Lasantha did it his way | Daily News
Reminiscences of a friend

Lasantha did it his way

It is with a profound feeling of sadness and sense of melancholy that I pen these lines on the 10th death anniversary of my schoolmate and one time journalistic colleague Lasantha Wickrematunga. Lasantha and I go back in time to the days we were kids at the primary at St. Benedict’s College Kotahena the premier Catholic educational institution run by the De la salle brothers. However, although we advanced in our grades together it was not until Grade 7 that Lasantha and I became classmates once again. Our class master was the late Edward Jayawardena who was also the college soccer coach at the time.

Lasantha, though a Buddhist, blended excellently with the Catholic milieu which was strictly followed at St. Benedict’s and even attended holy mass along with the rest of us in the classroom on occasions such as the College Day and Director’s feast. St. Benedict’s, then, and still is, known for its cosmopolitan outlook, understandable, situated as it does at the centre of that part of Colombo city with a heavy mix of different nationalities. It was quiet natural therefore for each classroom, with the exception of the Tamil stream, to have students of different nationalities rubbing shoulders with each other. While the Sinhala students dominated in the numbers (in the Sinhala stream) there were also a heady mix of Burghers, Malays, Muslims, Tamils/Hindus and in some instances even Chinese, in a single classroom. They all co-existed in harmony and built friendships which, no doubt, have endured to this day.

It is this cosmopolitan outlook which St. Benedict’s inculcated in their charges that stood out in Lasantha, both in wielding his pen, and in his outspokenness in exposing the hypocrites, who call themselves nationalists, which were on full view in the numerous television programmes and debates he participated in, for which all Benedictines would, no doubt, be truly proud of.

Journalistic talents

It is not that Lasantha displayed any promise of his journalistic talents that were on full display in the years to come, or, for that matter, any special abilities or aptitudes as a student. Of course, glimpses of his debating skills that must have come to his aid later as a member of the legal profession were shown in classroom debating contests which were conducted in Sinhala. Lasantha invariably prevailed, showing the fight and fierce determination in him, a quality that was later to stand him in good stead in his journalistic profession and which formed the motto of his publication “unbowed and unafraid”.

After we passed out from Grade Seven we were separated once again, occupying different classrooms for reasons of exigencies of student accommodation but we were united in another sphere - as members of the College under 14 cricket team which continued to the following year (under 16). A little known fact about Lasantha to many of his journalistic colleagues was that he was a fine cricketer - a wily left arm bowler and a punishing right hand batsman. I still recall Lasantha leading the team to the pavilion after bagging five wickets in an under 14 match to the rousing cheers of the Benedictine supporters. Lasantha also helped me increase by own wickets tally by holding onto an excellent catch at cover point during an under 16 tournament match the following year, for which I am still indebted to him. Incidentally Lasantha’s elder brother Lal captained the college first eleven cricket team and no doubt the cricketing genes ran in the family.

Thereafter, we once again parted ways, this time for a long period. Lasantha going overseas to pursue higher studies and I, labouring my way to the Advanced Level before leaving college to seek employment.

Political interests

It was a full fifteen years later before I heard from Lasantha. This is when he called me at the Independent Newspapers Ltd. where I was staff writer for the Sun and Weekend Newspapers to congratulate me after seeing my by-line in my first lead story. At the time I was in the cubicle of Sinha Ratnatunga, the Chief News Editor of the Sun. Sinha himself took the call and handed me the phone because I had already told him I knew Lasantha who only some months ago had left the Sun to join the Island newspapers. This was also the time a Presidential Election was in the offing in the backdrop of a bloody JVP uprising. Lasantha, though hailing from a UNP background, this time around though, through the Island newspaper, was writing articles supportive of Madam Bandaranaike and eventually become her press officer.

I still recall receiving a press release drafted by him at Horagolla where I was assigned to cover Mrs. Bandaranaike’s first election rally, with specific instructions conveyed to me on the angle I should adopt for the story. Minutes later Lasantha was seeing standing on a pick-up truck accompanying Madam Bandaranaike and retinue to the meeting venue in Nittambuwa.

Incidentally, I also happened to cover the meeting to announce Lasantha’s own foray into politics where he was appointed chief SLFP organiser for Colombo North. On stage, apart from Mrs. Bandaranaike, Stanley Thilakaratne, Nanda Ellawela and other SLFP stalwarts was Lasantha’s own father Harris Wickrematunga, who, it was said had quit the UNP following a dispute with Vincent Perera. This was the first time I heard Lasantha make a political speech on a political platform which was laced with sarcasm targeting Vincent Perera but, nevertheless, bore testimony to the promise he held as a skilled debater in that Grade Seven classroom.

Premadasa won the election and in the general election that followed Lasantha was made a candidate from the SLFP, representing the Colombo District. Pitted against political giants such as Lalith Athulathmudali and Sirisena Cooray and having as his electoral base the Colombo North Electorate, which has always voted UNP en-bloc even at the worst of times, needless to say, Lasantha had no chance whatsoever, eventually collecting fewer than 8,000 preference votes. With the passage of time he once again gravitated towards the UNP and became a close confidant of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

There were many who despised Lasantha’s brand of journalism, particularly his habit of invading on personal privacy. But there is no gainsaying that his daring revelations and the style in which he presented them in spellbinding fashion drew a massive readership to the Sunday Leader. His exposures of massive financial scams involving top Government leaders, details of the kickbacks in arms purchases, no doubt, made him many enemies among the top echelons of the rulers of the day.

Ten years after the brutal slaying of this intrepid journalist and crusader for justice, the country’s law enforcement is yet none the wiser as to the culprits behind the dastardly deed. I for one and all those at St. Benedict’s who knew and moved with Lasantha would only wish and pray that someday his death will be avenged. For now though words fail to describe his loss except to say that an exceptional individual and a dear friend passed my way. 


 

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