That mur­der most foul

Sunday Times (Sri Lanka) - - COMMENT -

Ten years have passed. The tears have dried ex­cept in the eyes of those t o whom Lasan tha Wick­re­matunga was very near and dear. The tears have gone but not the mem­o­ries of an in­trepid jour­nal­ist, a bun­dle of en­ergy often mixed with mis­chief and de­ter­mined to fol­low the trail like a blood hound in pur­suit of the scent.

Ten years af­ter his bru­tal mur- der, can­dles were lit once more, white and yel­low flow­ers laid and prayers said in silent mem­ory of a hus­band, fa­ther, brother, an ador­ing rel­a­tive and an ed­i­tor de­ter­mined to com­plete a story he had be­gun.

But he was also con­scious of the dan­gers he had set in train. He could hear, in the words of An­drew Marvell “Time's wingèd char­iot hur­ry­ing near”.

Un­for­tu­nately I could not be at the Kanatte ceme­tery this week when many in the me­dia and some who only knew him by rep­u­ta­tion paid trib­ute to Las­an­tha’s jour­nal­is­tic odyssey cut short by those who fear­ing his un­der­tak­ing de­cried him. His re­lent­less pur­suit to ex­pose those he con­sid­ered should be brought to jus­tice un­nerved many.

I was glad to know friend Mar­waan Ma­can-Markar, who I have not met since I parted ways in Bangkok in mid-2012 to re­turn to Lon­don on a diplo­matic as­sign­ment, and was Las­an­tha’s fea­tures ed­i­tor on the Sun­day Leader, read a trib­ute to his then ed­i­tor.

My mem­ory goes back to the day Las­an­tha was killed for I had ar­rived in Colombo a few days ear­lier and was due to meet him for the usual chat and lunch. It was a habit of mine to catch up with for­mer col­leagues -- just a few of them still around- and with other jour­nal­ist friends when­ever I was in Colombo.

I tele­phoned Las­an­tha that morn­ing to con­firm the time and venue of our meet­ing. Usu­ally we met for lunch and talked for hours, me keen to hear his as­sess­ment of hap­pen­ings at home and ex­change views on po­lit­i­cal and other de­vel­op­ments, in­ter­rupt­ing se­ri­ous thought with jokes and hu­mor­ous anec­dotes of yes­ter­year.

His cell phone rang for a minute or more but went unan­swered. I thought he was ei­ther driv­ing or was still asleep af­ter a long night. This was around 9am. I switched off, think­ing of call­ing him again in an hour or two.

But that never hap­pened. I was back at my com­puter try­ing to com­plete what I was writ­ing when the tele­phone rang. It was a friend of mine to break the news that Las­an­tha had been “shot” and had been taken to Kalubow­ila Hos­pi­tal. It was less than two hours since I had tried to reach him to de­cide on our lunch venue.

That news came as a shock. A shock yes, but it was not en­tirely un­ex­pected, par­tic­u­larly against the back­ground of the vi­o­lent as­saults and tor­ture of some other jour­nal­ists that had gone be­fore.

The dan­gers fac­ing some jour­nal­ists came up when­ever we met. I was al­most a vic­tim of killers wait­ing for me dur­ing the trou­bled days in 1989 when an­ar­chy seemed to rule the coun­try. I es­caped be­cause for­tu­itous cir­cum­stances made me change my route that Sun­day morn­ing on my way back home from Lake House and the su­per­mar­ket. But that’s an­other story to be told later.

Dur­ing our work­ing days in Colombo, I would often run into Las­an­tha at the brief­ings that Min­is­ter of State Anan­datissa de Al­wis gave af­ter cab­i­net meet­ings. I was there as a for­eign correspondent while Las­an­tha was cov­er­ing the brief­ing for The Is­land, if I re­mem­ber cor­rectly. This was in the early 1980s.

Though I left Sri Lanka in Septem­ber 1989 for Hong Kong we did keep in touch. Now and then he would try to per­suade me to write a piece for him un­der a pseu­do­nym which oc­ca­sion­ally I did. He used to en­joy a satir­i­cal or light piece es­pe­cially if it was a hu­mor­ous dig at some up­pity politi­cian or two.

On one oc­ca­sion we met for lunch at the for­mer Hol­i­day Inn. Af­ter a long lunch last­ing sev­eral hours we walked to the ho­tel en­trance. When the driver of the car I was us­ing came to pick me up, he leaned into the car and told the driver to take me home safely as there were peo­ple af­ter me.

I could not help but laugh. It is you who needs to be care­ful, I said as we parted. He seemed to be amused by my re­mark, his in­fec­tious smile light­ing up his face.

One night he called me to Lon­don. It must have been well past mid­night in Colombo. He said the Pres­i­dent ( Mahinda Ra­japaksa then) wanted to speak to me. He gave me a tele­phone num­ber and asked me to call the pres­i­dent in the morn­ing. Which I did, but that again is an­other story.

As I re­mem­ber Las­an­tha now, I won­der what he would have to say about the Sri Lanka’s po­lit­i­cal scene -- if one may call it that -- to­day and who he would be tar­get­ing, col­lect­ing and col­lat­ing in­for­ma­tion to lay bare cor­rup­tion among politi­cians and malfea­sance in a bu­reau­cracy that has been largely re­duced to a po­lit­i­cal ap­pendage un­like the pub­lic ser­vice of decades ago when pub­lic of­fi­cials stayed out of pol­i­tics.

Las­an­tha’s cor­us­cat­ing writ­ings an­tag­o­nised many politi­cians, es­pe­cially those in power and bu­reau­cratic bun­glers. He had his crit­ics as many jour­nal­ists do be­cause their work ex­poses the cor­rupt, the crooked and the crass con­duct of the po­lit­i­cal class.

He would have rev­elled in to­day’s po­lit­i­cal at­mos­phere and made more en­e­mies. But he seemed to care lit­tle about whom he up­set once he had got his teeth into a story that smelt of du­bi­ous do­ings. While other jour­nal­ists of the day might have been more cir­cum­spect in their ap­proach, Las­an­tha would go charg­ing in as though he was de­ter­mined to breach the Maginot Line with two shots of ar­tillery fire. But he would have mar­shalled facts be­fore hand and ex­posed some as though stir­ring a hor­net’s nest.

Not all agree with Las­an­tha’s jour nal­is­tic ap­proach that seemed in­tent on stir­ring the pot. But he did liven up jour­nal­ism of the day with his acer­bic style that was too brash for some.

Ten years have passed since that tragic hap­pen­ing. Yet those who promised from po­lit­i­cal plat­forms to hunt down his killers and bring them to jus­tice some­how seem to have lost that early en­thu­si­asm. Was it be­cause it was po­lit­i­cally prof­itable to make such prom­ises in or­der to win po­lit­i­cal sup­port or have they aban­doned all that hype about jus­tice and build­ing a just so­ci­ety?

There are too many con­tra­dic­tions in the whole story of the Las­an­tha killing, in­clud­ing post- mortem re­ports, the ‘ lost’ note­book in which Las­an­tha had writ­ten the reg­is­tra­tion num­bers of the mo­tor­cy­cles that trailed him and then cor­nered him.

I re­mem­ber his wife Son­ali telling me a day or two later of some of the ‘facts’ that seemed cu­ri­ous even at the time -- like the story cir­cu­lat­ing that he was shot but there were no en­try or exit wounds, no shells in the body and no shell cas­ing in and round the car though the post-mortem re­port ap­peared to sug­gest he was shot with a gun.

It would ap­pear that the in­ves­ti­ga­tors have not had a free hand in pur­su­ing their in­ves­ti­ga­tions and the quar­ries. Back in Lon­don I had prob­lems an­swer­ing for­eign jour­nal­ists’ ques­tions ad­dressed to the high com­mis­sion.

Las­an­tha’s killing was not the only one that in­ter­ested them. There were oth­ers like the killing of a Bri­tish aid worker some­where in Tan­galle if I re­mem­ber cor­rectly. The MP of the con­stituency in which the aid worker resided would often call to find out the progress in the in­ves­ti­ga­tions and what ac­tion was be­ing taken by the Sri Lanka gov­ern­ment.

Las­an­tha’s mur­der case is not the only one that is drag­ging on and on giv­ing the im­pres­sion that jus­tice works by fits and starts. The bru­tal mur­der of Ja­mal Khashoggi, the Saudi Ara­bian jour­nal­ist and colum­nist for the Wash­ing­ton Post, a few months back in the Saudi Ara­bian con­sulate in Is­tan­bul re­minds one of the dan­gers jour­nal­ists the world over face in pur­su­ing their pro­fes­sion and what de­vi­ous means those in power use to cover up their sins.

Ten years have passed since that tragic hap­pen­ing. Yet those who promised from po­lit­i­cal plat­forms to hunt down his killers and bring them to jus­tice some­how seem to have lost that early en­thu­si­asm. Was it be­cause it was po­lit­i­cally prof­itable to make such prom­ises in or­der to win po­lit­i­cal sup­port or have they aban­doned all that hype about jus­tice and build­ing a just so­ci­ety?


Fam­ily mem­bers and friends of Las­an­tha Wick­re­matunga at­tend a me­mo­rial ser­vice at his grave in the Kanatte ceme­tery on Jan­uary 8 to mark the tenth an­niver­sary of his as­sas­si­na­tion.

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