Lasantha Wickrematunge’s body will be exhumed years after he wrote a column saying the government would kill him.
Already Wickrematunge had twice been attacked, and his home sprayed by machine guns. His family had moved to Australia for safety, and he was sure he’d soon be killed, as many journalists already had. He opened his column by asking why, if he was so sure of his own death as to write a column announcing it, is it necessary to continue to speak out against the government?
I often wonder that. After all, I too am a husband, and the father of three wonderful children. I too have responsibilities and obligations that transcend my profession, be it the law or journalism. Is it worth the risk? Many people tell me it is not.
The paper he founded 15 years before, the Leader, had gained special attention from the government for uncovering corruption. In opinion pieces, his writers frequently blamed both the government and the Tamil Tigers for killing citizens. The paper urged the government to see the Tigers’ position through the context of history, saying it was important to address the root causes of terrorism.
We have also agitated against state terrorism in the so-called war against terror, and made no secret of our horror that Sri Lanka is the only country in the world routinely to bomb its own citizens. For these views we have been labelled traitors; and if this be treachery, we wear that label proudly.
Wickrematunge and Rajapaksa had known each other for 25 years—and had begun as friends. The paper sometimes referred to Rajapaksa by his first name, meant as a sign of support. In fact, Wickrematunge was fond of Rajapaksa when he first took power because of his many promises and commitments to human rights. But they found themselves on opposing sides when the president became involved in scandal, and then enforced media censorship. In Wickrematunge’s view, a decade of Rajapaksa’s rule had changed the country for the worse and, the journalist wrote, his paper was its largest critic.
… if we do not speak out now, there will be no one left to speak for those who cannot, whether they be ethnic minorities, the disadvantaged or the persecuted.
The exhumation of Wickrematunge is supposed to settle two differing reports by medical examiners: one that says Wickrematunge died of a gunshot wounds; and a second that makes no mention of bullets. Colleagues have taken the news with skepticism, and don’t expect quick results. Wickrematunge’s former wife, Raine Wickrematunge, told The Guardian she welcomed a re-examination, and was glad to hear the “process of uncovering the murderers is not happening in a half-hearted manner anymore.”
Since the new president, Sirisena, took power, Sri Lanka has worked to correct many of its concerns over its human-rights record. Internet and media censorship has mostly disappeared, and the rampant killings and abduction of journalists has ended. After his death, Wickrematunge’s posthumous column found international attention. His writing, in turn, focused that attention on the civil-rights abuses in his country.