Living dangerously.

Author:Hardy, Michael (American educator)
Position:Letter from SRI LANKA - Essay
 
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ON THE MORNING of January 8, 2009, Lasantha Wickrematunge was driving to work in a suburb of the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo when his Toyota Corolla was blocked by four motorcycles. The masked riders smashed the car's windows and dragged Lasantha into the street, where one of the assailants punched a hole in his skull with a captive bolt pistol, the kind used to slaughter livestock. According to eyewitnesses, the motorcyclists then sped off in the direction of a nearby military checkpoint, leaving Lasantha dead in the middle of a crowded intersection.

Lasantha was the editor of The Sunday Leader, an English-language weekly newspaper that he founded with his older brother Lal in 1994. Known for their muckraking investigations of corrupt politicians, the Wickrematunges were accustomed to harassment and violence: Lasantha had been shot at, beaten up, and had his home shelled by antitank ammunition; the government briefly shut the Leader down in 2000 for flouting censorship laws; in 2005, and again in 2007, arsonists burned down its printing press; and before his assassination, Lasantha received death threats for criticizing the government's war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a Tamil separatist group that had been in revolt against the predominantly Sinhalese government since 1983.

Not wanting to endanger anyone else, Lasantha refused to hire a bodyguard. But he took the threats seriously enough to compose a letter, to be published in case he was killed, accusing the powerful Secretary of Defense Gotabaya Rajapaksa of ordering his murder. Rajapaksa had held a grudge against Lasantha since 2007, when the Leader accused the defense secretary of getting swindled on a series of arms deals. In 2008, he filed a one-billion-rupee ($9 million) defamation lawsuit against the Leader and won a court order prohibiting it from mentioning his name in print. Ironically, Lasantha was a one-time friend of the defense secretary's brother, President Mahinda Rajapaksa. In his final words, which were published in the Leader three days after his death and reprinted in newspapers around the world, Lasantha addressed the Sri Lankan president directly:

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. I WENT TO WORK for The Sunday Leader in August 2009, seven months after Lasantha was assassinated and three months after the Sri Lankan government declared victory in its final offensive against the LTTE. Indiscriminate bombing of LTTE territory had killed tens of thousands of civilians and virtually the entire LTTE leadership. For the first time in a quarter century, the Sri Lankan government controlled the entire island. When I first arrived, the country still looked like it was at war, with checkpoints at every major intersection and blast walls erected in front of government buildings. Officials traveled in armed convoys that sometimes included an ambulance to transport the wounded to a hospital in case of attack (The LTTE, once considered the world's most dangerous terrorist group, used suicide bombers to assassinate Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993.)

I came to Sri Lanka with my girlfriend, who grew up in Colombo and was returning for a year to research her Ph.D. dissertation. I was hoping to find work as a reporter. My only experience was in entertainment journalism, but my girlfriend's mother didn't consider this a problem. She immediately introduced me to Lal, a childhood friend, who had taken over as the Leader's publisher after his brother's murder.

The newspaper's offices occupied the top two floors of an anonymous office building in a mixed industrial and residential area of 1Ratmalana, about a 20-minute drive south of Colombo. Faded posters commemorating Lasantha still hung above the building's entrance, and the lobby displayed a framed copy of the Leader's front page announcing Lasantha's death. When I walked into Lal's office on the fifth floor, I found the publisher behind his desk, phone cradled against his ear, taking drags from a Benson and Hedges cigarette. He motioned me to sit downwhile he finished his conversation.

"So" Lal said in accented English, hanging up the phone and swiveling in his chair to look me over, "you want to do some writing." He skimmed through my stack...

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