His work was his passion, but now he is gone - Lal

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By Lal Wickrematunge
Sunday, January 10th, 2010
Lal

Lal Wickrematunge

A year has passed since Lasantha was brutally murdered on the high streets of the city. During this period the LTTE has been wiped out, provincial council elections held, Kumaran Pathmanathan arrested and brought back to Sri Lanka from foreign soil in a sting-like operation, presidential elections called two years prematurely only because the incumbent deems its opportune for him and of course 24 hearings have been held in the Mount Lavinia Court into Lasantha’s murder without any breakthrough! Incredible?

Recall that the President and Minister Keheliya Rambukwella stated that important information into Lasantha’s murder would be revealed by 14th February 2009? That the investigation was finally handed over to the Criminal Investigations Department after ten months of vacillation by the Mirihana and Mt Lavinia Police has not made any difference? That the Criminal Investigations Department has yet to record a statement from any witness?

Lasantha was a lawyer who took six months leave of absence whilst working under an eminent President’s Counsel to set The Sunday Leader on its feet. He never went back to law. As it’s founder Editor in Chief Lasantha set a new trend in journalism. Not all liked his style. Yet, he said it in a racy manner and the newspaper was accepted by its readers. The existence of three other weekend newspapers prompted Lasantha to pursue an investigative style of presentation which obviously was not to the liking of politicians in power. The Sunday Leader and Lasantha were at the receiving end of no less than nine attacks during its 15 years. He bore these with fortitude and never wavered from his original commitment.

It was not as he was indifferent to the attendant dangers. He simply did not dwell on it. His commitment and the passion for journalism left him not much thought or time for self preservation. He was only 50 years of age and had much more to achieve when hired murderers (who probably had never met him before) on instructions of someone or some persons (who definitely had met him before) assassinated him. Lasantha was not murdered because he was a terrorist. Nor was he murdered because he had committed a grievous crime. He was only a writer. I do not rule out that he was murdered because of what he knew or what he was about to disclose. Those who ordered his killing knew why. They decided on the timing. They are yet at large mingling amongst the people. I request the readers to think about that.

Lasantha Wickrematunge, as stated above was not liked by all. Not even by other journalists in the country. Yet he was accepted by the international community of journalists and connected arms. The array of international awards presented in his honour, for his work and courage in pursuing his career speak volumes. Transparency International Award for Integrity in the year 2000 was his crowning glory whilst he was alive. What he received after his death is far too numerous to mention here. The Sunday Leader is yet essential reading of the international community who have an interest in this country. The local populace have accepted her as the principle watch dog of the activities of those wielding power.

Let me reflect on Lasantha’s passion for his work. This particular story was about to be written by him at a time my parents had migrated to Canada. He had information that a senior public servant had altered his date of birth not once but twice. This was done to continue in office well past his compulsory retirement age. That he was related to Lasantha never crossed his mind nor clouded his judgment. As is normal practice he did contact the person concerned and of course that resulted in him calling my father in Canada to seek his intervention to shelve the story. Lasantha had by this time switched his telephones off and I was bombarded by a barrage of calls from my father who berated me for not reining Malli in. Of course by Friday his copy was in and nothing could be done. The story made headlines. As is the practice, the political authorities ignored this misdemeanor and it was business as usual.

Many do question us on the futility of exposing corruption and lack of good governance at great personal risk. The authorities empowered to take action, do not go into the merits or otherwise of such exposures. There is public apathy in Sri Lanka and the politicians do know that and are thus encouraged to ignore such exposures which in time are forgotten. Lasantha often lamented that this would lead to unabated corruption and lawlessness. Both corruption and lawlessness are here with us today and  Lasantha is not.

Lasantha and his wife were set upon by masked goons in the first year of The Sunday Leader. The culprits who were within the security outfit of a very high ranking politician were rounded up on information, charged in court and were convicted naturally during the time of a different government. One was a police officer who ran the risk of being dismissed from service at an internal inquiry. On being approached by this officer Lasantha forgave him for carrying out such attack on him and wrote to the IGP stating that he did not wish to pursue this any further. Later, he informed me that this officer was a young parent and had carried out this dastardly act to please his political master and that he had no other motive.

It was once a time when the government of the day had appointed a competent authority to censor any sensitive news of military activities that were to be published in the newspapers. The Palaly airport was under attack by the LTTE which was repulsed by the Army later. Lasantha did feel, the readers of The Sunday Leader, including those within the armed forces were sufficiently enlightened to accept this failed attempt of the LTTE. He felt strongly of the rights of the readers to have access to the truth. His front page lead story was an accurate account of what took place on the ground but was presented in the negative. “ Two bombs did not fall within the Palaly airstrip. One fixed wing aircraft was not slightly damaged…etc etc”. The government did not waste time in invoking the full might of the Emergency Regulations to shut down the publication forthwith.

It was a sad day for him and he did call the entire staff to a meeting to promise them their monthly remuneration irrespective of the period it took to fight it in court. Fight it in court was what he did and the Leader was back in business within six weeks. He was eternally grateful to the lawyers who appeared pro deo on behalf of the newspaper. He never did mention nor take credit that these legal luminaries were doing it for him out of gratitude that he was risking life and limb to eradicate corruption within governments.
Many did not know that Lasantha was a tee totaller. He had little time to pursue his interest in sport with cricket taking pride of place. He did watch Sri Lanka’s progress at cricket on TV as much as time permitted. He was a promising left arm leg spinner who turned up in the under 14 team at St. Benedict’s College but could not go further as he left at a very young age to England to further his education. As a young lad of 15 Lasantha was very slightly built and many of his British contemporaries did not believe that he was old enough to be in the Advanced Level class.

It was a time when foreign exchange was sparse and students had to moonlight to pay their fees. My other brother Anil was already at LSE and had secured employment at a wimpy bar at Trafalgar Square. Lasantha too soon got employed at the same outlet and worked his skin off till almost mid night whereupon he would walk three miles in the biting cold to save a bob. Of course the chef took pity on the slightly built Lasantha and eventually placed him behind the counter to fry chips at a higher hourly stipend.

He was extremely fond of children and would empty his purse to buy toys and chocolates. When children fell ill Lasantha felt the pain. Tears would well. He adored his three young children. And they loved him. Children of others were treated with the same kindness and love. He would tease them and tell them tall stories to make them laugh.

The staff at The Sunday Leader went back in to the archives to select some of his work to be reproduced to commemorate his first death anniversary, only to be surprised at the sheer volume of exposures. He was gifted with an uncanny ability to present a story from another perspective which many of us would not even perceive. He was happy and it showed in office when he was on to a big scoop. He was crestfallen when he came up against a blank wall. Yet he persisted till he was satisfied that he had covered all the angles.

It was on the 2nd of January 2009 that the administrative capital of the LTTE, Kilinochchi fell. Lasantha walked into my office ( I can vividly recall ) and said that he felt vulnerable. People will be jubilant and he felt vulnerable. He knew why. I guessed. He did not want to go away nor take extra precautions though advised. He expected nay believed that his writing would not be considered good enough reason to be killed. He believed politicians who said at public gatherings that Lasantha walking about free, was proof that he would not be killed. He believed because he was a good man.

Lasantha was killed but his writings will be immortal. The senior editor was murdered under the watch of President Rajapaksa. The President called him a friend at times but said he was not to be trusted, at other times. That the perpetrators have yet to be apprehended is a telling indictment of the level of lawlessness and the ineffectiveness of the Police Department under this regime.

An year is but 365 days. A memory…. has no measure…..eternal may live the memory of Lasantha.

“For that which you love most in him may be clearer in his absence, as the mountain to the climber is clearer from the plain” — Gibran

Courtesy of The Sunday Leader

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