Sunday Leader editor & Columbo government critic assassinated

Outspoken government critic and editor of the Sunday Leader in Columbo, Lasantha Wickramatunga was assassinated as he drove to work yesterday by unidentified gunmen on motorbikes.

There have been several attacks on and attempts to intimidate journalists in Sri Lanka in recent times while the government has been engaged in bloody campaigns against LTTE troops in the northern Tamil areas.

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa condemned the killing of Mr. Wickramatunga as an attempt to discredit the government while the Leader of the Opposition and a former Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, accused the government of silencing its critics.

Mr. Rajapaksa described Mr. Wickramatunga as a close friend and a courageous journalist and maintained “the heinous crime points to the grave dangers faced by the democratic social order of our country, and the existence of forces that will go to the furthest extremes in using terror and criminality to damage our social fabric and bring disrepute to the country.”

Addressing a news conference along with other Opposition leaders, Mr. Wickremesinghe alleged that the murder of the Sunday Leader editor was part of an anti-democratic conspiracy.

The Committee to Protect Journalists “called on concerned ambassadors in Colombo to weigh in forcefully and immediately with President Mahinda Rajapaksa to put an end to the attacks raining down on Sri Lanka’s media.”

The killing follows the January 6 early morning assault by about 15 masked gunmen on Maharaja TV (MTV) studios outside Colombo. Earlier, some state media had called the station “unpatriotic” for its coverage of the war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). CPJ called for an impartial parliamentary inquiry into the attack, saying the government has been a prime suspect in attacks on journalists in the past. Rajapaksa has condemned today’s killing as well as the attack on MTV.

Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator said

“The assassination of Lasantha Wickramatunga signals that the government is unable or unwilling to protect the country’s journalists who dare to report critically. The international community in Colombo must act quickly to bring pressure on President Rajapaksa to reverse this murderous trend.”

The Sunday Leader is well known for being critical of Rajapaksa’s government. In a recent editorial, the paper accused the president of stepping up the war with the secessionist LTTE in order to stay in power.

Wickramatunga’s editorial admonished the Columbo government severely for its pre-election tactics:

What is perhaps most offensive about Rajapakse’s attempts to manipulate the electorate in the face of an election is how much he takes for granted the fickleness of his Sinhala-Buddhist following. Nothing could better personify the “Sinhalaya modaya” stereotype than the President’s disdain for his own people. And they love him for it. So long as a steady stream of Tamils are exterminated, there is little to impede Rajapakse’s cruise to yet another victory.

The dead journalist also criticised the UNP opposition for its non-committal policies:

Sadly for both Ranil Wickremesinghe and Karu Jayasuriya, they have failed to convey effectively to the country their concerns about the issues of our time. As a party, the UNP is yet to decide whether or not it supports the war and if so, whether it subscribes, for example, to the present practice of aerially bombarding Tamil villages labelled as LTTE hideouts in the north.

To say it opposes the war but nevertheless congratulate the army on capturing Paranthan or Killinochchi, however, is morally and intellectually dishonest. After all, the government would not dare bombing LTTE hideouts in the south – let us say in Wellawatte – for fear of collateral damage. Yet, in the remote townships of the Wanni, such bombardment has now become routine, with enormous cost to the civilian population.

The attacks on Tamil villages by Sri Lanka’s government mirror those of Israel on the people of Gaza. Both parties under attack have had national aspirations under occupation for 60 years, and both peoples can trace continuous existence in their native lands. Before British rule, Tamil and Sinhalese coexisted in two kingdoms

the Tamil Kingdom comprising the north and eastern parts and the Sinhalese Kingdom(s) the western & southern parts of Ceylon. There were brief periods when the whole of Ceylon came under a single ruler. Otherwise, there existed two or more Kingdoms and the Tamil Kingdom always one of them. The Tamil Kingdom, later came to be called the Jaffna Kingdom existed as a separate polity for centuries. The first war between a Tamil King who ruled Anuradhapura and a Sinhalese king from the south was fought in the 2nd century BC.

In the case of Palestine however, Zionist colonialisation of Palestinian land began in the 1880s with the advent of kibbutzs set up by European Jews.

When Sri Lanka declared independence from the British in 1948, its constitution incorporated the state with its official religion as Buddhism. The Tamil people are predominantly Hindu. Success in the first election by Sinhalese Buddhist candidates enabled the passing of

“the Ceylon (Parliamentary Elections) Amendment Act No.48 of 1949 which deprived the Tamils of their franchise as well. This category of Tamils who had 7 seats in the Parliament and held balance of power in a further 20-30 electorates failed to elect even a single member in the elections to the parliament held in 1953.”

Tamils were further marginalised in 1956 with the passing of the Sinhala Only Act:

The enactment of this Act, quite contrary to the hitherto official policy of recognising both Sinhalese and Tamil as Official languages, made Tamils second class citizens in their country of birth overnight.

The Tamil people staged a non-violent demonstration against the stripping of their rights and were met with violence.

The peaceful Satyragraha by the Tamils to protest against the Sinhala Only language policy at Galle Face Green overlooking the Parliament in Colombo was broken up by Sinhalese hoodlums. This was followed by Island wide riots in which hundreds of Tamils lost their lives and property worth millions destroyed. The 1956 riots was the beginning of a series of racially motivated Tamil pogroms by Sinhalese covertly encouraged by successive governments and overtly supported by the security forces. These pogroms with increased ferocity and venom were repeated in 1958, 1961, 1977, 1979, 1981 and 1983.

The government of Sri Lanka has still failed to address the just, legitimate rights of the Tamil people, instead pursuing violent means to crush “the Other”. As usual, violence met with violence in return. The Tamil Tigers (LTTE) are claimed to be “the official army of the Tamil people”.

@Jinjirrie http://is.gd/eX8R Lasantha Wickramatunga ed of Sunday Leader & govt critic shot by unidentified gunmen in Columbo http://is.gd/eXak

3 comments to Sunday Leader editor & Columbo government critic assassinated

  • free sri

    The issue has been argued back and forth so often that it’s hard to find a neutral point of view on the web let alone books. But most moderate Sinhala people agree that the root cause is the Sinhala only policy. That resulted in thousands of Tamil Civil servants being forced to learn Sinhala or to lose their job.

    Whilst it’s important to listen to both sides of the argument, the LTTE certainly does not represent one side of it. They are not rebels or freedom fighters as many journals make them out to be. They fight their battles using conscripts – forced conscripts – child soldiers. (Example: to prominent LTTE defectors Karuna and Pilliyan were child soldiers). How does the LTTE raise funds through extortion.

    Unfortunately the government thinks any tamil who claims to speak for the oppressed tamils is an LTTE sympathizer. Often even Sinhala people are accused of it.

    As for the other side, the government is not really the voice of the Sri Lanka. They couldn’t even muster a majority in parliament and did so by bribing (yes bribing) around two dozen opposition politicians to cross over. The form of bribary – give them ministries (result we have 100+ ministers).

    As for ancient tamil kingdoms – this has also been spin doctored by both sides and I am not knowledgable enough to coment deeply on it. However my understanding is that often a person who has been identified as a king was just a chieftain or a war lord. The high king always lived in Anuradhapura and later Pollonaruwa there were kingdoms in the south and north but these were not separate states. But that did change when Polonaruwa fell for the last time – after that there were scattered kingdoms but no high king but they were all part of Sri Lanka.

    If you really look deep the last king of Sri Lanka (actually the last king of Kandy) wasn’t even a Sinhalese. At one time Tamil Buddhists in Jaffna out numbered the Hindus. When the Kandyan kingdom finally fell, the Sinhala Chieftans signed the treaty in Tamil (it’s there in the kandy museum)

  • free sri

    If this is what happens to the president’s friends. One shudders to think what would happen to his enemies. It was his government that stood by and did nothing when the sunday leader press was burned. It was his government that failed to provide security for Lasantha despite the numerous death threats he recieved. Indeed none of the death threats appear to have been investigated.

    When ever a journalist is attacked, it’s always an attempt to discredit the government. Yet no one is ever arrested or convicted.

    I must point out a small error in your sourced. One of the sources you have used (tamilelam web) belongs to the terrorists and cannot be relied upon. The root cause of the trouble is the Sinhala only policy which caused tamils to become second class citizens overnight.

    There is no denying that ‘The government of Sri Lanka has still failed to address the just, legitimate rights of the Tamil people. It’s not just this government sucessive governments since independence have been guilty of it.

    Here is no historical precedent for a separate tamil homeland as claimed by the LTTE. Tamils and Sinhala people have always co-existed and they still co-exists in Colombo and some other cities.

    • Democracies which rely upon violence to enforce solutions cannot be considered democratic in my view. In addition, the health of democracies rely upon the freedom of the press. When public opinion is stifled, when journalists cannot practise their trade without fear of censure of their truths, it is the ugly head of totalitarianism we see. Given the level of violence toward journalists in Sri Lanka, I would worry about being speaking out at all against the present Sri Lankan government.

      Thank you for pointing out my source – I couldn’t find any error in the information I presented from that site – though I only did a quick cross check at wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sri_Lankan_Tamil_people. You don’t seem to disagree with their information on one of the root causes of dissatisfaction – the Sinhala only policy – and I see that it was after that, the protests began in earnest. I am still wondering whether the trigger for the breakdown of the polity was in the first constitution – the institution of Buddhist as the official state religion – which may have encouraged the Buddhist chauvinists to pass the 1949 disenfranchisement act then the Sinhala only act in 1956. My own particular area of interest is in the relationship of belief and political systems so Sri Lanka serves as an interesting case study. Did the mixing of belief and religion at state formation enable the perversion of both? Your thoughts?

      Please clarify any points which are in contention if you would – despite Anil’s Ghost being one of my favourite books of all time, the complexities of Sri Lanka’s very interesting political history are fascinating, fairly uncharted waters for me.

      Like Obama, I don’t have a problem listening to all sides of an argument in an effort to resolve conflict. I’ve never been comfortable with counter-productively labelling violent expression of community grievances, some of which may well be legitimate, against states, as ‘terrorism’. The term has connotations of irrationality. Labelling serrves as a convenient way to avoid listening to the other side and resolving grievances for the benefit of all, in fact it helps ensure that violence will continue as a repetitive, malignant cycle. That being said, I do not condone violence except as a last resort when all other methods have failed to overthrow tyranny, for which there is no excuse. Better to die standing than on your knees etc. – probably my scottish heritage coming out there:)

      In functional democracies, there should be no need for ‘terrorism’, as the polity can express their grievances at the polls and in the press and public forums without fear.

      It’s been all too convenient since Bush’s idiotic black and white thinking became the western paradigm after 911, for existing tyrannies to use the inane and fascist ‘for us or against us’ mantra as carte blanche to crack down on their existing, already oppressed targets. Israel, with its chauvinistic pseudo-democracy for example, conveniently labelled Hamas as terrorists, despite it being a democratically elected government of people whom Israel has cruelly oppressed for 61 years and despite Palestinians having legitimate demands supported by 65 (now 66) UN Security Council Resolutions and umpteen General Assembly Resolutions, let alone the promises of the treacherous British government before that.

      You say there’s no historical precedent for a separate Tamil homeland – yet what about the Jaffna kingdom in the 11th century CE?

      What solutions do you see as practicable within the current framework? why doesn’t the Sri Lankan government change the constitution to permit full integration of its ethnicities? is this a result of present day chauvinism?