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When They Kill Journalists - Lasantha Wickrematunge; Six Years On

| by Sunalie Shanika Kumari Ratnayake

( January 8, 2015, California , Sri Lanka Guardian) Six years ago in 2009, on a day like today (January 8th) was when I received the most dreadful phone call of my entire life, thus far. At the time, I was residing off-Attidiya Road in Dehiwela, when a close friend living in Kalubowila rang me, and stated that Lasantha had been attacked a few minutes ago. That was all I recall hearing from the other end; it indeed was a brief phone call, yet, at the same time, I went completely blank with the malicious news that my ears did not want to perceive, and my heart did not want to accept. Perhaps I may have not even realized disengaging from the phone at that moment. Over the next few minutes, I don’t recall much. I had unintentionally sat on the cold-tiled-floor, as my trembling limbs could not hold me in a mounting state anymore. What was happening to me at that very moment, the apprehension that warped my head could never be described in mere words, ever.

However, it was less than ten minutes since Lasantha’s car (Western Province ~ KC-1098) had been ambushed in a commando-style operation, which had taken place along Main Attidiya Road in Dehiwela, Sri Lanka; the location apparently being right by my uncle’s abode, on the same side of the road, and exactly in front of Malagalage Primary School in Attidiya, also located on the same side of the said eventful road. It occurred in a distance, merely three to five minutes away from the dwelling I was accommodated at the time. According to eye witnesses, the vehement attack was carried-out by eight men, doubled-up in four motorcycles in a ‘Persuasive Attack’ method. Perhaps they may have not even known whom they murdered, but was professionally trained to seek the target, and finish-off same, hence; ‘pros in murder’ indeed. Nonetheless, those that sent-out the bikers, per their order, six years ago, to conduct the operation to murder Lasantha in cold blood, have over the years, proven to be far proficient murderers, thieves, hooligans and power-hungry, wealth-greedy, public-resource-sucking senseless criminals, void of a conscience.

Raine Wickrematunge, holding a memorable portrait of the family.

Next thing I recall was rushing to the murder scene down Main Attidiya Road, then, to the Sunday Leader office down Katukurunduwatte Road, Off Templer’s Road, and then to the Kalubowila Hospital, along with my mother and another friend who drove us. The very same day, I recall that my father had travelled to Kurunegala, early in the morning, hence he was not around, and perhaps did not know what was going on in that dust encrusted, traffic jammed, hectic, so-called ‘high security zone’, that fateful Thursday morning. I may have called him a few hours later, but that was after it was declared outside the Kalubowila Hospital’s operating theatre, by the then Director of the National Hospital Dr. Hector Weerasinghe that Lasantha was no more. Both consecutive operations took over two and a half hours, as I recall. All the while, I was standing by the door of the operating theatre with my mother, and many friends from the ‘Sunday Leader’ editorial whom I had worked with over the years, as well as politicians (commonly, members of the opposition, and not the government side), other newspaper editors/journalists/photographers and all other professionals who knew Lasantha personally, as well as hospital staff, all gathered with trembling hearts to learn what was about to occur next. The hospital corridors, especially directly outside the theatre were packed with masses, desperately awaiting to hear some positive news, but was ultimately turned-down with the wretched news of Lasantha’s departure from this world that fateful Thursday morning.

Ever since that gruesome episode in Colombo, on January 8th 2009, that continues to burden my heart and soul every now and then, every January turns out to be a melancholy, black month for us journalists. I am perfectly aware of the fact that friends, colleagues and family members of Lasantha go through the same cycle of agony, especially every January, which does not seem to diminish with the passing of the years, but seem to escalate instead, mainly due to the fact of knowing that the perpetrators are still merry-making in the land like no other. Any sensible individual agrees with the fact that the merry-making of the clan in power in Sri Lanka has reached heights never ever witnessed before, in the history of Sri Lanka and its politics.

While being alive, prior to knowing him personally during later years of my life, and prior to being honoured in being part and parcel of his gutsy editorial, which I indeed consider an aggregate matter of destiny, the Lasantha Wickrematunge who captured my attention as a young school-going-kid back in 1994, via his courageous editorials published under the pseudonym ‘Suranimala’, practiced his profession, being assaulted a myriad times by the consecutive governments that saw daylight in Lanka, law suit after law suit rushing after him, his house being sprayed with machine gun fire, his press being sealed, attacked and burnt in several occasions, and finally him having to pay the ultimate price of death, in exchange of forthright journalism.

Lasantha was murdered in the delightful watch of the Rajapaksa regime, as to its murky flesh; he became an irksome thorn, merely for expressing opinion as is apotheosized in our Constitution, and for laying forth vital and accurate information before the public. Such were the crimes Lasantha committed in the government’s eye - exposing corruption after corruption of the government, as well as the public sector, and such was the depth of the price he had to pay - giving his life away.

Be that as it may, TODAY, in 2015, fate made the same day that Lasantha was murdered (January 8th), also the day that the incumbent president Percy Mahendra (a.k.a. Mahinda) Rajapaksa decided to seek an unprecedented and illegitimate third term, which he made ingeniously and seemingly possible, subsequent to the restrictions placed by bringing in the 18th amendment to the Constitution. Johan Mikaelsson, author of the recent creative non-fiction book called ‘When They Kill Journalists’, stated; “I was surprised to see that this day (January 8th) was chosen for the presidential election, as the present administration is suspected to be behind the murder, and have done nothing to solve it.”

Mahinda Rajapaksa, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, and Lasantha Wickrematunge.
Moreover, if at all he has a conscience, president Rajapaksa should certainly have some perception as to how it may be feeling in losing a family member, especially in a bloody and brutal manner, because it is the exact equivalent; initially ‘shocking’, and then ‘despondent’ feeling, that the members of Lasantha’s family continues to feel over the past six years, that president Rajapaksa may have felt at that very instant, when his younger brother and Defence Secretary, namely, Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa sprinted to Temple Trees in blood-soaked sartorial, to be embraced by a much relieved elder brother Mahinda, which in no time became a countrywide exhibit on massive bill-boards that depicted this poignant moment. “Mr. Rajapakse, don’t these human sentiments alone, not deepen the need to bring closure into Lasantha Wickrematunge’s murder?” I, not as a family member of Lasantha, but as once an ardent young reader of his editorials, and later as his student, and a once close comrade of his, who holds excruciating feelings of grief over his ruthless murder, desperately feel that it is not about time, but it is way past the time that justice should have been served on this crucial matter.

Lasantha, upon admission to the hospital.
It may sound a mere joke, and is quite unlikely that anyone would believe that President Rajapaksa, along with his kith and kin extending from the uppermost in power, to within the chain of command who had awareness of the settings of slain L.T.T.E. leader “Prabakaran”, and currently highly protected former arms dealer of the L.T.T.E “KP” a few years ago, not being aware of the murderers of Lasantha, who’s murder took place in a so-called high security zone. Hence, it’s about time that this offensive joke too was brought to an acceptable closure.

When they kill journalists, would it be in Sri Lanka or anywhere in the world, it is not that easy as one may think, to get away with it, just because one may hold the apparatus called ‘power’, at that given moment in time. In Lasantha’s murder too, the world may remain silent for a moment, but it does not mean that the world has not already recognized the Defence Secretary Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and his older brother Percy Mahendra (Mahinda) Rajapaksa as press freedom murder suspects.

I shall reiterate, as I mentioned earlier in this article too, today is “January 8th”, the exact day that Lasantha Manilal Wickrematunge was pitilessly slayed, six long years ago, on his customary way to work at his editorial, and it is the same day (January 8th) the birth anniversary of Sri Lanka Freedom Party Founder (and father of former Sri Lankan President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga) Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike, whose name alone happens to send adverse shockwaves down the vertebrae of the Rajapaksas’, who have eternally been in a battle, over the past nine years in power, to expunge the ‘Bandaranaike’ name from the political forum of Sri Lanka, and last but not least, it is also the day (January 8th) that has turned out to be the day for the island of Sri Lanka to re-elect it’s president, or to elect afresh another affiliate (the incumbent president’s former Health Minister Mr. Maithripala Sirisena with an incessant 49-year solid and unsoiled political history, who walked out from the present government, out of plain disgust of the conducts of the present government and its leader) to hold the said position; so let us wait and see, how near or far the petulantly awaited day would arrive for perpetrators of my editor’s murder to be sent where they belong. The sooner the better; the sooner, Lasantha’s family, children, and friends could make-up their minds, in the name of his soul to truly rest in peace.

Lasantha’s ambushed car on Main Attidiya Road, Dehiwela, Sri Lanka.
In ending this note penned in the memory of the Sixth Death Anniversary of that simple and trivial man I once knew, yet a man with far-fetched and inordinate courage, whom I always looked up-to as a fan, during my school-going years, and later as fate turned him into my Guru in Journalism; I pray for my country on this significant day, on this defining moment, and I pray for Lasantha’s soul to justly rest in peace, and I pray for the perpetrators too, because that’s what my Buddhist upbringing had taught me, and I prefer to stick to same, despite the frustration and fury that builds within me from time to time, with the retention of that fateful and blood-spattered January morning, which saw daylight, six years ago in 2009.

Lastly, thank you dear Lasantha for the unstoppable, unstealable, unbreakable momentum you set upon me and my colleagues (at the original Sunday Leader you initiated in 1994, and which lasted “unbowed and unafraid” only until your death in 2009, for 15 long years. To be honest, I don’t believe in the Sunday Leader that proceeded following your death, for obvious valid reasons, and I’m certain you too would agree on same, even from your grave), to valiantly stand-up for what is right, for what I/we believed-in, to be a voice for those who had none, and to be persistently spot-on; calling a spade a spade, and a murderer a murderer, despite the consequences.

I dream of a day, that our country will value the caliber of plainspoken journalists like you, and the generation you cultivated. I dream of a Sri Lanka, in which such souls representing the noble fourth estate won’t be sent to their graves in no time, for their reportage of the truth, but would be swathed with esteem for their ‘unbound and unafraid’ integrity. I dream of a Sri Lanka, in which reporting the truth would no longer be known a courageous act, but a customary right. I dream of a Sri Lanka, in which those who practice the vocation of Journalism won’t have to flee the island in order to save their dear lives.

You taught us many a lesson and we continue to learn. Today is the 8th of January, the day I look forward to the dawn of, not a perfect, but a recovering Sri Lanka. A Sri Lanka that shall begin to recover from its stinking sores of state vehemence cultivated to an intolerable level over the past nine years, protected in the shade of the rancorous Rajapaksa regime.

Having said that, yes, the war is over, and with no hesitation, my interminable admiration shall bequeath upon all parties big and small that involved in the acquisition of the gory war’s victory, on May 19th 2009. That includes the then Army Commander General Sarath Fonseka (who was brazenly stripped from all his medals and titles of forty plus years in diligently serving the Sri Lanka Army, and his pension and other benefits been revoked, merely for deciding to contest against President Rajapaksa in the 2010 Presidential balloting) for providing a strategic military leadership, President Percy Mahendra (Mahinda) Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the Acting-Defence-Minister during the last phase of the war, and in several other occasions in the past Maithripala Sirisena for their political headships delivered towards the war vistory, all other government and opposition political and civil entourages that supported the war efforts including Buddhists monks such as Athuruliye Rathana Thero and Dambara Amila Thero, and above all, the brave and resilient soldiers who gave their lives and limbs in the thousands, as well as the single-minded and understanding citizenry who gave all the support in the world, withstanding all pressure from all corners including the big bangs on their bellies, yet, for a common cause.

His three children Avinash, Ahimsa & Aadesh, surrounding his slain body.
Be that as it may, my issue is, winning the war does not provide a free license or authority for politicians to conduct unprecedented exploitation in finances and public resources in the name of development, and to maneuver an unprecedented State-Terror.

Enough is enough! It’s the 8th of January 2015, the presidential poll have concluded by now, and I’m envisaging the dawn of not a flawless, but an acceptably sanitizing Sri Lanka, because I honestly love her and its peoples: though the years; who have taught me the hard way, who have given me so much!

Dear Lasantha,

The wait was too long, and we all who loved you are remorseful!
May this January 8th be the day that justice shall begin to befall on you!
May your sweet soul rest in peace!
When They Kill Journalists, let them feel it’s gravity to the core!

Sunalie Ratnayake is a Sri Lankan born Journalist, based in California,USA.She could be reached at: sunalie.secretandbeyond@yahoo.com

- The End ~
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