By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“ I will show you what it is to be scared. I will rest only once I have destroyed you.” – President Mahinda Rajapaksa to Lasantha Wickrematunga (reported in the Sunday Leader – 25.11.2007)[i]
In 1558, the Spanish Inquisition arrested Bartolomé de Carranza, Archbishop of Toledo and the country’s top prelate, on charges of heresy.
After nearly 80 years of persistent persecution (including burnings at the stake) the Inquisition had almost obviated Spain’s Jewish and converso (Jewish converts to Christianity) communities. Needing another enemy and another threat, the inquisitors decided to burrow deep into Spanish society in search of ‘old Christians’ whose religious beliefs/practices were at variance with the Inquisition’s fundamentalist outlook. Arresting Archbishop Carranza was aimed at demonstrating to Spaniards that in this new ‘war’, no one will be spared, not even the man chosen by their king to head their church: “If the primate of all Spain could be convicted of heresy, no one could be thought free of suspicion. Fear could reap its bitter crop among all the classes of Spain”.[ii]
Fear is an indispensable weapon in the arsenal of any tyrant. Fear can deactivate the critical and active minority and buttress the unquestioning obedience of the silent and inactive majority. Fear impedes people from thinking critically and analytically. Without fear, citizens of a democracy cannot be made to diminish themselves into subjects of an autocracy.
Tyrants are terrorists by definition. And when the target of terror is intelligently chosen, a single murder can send shockwaves over a wide and varied terrain and deflate innumerable others into inaction.
The murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge was just such an act of terrorism.
Those who ordered his murder wanted to be rid of a journalist with an uncanny ability to ferret out the hidden and hold it to the light of public knowledge. They also wanted to send a warning to other critics/opponents, and to society at large: if a renowned and senior editor can be murdered in broad daylight at a busy junction, the long arm of terror can reach anywhere, anyone, anytime…..
Even the most well-resourced and potent tyrant cannot keep tab of all the citizens all the time. The obvious way to bridge this control-gap is to get people to police each other and themselves. There is no censorship as effective as self-censorship.
What better way to induce self-censorship than through fear? What better way to administer that lesson in fear than by murdering a scribe who was tireless in exposing the growing Rajapaksa abuses/excesses?
Thou shall not criticise the First Family is a core commandment of Rajapaksa rule. Bureaucrats, parliamentarians, ministers and even the prime minister can be faulted, but not the least member of the Rajapaksa clan. Lasantha Wickrematunge broke this taboo time and again. A plan to build a Rs. 400million luxury bunker for President Rajapaksa[iii] was abandoned when it was exposed by Lasantha Wickrematunga. The exposé was proclaimed an indirect act as terrorism[iv] and plans were made to arrest Lasantha Wickramatunga[v]:
That was a time before the 18th Amendment, before the AG’s Department became a presidential-appendage; plus the regime still had a war to win. Consequently the Rajapaksa attempt to incarcerate their most vociferous critic had to be discarded. And for the next two years Lasantha Wickrematunge continued to reveal what the Rajapaksas wanted to, needed to conceal. He and the Sunday Leader became serious impediments to the freedom of the Ruling Family. For instance, Minister Chamal Rajapaksa’s cabinet-approved project to purchase the 250-bedroom-five-star Hotel Continental to house the Ports Authority had to be abandoned thanks to a Sunday Leader exposé[vi].
Since Lasantha Wickrematunge could neither be cowed nor co-opted, he had to be removed.
Us vs. Them
By late 2008/early 2009, the victory against the LTTE was in sight and the Rajapaksas were commencing the task of moulding a new (post-war) modus vivendi. Their dynastic agenda required a pliant media and a weakened opposition. How could a de facto monarchy be imposed on a fractious democracy, if actual/potential dissenters are not paralysed into inaction and the masses are not habituated to sheep-like obedience? What better time to implant these essential building blocks of patrimonial oligarchy than when the rulers are at the zenith of their popularity and thus at their most hegemonic?
Lasantha Wickrematunge was assassinated, one week after the fall of Killinochchi and one day before the taking of the Elephant Pass. The timing was perfect; just 24 hours after that most heinous crime, even the outspokenly anti-government TV station Sirasa, could not carry it as the main item on its evening newscast. The murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge was overtaken by the regaining of Elephant Pass and the reopening of the A9 road. Any sense of foreboding the South may have felt about this daylight-and-public assassination of a dissenting editor thus evaporated in an outburst of euphoria. Internationally too, Lasantha Wickrematunge’s murder did not receive the attention it deserved because the world was understandably preoccupied with Israel’s carnage in Gaza.
The manner in which the killers conducted themselves demonstrated that they did not fear detection or detention. There was a clear similarity between this killing and several previous and subsequent crimes. Parliamentarians T Maheswaran and Raviraj too were murdered in crowded public places in broad daylight; the Secretary of the Judicial Services Commission was assaulted (during the impeachment travesty) also under similar circumstances.
Five years on, the regime, which achieved the feat of defeating Vellupillai Pirapaharan, has not been able to apprehend those who murdered Lasantha Wickrematunge. It is a comprehensible failure; the men who pulled the trigger will enjoy impunity so long as the men who gave the orders are in command.
A couple of months before the assassination, the President allegedly invited Lasantha Wickrematunga to the Temple Trees. “Lasantha was at first apprehensive about this Presidential call to a rapprochement, but later relented”[vii].
Was that call for rapprochement made in the same spirit that the LTTE sent an olive branch to Rajiv Gandhi, giving him an illusion of safety and luring him to Sri Perumbadur? Or was it to enable Mahinda Rajapaksa to deflect some of the blame accruing to him, post-murder, by claiming Lasantha Wickrematunga as a friend?[viii]
On January 11th 2006, at 11.13 am, President Mahinda Rajapaksa reportedly called Lasantha Wickrematunga. Furious about an alleged media story about his wife, he reportedly commenced his tirade by stating, “I will finish you. I treated you well all this while. Now I will destroy you. You don’t know who Mahinda Rajapaksa is.”[ix]
Lasantha Wickrematunga knew Mahinda Rajapaksa, the bon vivant, the parliamentarian, the minister and even the prime minister. But he clearly did not know Mahinda Rajapaksa the President and dynasty-builder. It was an ignorance for which he can hardly be faulted; the similarities between the Sun God and the High King were still nascent than actual at that time.
Lasantha Wickrematunge could not have known that for the Rajapaksas (as for the LTTE) the world was a black-and-white place, peopled by servile-supporters and intolerable-enemies; and that there were no intermediate spaces in that fundamentalist universe, even for old friends.
Half-a-decade after Lasantha Wickrematunge was murdered with impunity, we should…
[ii] Inquisition: The Reign of Fear – Toby Green
[iv] Lanka e newspapers – 3.1.2007