Vigil for Lasantha: Challenges of keeping the flame alive

Too little, too late? Civil society candlelight vigil for Lasantha Wickramatunga
Too little, too late? Civil society candlelight vigil for Lasantha Wickramatunga

This evening, I quietly crossed a personal threshold. For the first time in my 42 years, I joined a street protest: a candlelight vigil for the slain newspaper editor and investigative journalist Lasantha Wickramatunga.

As I have explained elsewhere: “I’m strongly committed to promoting media freedom, but have never been the placard-carrying, slogan-shouting type. Street activism is necessary — but not sufficient. I’ve been more interested in studying trends and conditions, trying to anticipate what the next big threats, challenges and opportunities are, and how best we can respond to them.”

So I went to the vigil more for Lasantha the person and less for any organised effort. The invitation I received by SMS and email from several sources asked us to gather outside Colombo’s Vihara Maha Devi (formerly Victoria) Park at 5.15 pm. It was going to be a ‘joint civil society protest’ against Lasantha’s killing and the erosion of media freedom, democracy and human rights.

It turned out to be a well-intended but poorly-planned event lacking in vision and dynamism, perhaps a bit like our (very) civil society entities themselves. The couple of hundred people who joined it came mainly from Colombo’s high society, the ones who faithfully lapped up every word that Lasantha churned out week after week for nearly 15 years. Ironically, Lasantha and his newspaper were only loosely associated with this kind of (very) civil society – fellow companions on a shared journey, but not necessarily agreeing on priorities or strategies.

Missing from this gathering were the ordinary people and the grassroots end of the civil society spectrum – the ones who are bearing the brunt of our mismanaged economy, pervasive corruption and decaying public institutions. Some of these people turned up on their own initiative at Lasantha’s funeral service and/or the funeral itself, even if the latter event was shamefully hijacked by opportunistic political parties. (As one blogger noted, politicians of all colours and hue love dead bodies.)

I remembered the battered face of an old lady who sat through the entire funeral service – and then left quietly, without even lining up with the rest of the crowd to take one last look at Lasantha as he lay amidst flowers. I remembered the handful of men and women dressed in bright coloured clothes – standing out amidst the sea of white or black clad people – who I later found out came from the Kotahena area and were part of Lasantha’s home town church.

Lighting candles was good. Keeping the flame alive is harder...
Lighting candles was good. Keeping the flame alive is harder...

No one had sent SMS or emails asking them to turn up. Some of them might not have been readers of English newspapers, which circulate among a numerically small but socially and economically influential section of Lankan society. They came because they felt the fallen man had stood up and spoken out for them.

In comparison, the candlelight vigil was decidedly upmarket. Nothing wrong in that, for the chattering class is very much part of our society and have the same rights to dissent and protest. In some countries, the upper middle class even provides vision, articulation and leadership to mass struggles. Ours, sadly, is more characterised by part-time activists who move more in the cocktail circuits grumbling about everything yet doing precious little to change the status quo. Indeed, some of them in their day jobs benefit personally from the prevailing corruption and nepotism, no matter which political party is in office.

The vigil’s organisers – it wasn’t clear who exactly they were – had painstakingly got the material ready: a large painting of Lasantha, black cloth bands and, of course, candles. But they hadn’t given enough thought to the location. We initially gathered and spent over half an hour on a stretch of road (Green Path) where only motorists passed by, but absolutely no pedestrians. Then someone thought of moving to the nearby roundabout which was a more visible, strategic location.

Not perfect, but better. By then, dusk was beginning to fall. We moved unhurriedly, chatting among ourselves, and slowly converged on a wide pavement. There, one by one, we started planting our candles on the ground in front of Lasantha’s picture. It was a moving moment captured in many still cameras and a handful of video cameras.

There we lingered for another hour or more, chatting with each other — and not necessarily about the lofty or somber matters. I was glad to catch up with several friends or associates active in artistic, journalistic or intellectual circles. I saw everybody else doing the same.

One of them, a human rights activist now turned peacenik, asked me many eager questions about blogging. A columnist for an English daily, he isn’t active online and his organisation is notably inept when it comes to mobilising the web for their cause. In his early 50s, he evidently hasn’t crossed what I call the Other Digital Divide. And he typifies the face of our organised civil society – a motley collection of do-gooders who are liberal, mostly secular, passionate yet largely ineffective in their advocacy for reform and change. They just can’t mobilise people power.

Candles burn out, but the image captured will live for longer...
Candles burn out, but the image captured will live for longer...

Admittedly, it’s a quantum leap from the one-way street in op ed pages of mainstream print newspapers to the far less orderly, sometimes near-anarchic and often unpredictable world of the blogosphere. This might explain why a majority of Lankan civil society groups stay within their comfort zone and don’t engage the world of web 2.0

On the other hand, the younger, digitally-empowered activists who engage the web with technical savvy and passion are often too impatient or inexperienced (or both) with the necessarily tedious processes of institutional development – such as legal registration, financial management and putting in place mechanisms for the very ideals they advocate in governments and corporations: proper governance and accountability.

Fortunately, this offline/online divide is blurring, even if only slowly. Groups like Beyond Borders, which originated and found their feet in the new media world, are becoming more institutionalised. If they sustain themselves (and don’t lose their sharp edge), they can bridge the online world with the offline realities and needs.

Meanwhile, as some doggedly persistent citizen journalists and new media activists have shown in the days following Lasantha’s killing, it is now possible to stir up public discussion and debate on issues of rights, freedoms and democracy using dynamic websites, blogs, online video and other tools of web 2.0. See, for example, this reflection by the Editor of Groundviews.

Whether they are active online or offline, committed activists in Sri Lanka have their work cut out for them. If the candlelight vigil for Lasantha is an indication, far more work needs to be done in strategy, unity, networking and technology choices. The old order needs to pause, reflect and change their ways. If they can’t or won’t, at a minimum they must get out of the way. (Remember what happened to those dinosaur species that were vegetarian and harmless? They too went the way of T rex…)

Earlier on in the evening, as we were heading to the roundabout with burning candles in our hands, the wind suddenly picked up. Many of us struggled to keep the flame burning, sometimes shielding it with one palm. It wasn’t quite easy to do this while walking forward, watching our step. Amidst all this, we lost sense of where we were heading. We just followed those immediately in front of us, unsure who – if anyone – was leading. Not smart or strategic.

As I drove home, I realised how symbolic that candle-in-the-wind moment had been. Keeping the flames of truth, justice and fairness alive is hard enough. It becomes that much harder when winds of tribalism threaten to snuff it out. And in the thickening darkness, how do we make sure we are headed in the right direction?

The night is young and storm clouds are still gathering. We have miles to go before we can sleep.

Related posts:
August 2007: People Power: Going beyond elections and revolutions
November 2007: True people’s power needed to fight climate change
November 2007: Protect journalists who fight for social and environmental justice!

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

Lasantha Wickramatunga: In Memoriam

Read blog post of 12 January 2009: Goodbye Lasantha – and long live Siribiris!

Farewell & fare forward...
Farewell & fare forward...
Saluting the memory of courageous newspaper editor, fearless investigative journalist, jovial human being and my former colleague Lasantha Wickramatunga, Editor in Chief of The Sunday Leader, Sri Lanka, shot dead by four gunmen within sight of his newspaper office. Today, we lost the real Leader of the Opposition.

RSF: Outrage at fatal shooting of newspaper editor in Colombo
Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka, news coverage: Lasantha shot dead
Dying for Journalism: TIME pays tribute to its reporter in Sri Lanka

Himal Southasian tribute: Unbowed and Unafraid

For once, I’m at a loss for words. When prose fails, we must turn to verse which is always more potent.
I remember Martin Niemoeller (image, below).
I remember Niyi Osundare (text, below).
I remember Adrian Mitchell.

This is the second time I have had to cite this poem in this dreadful week
This is the second time I have had to cite this poem in this deadful week

Not My Business
by Niyi Osundare

They picked Akanni up one morning
Beat him soft like clay
And stuffed him down the belly
Of a waiting jeep.

What business of mine is it
So long they don’t take the yam
From my savouring mouth?

They came one night
Booted the whole house awake
And dragged Danladi out,
Then off to a lengthy absence.

What business of mine is it
So long they don’t take the yam
From my savouring mouth?

Chinwe went to work one day
Only to find her job was gone:
No query, no warning, no probe –
Just one neat sack for a stainless record.

What business of mine is it
So long they don’t take the yam
From my savouring mouth?

And then one evening
As I sat down to eat my yam
A knock on the door froze my hungry hand.

The jeep was waiting on my bewildered lawn
Waiting, waiting in its usual silence.