Remembering Lasantha: Now they come for “everyone”

Now, more than ever, with the current state of affairs in Sri Lanka, the vacuum left by Lasantha’s death and his importance can be felt by anyone who is concerned about human rights, democracy, rule of law, and, of course, the independence of the judiciary. The Founding Editor-in-Chief of the Sunday Leader newspaper Lasantha Wickrematunge , better known as Lasantha, was brutally assassinated four years ago.  The cold- blooded murder took place on 8 January 2009 in a High Security Zone [HSZ] area of the Colombo suburbs.

Lasantha addressed the Sri Lankan President in his last editorial, which was published posthumously, “You will never be allowed to forget that my death took place under your watch. As anguished as I know you will be, I also know that you will have no choice but to protect my killers: you will see to it that the guilty one is never convicted. You have no choice.” As he precisely said, the killers continue to enjoy the culture of impunity. It was not just a murder, but also a persisting strong message to dissident journalists who oppose the regime’s non-democratic actions.

Missing professionalism

The murder contains serious consequences in relation to freedom of expression in Sri Lanka. The commanders of the assassination are not just ‘powerful people’, but ‘smart people’, too. This was what made them decide to kill Lasantha at that specific time, as they knew that from a long-term perspective his existence would be a serious obstacle to their wrongdoings.

Now, we are not just remembering Lasantha as a courageous human being, but also the absence of the professionalism he showed. He wanted to tell the truth, even after he knew the price that he would have to pay for it, Once again in January, four years after Lasantha was assassinated, Sri Lanka is in turmoil as the country’s reigning ruler elongates his grip of terror and oppression on the supreme power of the Judiciary.

Words of prophecy

It is noteworthy that the present Cabinet Minister of Higher Education, S.B. Dissanayake was sentenced to two years rigorous imprisonment by a five Judge Supreme Court Bench headed by the then Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva on 7 December 2004 for defaming the Supreme Court during a speech he made at a function in Habaraduwa.  An irony in this is that, eight years later, under the direction of Sri Lankan President, the parliament is in the process to move an impeachment against the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. As Lasantha wrote in his last editorial, “Indeed, murder has become the primary tool whereby the state seeks to control the organs of liberty. Today it is the journalists, tomorrow it will be the judges.”

Here is where, again, we perceive the contribution of Lasantha and the motive of those who directed the killers. At the time Lasantha was killed, ‘Sri Lanka was united as they fought against a common enemy to defend their national sovereignty and security’.  However, unbowed and unafraid, Lasantha did not want to be part of the ‘united elements’, because Lasantha knew their ulterior intentions. Based on his analysis and decisions, he warned Sri Lankans and sent the message to the international community about the government’s motives. This he did even in his last editorial, which became known as his self-obituary.

Unfortunately the response from the receiver’s end was a mode of deafening silence and Lasantha paid his life as the price. Prior to assassinating Lasantha, the Sri Lankan regime waged a stern campaign and low intensity war alongside its psychological warfare against the Tamil nation. In this stage Tamil journalists, media workers, intellectuals, human rights activists, humanitarian workers and civil society activists became prime targets under the banner of ‘war on terror’. It was a time where it was quite normal for me to wake up to messages of killings and to go to bed after attending funerals.

Following conscience

Until the third week of April 2006, I was mostly based in Jaffna and informed Colombo based journalists and human rights organizations / activists about grave human rights violations with the aim of either preventing the killings or to seek justice for the victims and survivors. However, the response was not effective or efficient. Nevertheless, at least a few people acted with responsibility and moral obligation, but their fate was cut short as either they were killed, imprisoned or compelled to leave the country. Even after the threatening killings, imprisonment of journalists and a considerable number of journalists’ decision to function in exile, Lasantha remained in the soil where he was born, and decided to continue his fight bravely.  Lasantha followed his conscience despite of state treachery. Ultimately, he stood and died for what he believed in.

In his last editorial he precisely pointed out that “violating the rights of Tamil citizens, bombing and shooting mercilessly, is not only wrong but shames the Sinhalese, whose claim to be custodians of the Dhamma is for ever called into question by this savagery - much of it unknown to the public because of censorship. What is more, a military occupation of the country's north and east will require the Tamil people of those regions to live eternally as second-class citizens, deprived of all self-respect. Do not imagine you can placate them by showering "development" and "reconstruction" on them in the postwar era. The wounds of war will scar them for ever, and you will have an even more bitter and hateful diaspora to contend with.”

Sinhalese as victims

Today, Sri Lanka’s national sovereignty and security has turned counterproductive against those who were ‘united to fight against the common enemy to defend their national sovereignty’. The newly emerging direct and imminent victims of the Sri Lankan state system are Sinhalese, including those who in a way remained silent or supported the genocidal war against Tamils. Time heals, history records, but this is where Lasantha distinguished himself from others. It is common opinion now, that, the present disastrous development would not have happened, if the majority of the Sinhala community had in the past stood for the Tamils’ dignity, freedom and other rights.

Yet, there is no strong opposition in the south against ongoing genocide in the Tamil nation. The Sri Lankan regime is tightening its terror grip step by step on different ethnic groups in diverse forms. The failure to recognize and stop it, will lead to a formation of Sri Lanka’s Iron Gate. If anyone is serious about respecting and honoring Lasantha, then it is their moral obligation to lend their voice against the injustice and oppression that is taking place in the island, in particular against the ongoing genocide of the Tamil nation. Otherwise, their “Sri Lanka Matha” will not only cry, but will die inch by inch and then the entire island will be a curse of Asia. This was not what Lasantha scarified his life for.

Lasantha's inspiration

Lasantha noted in his last editorial, “I hope my murder will be seen not as a defeat of freedom but an inspiration”. I would like close this piece with a few words mentioned by me in London, in January 2010, at the first year commemoration ceremony of Lasantha. We, the journalists have a moral responsibility to speak the oblivious truth about the injustice and non-democratic actions, which we have witnessed. Our fidelity to our ambition is consolidated. Our aspiration is to bring to life the aspirations of oppressed people. We know the path and its consequences, which we have chosen, but we are confident to continue our struggle, despite the risks that we encounter.


Nirmanusan Balasundaram is an exiled journalist and a human rights defender. He holds an MA in Peace and Conflict Studies from the European University Center for Peace Studies in Austria.


Articles by Nirmanusan Balasundaram:

Sri Lanka: Militarizing the land and terrorizing the minds
November 28: Appalling attack and deafening silence
In Retrospect: Death of a human rights defender


Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

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