The Lasantha Wickrematunge legacy: Remembering his life and influence

Saturday, 6 April 2024 00:01 –      – 525

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By M. Chathuranga

5 April would have been the 66th birthday of one of the country’s most beloved, renowned journalists and human rights defenders Lasantha Wickrematunge who was assassinated at the age of 50. Many have been inspired by the work of this legendary figure. He was a fearless activist and fighter for a democratic Sri Lanka during the 26-year bloody civil war and he went on to win the hearts of millions of our countrymen for his unwavering pursuit of racial equality and human rights in our homeland.

I first met Lasantha when I was 14 years old in 2000. My family had just moved to Nugegoda for a short period and we lived one road down from his home. The boys around our area would often gather to play cricket outside after school and everybody in our neighbourhood would always point at his house and proudly boast to any visitors as to who our neighbour was.

Lasantha was an extremely complex man who had scores of enemies. During the height of his career he was feared by senior ministers and the most powerful in the country. He resisted tyranny taking on government after government and opened new doors for investigative journalism to thrive. His complicated relationship with Mahinda Rajapaksa is one that will forever be imprinted in the history of Sri Lanka’s civil war.

Lasantha and Mahinda had been close friends for over 20 years. So much so that in the run-up to the elections, Basil Rajapaksa asked Lasantha to help him run the 2005 Presidential election campaign for Mahinda which Lasantha declined. Soon after the Helping Hambantota scandal, the once good friends went on to become enemies and Lasantha went on week after week to expose the many transgressions of the Rajapaksa regime. With every scathing piece splashed in the paper Sunday after Sunday, the attacks on his life kept increasing; his printing presses were set ablaze and there were moves to arrest him on false, trumped up charges of endangering national security.

Before his assassination, Lasantha had told friends that he believed the military forces’ potential victory over Kilinochchi would be when he would likely be killed. Quoted as saying, “When Kilinochchi is retaken will be when I am killed,” Lasantha had explained that the impact of his murder would be diluted in the euphoria over a Kilinochchi victory. Not surprisingly, just six days after armed forces captured Kilinochchi on the second of January, Lasantha was assassinated.

Lasantha had one of the most gifted political and military minds. Many say the economic crisis we faced would not have come to what it did had Lasantha been alive. He was a prophet and a visionary who had his life been spared, could have helped lead us into a greater tomorrow.

While shopping with my wife at Barefoot recently I was excited to find his biography written by his first wife Raine Wickrematunge. It brought back many memories and it was painful to read what his children have suffered. Mainly Ahimsa who was living with Lasantha at the time of his death, was one of the last people to have seen him alive and had been worried about his safety and would frequently call her father to make sure he was safe. From living in close proximity to Lasantha, my family and I saw firsthand what a protective and great father he was to Avinash, Ahimsa and Aadesh and I admire Ahimsa Wickrematunge’s continued fight for justice.

To say Lasantha put up a truly incredible and inspiring fight would be an understatement. For as many fans as he had, he also had a large number of people who hated him for his outspoken liberal views. Lasantha pioneered efforts in investigative and campaign journalism. He advocated tirelessly for a negotiated political settlement to the conflict and opposed a military option. Many called Lasantha the de facto opposition leader and saw him as a leading player in the UNP but that contradicted his media house, The Sunday Leader’s numerous criticisms against the party.

Everyone in the country was well aware of his close friendship with President Ranil Wickremesinghe and this relationship was one he no doubt used to implement his views into action whilst in the midst of the policy making decisions of the party. During his funeral, Ranil addressing the country was quoted as saying, “Lasantha had to pay the high price with his life like all great leaders in the past who crusaded against corruption and malpractices, and who espoused the cause of democracy, freedom of the people and media rights.”

The President’s then words of respect to his once close friend however have not brought Lasantha and his family justice under his Government today. Sadly Lasantha’s journey on this earth was brutally cut short by those who showed no regard for rule of law or dissent.

Lasantha, you are greatly missed and your dedication to Sri Lanka and love for this country will never be forgotten. While South Africa has Mandela and India has Ghandi, Sri Lanka has Lasantha Wickrematunge. Happy Birthday Lasantha, may your life go on forever and your legacy live on.


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