Ruling regimes killed Kumar and Lasantha for speaking out
| by Pearl Thevanayagam
(January 08, London, Sri Lanka Guardian) We are commemorating the death anniversaries of Lanka’s two great sons who dared to fight injustices and who were not afraid to fight human wrongs in Courts and in print. Kumar Ponnambalam was murdered on January 05, 2000 and Lasantha Wickrematunga on January 09, 2009 by government hit squads. The fact both murders are unsolved like most others proves the government’s direct complicity.
Let us not forget other government orchestrated murders of human rights activists, scores of journalists and political dissenters who earned the wrath of the ruling regimes. The list of government orchestrated murders is endless. Starting from the killings of Maru Sira of the April 1971 and other JVP rebels the governments in succession chose the path of annihilating dissenters thereby sending warning signals to others who dared to fight the ruling regimes.
|Lasantha with his parents and brother Lal|
What was Kumar Ponnambalam’s crime? A pacifist by nature and in deed, Kumar did not distinguish between Tamils and Sinhalese when it came to human rights. He appeared for both Tamil and Sinhalese journalists free of charge although his overt stinginess is legendary. He defended the MTV Director of News when he was charged with his MTV news reader inadvertently announcing a curfew when in fact it was an emergency passed in parliament.
As a 21 year old leaving for UK my father introduced me to Kumar at the airport. The next time I met him was during the Presidential Commission sittings at the BMICH which was inquiring into incidents by the security forces in Kokkaddichcholai infamously known as the Kokkaddichcholai massacre of 1991 where 153 civilians were mowed down by the security forces. I was covering the commission for the Daily News and during intervals he used to tell me, “Do not expect justice from this commission.” The commission comprised three Supreme Court Judges including Siva Sellathurai. That commission died a natural death as did others which followed. Although it found the commanding officer who was negligent in containing his soldiers from unleashing the killing spree and finding 19 soldiers guilty they were subsequently released and transferred to North as `punishment’.
The commanding officer was made to resign.
This pattern of many farcical commissions would follow and their reports were never made public.
Kumar visited the Sunday Leader on a weekly basis and he always chatted with the staff. It was when my younger brother who was on holiday from the US was arrested in the North that Kumar came to my rescue. He accompanied me to the Fort police station one night and promptly got his release. Then he used to visit Weekend Express where I was news editor and bring in his plethora of press releases although he was not considered a serious politician by either the Tamils or the Sinhalese. His pet hates were Neelan Thiruchelvam and Lakshman Kadirgamar and he was of the opinion that they were well-heeled by the government and the interest of the Tamils were furthest on their minds.
Kumar was a gentleman politician to boot and far more honest than his father G.G. Ponnambalam, the internationally recognised criminal lawyer and the proponent of 50:50 parity for Tamils post independence.
I visited Baticaloa soon after Kumar’s murder. From Kallady to the town centre the streets were hanging black and white flags in half mast.
That Lasantha not unlike Kumar was also a seeker of truth and who could not be bribed. He abhorred anyone bestowing favours on him. Behind that impish laughter was a man with scruples and immense astuteness. Shorty as he was popularly known became extremely busy on Thursdays and would be cloistered in at the Ward Place office of the Sunday Leader and if he was whistling then we knew he had some expose for that week’s edition.
Only Lasantha could ferret out President Kumaratunga’s foibles ( he was also close to Anura Banadaranaike) and it was on a Poya Day he despatched me to Flower Road where her social secretary Padma Maharaja had an upbeat saree shop. I walked in and while pretending to buy a saree, I managed to listen in on her conversation to Nirupama Rajapakse. “Of course, I have brought some fabulous sarees from India? What. Come over”.
Then she turned her nose up at me and asked if I was interested in her display. I mumbled something about looking nice for my boy friend when he takes me out that evening. Then curiosity got the better of her since I was not exactly dressed in Colombo 7 garb and in fact was in a crumpled Gandhi top and trousers. “What do you do?” she asked. I said I worked in an office at Ward Place. “Where?” she persisted. I beat a hasty retreat and as I arrived back at Sunday Leader Lasantha told me to write about Chandrika ‘s social secretary paid for with tax payer’s money selling sarees in her private enterprise on a Poya Day.
When the story came out I was bombarded with calls from from her friends including Goolbhai Gunasekera and another Maharajah relative who berated me for writing such trivia about their dear friend.
On another occasion I had returned from Batticaloa after interviewing internally displace people and writing about their hardship living in makeshift cadjan huts. Since I had arrived straight from Batticaloa to the office I was quite hungry and asked Santhanam, Lasantha’s faithful peon to get me a buriyani from Buhari. Lasantha came by while I was having lunch and teased me that I should not be indulging in buriyani meal while writing about refugees living a hand to mouth existence.
To this day no-one really knows who wrote that irrepressible Matilda’s Column. Some say it is Anura B, some say it’s Lasantha himself. Both have gone to meet their makers. Only his secretary Sassanka Samarakkody and Lasanatha knew and she would not divulge the writer even to me. What more can I say about Lasantha except that he was an intrepid and bold journalist who dared to launch Sunday Leader and made it the most talked about weekly. And true to the Motto of the Sunday Leader Lasantha together with his wife Raine were unbowed and unafraid.
May their souls rest in peace.
The writer is Asia Pacific Journalism Fellow at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, California and a print journalist for 21 years. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)