Anatomy of a Murder - 14 January 2009
Eighteen years ago I wrote an article entitled 'Inquest on a System' about the murder of Richard de Zoysa. Hearing of the tragedy that had befallen Lasantha Wickramatunga, my mind went back to that essay, because here too was an individual who was larger than life, whose political progress was a remarkable record of the recent political history of this country, and whose murder raised similar questions to that of Richard.
There are of course differences, in the characters, and also in my own acquaintance with them. I knew Richard extremely well, and was privy to his reasoning over the different political choices he made, and I hardly knew Lasantha. But right through his spectacular journalistic career, I was always conscious of the first time I had met him, way back in 1980, when I was invited to attend some sort of policy making meeting at Mrs Bandaranaike's Rosmead Place House.
This was just after I had resigned from the University in protest at what I saw as the beginning of the destruction of democracy in this country, the taking away of her Civic Rights. Perhaps the SLFP saw me then as a suitable candidate for recruitment, though I suspect I would have seemed hopelessly alien then to the people I met. One of them, in talking about educational policy, continued to insist that English was unnecessary and, if Sri Lanka had to have an international language, it might as well be Russian as any other.
I cannot remember who this was, nor the other people who were there, except for Lasantha. I did not attend any further meetings, for this was clearly not my milieu, and I suspect the others there were relieved. But Lasantha I had sensed was modern in his outlook and, knowing that he was a close associate of Anura Bandaranaike at the time, I wondered why he did not contribute more from a more modern standpoint.
It was only reading his obituaries now that I realized how young he was, that in 1980 he would have been just 22, the same age as Richard. It was not surprising then that Lasantha, articulate as he was, could make no impact on the SLFP, and of course those were the days in which his friend Anura was gradually being pushed out, with the Chandrika wing as it might be termed taking over the party and its Presidential campaign in 1982. When, following that and the disastrous referendum, that wing seemed to over-reach itself and Mrs Bandaranaike turned back to Anura, Lasantha moved back to centre stage in the party. One paper records that he even became private secretary to Mrs Bandaranaike in 1986, and that did ring a bell, though the assertion that she was Leader of the Opposition then was clearly wrong. Another column in the same paper may be more accurate, in claiming that this position was his after the 1989 General Election.
The question of the date may be significant. I did not see much of him in the run up to the Presidential election of 1988, when the Liberal Party was prominent in the discussions that led to the formation of the Democratic People's Alliance. That Alliance however was doomed, when Mrs Bandaranaike reneged overnight on the agreement she had reached, with Anura's blessing, with the Muslim Congress, which led to Mr Ashraff throwing his weight behind Mr Premadasa in the election. We had prepared a paper for her to make clear the importance of the Muslim Congress vote (and the final results proved our point), and it was Chanaka Amaratunga who had to break the news to Mr Ashraff. Anura characteristically decided he could not bear the scene, and took himself out of Colombo, sending Chanaka to Mr Ashraff to stop him, just as he was getting ready to come to Rosmead Place to sign the agreement.
After Mrs Bandaranaike's defeat in the Presidential election, Chandrika was able to make a triumphant return to the SLFP, and Anura was once more out in the cold. By this time Lasantha, though still friendly with Anura, had realized that Anura was not the most effective political mentor in the world. It is possible therefore that he continued with Mrs Bandaranaike while Anura was moving away. However Chandrika would have none of him, so that by the time she triumphed, at both the Parliamentary and Presidential elections of 1994, Lasantha had moved back towards the UNP.
But this, I believe, was towards Gamini Dissanayake. Certainly I remember being told, between the two elections, when Gamini was running a fantastically effective campaign for the Presidency, that he was going to start a new English paper. This I believe was the genesis of the Leader, even though by the time it came out Gamini was dead, killed by the LTTE at an election rally. Lasantha had no choice then but to gravitate towards Ranil, and his vehement dislike of Chandrika helped to cement the relationship. Incidentally, Chanaka used to write for the Leader in its early days, originating the Thelma column I believe, with a strange mix of witty insight and salacious gossip that found Chandrika ready meat for satire.
This was in effect the tone of the Leader throughout, which enabled it to be hugely influential in oppositional circles in Colombo. This was also the reason I did not see the Leader as in any way a threat to government, because Lasantha always wore his heart on his sleeve, and made no bones about where his predilections lay. In discussion with foreign diplomats, in the dark days of 2007 when there were serious attempts to overthrow the government, I found this impression confirmed, when many of them evinced the same attitude to the Leader, but seemed to believe more insidious efforts in other papers to undermine the government.
This does not mean the Leader did not fulfil an important role, and a role that was necessary. Lasantha's investigative skills were fantastic, and the paper was always interesting, in part because of its incisive exaggerations. But its long term impact is best summed up by the response of one of my favourite UNP groupies, who used to think that a particular journalist was fantastic, until one of her close friends was accused of unmentionable things - after that it became 'that woman', and the Leader no longer had pride of place in that household.
But that was also the Leader's strength, that it was wide-ranging in its criticism. In fact its finest moments were perhaps during the Wickremesinghe regime of 2002-2003, when it was one of the harshest critics of many individuals in that government. Ranil alone was exempt from criticism, and it took some time to realize that some of the attacks, such as the terrific critique of Karu Jayasuriya, were part of a deeper political game, but there was certainly consistency. The Leader was alone in asserting that the government was not going far enough in satisfying what it saw as legitimate LTTE demands. Even if to many of us this showed a failure to understand the manner in which the LTTE operated, it was certainly a logical exposition of the principles that underlay the approach of the government of the day.
Conversely the Leader had been brilliant in its earlier revelations regarding some of the weaknesses of Chandrika's government, which perhaps explains the increasing animosity between her and Lasantha. The saddest human aspect of this though was the breach that developed between him and Anura, when the latter finally went back to the party of his parents. The Leader's accounts of the brother and sister then were extraordinarily entertaining, and the aftermath shows that there were no hard feelings, or at any rate that these were forgettable, when the Leader accepted the need for Chandrika and Ranil to become bedfellows in their hostility to the current government, and Anura at intervals went along with this as well.
The trajectory then is extraordinary, and suggests a volatility like Richard's that also symbolizes the volatility of Sri Lankan politics during the last two decades. Richard, born as it were into the UNP, implacably opposed to the SLFP, found Premadasa unacceptable and seemed then to gravitate into the JVP, though whether this was with Lalith Athulathmudali's blessing or not will never be known. Lasantha, growing up in the SLFP, found himself a victim of the rivalry between Anura and Chandrika, and ended up in the UNP, to which indeed his father had initially belonged. The enormous irony is that, in the end, both Anura and Chandrika gravitated in that direction too, disliking the transformation that had occurred in the SLFP, a transformation paralleling what Premadasa had, if temporarily, achieved in the UNP.
My hope is that there will be similar parallels in the aftermath. I have written before about how the enormity of Richard's death enabled Premadasa to rein in the squads which had previously operated with impunity in eliminating the JVP. There are those who would argue that such squads were necessary, given the enormity of the terrorist threat in the late eighties. That is a position that must be understood, if not accepted, though at the same time we cannot forget how the government of the day bears some responsibility for having driven the JVP, which had taken up democratic politics by then, underground and into terrorism. The bottom line however was that, by 1990 certainly, there was no need for extreme measures, and Richard's death was inexcusable.
In the present situation however, inexcusable too as is Lasantha's death, there are differences. The types of squads the UNP had no qualms about creating in the eighties, the PRRA and Green Tigers and Black Cats and so on, have not existed in recent years. That in itself is a tribute to Premadasa, if Richard's mother was correct in claiming that, shortly after his murder, they were all told that the game was over, and there would be no impunity for anything in the future.
However, in considering the possible reasons for Lasantha's death, the idea that squads of the earlier sort do operate cannot be dismissed. Obviously the gang that killed him was well organized, and must represent some sort of policy decision, so the question is, what sort of policy is being carried out?
When I wrote about Richard's death, which happened while I was away, so I could on returning to Sri Lanka look at all the writings comprehensively, I noted that 'The least controlled of the Sri Lankan papers suggested four possibilities as to his death'. The opening phrase is significant, suggesting how far we have come since those days of heavy control, when only government had television channels and there were very few daily or Sunday newspapers. And perhaps more significant is the fact that now most papers will simply enunciate a single possibility as to the killing, or at most two, namely the two diametrically opposed ones.
To my mind however there are four possibilities again, though as previously I believe two of them, the two opposed ones, can be dismissed fairly easily. One is that he was killed on as it were official orders. This parallels the claim in Richard's case, though in that case that was finally the most likely explanation, albeit there is continuing uncertainty as to whether responsibility lay, as an opposition MP put it, with the dark haired or the white haired one. The reference was to Premadasa or Ranjan Wijeratne, and sadly, against all evidence, Colombo society continues to believe that Premadasa was responsible, though at least in the references this week the claim was modified to 'Richard de Zoysa was killed by former President Ranasinghe Premadasa's henchmen'.
In this case however such an explanation is unthinkable. Apart from the President's own links with Lasantha, dating back to his position in the Anura and anti-Chandrika wing of the SLFP (Premadasa had no knowledge of Richard and was surprised to learn that he had links with the Saravanamuttu family that had been active in Colombo Municipal politics), clearly anyone in office would know that the murder of Lasantha Wickramatunga would be the most destructive blow possible to a government now widely perceived as immensely successful. That such an act takes away immeasurably from the positive achievements of the armed forces is obvious and, unless one assumes that governmental policy is deliberately self-destructive, the attribution of blame to government does not make sense.
At the same time, I am not convinced of the contrary view, that this is an elaborate plot by the LTTE and their supporters, of whatever sort, to bring the government into disrepute. The charge is not as absurd as the charge made by the UNP government in 1990, that Richard was killed by the JVP, since the JVP had been so decimated by then that it could not have benefited from Richard's death even had it been in a position to plan it. But it is similarly unlikely now that the LTTE, however well supported, could have planned such a sophisticated operation in Colombo and got away with it on this occasion.
The third possibility is that the murder was by forces supportive of the government, who saw in Lasantha a nuisance that the government would be well rid of. This is a possibility, but it requires an assumption of relative innocence as to political realities that is not likely in those who could have planned such an elaborate opposition. This after all is a period in which the Leader's criticisms of the forces have been proved untenable. The mockery extended to claims of military victory has been exploded, and it would have made much more sense for those supportive of the forces to watch the Leader going into contortions to justify its earlier idea that the LTTE was somehow equal to the government, than to justify the entire approach of the Leader by murdering its editor.
But na�vet� on the part of those blindly dedicated to those in power is not unthinkable, so that possibility cannot be dismissed. There is however yet another possibility that is well worth considering, and which seems indeed to be supported by the reactions of Lasantha's political associates. They are working overtime to ensure the polarization of our society, and that could well be in accordance with the agenda of those who killed Lasantha.
After all, in the current context of military victory over the LTTE, the government, most obviously the President but also many other spokesmen, have shown themselves keen on affirming the need for a politically inclusive solution to the political problems we face. This was apparent in the approach even of the Army Commander who in his speech eschewed the triumphalism that a few supporters and many opponents of the government wanted. The forces meanwhile, through their recent magnificent effort over the 'Future Minds' Exhibition in Jaffna, showed their commitment to the welfare of the people and the development of the region.
In such a context, those who would prefer confrontation rather than compromise needed a dramatic cause. Killing Lasantha was bound to cause tensions and, precisely because the three other explanations I have suggested above were available, political polarization was likely. This is encouraged by all those busybodies who think they are serving the cause of human rights by pointing the finger at the President and the government, even in the absence of any evidence for their claims.
Thus Reporters without Borders had no qualms about declaring that 'President Mahinda Rajapaksa, his associates and the government media are directly to blame because they incited hatred against him'. The Asian Human Rights Commission was also categorical in its finger pointing, and declaring its particular reasons for hostility, in claiming that 'Mr Wickramatunga was a primary target of the Rajapakse regime and particularly the Secretary of Defence, Gotabaya Rajapakse'. And though others were more circumspect, Human Rights Watch too was fairly clear about who it thought was responsible - and what it seeks like AHRC to achieve in focusing on the murder - when it said, 'The government should not take its recent military victories as a signal that it can stifle dissent.' And of course the UNP, forgetting its outrageous behaviour over the killing of Richard de Zoysa, is trying to make political capital out of the killing.
Such attempts to put the government on the defensive could help to strengthen the influence of those who disapprove of the inclusive agenda the President has been setting. In that respect the prophecies of doom can become self-fulfilling, with extremists on either side gaining in influence, which would be precisely what was sought through the murder.
The President however is not likely to be swayed by such considerations from the programme he has set himself. He has too the example of Premadasa, who was able after Richard's death to assert himself firmly, and put a stop to extremist agendas of all sorts. As a result he could launch into a nationwide development programme that saw economic opportunities extended to rural areas in a manner that the country had not seen for decades. The East, it will be remembered, was regained then, and through local government elections too, though in the aftermath the very different approaches of the three administrations which succeeded Premadasa's saw it lost again, until the recent achievements of this government.
We can only hope then that this tragedy too, like Richard's, will be the precursor of a conceptual change that will put aside the polarization and confrontation that can only harm Sri Lanka. The opposition obviously sees this as an opportunity to attack, and to recover from the blows to their prestige caused by the military victories and their reactions to them. However the government should not allow itself to be drawn into a game of atrocity snap, tempting though Ranil Wickremesinghe's vulnerability in this respect might be.
It should make it clear that incidents like Lasantha's death are unacceptable and must be investigated conscientiously and thoroughly. It should not allow police officers to be led astray by oppositional criticism into thinking that government has something to hide, and therefore they can relax in their pursuit of the criminals. After all, in a similar situation, when government was accused of responsibility for all abductions, clear instructions to the police to investigate every case led to the arrest of two gangs in the Eastern Province. A similar message must be given out categorically now, because to allow criminals to get away with such acts, even if they might claim they were acting in pursuit of what they saw as the national interest, will not help the national interest at all.
In short, there can be no substitute for the rule of law. Now that the main danger is past, it is clear that priority should be given to the restoration of law and order. The Secretary of Defence had shown the way in dealing through the Courts with what he saw as unfair criticism, and his success in that respect may well have irritated those at either extreme who preferred violent and anarchic confrontation. National security obviously cannot be ignored, but in the long run the restoration of the rule of law all over this country should be a matter of urgency, and the police in particular should be well aware that establishing the facts and prosecuting the guilty in this instance is the most important contribution they can now make to a durable peace.
Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process