Goodbye, Lasantha Wickramatunga – and long live Siribiris!

No discussion or debate...

Colombo General Cemetery: No discussion or debate...

This is a view of Colombo’s main cemetery, the final resting place for many residents of Sri Lanka’s capital and its suburbs. I took this photo less than a month ago, when I visited a grave on a quiet morning.

The late Bernard Soysa, a leading leftist politician and one time Minister of Science and Technology, once called it ‘the only place in Colombo where there is no discussion or debate’.

This afternoon, family, friends and many sorrowful admirers of Lasantha Wickramatunga, the courageous Sri Lankan newspaper editor who was brutally slain last week in broad daylight, took him there — and left him behind amidst the quiet company.

But not before making a solemn pledge. All thinking and freedom-loving people would continue to resist sinister attempts to turn the rest of Sri Lanka into a sterile zombieland where there is no discussion and debate. In other words, rolling out the cemetery to cover the rest of the island.

The last laugh?

The last laugh?

Silencing Lasantha was the clear aim of cowardly gunmen who intercepted him on his way to work and shot him at pointblank. Tarzie Vittachi, the first Lankan newspaper editor to be forced into exile 50 years ago for freely expressing his views on politically sensitive issues, once called such attacks ‘censorship by murder’. (Alas, since Tarzie uttered those words in 1990, shooting the messenger has become increasingly common in Sri Lanka.)

Rex de Silva, the first editor that Lasantha worked for (at the now defunct Sun newspaper) in the late 1970s, has just cautioned that Lasantha’s murder is the beginning of ‘the sound of silence’ for the press in Sri Lanka. Can this sound of silence be shattered by the silent, unarmed majority of liberal, peace-loving Lankans who were represented at the funeral service and the Colombo cemetery today?

And would they remember for all time Edmund Burke’s timeless words: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”?

How many would actually read, absorb and heed the deeply moving words of Lasantha’s one last editorial, copies of which were distributed at the cemetery and the religious service before that?

That editorial, which appeared in The Sunday Leader on 11 January 2009, embodies the best of Lasantha Wickrematunga’s liberal, secular and democratic views.

As I wrote in another tribute published today by Himal Southasian and Media Helping Media: “I have no idea which one – or several – of his team members actually penned this ‘Last Editorial’, but it reads authentic Lasantha all over: passionate and accommodating, liberal yet uncompromising on what he held dear. I can’t discern the slightest difference in style.”

“And there lies our hope: while Lasantha at 51 lies fallen by bullets, his spirit and passion are out there, continuing his life’s mission. That seems a good measure of the institutional legacy he leaves behind. If investigative journalism were a bug, the man has already infected at least a few of his team members…”

Read the full story of The Sunday Leader team’s courage under fire

Read The Sunday Leader‘s tribute to its founding editor on 11 January 2009: Goodbye Lasantha

Much has been written and broadcast in the past 100 or so hours since Lasantha’s journey was brutally cut short by as-yet-unidentified goons who have no respect for the public interest or have no clue how democracies sustain public discussion and debate. I’m sure more will be written – some in outrage and others in reflection – in the coming days and weeks.

puncturing egos for 40 years

Siribiris (left): puncturing egos for 40 years

As we leave Lasantha to his rest, I remember Siribiris. For those unfamiliar with the name, Siribiris is an iconic cartoon character created by Camillus Perera, a veteran Sri Lankan political cartoonist who has been in the business as long as I have been alive.
Siribiris represents Everyman, who is repeatedly hoodwinked and taken for granted by assorted politicians and businessmen who prosper at the common man’s expense. The only way poor, unempowered Siribiris can get back at them is to puncture their egos and ridicule them at every turn. And boy, does he excel in that!

It’s no surprise that Lasantha – the bête noire of shady politicians and crooked tycoons – was very fond of Siribiris. Perhaps he saw his own life’s work as extending that of Siribiris in the complex world of the 21st century. That he did it with aplomb and gusto – and had great fun doing it, sometimes tongue stuck out at his adversaries – will be part of Lasantha’s enduring legacy. (As his last editorial reminded us, in 15 years of investigative journalism on a weekly basis, no one has successfully sued the newspaper for defamation or damages.)

So Goodbye, Lasantha. And Long live Siribiris!

Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka

Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera, Courtesy: Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka

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13 Responses to “Goodbye, Lasantha Wickramatunga – and long live Siribiris!”

  1. Rohan Samarajiva Says:

    Concur. But there is no need to kill any more journalists. The message has been well communicated. Now is the turn of a judge (if we are to take the prediction in the beyond the grave editorial you cite above: “Today it is the journalists, tomorrow it will be the judges. For neither group have the risks ever been higher or the stakes lower.”)

    I do not know why it is not possible to think that Lasantha wrote this editorial and kept it for publication in the event of his death. I am not saying that is the case, but see no reason to assume otherwise, like you do. Facts would help to resolve this debate I guess.

  2. Nalaka Gunawardene Says:

    Rohan,
    Thanks and I can only agree. On who wrote the powerful editorial, it’s intriguing (trust Lasantha to leave us guessing even on the day of his funeral) but real authorship is less important than its message. Perhaps the truth is an amalgamation of all theories – partly written and kept in cold storage, to be revived and updated last week?

    As an aside, I’ve had to clarify on a blog earlier today that I had no involvement in this fine piece of writing, even though I seem to have inspired three Lankan poets (so far) to write poems in response. See: http://inmutiny.wordpress.com/2009/01/11/the-call-of-conscience/

  3. DAVID DAMARIO Says:

    Below is the CNN story carried in North America….my direct question is who benefits from this horrid act of murder…I think it is obvious.
    COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – Police say the editor of a newspaper strongly critical of the Sri Lankan government has been shot and is badly injured.

    Police spokesman Ranjith Gunasekara says Lasantha Wickramatunga was shot Thursday morning by two gunman on a motorcycle as he drove to his office at the Sunday Leader newspaper.

    Gunasekara said Wickramatunga was in critical condition and police were investigating the attack.

    The shooting came two days after more than a dozen gunmen armed with assault rifles and grenades raided a private television station and destroyed much of its equipment. Media rights groups accused government supporters of villifying opposition media and creating an atmosphere that inspired attacks against them.

  4. Global Voices Online » Sri Lanka: Questions Surrounding Slain Journalist’s Death Persist Says:

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  5. Thomas Says:

    Nalaka, a fitting choice…

    …Edmund Burke’s timeless words: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”?

    Who in particular are the good men doing nothing these days?

    Thomas

  6. Nalaka Gunawardene Says:

    Thomas,
    The answer to your question depends on circumstances. We face multiple situations in daily life, and choose to act or not act for various reasons. Assuming most/all people are fundamentally good, we have to admit some/many don’t often act decisively and in the interests of what is right, fair and just. It can be as simple as not voting in an election to running away from a scene of an accident without helping victims or turning witness. Or being part of the biggest malady of apathy and silence that allows so much evil to just march forward and accomplish whatever they want….

  7. Warren Says:

    The Responsible Parties WE KNOW WHO THEY ARE MAY YOU ALL AND YOUR FAMILIES DIE THE SAME WAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  8. Nalaka Gunawardene Says:

    Warren,
    I debated for a few hours before approving your above comment in this moderated blog. I don’t agree with you, but still respect the right for you to feel that way and to say this — which I’m not censoring. But I urge you – and others who feel outraged just like you – to reflect further. Being Gandhian is not an easy task at any time, and especially at times like this. But the old boy has been proven right so many times in the past century that we must heed his caution: “An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.”

    We must find creative and smart ways to harness our outrage and channel our energies. This is what I asked all Lankan poets to do — to express themselves in verse in the days following Lasantha’s killing. See original comment at: http://dinidudealwis.com/?p=652#comment-3830

    Several poets have already responded, and their work is published at:
    http://www.groundviews.org/2009/01/13/ashes-at-the-stake-for-lasantha/
    http://www.groundviews.org/2009/01/12/one-of-us/
    http://www.groundviews.org/2009/01/11/blood-wanted-urgent/
    http://www.groundviews.org/2009/01/09/for-lasantha-and-others/
    http://www.groundviews.org/2009/01/10/death-at-noon/

    I’m now also asking everyone to turn to satire and humour, which Lasantha also loved and enjoyed. Let us lampoon and ridicule in words or sketches the elements we believe are destroying our society and values.

    In a recent comment on Groundviews.org (found at the bottom of the last of the above links), I quoted the Nigerian poet, author, environmentalist and minority rights activist (for his Ogoni people) who was executed by Nigeria’s military on 10 November 1995. (More about him at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ken_Saro-Wiwa). These are the opening lines of his celebrated poem, which suggests other ways to channel our dissent:

    “Dance your anger and your joys,
    Dance the military guns to silence,
    Dance oppression and injustice to death,
    Dance my people,
    For we have seen tomorrow
    And there is an Ogoni star in the sky.”

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  11. Ruhunu Puthrya Says:

    It is a sad thing to heard the death news of a person. But it is a good news to heard the death news of a person who is trying to betray my motherland, whether he is a good journalist. Every writer should write anything to turn my motherland into a goodway. But if that writer want to reveal unnecessary thing to the outer world, it not the good journalism. Its mud journalism. This is my point of view. Thank to all.

  12. Nalaka Gunawardene Says:

    Ruhunu Puthrya,

    I don’t normally allow your kind of hate speech on this moderated private blog — but I made an exception to show the world what kind of extremism is lurking among us on this once tolerant island.

    Simply by being what he was, Lasantha evoked the full range of reactions from adoration to abhorrence. It’s a free world and a pluralistic society so people are free to hold their own private views. But to extend those views to condoning murder is going too far. If you or anyone else didn’t like Lasantha and his kind of journalism, all you had to do was not to read his newspaper or watch him on TV. Sri Lanka has enough newspapers and TV channels for that kind of selective consumption to be possible.

    As Voltaire said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to death your right to say it. I detest what you write but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.” Evidently, you don’t share that view.

  13. Dilrukshi Says:

    In response to what the Ruhunu Putra stated, I wish to add a comment here.

    The comment, in my opinion, is a reflection of intolerance and the fragmentation of our once tolerant society.

    Gone are the days when we agreed to disagree, and in this so called thrice blessed land, condoning murder was considered extremely low conduct. Perhaps not anymore, as we read/hear more comments of this nature now than we ever did.

    We also witness increasing efforts by politicians and citizens to tag journalists. The ‘patriots’ are of course those who support the military defeat of rebels/insurgents/separatists and the insulted and ridiculed category of journalists are those who represent a dissenting opinion on this matter.

    Patriotism is not a word to be interpreted to suit the whims of individuals and governments. But among the many words distorted in meaning today, this word is one.

    If such dissenting opinion/s posed a problem to certain sensibilities of people, it was possible not to read Wickrematunge’s newspaper. Even to pursue legal action against the content if the writing compromised national security concerns as implied by Ruhunu Putra.

    Finally, there are different ways of loving one’s country. Certainly, discussing solutions to existing problems is one.

    While Wickrematunge certainly was a controvercial journalist, his advocacy of a non violent approach to end the conflict does not merit a fatwa on him.

    Patriots are those who love their country. By not calling for blood but a negotiated political solution, Wickrematunge demonstrated just that.


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