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 Lasantha Wickramatunga ed of Sunday Leader & govt critic shot by unidentified gunmen in Columbo