AN EARNEST TRIBUTE TO AN INTREPID JOURNALIST OF OUR TIMES – “RICHARD MANIK DE ZOYSA”
- 22 long years go by, since the vicious abduction, followed by torturous murder
- The chilling night fell on February 17, 1990, an era of paramount terror in Sri Lanka
- Richard, an exceptional personage with manifold talents
- A priceless life that was forcefully shut, creating enduring trauma in many a life
- A malicious death that young Richard, or no living being ever deserved
- He was made out of exceptionality – He was made out of nerve and integrity
| by Sunalie Ratnayake
(February 29, Los Angeles , Sri Lanka Guardian) Just about 22 years ago, on the fateful murky hours of February 17th 1990 to be precise, an armed death squad quite evidently vigilantly structured by the then ruling regime (the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s administration) happened to march into the modest abode of a courageous and multi endowed young Journalist who was in his life’s prime years. However, the slayers have not had much confidence in approaching their blameless target that night, thus the team of callous men eventually had woken-up the entire neighbourhood as a result of same, in order to finally come within triumphant reach of their target of the hour.
A victim of a groundless conviction
Regrettably, it happened to be the last few hours of a precious life of a Lankan son. It was the precious life of an endowed, strong-willed, proficient, exceptional, fine-looking, yet harmless youth who was only precisely a month away from his 32nd birthday. His birthday fell on March 18th, and the abduction took place on the night of February 17th.
He had returned home way after 10 O’clock that night, on his motorbike, probably after a customary day at work, just to get sufficient sleep to begin the next day as adapted to, yet never may have had the slightest reverie or reflection, that a group of armed slayers ordered by it’s commandant would forcefully cross the threshold of his bedroom upstairs, and drag him to the cold and bitter night outside, for him to never return home, ever again.
This valiant being, whose absence still happen to unreservedly haunt us in our communal field of Journalism (especially the atypical earnest and gutsy form of the trade), even after more than two decades, is non other than the one and only Ricahrd Manik De Zoysa. Richard truly was a journalist of an inimitable caliber of it‘s own.
Much more than a youth
Recalling the initial fragment of William Shakespeare’s quote from ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ ; “He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath no beard is less than a man,” Richard too who encompassed that firm, chunky, black beard still etched in our minds, also happened to be much more than an ordinary youth, and nothing less than a rock-solid man, as his multiple talents alone, both inborn and enhanced over the years, as an unprejudiced journalist, startling poet, remarkable playwright, gifted authour, brilliant actor, charismatic broadcaster, and truly devoted human rights activist proved what he was truly made out of. He was made out of exceptionality – He was made out of nerve and integrity.
Such versatile men of reflective calibre are as rare as hen’s teeth in present day Sri Lanka, especially in the field of journalism, where a greater portion (both old-hand and neophyte) have conveniently chosen to trade their reputable profession with inapt profit (in certain instances, for even as insignificant entities such as a glass of arrack or a continental breakfast at the state head’s manor) offered by and large, by repugnant power abusers indulged in the game of politics, and other linked fields.
Journalists, a suppressed cluster
In present day Sri Lanka, it is mostly about what is not to be written, rather than what is been written by members of the press. Even the very few numbers of candid nature that existed, who followed Richard’s path in daring journalism have ironically, ultimately ended in the same dais that he did. In the years that followed since Richard’s torturous murder, they too, by now have been swiped away and silenced by all consecutive regimes that saw daylight in the said island. They all have now reached the same poignant conclusion as Richard’s finale, even though the means and modes of modus operandi in forcing them to that destiny may have been slightly different.
We have witnessed these appalling practices by each and every government that seemed to attain power (by hook or by crook), and then pass by, as our lives too naively passed by, with their governance, and in terms of freedom of the renowned fourth estate, nothing has changed for the better in Sri Lanka. In fact, all has turned shoddier over the decades, as this piece of writing of remembrance may emerge today.
The report of the UN Secretary General’s Panel on accountability in Sri Lanka precisely highlights as follows ; “The Government sought to intimidate and silence the media and other critics of the war through a variety of threats and actions, including the use of white vans to abduct and to make people disappear.”
Moreover, while the present regime is closely operational with former LTTE members who were earlier interpreted as ruthless, such as Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan (a.k.a. Karuna Amman), KP (a.k.a. Kumaran Pathmanathan or Selvarasa Pathmanathan) etc., the government is opportunely labeling forthright journalists of the country as terrorists or traitors, of whom, a majority has been disappeared by now.
Even international media personnel that represented foreign media organizations have been forced to leave the island since January 2009, following intimidating threats received from government sources. In addition, president’s sibling and Defence Secretary Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa threatened acts of vengeance against BBC and al Jazeera, once they filed reports pertaining to the country.
The numbers of journalists and media personalities that disappeared over the years, prior to, and following Richard’s murder, remain soaring beyond belief. Thirty-four journalists and media workers have been killed with no recourse to justice, since the United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) government came into power in April 2004, with the present President Rajapaksa as its prime minister.
In fact, during the past few years alone, the numbers seemed to skyrocket, enormously shocking all those in the field, as well as those external to the arena. While offering my heartfelt gratitude for their unbiased and daring services rendered towards the distinguished “fourth estate”, as well as my empathy to the families of them all, I shall bring out two names, while remembering Richard, as those two names directly and circuitously bear a resemblance to that of Richard.
Richard, Sivaram and Lasantha
One is the late Dharmeratnam Sivaram, better known as “Taraki”, who was shot to death, and his body discovered in Colombo on April 28, 2005 under the watch of the government of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga (CBK), another head of state who came to power by shedding crocodile tears in terms of disappearances, killings and human rights violations carried out by the United National Party (UNP), prior to her accomplishment as president. Taraki was referred to “The Island” newspaper by Richard, during Gamini Weerakoon’s era as editor, when the said newspaper was in need of a political analyst in 1989. At the time of his death, Taraki was the editor of the Tamil Net, the LTTE’s off the record web porch. Taraki was his pseudo name, which is said to be originated via a printing mistake of his initial copy in the paper, diverting it from the originally given name by Weerakoon, “Taraka” reflecting “Stars” in English. Taraki who was introduced to the field by Richard, faced a similar fate to that of Richard.
Then, once again presidencies changed, by hook or by crook. On November 18th 2005, Percy Mahendra Rajapaksa (a.k.a. Mahinda Rajapaksa) became CBK’s successor, interestingly, another man who grieved for humans rights, while serving in the opposition, also going as far as Geneva, to fight for the rights of others.
Subsequently, the most forthright journalist that the country have possibly ever produced thus far, the Sunday Leader’s founder editor Lasantha Manilal Wickrematunge was murdered in broad daylight, in a so-called high security zone in the capital, under the thorough watch of the Rajapaksa regime, where Lasatha remained a thorn on it’s flesh, exposing corruption after corruption of Defence Secretary and president’s sibling, the aforementioned Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and the entire regime as a whole, along with solid proof to stand by his stories.
In fact, a trial was due, to substantiate the stories carried out in Lasantha’s newspaper (especially pertaining to Gotabaya‘s conducts), yet, interestingly just in time, prior to the court date, Lasantha was swept away. Lasantha was absolutely geared-up to face the trial, if not for his opportune bump-off. Courts and cases were nothing new to Lasantha, an attorney himself. He faced a tremendous number of trials (both inside and out of courts), through the years, where in each case, the then Sunday Leader, Lasantha’s Sunday Leader was never been able to be proven wrong.
He was brutally murdered in cold blood, while driving down his usual root on Main Attidiya Road, to work around 10.00 a.m. on January 8, 2009, a Thursday. Lasantha was a prime headache to the Rajapaksas’, period, which cannot be denied, as it remains an obvious fact. Consequently, in less than four years to the Rajapaksa administration, Lasantha was conveniently, yet bald-facedly swept away from planet earth.
It was such an evident pleasure to the Rajapaksas’ that one of the siblings, Defense Secretary Gotabaya even could not control his fanatical giggle, while been interviewed a few years ago, by BBC on Lasantha’s murder. He chuckled hysterically and stated ; “Who is Lasantha Wickrematunge ? He is just a…..there are so many murders in everywhere, in the whole world there are murders. Why are you asking about Lasantha ? Who is Lasantha ? He was somebody who was writing for tabloids. I’m not concerned about that. People are panicking. Why people are so worried about one man….?”
“And what was so funny about his murder that you could not even sit straight on your seat, while being interviewed on the topic Mr. Gotabaya ? Frankly speaking, that was literally the most nauseating, unethical interview been aired in recent history in a matter concerning murder, and if you didn’t know by any chance who he was, Lasantha Wickrematunge was a world renowned plainspoken journalist, who dedicated a fair portion of his life, and finally gave it for a justifiable society, and was never intimidated until he was shut down viciously, under the watch of the regime that you currently represent.”
Richard was bumped-off under Premadasa’s UNP government, Taraki was bumped-off under Chandrika’s UPFA government, and Lasantha was bumped-off under Mahinda’s UPFA government, and the latter two presidents were those who cried and wrestled for human rights at a rate, making holier-than-thou reverberations on the subject matter. For a moment, that all sounds like the biggest joke on earth, because the moment they acquired power, they completely forgot what they stood for, at the first place, and all the bogus pledges given on their way to the throne.
Lasantha and Richard both were born in the same year. Richard on March 18th 1958, and Lasantha on April 5th 1958. And Taraki, merely a year junior to them both, born on August 11th 1959. Today, all three are no more. All three, and many more audacious souls that represented the prestigious fourth estate with dignity (who’s names regrettably failed to reach this piece) were being bumped-off under the watch of three consecutive regimes that promised democracy.
The period prior to the eras of the said three regimes (especially the era of Prime Minister Sirimavo Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike) was yet another anecdote of it’s own nature, where throngs of youth were brutally burnt alive and murdered in torture chambers, as means of controlling the era’s uprising. Alas, what a shame on so called press freedom, and human rights that they all pledged upon, prior to acquiring power.
An answerable personage must be ingenuous
I recall reading an article titled “In memory of Richard, Rajini and thousands of others” written by UPFA Member of Parliament on the National List professor Rajiva Wijesinhe, published in the Sunday Observer of February 20, 2011, to mark Richard‘s 21st death anniversary last year. In it, a portion of professor Wijesinhe’s opening paragraph stated that ; “Appalling as his death was, it was not an isolated incident, in the culture of violence this country had developed in the decade before his death. This got worse in the two decades that followed.” – This statement of his, I do acknowledge with all my heart and consciousness, as it indeed is nothing but the truth.
Conversely, professor Wijesinhe, in his article, went on to say “More recently however things have improved, though there will be need of constant vigilance to ensure that violence is not renewed.” – Now, that is a declaration that reflects on an entity of deep concern in society, that I or any sensible being, who has been living and witnessing present day Sri Lanka (during the past 6 to 7 years) could not agree with, merely because, day by day, honestly speaking, we do not witness any improvement, with regards to the ongoing regime violence, especially against forthright journalists, media organizations, printing presses, websites labeled as anti-government, double agents or anything under the sun, that basically boldly unfolds the hidden truth.
As taken into account previously in this essay, most of such spirited journalists, by now, are been killed in cold blood (some in so-called high security zones in broad daylight in Colombo), and most of such media organizations and printing presses have been burnt down to ashes or sealed, and most of such websites banned and blocked in Sri Lanka as of today. So, isn’t violence been renewed over and over again, and in the most blatant mannerisms ever, especially since president Percy Mahendra Rajapaksa (a.k.a. Mahinda Rajapaksa) obtained power on November 18, 2005 ? As noted before, wasn’t he the same man, not too long ago, while representing the opposition, fought left and right for ‘human rights’ and ‘media freedom’ and all groupings of liberation under the sun, even escalating to higher podiums, as far as all the way in Geneva ?
For that reason, my question is, what kind of improvement is there, on the said arenas ? And, how has that improvement being implemented ? And by whom ? I truly wish to know, because, the thought alone sounds preposterous in present day Sri Lanka.
Therefore, one should not try to hide the naked reality, just because one is bestowed with an appointment or designation by the regime in power, and God only knows, by what else. At all times, humans, especially those holding immense responsibility in society should rather speak the truth, be transparent in their ideologies, and cling onto ethics by all means. This applies to each and everyone who glides from the canon, once they are basking in reflected glory.
No personal smack on Professor Rajiva Wijesinhe, whom I immensely appreciate as an intellectual, yet when it comes to talking facts and terms that may reflect the society, and it’s reality, one should rather be honest with one’s own conscience. Food for thought !
A life pilfered by a ruthless command
Richard’s individuality maybe the reason that Richard was amongst the very few to have left a momentous vacuum in the arena’s that were nourished by his aptitude, with an underscore in journalism, once again, may I remind, the gutsy and genuine form of the trade.
At the time that his life was being viciously snatched away per the despicable orders of the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa, which were sizably executed by the then Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) and Senior Security Officer of president Premadasa, the late Ronnie Gunasinha and his lethal squad, Richard was rewarded with the designation of Bureau Chief of the Rome based Inter Press Service’s (IPS) Lisbon office, which was opened not long at the time. He was the youngest to have been bequeathed with the said title, only a week prior to his murder.
The spitefulness of fate, intermingled with the brutality of the say-so of the era, however, did not permit the gifted journalist to take to the IPS chair as anticipated. Richard wasn’t doing anything wide of the mark to have been abducted, tortured and murdered in that inconceivable manner, of which the nature of the modus operandi was only known better by the victim who faced the fate, the slaughterers who committed the crime, and perhaps the instigator from up above who gave the orders to do so.
Instead, Richard was only continuing with a self-effacing vocation, and simply trying to keep yet another significant step in progressing in his chosen craft with dignity. He was not a mugger, a slayer, a terrorist, a chauvinist or a traitor, even though certain interested parties, as well as several individuals tried their level best to label him with all kinds of garbage that reflected at least some of the said categories. Be that as it may, the late president Ranasinghe Premadasa who became overemotional or self-pitying, when it came to criticism, could not handle it, when Richard was reporting human rights violations committed under his regime.
The late President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s obsession in power
I still recall a sentence from one of Mr. Premasada’s very last speeches, or probably the very last one itself, which was repeatedly telecast in TV at the time (repeatedly in the sense, until one could literally throw-up listening to, and seeing the same individual over and over again, all day long in TV), where he stated ; “Mama punchi kaale indan rekagaththu mage charithaya ghaathanaya karanna epaa. Maa maraa damanna ! – Do not tarnish/destroy my character/image, which I have shielded from my childhood. Instead, just kill me.” And all this was uttered in a very disturbed voice and tone, poles apart from his customary approach to speeches, that I, even as a kid who had nothing to do with politics, usually had a penchant to listen to.
This sentence alone indicated how disturbed and insecure he was in the latter stages as the head of state, at the countrywide criticisms that were carried out on his conducts, or rather, misconducts I shall say, that affected the masses, by and large. Mr. Premadasa as prime minister and president both, did plentiful constructive and remarkable entities to uplift Sri Lanka with all his might and zeal, yet during the latter stages of his life, the same human being absolutely lost control, and had no clue where he was heading. One such devastating series of acts followed by him, was to take other people’s lives into his hands, and ironically, one such life was that of Richard Manik De Zoysa.
No one on earth has the right to take another’s life. Especially, not in such terrorizing modes. That’s the bottom line.
A vindictive murder in a malevolent era
As the death squad led by SSP Ronnie Gunasinha, after awakening Richard in the middle of the night, vehemently dragged him from his bedroom upstairs, down the stairway, subsequent to uncouthly pushing his mother Dr. Manorani Saravanamuttu away from her very last grasp of her beloved son, they had further dragged him to the street and driven him away in a vehicle parked about 5 feet away from the gate (a dark green Mitsubishi Pajero jeep holding license plate number 32 SRI 4748, and one of the commonest vehicles of the authoritative throng of the era) into the darkness, not making an allowance for his mother’s unyielding plea to have her son questioned in the house itself, and to not remove him from the premises. Richard too had refused to be dragged even downstairs from his bedroom upstairs, let alone leaving the premises, and had insisted that he’d answer the queries of the mob, while remaining upstairs.
Mothers always feel that miraculous forecast, in what maybe in store for their children, and it could be compared to the sixth sense of a parent. In this petrifying instance too, Dr. Saravanamuttu had felt exactly what was to come to pass, especially being well conversant with the ongoing state terror, in addition to the uprising of youth in the south. This was yet another one of the most death-defying eras in Sri Lanka – one that all of us who underwent the circumstances in many a distinctive way, shall never fail to remember, as long as one’s life shall linger.
Terror was to be witnessed from all corners of the country. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) was propagating their modes of terror in every possible corner of the island, while the then United National Party (UNP) government under president Premadasa was vehemently controlling the dispersion of the JVP. While doing so, many a questionable modus operandi pertaining to murder, occurred from both parties, and even third parties, that used the state of affairs as a handy atmosphere to air out personal grudges as well. Moreover, the murders conducted by the then UNP also were conveniently deposited into the account of the JVP. It was quite a common, and the easiest mode to wash off their blood-soaked hands from homicide and genocide that occurred in Sri Lanka during the said startling era, especially in 1988, 1989, 1990 and 1991.
As Richard was dragged out that night with no elucidation, by the identified said personnel, his lifeless body was discovered the following day, been washed ashore at the Lunawa beach in Moratuwa, in the southwestern coast of the island, 18 kilometres south of the capital, Colombo. His body had been mutilated, following ceaseless ruthless torture, along with a conked out jaw, on top of being shot in his throat and head.
I have read an essay written on Richard in the past, on another broadsheet, which reported of a conjecture that his body was plunged from a helicopter flying at a detailed height, into the sea, with the anticipation that his body would sink to the bottom of the sea. However, this hitherto, remains an unconfirmed element pertaining to his gruesome ending.
The accused assemblage of the atrocious crime, respectively, happened to be ; SSP Ronnie Gunasinha who directly reported to President Premadasa, OIC Fort Police Station ASP Lal Sriyantha Dharmasiri Ranchagoda, Slave Island Police Station OIC Crimes Bodeniya Gamlath Gedara Devasurendra, and last but not least, Sergeant Mahawedikkarage Sarathchandra.
As a kid who could barely comprehend to the adversities taking place left and right in the era of Richard’s termination, I even recall certain iterested individuals brazenly making statements to the effect that ; “Richard De Zoysa was tainted with the HIV virus, and that he was going to die nevertheless.” For God’s sake, how could the society come up with such unabashed tales, and go as further as to jabber and spread them merrily, on top of crafting same, particularly if they were in doubt of same ? Society was that malicious during that era of my childhood, and today, it certainly is shoddier in many a parallel and diverse way, I may say with yawning regret. Yet, life goes on.
IPS (Inter Press Service) as widely known, where, if not for his premeditated bump-off, young Richard was to conduct duties as Bureau Chief, is an international communication institution that raises the voices of the South and civil society on issues of development, globalization, human rights, and environment. The global news agency focuses on in-depth analysis of occurrences and proceedings affecting economic, social and political development, moreover covering topics profoundly than by most mainstream news coverage around the globe.
Remembering Richard In Many A Way –
Malin Kabalana in Yuganthaya
Having read the late legendary Sri Lankan authour Martin Wickremesinghe’s novel ‘Yuganthaya’ many a time during my teen years, I also recall, as a kid, being accompanied to the Imperial theatre (now, the New Imperial) in Kurunegala by my beloved parents, to watch the movie based on the classic, also titled “Yuganthaya – End Of An Era”. The movie was a 1983 direction of the Sri Lankan maestro in cinema, Dr. Lester James Peries, whom later in my life, was destined to be associated strongly, along with his wife, the equally gifted Sumithra Gunawardena Peries. The movie was based on the inception of labour unions in Sri Lanka, shot on 35mm, using Eastmancolor (ECN).
Even though, I may have not been in an age, in which I could completely grasp a narrative behind a movie plot, as a habit, my parents would take me along with them to the movie theatre, as long as what was playing on the screen, as the projector turned on, was suitable for all audiences. And, no matter how much I did not comprehend entities pertaining to the movie, I never fell asleep, nor did I bother the others by howling to go home, a common scenario experienced, when kids are brought into movie theatres. I was, I guess, a different breed of a kid. My parents were trouble-free with me, I shall reiterate with pleasure today, as the years have wordlessly piled behind our lives.
Watching Yuganthaya was one such instance. This time, only two characters from the movie and a couple of scenes that engrossed these two characters strongly wedged in my memory, after all those years. The other areas and characters in the movie, I still recall vaguely, including that of the pitiless capitalist Simon Kabalana, played by another actor whom I deeply think highly of, the late Gamini Shelton Fonseka.
One such clearly remembered character was that of Chamari, played by the late gorgeous Ramani Elizabeth Bartholomeusz, (it was her first screen role), and the other was non other than the most handsome Richard I could ever remember, who played the role of Malin Kabalana.
Even though I do not clearly recall the exact dialogues, I could still call to mind the scenes from the movie where Richard’s dialogues in English were spoken inside a minuscule room, as discussions were held, causing clashes between the capitalist father (Gamini) who was using terror to keep his factory workers under control and acquiesce high production quotas, and the completely opposite son (Richard) who had just returned from England, idolizing Marx and Lenin, who ultimately gives up his fortunes in his father’s company and works en route for altercation with his father.
When one actually comes to think of it, the character of Malin Kabalana played in the silver screen by Richard De Zoyza truly reflects on his own ideologies in real life. Richard was a man who wanted to witness a fair world, where everyone had equal rights, and where every human was treated unvaryingly. A world void of coercion and terror.
Rinsley in Yashorawaya
Moving down memory lane, the next instance that Richard continues to hang about my reminiscence is the character he portrayed in the ever famous Sri Lankan teledrama of the 80s, “Yashorawaya” based on Somaweera Seanayake‘s novel. Richard played the role of Rinsley Weerasekera, a character who had departed Sri Lanka, in search of greener pastures in England, had suffered immensely trying to make ends meet there, and ultimately had got married to a white woman, Michelle (played by Christine Limbraghan) , and was not in a position to even support his destitute parents under the weather, who lived in Sri Lanka, let alone the remaining family members. The roles of the parents were played by two of our veteran artists, the late G.W. Surendra (Weerasekera) and the brilliant Iranganie Roxanna Meedeniya Serasinghe (Sudu Hamine).
Duras Wannata Me Lesin Song Video
Unlike today, during the 80s, Sri Lanka had not heard of the entity called “song visuals.” If at all it was existing, it may have been in the least. In the present day world, literally, as long as one is equipped with a few basic tools, even a little kid could produce his or her own visual, sitting in the comfort of their home, for whatever song they wish to, and could simply post it on Youtube or whatnot. Today, the market is flooded with visuals of all types. I do not, by any means, intend to ridicule the advancement of technology over the decades, yet there are pros and cons of such entities, just like in many other arenas in life. As opposed to that, in the 80s a local visual production was hardly ever seen in Sri Lanka.
However, awakening my recollection on Richard, in relation to song visuals, whenever veteran in melody, Visharadha Dayatarne Ranatunge’s well-known song “Duras Wannata Me Lesin Ayida Apa Hamu Wune” was telecast in TV, a series of appealing images were displayed in the TV monitor. They were not video clips, but a series of stills that happened to glide along, mingling avidly with the meaning of the song. The two attractive and matching souls that indeed made a dazzling couple in the stills were non other than the stunning Ramani Elizabeth Bartholomeusz clad in a yellow dress, and the ever striking Richard Manik De Zoysa.
As luck would have had it, today, both are no more. Even though the song lyrics were based on a love story and the pains encountered in detachment between a couple who had loved immensely, the reality of their lives also circuitously seemed to reflect with the meaning of the song, which states ; “If we were to be separated like this, why did we ever meet? – Duras wannata me lesin ayida apa hamu wune?”
Ramani and Richard both were ‘separated’ from this world itself, at an unacceptable age, perceptibly too young to leave precious life, ultimately ‘separating’ from all of us who dearly loved them, based on their acts and performances in their respective fields.
An unmatched voice
The next fascination that many in the era had, yet was averse in acknowledging, was their fixation towards Richard’s unmatched mind-boggling voice. Many women in their youth, as well as older ladies literally fell in love with it, and I do encompass ample true life experiences that convinced me of same as a kid. I may bring up just one such personal instance.
When I was on vacation with my mom, visiting my aunt who was employed in the Maldives at the time, I recall one of her colleagues staring a conversation on Richard. She was a teacher. It was a conversation amongst the adults, yet I, being seated in the vicinity, was pointing my ears in that direction, while pretending to read a Tintin comic, the only comic book series that I was truly fond of. Yet, at that moment, as Richard became the topic, my interest unintentionally switched from the comic book, to the conversation amongst the ladies. My mother too was involved in the tête-à-tête.
I believe he was freshly murdered at the time, and was the talk of the town anyhow. This lady who began the conversation on Richard was from Colombo and lived in the same neighbourhood where Richard‘s rented abode was situated at, and throughout the conversation she stressed the exceptionality of Richard’s stalwart voice, how handsome he was in real life too (not only on screen), and how her young daughter loved him immensely, by merely watching him pass by, in addition to watching him read news in TV. This suburban was in Welikadawatte in Colombo, where Richard lived with his mother, Dr. Manorani Saravanamuttu and another associate named Karunaratne who had worked for them.
The teacher added, that his good looks definitely may have influenced her daughter’s zest in the man, and the young lady had cried hysterically upon hearing the murder of her favourite news anchor, and perhaps the man she secretly fell in love with. However, though having visited their abode a few times as a neighbour, Richard may have had no clue about the sentiments of this young girl, towards him. How many such passionate young women in the country, may have literally died for him, in that era ? It was the prime time of his life, as he was a remarkably popular character in many a versatile arena. There were also those who detested his mammoth popularity, yet another common scenario, especially in the world of showbiz as well as media.
News broadcasts and narrations
Apart from remembering Richard as a news anchor clad in dark and light brown high-necked shirts each day, which happened to be the standard uniform of those that presented news in TV, in the 80s and early 90s, I also recall listening to his truly awe-inspiring voice via narrations on TV programmes. Out of these, the one programme that has wedged in my memory, even after over two decades, is an environmental progrmamme, which was narrated by Richard. His voice alone, even with the absence of the calming environmental scenes given emphasis to, in the programme, would have still taken the listener to another world. Honestly speaking, it was such a powerful, captivating, only one of its kind voice, and all good things are usually pilfered from life, too soon. Richard was one such example.
It is noted that the well-known play titled “Who is he ? What is he doing” even more acknowledged in Sinhala as “Me kawuda ? Monawada karanne?” had been nourished by Richard’s aptitude, and as president Premadasa was highly susceptible, yet exceedingly sensitive to criticism, this sarcastic play too could not see a live audience, and had been circumspectly crushed, prior to it’s debut. Not concluding from there, it’s producer, namely Lakshman Perera too had disappeared into thin air, during the era of terror, possibly murdered, following abduction.
A mother’s ache via her act and utterance
Richard’s case unpardonably dragged on for sixteen long years, following his murder. When his mother Dr. Manorani Saravanamuttu identified the chief abductor in TV (SSP Ronnie Gunasinha), three months following the abduction / murder, she consequently informed her attorney Mr. Batty Weerakoon, who subsequently informed the same, to the Magistrate that conducted the inquest.
To greater disenchantment, the lead was expediently ignored, and the suspect never taken into custody nor questioning. After all, he was the President’s ‘lap dog’ and the abduction / murder was perceptibly yet another president’s grisly order in a God forbidden land.
The only results that exploded out of such an imperative lead, were a bunch of death threats to Dr. Saravanamuttu and Mr. Weerakoon, including death threats on the police officers that were allotted to protect Mr. Weerakoon.
What’s more, the world renowned TIME Magazine’s April 23, 1990 issue was banned by the Premadasa regime, due to the meager fact that the journal carried an investigative article on Richard’s murder. The authorities did not forget to seize a bunch of copies at the customs, that had been imported as well.
While fighting the last eleven years of her life, plainly for seeking justice with regards to her son’s murderers, and by becoming an iconic figure island-wide, by forming her own organization (Centre For Family Services) Dr. Saravanamuttu helped thousands of destitute civilians (mainly women), who had faced similar consequences, to come into terms with their lives. The organization also enthusiastically worked in helping them with their development programmes, so that they could earn enough to help themselves by standing on their own feet, and could take care of the remaining family members, even following devastating realities they had faced in life.
In addition to have undergone the deepest pain of losing a child, and following those prolonged years of death threats and disturbing phone calls bestowed upon her, while fighting for justice, Dr. Saravanamuttu was not fortunate enough to live to witness the indictment of Assistant Superintendent of Police Lal Priyantha Darmasiri Ranchagoda, Officer in Charge Bodeniya Gamlath Gedara Devasurendra, and Sergeant Mahawedikkarage Sarathchandra in the year 2005. She passed away on February 14, 2001.
On the other hand, the two prime suspects of Richard’s barbaric murder, the late president Ranasinghe Premadasa, and his confidante who used to directly report to Premadasa, SSP Ronnie Gunasinha faced an alarming fate, where their bodies were in bits and pieces beyond recognition, as a result of the LTTE’s suicide bomb attack on the May Day rally in 1993 near Armour Street Police Station in Colombo.
Many in the country believed that this providence of the duo was nothing but pay back time or karma in action, or ‘what goes around comes around’ supposition taking flight. Be that as it may, the humane characteristics of Richard’s mother, made certain, that she only anticipated for justice to emerge from courts alone, hence, had been truly sympathetic towards the children of Ronnie Gunasinha. She believed that genuine reconciliation could only have been accomplished via a genuine justice system, which ironically never existed then, nor does it exist now.
Sadly, up until now, even following all those years of desolation, Sri Lanka remains a country, in which the structure of the justice system is evidently weak, in order to provide an acceptable and sensible response to calls for justice. In addition to the weakness of the justice system (where judges and panels are effortlessly bought outright by the demons in power), the society as a whole remain weak and primordial, where they are unable to deal with the fundamental modes of injustice ingrained in it. On the other hand, the innocent society is vulnerable by many an aspect.
With a mother’s words, I shall bring to a close my elongated essay that I dedicate to an audacious man, ten days following his 22nd death anniversary, a man who gave his young life for his passion blended with sense of duty, someone I bring to mind from my childhood, who inadvertently may have influenced me to ensue on my field of indisputable passion, and where I believe that I have the slightest knack to do a justifiable deed, at least to an extent lesser in significance.
Richard’s mother’s words ; “When you lose a child, you lose yourself. For that child, you have to get up and fight. Not for only that child, but for all the other children.. It’s not just my son, but all the sons and daughters, not in one part of Sri Lanka, but in every part of Sri Lanka, that we have lost. ”
“They come and knock at doors. Ring bells, and they look at you, and frighten you, and threaten you. If I had thought for one moment that they had come to take my son, I would have died there at the door.”
“It’s the women who bare the brunt, who bare the loss, and who have to get up and go, for the sake of their families, for the sake of their other children, for the sake of their husbands, and for the sake of just plain living life. It’s the women who bare the brunt, who are the strong ones.”
“It is the most devastating experience to have a child pulled out of your arms. My boy ‘disappeared’ and 48 hours later his mutilated body was found. Since then I have received numerous threats, anonymous letters, telephone terror, and I am also certain that my telephone is tapped. I want to pursue my son’s case. Many friends and colleagues have asked me to stop, ‘the one who seeks the battle should not complain about the wounds’ but I know there are tens of thousands of relatives who have been affected by the violence. I will never advise the women I work with, to forget, I will tell them that they must speak. 20,000 – 30,000 did not join, out of fear of reprisals to other relatives.”
Those were the words of a loving, understanding and invincible mother, who tried her level best to come into terms with life, following her son’s murder.
Richard, you have long gone, yet your remembrance may awaken many an unsung song settled deep within our hearts, and unfold many a concealed tale that shall attain wings of it’s own, merely to keep us going on, in a path, that someday shall unearth it’s factual meaning, a path where it’s followers shall not be crushed with the spiteful claws of insane power. Let us “forgive them, for they know not what they do” – (Luke 24:34).
Yet, how possibly will we ever forget ? Just as Richard’s mother stated, we must not forget. There is a mammoth distinction between forgiving and forgetting.
The journey you began in a God forsaken land, and struggled to carry-on, has been carried forward through the years by many a peerless soul like you. Most of them, just like you, today are no more. Yet, I assure that your journey shall continue, and your dream shall be realized, sooner or later, where transformation from evil to virtue shall transpire.
As long as reputable Journalism shall exist in Sri Lanka, you will be remembered with unfathomable reverence. You will live in our hearts forever. You will be loved endlessly, for the meaningful human being you were, during life.
Another year had flown by, and here is one more Good Bye…. Sweet Prince ! May your soul rest in peace !
( Sunali Ratnayake, is a Sri Lankan born journalist based in Los Angeles, California who can be reached at email@example.com / firstname.lastname@example.org )