My Friend, Mahinda?

My Friend, Mahinda

Today marks the 8th death anniversary of the founding Editor of The Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunge.

Recently two telephone conversations between Wickrematunge and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa were leaked.
The following are chronological extracts of editorials throughout the history of The Sunday Leader, wherein Wickrematunge personally addressed Rajapaksa.


May 3, 1997

When amidst the sweat and toil of the Industrial Revolution the members of Socialist International met in England in 1889 and declared May 1 a holiday of celebration for the workers of the world, they for the first time in the history of mankind flexed a collective muscle not just on behalf of themselves, but on behalf of all the oppressed peoples of the world. Oozing with goodwill and a charming notion that soon the proletariat would rule the bourgeoisie, socialist do-gooders steeped in the nebulous verbiage of Marx and Engels were very much the fashion. They were as well-intentioned a body of bleeding hearts as could be found anywhere – each one of them a clone, if you like, of Mahinda Rajapakse. For if there walks on this earth today a man whose heart beats as one with the workers of the world, that man is this man.

It was he who, in the darkest days of the SLFP, when its leadership was in tatters, and the big-wigs of today were hiding under their beds in the far-flung capitals of the world, almost single-handedly stood up to tyranny. The jana gosha and white flag campaigns organized by him had the Premadasa administration bewildered and red in the face. The door of popular rebellion was ajar, and when Athulathmudali and Dissanayake scuttled the ship from within, there was no hope left for their former party. Rajapakse was by then being tipped as the natural successor to Anura Bandaranaike in the SLFP: after all, he had served the SLFP in Parliament before many people in the cabinet, despite being younger than most. And he alone flew the flag for a party many had consigned to the rubbish heap, what is more, during its darkest hour.

When the PA Government won the 1994 elections therefore, hopes were high for Rajapakse. Appropriately, he was made Minister of Labour: a fitting tribute to his concern for workers and their rights. Given his left-of-centre leanings, Rajapakse slid into the ministry like a fish into water. It is fitting to ask then, come May Day three years later, what this champion of worker’s rights has achieved.

The sad truth is, not a lot. Clearly, the defection of many of his close political allies together with Anura Bandaranaike to the UNP in 1994 left Rajapakse without the support of some of the cleverer minds and able orators of the SLFP. Isolated from his political allies, two Johnnies-come-lately, TilanWijesinghe and Navin Gooneratne, were to usurp what influence he had left. Bypassing Rajapakse, Kumaratunga handed the South to Gooneratne, well known for his idealistic pipe-dreams; and Wijesinghe was to shoot down Rajapakse’s only remaining claim to credibility with the workers: the Workers’ Charter.

It takes little political aptitude to predict that Kumaratunga’s betrayal of Rajapakse will come to haunt her and her party in the future. And her betrayal of the workers clearly has led to the resurgence of the JVP. The temporary gain that Wijesinghe thinks he has achieved by forestalling the Charter will surely be brought to naught when the foreign capitalists he seeks to entice to our shores see that the sole upshot of the government’s policies seems to be the rise of the Marxists!

As much as the Workers’ Charter was Rajapakse’s brainchild, it is also a cornerstone of the PA’s now widely-ridiculed 1994 election manifesto. Almost a page of the manifesto was devoted to the charter, which inter alia assured trade union rights, the adjudication of industrial disputes, a Wages Commission, social security, welfare and the establishment of a National Trade Union Training Institute. All these it seems, have been given priority lower to the construction of a Presidential Palace and a institution for actors.

Not one of the eight paragraphs of promises made in relation to the “Rights and privileges of working people” has been implemented – but then that is nothing unusual: the rest of the manifesto has suffered much the same fate. Today Kumaratunga stands divorced from virtually everything she claimed to stand for in 1994, if her manifesto is anything to go by. And by doing so she has exposed the nation to the risk of yet another insurrection: for by neutralising moderate leftists such as Rajapakse who, after all have their finger on the pulse of the people, she has deprived the South of a legitimate pipeline to the corridors of influence.

By seeking to foist on the people of the South pie in the sky idealists like Gooneratne, a son of privilege, bred – and breeding – in Colombo, detached as they are from reality by wealth and influence, she has with one hand cut off the very rationale of the process of devolution to grass-roots she offers with the other.


January 11, 2006 – Letter

My dear President,

I was shocked and surprised by the tone and content of your telephone call to me at 11:13 this morning. I cannot imagine that the occupant of the highest office in our land could utter such foul, lewd and disgusting words: indeed the language of the gutter. It is unbecoming and disgraceful of you to have uttered threats against me, and I want to repeat the assertion made by me during your hysterical ranting that I will not be bowed by them. You more than any other politician, have paid lip service to human rights and the building of a decent society in Sri Lanka. It is all the more shocking then, that you should conduct yourself in such a low manner.

Given the office you hold, I have no doubt it is well within your power to do me harm, whether or not through the abuse of the state machinery that lies at your disposal. I have therefore no choice but to give your threats the widest possible publicity in the hope that this will persuade you to desist from the course of action you are clearly contemplating, to eliminate me or do me harm. No doubt you will deny the content of the conversation that took place this morning as you would a request made to me prior to the presidential election inviting me to run your election campaign with your brother, Basil Rajapakse which I politely declined. You have no choice but to deny the threat made, given the lip service your public persona pays to the upholding of decent values.

You know better than anyone that The Sunday Leader was infinitely more critical of your predecessor, Chandrika Kumaratunga, than it has been of you. Yet, she never stooped to the level you have, even though she was reported to have given ear to a plot to “kill an editor or two.”

Leader of the Opposition, Ranil Wickremesinghe informed me that you had spoken with him at around 1 p.m. on the same subject which was within a matter of two hours of threatening me, and asked him to request me to desist from publishing in future any story you consider provocative. You have specifically mentioned the publication of a story relating to your wife, Shiranthi.

I have no idea what story you are referring to: you failed to tell me, and you evidently failed also to tell him. Yet, I wish to remind you that should you have anything to convey to me, your purposes would be best served by informing me directly rather than threatening me in vile language.

Given our long acquaintance, you should know better than anyone that I am not one to be swayed by third parties. I take this opportunity to also remind you in that context of your request to me as Prime Minister to refrain from publishing details of the ‘Helping Hambantota’ account in July 2005 and my refusal to oblige you. Indeed, when there is news that it is in the national interest to publish, be assured that nothing will prevent The Sunday Leader from publishing it.

I urge you even now to respect the great office to which you have been elected, and to conduct yourself with the dignity and decorum the people and Sri Lanka have a right to expect of you. It does not become the presidency that you should threaten journalists or indeed, plot violence against them.

With best wishes for the new year,
Yours sincerely,
Lasantha Wickrematunge
Editor, The Sunday Leader


February 10, 2002

The appointment of Mahinda Rajapakse as Leader of the Opposition has come like a breath of fresh air. Except for Hector Kobbekaduwa’s brief and abortive foray into the SLFP’s top rung as a ‘born to lose’ presidential candidate in 1982, the party’s hierarchy has been the hegemony of the Bandaranaike family. Few doubt that President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga had hoped her brother Anura could keep the seat warm for her children, Yasodara and Vimukthi, one day to inherit the mantle of leadership.

Mahinda has never been one of Kumaratunga’s favourites. Despite his seniority in the party, and the pivotal role he played in its coming to power in 1994, he was denied a development ministry that might have allowed him to acquire the electoral prestige he badly needed to make a bid for the leadership, given Anura Bandaranaike’s childish defection to the UNP.

Appointed Minister of Labour, Mahinda swiftly began a process of reform by announcing a bill of rights for labour, the Workers’ Charter. The Charter was a cornerstone of the PA’s now widely-ridiculed 1994 election manifesto. Almost a page of the manifesto had been devoted to the Charter, which inter alia assured trade union rights, the adjudication of industrial disputes, a Wages Commission, social security, security and the establishment of a National Trade Union Training Institute: all laudable objectives. None of this was to be implemented by Kumaratunga however, whose sole focus was the construction of a presidential palace for herself.

Mahinda’s insistence that promises were meant to be kept put him at odds with the President, who went on to imply that he was responsible for leaking Cabinet secrets to the media, referring to ‘reporters’ around the Cabinet table. Even in announcing his appointment as Opposition Leader last week, Kumaratunga was grudging, making it clear she was acting under duress. Her much-travelled brother Anura is away on one of his numerous junkets, and an open contest for the post would be impractical. What is more, the indications are that Bandaranaike would have lost hands down.
Mahinda’s vision for his beloved southern homeland and Sri Lanka’s labour fell victim to the contrary thinking of two Johnnies-come-lately to the SLFP, Tilan Wijesinghe and Navin Gooneratne, respectively.

Although both are now estranged from Kumaratunga, Wijesinghe, then an intimate confidante of the President, effectively scuttled the Workers’ Charter. For his part, the Colombo-born Gooneratne quickly fell foul of Mahinda, whose political vision was entirely at odds with the pie-in-the-sky objectives of the President’s pet pipedream, the Southern Development Authority, which Gooneratne headed.

Kumaratunga’s betrayal of Mahinda in effect cut her party’s traditional ties with the Left, leading to the resurgence of the JVP, which replaced the SLFP as champion of the working class. It was the JVP’s pilferage of traditional PA votes that led to the latter’s ignominious defeat in the general election last December. As we predicted six years ago, “The temporary gain that Wijesinghe thinks he has achieved by forestalling the [Workers’] Charter will surely be brought to naught when the foreign capitalists he seeks to entice to our shores see that the sole upshot of the government’s policies has been the rise of the Marxists.” For his espousal of the Workers’ Charter, Mahinda was ignominiously evicted from the Labour Ministry and assigned Fisheries instead. Leadership of an institution committed to the slaughter of fish was no doubt irksome to this ardent Buddhist.

Mahinda however, made the best of a bad job by working to improve the social and economic conditions of fisher folk, swimming against the tide however, for Kumaratunga’s new champion of the South, Mangala Samaraweera, now had a firm grip on the presidential ear. By neutralising moderate leftists such as Mahinda who had their finger on the pulse of the people, Kumaratunga deprived the South of a legitimate pipeline to the corridors of influence, foolishly yielding very nearly 20 percent of her party’s vote base to the JVP.

Now at last, Mahinda’s day has come, and he is within striking distance of breaking the Bandaranaikes’ stranglehold of the SLFP’s leadership, widely seen as part of that patrician family’s inheritance. When he first entered parliament as a stripling youth of 24 (albeit an attorney-at-law) in 1970, he was the youngest member and a darling of the Left. Throughout his three decades as an MP, Mahinda’s hallmark has been his loyalty to his party and his principles, rather than servility to the Bandaranaikes. His father, D. A. Rajapakse, who was MP for Beliatta from 1947 to 1960, was different.
When S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike crossed over from the UNP to form the SLFP in 1955, he was amazed to find that all his promised allies had abandoned him, but for D.A.R., who crossed with him. Despite Mahinda’s roots going back therefore, to the very genesis of the SLFP, the Bandaranaikes have always kept him at bay, feeling threatened by his natural mass appeal.

No doubt the 56 year-old Mahinda will make a far more dynamic Leader of the Opposition than the 68 year-old Ratnasiri Wickramanayake could have. His appointment, though publicly welcomed, must also be disconcerting to Ranil Wickremesinghe. Unlike the prime minister, Mahinda is a maverick: a non-conformist who can strike deep into the psyche of the Sri Lankan people, rousing passions they never knew existed.
This is a talent Mahinda may well put to use in curbing any success Wickremesinghe may wish to milk from the peace initiative he spearheads. For his part, the new Leader of the Opposition should be cautious not to alienate the minorities: his Sinhala-Buddhist identity is too well established to shake off now, and is undoubtedly a strength. What is more, he comes with a clean slate and, unlike Kumaratunga, could easily build bridges with the minority parties, a task he should undertake with all speed.

Mahinda no doubt has his eye on the next presidential election, to the PA’s nomination for which which he is now poised to stake a credible claim. He is handicapped only by his lack of ‘Colombo roots’, his alma mater being Richmond College, Galle (though latterly at Thurstan and Nalanda), and not Royal or St Thomas’s, unlike every other elected male national leader since Independence bar Premadasa. Though a son of Colombo city, Premadasa fought hard to build an entirely false rural identity so as to win power; ironically the task before Mahinda is wholly the opposite.

Unlike Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe, though he speaks English fluently albeit with a markedly Sinhala accent, he thinks in Sinhala. The snootier element of Colombo society will, not doubt, hold this against him just as they did in Premadasa’s case. But strengthened by the effortless charm of his former beauty-queen wife, Shiranthi, this is a man who may soon take the capital by storm. The immediate task before Mahinda is to give strength to the Opposition, striking an identity independent of Kumaratunga’s legacy of inefficiency, arrogance and corruption. No doubt his appointment has struck fear in the hearts of the UNF and JVP leaderships. It is now his job to win the hearts and minds not just of southerners, but the whole of Sri Lanka, minorities and all. It is an endeavour in which we cannot but wish him well.


July 17, 2005

While congratulating and welcoming Prime Minister Rajapakse therefore,” an English weekly effused barely a year ago, commenting on the alliance government’s announcement of its prime ministerial nominee, “we hope with all sincerity that he will fulfil the high expectations the nation has in him.” Rajapakse would, they wrote, “be the prime minister who gives leadership to the cause of a government free of corruption, nepotism and extravagance. It is a challenge we hope he will address with his customary missionary zeal.”
That newspaper was this newspaper. We welcomed Mahinda to Temple Trees unreservedly, breaking a decade of tradition by referring to a politician by his first name, and with unconcealed affection. “We at The Sunday Leader cannot disguise our pleasure in welcoming Mahinda Rajapakse as the 13th Prime Minister of Sri Lanka,” we declared. And we meant every word.

No prime minister of Sri Lanka has been a darling of the media – nay, the people – as Rajapakse has. Unassuming, approachable, friendly, gracious, sociable, responsive, open, pleasant, affable… Roget’s Thesaurus exhausts itself in positive synonyms that personify Mahinda. The contrast between him and Chandrika Kumaratunga could not be greater. Mahinda may not be one of the great thinkers of our age, but he certainly is everyone’s darling.

So much the greater our disillusionment then, when we caught him bending. Fiddling a tender here, subverting a contract there: that we have all come to expect of people holding political office in Sri Lanka. But misappropriating money that well meaning citizens, their hearts aflame with empathy for the victims of the tsunami, had donated to the Prime Minister’s Fund, is surely taking food out of the mouths of the widows and the orphans. And that is what Mahinda has got caught doing.

The surreptitious transfer of Rs. 82 million from the Prime Minister’s Fund into a private account called ‘Helping Hambantota’ was not just illegal, but treacherous. After all, the dirty deed was done barely two months after the tsunami. Tens of thousands were living under canvas, bereaved and traumatised. Never has our nation known such misery. In Hambantota, Mahinda’s own district, thousands are still homeless. More than 800 children had been made orphans there alone. Yet, the money was siphoned out and kept unspent, in a private account controlled by his brother and three cronies. The more generous section of the public opines that it was set aside for his presidential election campaign.

The less charitable attribute even more sinister motives to the heist. So much is Mahinda loved that few find it conceivable that he is a thief. Yet, having got caught with his hand in the till, he has been unable convincingly to answer the pointed questions his accusers throw at him. Affability alone will not wash away the question mark that hangs over his integrity, and he would do well to give convincing answers that lend credit to his honesty. The whole country would breathe a sigh of relief were Mahinda to tell them it was a single act of poor judgment, or the work of some careless official, or a directive from the President, absolving himself of culpability. But, rather than addressing the issues, he has sought to brush them aside through a verbal sleight of hand. That will not do.

The Sunday Leader would like to invite Mahinda, even at this late hour, to come clean by answering clearly and unequivocally the following straightforward questions:
Was he aware, when he authorised the cheque for Rs. 82 million to be written in favour of ‘Helping Hambantota’ that he was misappropriating government money – money that he was holding as a sacred trust, for the state, on behalf of tsunami victims?
Was he aware that there was no legal entity (e.g. an NGO registered with the Finance Ministry or the Social Services Department) called ‘Helping Hambantota’ – that this name had been coined simply as a device to open a bank account?
Was he aware that the four signatories to the ‘Helping Hambantota’ account were people closely associated with him, including his brother Chamal, acting in their private capacities?

Did he know that by transferring the money to an entity other than the three accounts approved by the government (as reiterated in parliament only last week by Finance Minister Amunugama), he was committing a further offence?
Why was it that while the cabinet minutes of February 10 explicitly require all tsunami donations to be credited to one of the three official government accounts, he took no action whatsoever during the ensuing four months to recover this money from ‘Helping Hambantota’ and credit it to a legal fund?

Why did he mislead the country by stating that all the money received by him had been accounted for and approved by cabinet when he (a) did not declare to cabinet that he had given Rs. 82 million to ‘Helping Hambantota’ and (b) cabinet in any case directed him to deposit all monies received in the official government accounts?

These are questions Mahinda would do well to answer fully and frankly, rather than saying that his heart is pure and he has done no wrong. Even at this stage it is not too late for him to clear his name, for he should know better than anyone that this is baggage he does not want to carry to a presidential election, especially given the thousands of tsunami victims who are still homeless in his electorate. It would be a tragedy if 35 years of admirable politics were to end in epithets like Tsunami Hora and Tsunamigate.

It remains to be seen whether the tsunami funds heist ends up as Mahinda’s Watergate or Waterloo. We hope it will be neither. But his credibility and his image have been badly tarnished by his actions. No prime minister in a civilised country could survive what he has done: misappropriated US$ 820,000 of government money. Tony Blair, had he tried an antic like that, would have been standing in the dole queue before he knew what had hit him, and George Bush would have found himself impeached even though his daddy is best friends with all the judges of the Supreme Court. Sri Lanka has been betrayed by its favourite son, Mahinda. We have often referred to the 11-year reign of Chandrika Kumaratunga as the most corrupt in the history of Sri Lanka. But Kumaratunga’s excesses pale into insignificance beside this, quite apart from the even more tragic aspect of donor money being hijacked.

The nation has been twice stabbed in the back.
What is needed now, more than recrimination or finger pointing, is to get the money back and put it where it belongs: in one of the government’s official tsunami aid accounts. Question is, does Mahinda have the courage to do that – to do the right thing? After all, now he has been exposed as having purloined the money, he cannot spend it, whether for tsunami relief or anything else. Indeed, he knows as much, for that is how come the loot has, since The Sunday Leader expos‚ been placed in a call deposit, earning a paltry 4% per annum. Sooner or later, a criminal investigation will ensue, with the direst consequences for the Premier. But there is yet time to come clean, make good, and look forward to a long and productive career in the service of the nation.

Mahinda must not forget that he yet represents the only credible challenge to the Bandaranaikes’ stranglehold of the SLFP. He must spare no pains to avoid being seen as a political liability to The Family, for they do not really need excuses to jettison him. Sadly, he has now handed them one on a platter, with cucumber dressing, to boot. Ironically, it was Mahinda whom Kumaratunga accused of being “the reporter in the cabinet” after she suspected him of leaking cabinet secrets to The Sunday Leader.

Ranil Wickremesinghe, the UNP’s Mr. Clean, must find Mahinda’s comeuppance to be finger-lickin’ good. But this is not an issue of cheap politics. It is an issue of national decency. Mahinda should know that every foreign dignitary who comes to meet him with offers of tsunami aid – indeed, every foreign ambassador – greets him effusively all the while holding at the back of their mind the observation, ‘Ah, so this is the chap who pinched the tsunami money.’

The victims of the tsunami, now more than six months orphaned, homeless, jobless and hungry, are getting used to the fact that nobody really gives a damn what happens to them. They mostly do not speak Latin. If they did, they might well ask, “Et tu,


January 11, 2009

And Then They Came For Me
Unknown to most of the public, Mahinda and I have been friends for more than a quarter century. Indeed, I suspect that I am one of the few people remaining who routinely addresses him by his first name and uses the familiar Sinhala address oya when talking to him. Although I do not attend the meetings he periodically holds for newspaper editors, hardly a month passes when we do not meet, privately or with a few close friends present, late at night at President’s House. There we swap yarns, discuss politics and joke about the good old days. A few remarks to him would therefore be in order here.

Mahinda, when you finally fought your way to the SLFP presidential nomination in 2005, nowhere were you welcomed more warmly than in this column. Indeed, we broke with a decade of tradition by referring to you throughout by your first name.
January 11, 2009

So well known were your commitments to human rights and liberal values that we ushered you in like a breath of fresh air. Then, though an act of folly, you got yourself involved in the Helping Hambantota scandal. It was after a lot of soul-searching that we broke the story, at the same time urging you to return the money. By the time you did so several weeks later, a great blow had been struck to your reputation. It is one you are still trying to live down.

You have told me yourself that you were not greedy for the presidency. You did not have to hanker after it: it fell into your lap. You have told me that your sons are your greatest joy, and that you love spending time with them, leaving your brothers to operate the machinery of state. Now, it is clear to all who will see that that machinery has operated so well that my sons and daughter do not themselves have a father.

In the wake of my death I know you will make all the usual sanctimonious noises and call upon the police to hold a swift and thorough inquiry.
But like all the inquiries you have ordered in the past, nothing will come of this one, too. For truth be told, we both know who will be behind my death, but dare not call his name. Not just my life, but yours too, depends on it. Sadly, for all the dreams you had for our country in your younger days, in just three years you have reduced it to rubble. In the name of patriotism you have trampled on human rights, nurtured unbridled corruption and squandered public money like no other president before you. Indeed, your conduct has been like a small child suddenly let loose in a toyshop. That analogy is perhaps inapt because no child could have caused so much blood to be spilled on this land as you have, or trampled on the rights of its citizens as you do. Although you are now so drunk with power that you cannot see it, you will come to regret your sons having so rich an inheritance of blood. It can only bring tragedy. As for me, it is with a clear conscience that I go to meet my Maker. I wish, when your time finally comes, you could do the same. I wish.

As for me, I have the satisfaction of knowing that I walked tall and bowed to no man. And I have not travelled this journey alone. Fellow journalists in other branches of the media walked with me: most of them are now dead, imprisoned without trial or exiled in far-off lands. Others walk in the shadow of death that your presidency has cast on the freedoms for which you once fought so hard. You will never be allowed to forget that my death took place under your watch. As anguished as I know you will be, I also know that you will have no choice but to protect my killers: you will see to it that the guilty one is never convicted. You have no choice.

I feel sorry for you, and Shiranthi will have a long time to spend on her knees when next she goes for Confession for it is not just her owns sins which she must confess, but those of her extended family that keeps you in office.

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