connections and was engaging in political conspiracy he should have been exposed. If he was acting subversively he should have been taken into custody and prosecuted in accordance with our tough anti-terrorist laws. Nothing he said or did warranted his murder, nor can be used to justify it.

It is simply illogical to suspect that the President and the Secy. Defense were guilty of or responsible for Lasantha’s murder. A local writer on a website had likened the killing to that of Benigno Aquino and had made reference to Marcos, with the clear implication as to who was playing Marcos. This is plain stupid. Marcos was a highly unpopular President and Aquino was a well known politician returning from exile with a good chance of replacing him. Lasantha wasn’t running for office and the incumbent President is hugely popular. Lasantha posed no threat to him. As for exposes of financial turpitude, Lasantha’s English language and therefore limited circulation newspaper had little effect. Another writer had opined on how perfect the timing of the killing was, oblivious to the irony that the factor of timing works precisely against the hypothesis of high level governmental guilt. On the one hand, the wave of military successes and the prospect of electoral triumph rendered utterly needless any violent measures against domestic dissenters and critics while on the other hand, the murder could only dull the glow of the President’s success and work to his discredit.

I am not making some special excuse for President Rajapakse. At the time of Richard de Zoysa’s murder I knew that President Premadasa had nothing to do with it and was appalled by it – though I did come to know that he permitted (but did not initiate) the cover up by the state apparatus and powerful elements in the governing party, some of whom are now at the helm of that party. Though a critic, I never thought that President Kumaratunga had anything to do with the murders of Tamil youth strangled with plastic handcuffs, floating in the Diyawanna Oya girdling the Parliament or with the murder of Kumar Ponnambalam shortly after he criticized her and the Government on TV in the Sinhala language, or with the lethal grenade attack on the Shah Rukh Khan show or with the murder of columnist “Taraki” Sivaram. All of these took place on her watch, while she was Commander-in-Chief, and yet I do not think she was guilty or responsible in any direct sense, anymore than Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake was responsible for the fatal dive that Dodampe Mudalali took from the Fourth Floor of the CID building in the Fort while being questioned on an alleged plot against the UNP Government of the day.

What we must remember however, is that in all these cases – Dodampe mudalali, Richard, the Diyawanna victims, Kumar Ponnambalam, the grenade attack and Sivaram—no one was convicted. The trail ran cold or the traces were kicked over, the perpetrators got off. In each of these cases, somebody decided that the intended victim was a subversive or a traitor and deserved death, and then took it upon themselves to function as or deploy others as executioner. Others, either agreeing with the logic or feeling a far closer affinity to the killers than the victims, covered up and convinced still others to go along with the cover up, irrespective of the damage to the system and the health of the body politic. This is the logic of the Ku Klux Klan, of vigilantes, Death Squads. It is a fanatical, fundamentalist, totalitarian logic; a fascist logic. Who will be the next victim?

Almost as abhorrent ethically as the murder of Lasantha, is the justification of that atrocious crime. There are emails flying around including one that urges that it be “propagated worldwide”, especially to the media, by all Sri Lankan diplomats, which is how I got it, courtesy of a horrified friend. The most unobjectionable part of it is the point that Lasantha’s posthumous editorial was not by him at all but by colleagues, and written post facto. So what? I had assumed that as I read it – and that is a perfectly acceptable journalistic device and literary conceit. The editorialist/s had been deliberately ambiguous about it. The e-mailer then goes onto comment on the quality of the English language prose of Lasantha and Sonali Samarasinghe, a comment which might have had greater credibility if the emailed exegetical critique itself had not left a great deal to be desired in its command of the English language. Worst of all is the justification of the murder – a justification that mixes in the viciously and speculatively personal, the religious and the racial. What is ironic is that the author and distributors thought that every Sri Lankan diplomat would somehow find this garbage either convincing or helpful. What they do not realize is that however badly the LTTE is defeated on the battlefield, all that is necessary for the cause of Tamil Eelam to be recognized by the international community and carved out a la Kosovo by international intervention, is for free tickets to be given to and appointments made for a racist or “patriotic” vigilante organization to spout these views before legislatures throughout the world. Already the anti-conversion legislation which a small party wishes to bring forward in February, poses the danger that if passed, it will put us on a collision course with the Obama administration and the Democrat dominated Congress – the most popular and powerful administration and the most influential legislature on the planet.

The killing of Lasantha is a blow against the image of Sri Lanka and provides a weapon for the pro-Tiger Tamil Diaspora as it tries its utmost to forestall our final victory. Their question is being raised with some credibility: if this is how ethnic Sinhalese editors of English language newspapers are treated in Colombo, how much worse will the Tamils be treated by the victorious Sinhalese?

Prabhakaran has done our country more damage than we realize. Thirty years of war has caused an atrophy of almost all institutions and the hypertrophy of some. He has also caused a degree of mirroring of the conduct of his instrument. But not all the evil within our society and system can be blamed on Prabhakaran. During the liberal UNP administration of Dudley Senanayake we spent one thousand days under Emergency rule. The political atmosphere was such that the JVP armed itself in the late ‘60s against what it feared was an imminent rightwing authoritarian takeover by the JR Jayewardene-Esmond Wickremesinghe wing of the UNP. Six years of the seven year rule of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike were spent under Emergency, and “tyre pyres” appeared in April-May 1971, as did thousands of bodies of youths with the their hands tied behind their backs, floating down the rivers. Lt. Alfred Wijesooriya, convicted of the rape and murder of Premawathie Manamperi the Kataragama beauty queen, was the only one who didn’t get away. Governments change but organizations and structures, systems and sub-systems, apparatuses and machines, learn modes of behavior which then begin to inhere unless consciously inoculated or programmed against.

If there are those who think that people should be killed because of what they express and then go onto to actually order the killing; if our institutions cannot apprehend and punish the killers and therefore they enjoy impunity; if there are those who actually justify the murder of an unarmed man however bad or wrong his views; then something very nasty and dangerous is happening to us. What kind of society is emerging? What would we have lost while engaging in the necessary war against the separatist terrorist enemy?

I find the critical commentary on the murder of Lasantha to be unhelpful because, as in the case of Richard’s killing, the tendency is to make cheap political points by pointing the finger at the national leadership. Misdiagnosis helps no one: when there is a malignancy encysted in the entrails, it does no one good to shriek about a nonexistent tumor in the brain of the body politic.

The upper middle class of Colombo have isolated themselves by not supporting the war effort, and therefore allowing itself to be seen or portrayed as unpatriotic. The contrast with Mumbai could not be starker. While the young professionals in the corporate sector in Sri Lanka belong to the so-called peace lobby, in Mumbai they were out demonstrating against the government’s ineffectual response to the terrorist attacks. While they wanted a full-on response to terrorism they were careful not to sound even the slightest anti-Muslim note. Similarly the Muslims of Mumbai were quick to condemn the terrorist attacks. In Sri Lanka by contrast, the middle class professionals are either for Ranil’s CFA and Chandrika’s PTOMS or sympathize with the Sinhala-Buddhist racist pressure groups.

We must support our military which is defeating that enemy described by Barbara Crossette in The Nation of January 6th as “pioneers of the suicide bomber and the cyanide capsule, and the most totalitarian and lethal guerrilla organization in contemporary Asia.” Bear in mind that contemporary Asia includes the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Lashkar e Taiba, the NPA, MILF and Abu Sayyaf. Our military is defeating a force rather different from some ghetto youngsters shooting off home made rockets which cause double digit casualties over a number of years. The Sri Lankan armed forces are doing this without murdering hundreds of children, and without using white phosphorus in populated urban areas. A quarter of casualties inflicted by the Sri Lankan offensive are not children and women.

While we support our military and the military effort, Sri Lanka must not enthrone militarism. Unfortunately those who oppose militarism do not support the military and the military effort, while those who support the military and the military effort do not oppose militarism. Similarly, while Sri Lanka is understandably proud of its adherence to Theravada Buddhism, it must not countenance intolerant practices. The outcome of the defeat of the Tigers must be a restored democracy and an open society, devoid of the mistakes and inequities that constituted the causes of our conflict — not a straitjacketed social order which suffocates diversity and its expression and enthrones the values of intolerance in the name of patriotism, the nation and “cultural correctness”. After the gun-smoke of war wafts away in the tropical wind, we must not look around and glimpse the outlines of a dominant social bloc which has as its ideology a theocratic militarism and regards the popularly elected civilian political leadership as a screen of some sort. Could it be that the murder of Lasantha is part of an effort to dictate the terms of the post war order, social political and ideological; an extra-constitutional attempt to unilaterally re-draw the lines of permissible dissent? Perhaps, as Yeats warned in The Second Coming, “the falcon cannot hear the falconer”.

The history of the twentieth century, from Europe to Latin America shows that not only should the elected political leadership NOT be the target of unfair criticism, but must be recognized as the only potential counterweight against the negative forces and trends in societies such as ours, especially when the democratic opposition suffers an organic crisis of leadership.

(These are the strictly personal views of the writer)