For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya
In Sri Lanka, we keep demon masks in the house. Not because we like demons, but to keep other demons out. This, essentially, is why The Sunday Leader endorsed Sarath Fonseka for president. It has been alleged that Fonseka killed our Founder Editor, but the alternative was worse.
If then Army Commander Sarath Fonseka was the arms of the war effort, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa was its brain, and — to lesser effect — mouth. Addressing a meeting of journalists he said, “Our services are appreciated by 99 per cent of the people. They love the Army Commander (Lt. Gen. Fonseka) and the Army. Those who love us do what is required.” (Sunday Times, June 1, 2008).
To quote the Defence Ministry website, “Whoever attempts to reduce the public support to the military by making false allegations and directing baseless criticism at armed forces personnel is supporting the terrorist organisation that continuously murder [sic] citizens of Sri Lanka.” Essentially, if we’re doing a demon dance to ward of evil, please don’t point out that the dancers themselves might get demonic. It is hard to do a faith healing without faith.
Some, however, kept a different faith. As Lasantha Wickrematunge pointed out in his posthumous editorial, “We have made no secret of our horror that Sri Lanka is the only country in the world routinely to bomb its own citizens.” On January 8, 2009, Lasantha was killed. The only suspects ever arrested were from Military Intelligence. When the Straits Times asked if Fonseka knew of the murder, Gotabaya said “Yes, of course. We know there was no other person… In fact, I know for sure. He was definitely responsible for five or six cases (of disappearances) where media people were involved. Now I am going after the people who did the executions. The truth will come out very soon, then the people will know.”
Brigadier Duminda Keppetiwalana and initially 17 military suspects were arrested. The Attorney General informed the court that Keppetiwalana was involved in the assassination. The Sunday Leader ran an article titled “Investigations Into Lasantha’s Murder Speed Up” but then, inexplicably, they slowed down again. Keppetiwalana was given bail in April. The same Attorney General said he had no objections. It all seems like a dance, and it was. First, the Rajapaksas retained a demon to dance away Prabhakaran. When that was done they didn’t know what to do with the creature, so they tried to pin him to the wall as the ceremonial Chief of Defence Staff. When he jumped off the wall and ran for election they stomped him and pinned him to the ground. But with what? They could have charged him with Lasantha’s murder, but someone didn’t want that case to see trial. Instead, they charged him with much lesser offences. Why?
This question is perhaps not relevant now. It’s a deal we all made with the devil and most people just enjoy the show. The Raksha General had to give up his fearsome military garb and walk around in a politician’s white. People laughed. Then he was stripped of even that and reduced to prison garb. People laughed more. Like a mask with the ears and tusks knocked off, it’s just eyes and bad teeth.
This being The Sunday Leader, however, and Lasantha being our founding editor, we do wonder why. Why was the issue suddenly investigated and then shelved again? When The Sunday Leader asked Sarath Fonseka directly, he said he did not kill Lasantha, that the murder was done by a drug dealer masquerading as a politician, presumably referring to Mervyn Silva. Recently in Parliament, however, Mervyn Silva said that he had evidence implicating Fonseka. Who to believe? Yamma Raksaya or Gara Yaka?
We do know what Lasantha said. Before he died, Lasantha made a few frantic calls, knowing he was being followed. One was to President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who he had known as a friend for over 25 years. Mahinda missed the call, later saying he had been in the shrine room for 45 minutes, by which time the deed was done. Later, Lasantha could only communicate to Mahinda via his posthumous editorial.
“In the wake of my death I know you will make all the usual sanctimonious noises and call upon the police to hold a swift and thorough inquiry. But like all the inquiries you have ordered in the past, nothing will come of this one, too. For truth be told, we both know who will be behind my death, but dare not call his name. Not just my life, but yours too, depends on it.” Thus, despite the flurries of activity, it seems that the investigation into Lasantha’s murder is again going nowhere. If the government was so sure that Sarath Fonseka did it, then why are they not prosecuting him for murder? Do they have nothing to show, or something to hide? This is the difficult position The Sunday Leader finds itself in. Defend someone who may have killed your editor, or side with someone who will prevent you from ever knowing the truth? It is a deal with devils, yet, having already paid the price of life, it is unclear what’s left to gain.
As The Sunday Leader is attacked for supporting Fonseka, for opposing Ranil, for taking money, for not having money — it is hard to see why any of this wheeling and dealing has to take place. At this time, however, it may pay to remember how Lasantha lived and how he died. As his assassins showed themselves near her home, Lasantha’s wife begged him to go inside. He, instead, wanted to go and talk to them. Because that’s the way he was, unbowed and unafraid. Better sense immediately prevailed, but he still insisted on driving to work. They killed him on the road.
At the end of a demon dance, that’s where the costumes and decorations are left, everything that shows that it is a fake. They are left on the road, preferably where three roads meet. In the same way Lasantha’s unsolved murder remains with us, a reminder that for all the fiery glow, all the media reports, all the signs and symbols of democracy — all of this is a fake. Prosecutions are persecutions, investigations are obfuscations, nothing is as it seems. It is all spirits, mumbo jumbo and noise. For whatever ails our nation — a sickness of which Lasantha’s unsolved murder is just a symptom — perhaps we should emerge out of the fiery dark and try something new. Medicine seems to work well for our bodies, perhaps we should try something more modern for our body politic. Like democracy.