The first time I met Lasantha Wickremetunge he was already dead. Like many important people in my life – Kurt Cobain, for example – I discovered him after he was dead. I first saw Lasantha in a coffin, turning the corner from Kirimandala Mawatha onto a crowded Baseline Road. I saw future MP Harsha de Silva walking near the railing and we walked together for a while, exchanging the spoken version of a dejected shrug. I remember the crowd at Kanatte Cemetary. It stretched round the block. Last Saturday, I went to his gravesite again, unfashionably late, this time as a Sunday Leader employee. I saw MP Eran Wickramaratne walking out, and the young editorial staff still around the grave. It wasn’t a massive turnout like before. I know that Lasantha is lost. Sometimes I wonder if he lost.
After Lasantha died, the paper suffered. First, it lost staff. Then it lost money, then, worst of all for a paper, it lost face. During the last Presidential election the paper was forced to choose between the military man who might have killed Lasantha and the political family that backed him. That was the choice between two evils, and the Leader’s choice, while it may have saved the paper, cost dearly in terms of the reputation Lasantha worked for.
It was a twisted story, with more twists I probably don’t know about. 17 soldiers were arrested in the Lasantha case and let go. Some of the evidence seemed to point back to then Army Commander Sarath Fonseka. When he defected from the government to run against Mahinda, the Leader was faced with a choice. Back Lasantha’s putative killer or Mahinda, the man behind the whole messed up scene. They chose Fonseka and mass drama ensued.
First, in the course of supporting Fonseka, they almost immediately damaged his campaign. By publishing the convoluted White Flag story (Fonseka alleging that Gotabaya Rajapaksa ordered surrendering LTTErs shot) the Leader instead made Fonseka look like a traitor. He never really recovered. Then, when he lost, The Leader both testified to put Fonseka in jail for that very story, they also got publicly demolished on the stand. In that trial, the Leader’s own former lawyer was cross examining them (for Fonseka), and he tore them apart. It emerged that there were no conclusive notes of the interview, that the Leader took money from the UNP, etc. Then the rest of the press also made stuff up to pile onto the damaging truth, effectively pillorying the paper along with Fonseka.
Then, when Fonseka was convicted, the Leader got a silent thank you from the government, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s billion rupee defamation case was effectively withheld. The government had used The Leader as a rag to wipe Fonseka off the map. Lasantha was still dead, justice was still not served, and people didn’t seem to care. Indeed, the election showed that the only choice people wanted to make was between different degrees of killers. The people who marched at his funeral weren’t there two years later. Everyone had essentially bought into the system, and the Leader had as well.
So, did he lose? Not exactly. Lasantha is still a historical footnote in most western accounts of Sri Lanka. Small comfort. But he at least went out trying to do the right thing. Trying to say the right thing. After being with the Leader since his death, I can say that the ground reality seems pointless and hard, but I have seen many times in history that the right thing is a slow fuse. A very slow fuse. Lasantha was a Christian, and Jesus is just one example. He looked thoroughly crushed by the establishment, but he’s now remembered more than any Herod or Caesar. Not that Lasantha is a prophetic figure, he remains highly controversial. Still, I believe he was on the right side, for democracy and peace, and I do believe that right will prevail. Or at least, that right is right. Despite the fact that his staff has left, his paper has suffered, his wife has fled, and his children are being raised abroad, I think Lasantha would still do what he did.
The idea that right can fail, the idea that it can be humiliated, the idea that it can be crushed and yet rise again. These are Christian ideas, but I find them in my Buddhist faith as well. And I think that’s why we return to faith when we’re buried. Because the world doesn’t make sense. Because the good guys don’t always win. Because we still believe in good. Whatever the Leader goes through, whatever it is or isn’t, I still believe, and I still remember Lasantha. I know I was late, but I was there. May he rest in peace.