Monday, January 12, 2009

And Then They Came For Lasantha Wickramatunge

Sri Lankan journalist Lasantha Wickramatunge was assassinated in broad daylight outside of Colombo last week. SAJA has a helpful round-up of coverage of the event, including some background on Wickramatunge's journalistic record. What stands out is the fact that he has been a consistent dissenting voice in Sri Lankan politics, sharply criticizing the previous government for years. In recent years he had also become a critic of the new government of Mahinda Rajapaksa, whom he had earlier supported. Indeed, Wickramatunge and Rajapaska were until recently rather close friends.

Wickramatunge's assassination is widely believed to have been carried out by forces allied with the government, if not directly sponsored by the government itself. His memorial service, which took place yesterday in Colombo, was attended by thousands of people (see a Flickr photostream of the event here).

This past Sunday, the Sunday Leader, the Sri Lankan newspaper founded by Wickramatunge and his brother, carried a posthumous editorial authored by Wickramatunge himself. It's called, "And Then They Came For Me," and it's written with the understanding that it would only be printed in the event of the author's assassination.

It's a moving statement, which ought to be read by anyone who doubts whether freedom of the press or freedom of speech is, after all, an essential right. Wickramatunge begins by asserting his primary goal as a journalist over the fifteen years he had worked with this newspaper:

The Sunday Leader has been a controversial newspaper because we say it like we see it: whether it be a spade, a thief or a murderer, we call it by that name. We do not hide behind euphemism. The investigative articles we print are supported by documentary evidence thanks to the public-spiritedness of citizens who at great risk to themselves pass on this material to us. We have exposed scandal after scandal, and never once in these 15 years has anyone proved us wrong or successfully prosecuted us.

The free media serve as a mirror in which the public can see itself sans mascara and styling gel. From us you learn the state of your nation, and especially its management by the people you elected to give your children a better future. Sometimes the image you see in that mirror is not a pleasant one. But while you may grumble in the privacy of your armchair, the journalists who hold the mirror up to you do so publicly and at great risk to themselves. That is our calling, and we do not shirk it.

Every newspaper has its angle, and we do not hide the fact that we have ours. Our commitment is to see Sri Lanka as a transparent, secular, liberal democracy. Think about those words, for they each has profound meaning. Transparent because government must be openly accountable to the people and never abuse their trust. Secular because in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society such as ours, secularism offers the only common ground by which we might all be united. Liberal because we recognise that all human beings are created different, and we need to accept others for what they are and not what we would like them to be. And democratic... well, if you need me to explain why that is important, you'd best stop buying this paper. (a link)

Though Wickramatunge had been a critic of the government's prosecution of the ongoing war against the LTTE in northern Sri Lanka, he was by no means an apologist for the LTTE (indeed, if I am reading his name correctly, he is ethnically Sinhalese, not Tamil).

Neither should our distaste for the war be interpreted to mean that we support the Tigers. The LTTE are among the most ruthless and bloodthirsty organisations ever to have infested the planet. There is no gainsaying that it must be eradicated. But to do so by violating the rights of Tamil citizens, bombing and shooting them mercilessly, is not only wrong but shames the Sinhalese, whose claim to be custodians of the dhamma is forever called into question by this savagery, much of which is 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 that you can placate them by showering "development" and "reconstruction" on them in the post-war era. The wounds of war will scar them forever, and you will also have an even more bitter and hateful Diaspora to contend with. A problem amenable to a political solution will thus become a festering wound that will yield strife for all eternity. If I seem angry and frustrated, it is only because most of my countrymen - and all of the government - cannot see this writing so plainly on the wall. (link)

There's more that I could quote, but perhaps I should just encourage readers to read the editorial themselves.

It's a remarkable statement in many ways, not least because its author seemingly knew what was coming, but continued doing what he was doing all the same. (Bravely or foolishly.) But even more than that, despite the extremity of the situation in which Wickramatunge wrote this editorial, his voice remains calm and reasonable. There is no melodrama there, just a passionate commitment to the journalistic mission of always aspiring to speak the truth, even if no one wants to hear it.

I do not know whether Wickramatunge was right or not when he argued, in the passage I quoted above, that the current military actions in northern Sri Lanka are doomed to failure. Indeed, part of me hopes he is wrong, and that this really is the end of the road for Prabakaran and the LTTE army.

But history and logic suggests that in fact Wickramatunge is likely to be exactly right: you cannot win over the hearts of minds of an enemy in a civil conflict by brutalizing them. Any lasting peace will have to be consensual and negotiated, involving the disarming of the LTTE, but also concessions from the government. (Northern Ireland is the model to try and emulate, I think.)

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