Lasantha and Mahinda: Friends and foes? | Sunday Observer

Lasantha and Mahinda: Friends and foes?

6 January, 2019

Few sagas defined Lasantha Wickrematunge’s final years as much as his complex and long-standing relationship with Mahinda Rajapaksa. As Wickrematunge was to himself confess in his self-penned obituary, the two had secretly been close friends for most of a lifetime. The editor held Rajapaksa in the highest esteem, rising to his defence frequently in the pages of the Sunday Leader, with the relationship suffering a fatal watershed moment with the 2005 “Helping Hambantota” scandal. Even after the soon-President Rajapaksa and Lasantha Wickrematunge mended fences and continued to meet with regularity, their relationship was strained by Wickrematunge’s barely concealed contempt for the President’s brothers, whom he charged with taking his patriotic and human-rights minded friend into the dark world of corruption, nepotism and bloodshed.

Reproduced on this page are excerpts of Lasantha Wickrematunge’s own words from The Sunday Leader, demonstrating the character and evolution of this historic bond between editor and politician.

Appointment as Leader of the Opposition

When Mahinda Rajapaksa was recognised as Leader of the Opposition in Parliament on 6th February 2002 following the appointment of Ranil Wickremasinghe as Prime Minister, nowhere was this accomplishment more warmly lauded than in Wickrematunge’s editorial on the subject.

“The appointment of Mahinda Rajapaksa as Leader of the Opposition has come like a breath of fresh air.”

“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 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.”

Appointment as Prime Minister

Barely two years into his tenure as Opposition Leader, following the stunning electoral victory of the SLFP in April 2004, Mahinda Rajapaksa was appointed Prime Minister. Wickrematunge, on this occasion, could barely hide his pleasure, and confessed as much.

“Who would have thought a fortnight ago, that Mahinda Rajapaksa would shortly be swapping jobs with Ranil Wickremesinghe? Well, it seems that almost half the electorate did. We at cannot disguise our pleasure in welcoming Mahinda Rajapaksa as the 13th prime minister of Sri Lanka.”

“Meanwhile, ever the gentleman, Wickremesinghe quitted Temple Trees and made his way back to his private 5th Lane residence. Not in his wildest dreams did the former Prime Minister expect the drubbing his party received at the April 2 polls. In his mind, he had done an honest job: he had brought peace to Sri Lanka; he had secured spectacular and unprecedented foreign aid; he had halved interest rates and got an economy in recession back into growth; and he had breathed a fresh breath of liberalism into the Sri Lankan polity.”

“In taking over the reins as Prime Minister, therefore, Mahinda follows a class act. If he lacks the former Prime Minister’s managerial zeal, he surely makes up for it in terms of sheer sincerity of purpose and patent empathy with the ordinary people of this country. Most refreshingly, he topped the polls in his Hambantota District (to boot, the JVP’s strongest bastion).”

“Mahinda also prides himself on the fact that his inner circle of friends are ordinary folk or grassroots politicians, rather than Colombo’s business elite. He is a devoted and caring family man. His three teenage sons attend S. Thomas’ College, Mt. Lavinia – not an international school. Unlike Wickremesinghe, whose roots lie entirely in metropolitan Colombo, Mahinda is a child of rural Sri Lanka. Unlike both 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, no 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 could take the capital by storm.”

“While congratulating and welcoming Prime Minister Rajapaksa therefore, we hope with all sincerity that he will fulfil the high expectations the nation has in him. Even as the leadership of the JVP has stated publicly that it will stand back and play the role of class monitor, so it must 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.”

Helping Hambantota

In July 2005, with presidential elections months away, reporters at The Sunday Leader unearthed evidence of Prime Minister Rajapaksa’s alleged complicity in siphoning over Rs 80 million of tsunami relief money into a private bank account. The resulting CID investigation was famously halted by Chief Justice Sarath Silva, who later apologised to the nation publicly for ordering the halt of the investigation and allowing Rajapaksa to be elected President. This episode caused a permanent fissure in the bond between Wickrematunge and Rajapaksa, one that had yet to fully heal in Wickrematunge’s lifetime.

“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 cannot disguise our pleasure in welcoming Mahinda Rajapaksa 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 Rajapaksa 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 traumatized. 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 tsunami was the greatest natural disaster to affect Sri Lanka. Now, seven months later, 10,000 families are still living under canvas, yes, even in the Prime Minister’s own district. And the Rs. 83 million he stashed away in a private account is still sitting there. Among the biggest withdrawals made from that account has been Rs. 1.5 million drawn in cash by whom? W.W. Gamage, one of the handlers of the account, and a bosom buddy of the Premier’s. Is this mud? No, Mr. Prime Minister, it is fact, and it is time to face facts.”

“If he wants the mud to go away, the first thing he might want to do is to step out of the pool of mud in which he is now wallowing and get on to dry land. That, whether he likes it or not, is now the public perception of him: a man standing in a pool of mud, isolated from his people by that very same mud. Come clean, Mr. Prime Minister, and face your electorate. Bluff and deceit will get you nowhere – not so long as is around.”

On 18th November 2005, Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected President by what Wickrematunge described as “the slenderest majority in history”, following the LTTE having forced the residents of the North and East to boycott the election. It was later revealed by Rajapaksa confidant Tiran Alles that this LTTE boycott had been brokered by himself and Basil Rajapaksa in exchange for a large sum of cash. Wickrematunge greeted the election result with stoic consternation.

“Victory must surely taste bitter sweet in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s mouth as the weight of the responsibility that has been thrust upon him begins to tell.But a victory it nevertheless was, and we join the country in congratulating him.”

“The LTTE’s forced boycott of the election sent a message not just to Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe, but to the world at large. The Tigers’ claim to a sovereign state rings empty in the light of the contempt they showed for the Tamil people in depriving them of their right to vote.”

“Never before has it been so boldly underlined that the liberation the Tamil people need is as much from the LTTE that traumatized them as from the unequal lot it is their cross to bear.The country would do well to consider why it was that the Tigers chose Rajapaksa over Wickremesinghe.”

“Mahinda Rajapaksa must not forget the ever so slender majority by which he was elected. He must also not be allowed to forget that for the second time in Sri Lanka’s history, the country’s president has been determined not by all the people of Sri Lanka, but the LTTE. That must mean something.”

“The UNP’s failure last Thursday is the culmination of a decade of feeble opposition, and this must change. The country is paying for the opposition just as much as it is paying for the government, and the opposition’s performance is just as relevant as that of the government.”

Defection of UNP Group

In February 2007, a group of 18 UNP MPs defected to the government prompting a cabinet reshuffle which, among other things, consolidated the Rajapaksa family’s complete control over the defence ministry by eradicating the post of deputy minister of defence.

Wickrematunge had harsh words on the occasion for all those involved, making no effort to mask his disdain for the President’s family in power.

“An MP crossing over is just about the worst thing that can happen to a government with a feeble majority. It was to guard his flanks that Mahinda Rajapaksa lured 18 additional souls to his ranks last Sunday.”

“Given the high stakes of staying in office, Rajapaksa knows better than anyone that half a dozen MPs is about the best thing money can buy nowadays, especially if it is other people’s money. And having made that purchase, the President is not looking back.”

“For its part, the UNP has been reduced, by a steady evaporation of its MPs, to half its size. Should a handful more of its MPs desert ranks, Ranil Wickremesinghe will face a novel prospect in his three decades in parliament: life as a backbencher. That, in the eyes of many UNP loyalists, is a consummation devoutly to be wished.”

“Ranil and Mahinda have, however, one great common failing. For Ranil, it has meant the near downfall of his party. For Mahinda, comeuppance is yet to come. It is this: neither of them trusts his party. For his part, Ranil’s inner circle of advisers comprises a tight assemblage of pals and cronies. True, a couple of MPs are known to socialise with him, but then again, they became MPs only because they were socialising with him in the first place. Wickremesinghe has few friends who are elected-politicians: now would be a good time for him to begin breaking bread (which is not to say sharing a fondue) at least occasionally with his few remaining MPs and party stalwarts, taking them into his confidence and listening to their views.”

“For his part, Rajapaksa’s closest advisers are his brothers, none of whom has ever greatly distinguished himself in anything in particular. It is a huge transition from living in penury in a caravan park in America to the high life of Colombo, bullet-proof BMWs and all. With his ascent to the presidency, Rajapaksa in effect ceased to be a true member of the SLFP he today heads, just as Premadasa before him alienated himself from the UNP.”

Basil enters Parliament

The sudden passing in September 2007 of UPFA MP Anver Ismail left a national list vacancy that was filled by then Presidential Advisor Basil Rajapaksa. As the presidential sibling entered Parliament, Wickrematunge sounded the alarm of creeping nepotism and family rule.

“When Mahinda Percy Rajapaksa boasted recently that the SLFP does not belong to any one family, it took barely a day for a witty cartoonist to offer the rejoinder, “Maybe, but the country does!” So notorious have the Rajapaksa Brothers become for naked nepotism and self-aggrandizement that barely an eyebrow was raised. Controlling some 70 percent of the economy, the brothers have a stranglehold on Sri Lanka like no other government before this one ever had, and behave as if they own the country. In fact, they do.”

“When Percy became President, no one had heard of Basil and Gotabaya. Generally marked out as ne’erdowells, the duo had long since shaken the sand off their sandals and fled Mother Lanka in search of greener pastures in America. Educated to less than average levels even by the modest academic attainments of the siblings, they were eking out a living odd-jobbing here and there. Then, with Brother Percy’s ascent to the presidency in November 2005, the pair were back in Sri Lanka in search of more prosperous times. And such is their influence now that even service commanders and cabinet ministers rise smartly to their feet when either of the siblings enters a room.”

“Ever since his appointment as an Adviser to the President, Basil has been straining at the leash for ministerial office. It can’t be that his ambition has been the acquisition of more power, for his power in the local political arena, backed by his brother’s unquestioning love, is limitless. Ministerial office, however, will give Basil things that are denied to mere advisers by the strict rules of diplomatic protocol. The best VIP lounges in foreign airports, reception at ministerial level (denied him, for example, on his recent visit to New Delhi), and the various other means by which ministers inflate their petty little egos.”

“Even as his party becomes more and more estranged from him, Rajapaksa has drawn his brothers ever closer, and they now form a cabinet within a cabinet. Government business is conducted and government policy is set largely by the brothers’ diktat, and the resulting decline has been dramatic.”

Defending Journalist Iqbal Athas

Sunday Times correspondent and oft rival of Wickrematunge was a renowned defence correspondent who, by August 2007, found himself in the crosshairs of the Rajapaksa government, following exposes by him and The Sunday Leader on the MiG Deal and other wrongdoing. “To some, war is big business,” Athas quipped in a column, after which the Defence Ministry swiftly withdrew his security. Wickrematunge rose immediately to the defence of his fellow journalist.

“Throughout his long career, Iqbal Athas has rarely been a darling of the governments of the day. Indeed, it has become almost a rite of passage for Sri Lankan presidents to persecute him: he has been victim to threats and intimidation by Ranasinghe Premadasa, Chandrika Kumaratunga and now, the Rajapaksa brothers.”

“Working as a defence commentator in a banana republic such as Sri Lanka has become, under the Rajapaksa brothers, a particularly risky business. It is, after all, a government that has in the space of barely two years achieved international notoriety for abductions, human rights abuses and in particular, the traumatized of social-service NGOs and journalists. It is no secret that working as an independent journalist here is certainly not an elixir for long life. The Rajapaksa administration has seen journalists and aid workers slaughtered in unprecedented numbers.”

“The latest scam the irrepressible journalist has been at pains to expose has been the patently corrupt ‘MiG Deal’ hatched by the Rajapaksa brothers. Between Athas and The Sunday Leader’s own defence journalists, the anatomy of this shameful scam has been laid bare, and more is clearly on the way. So detailed and well documented have been the reporting that not a whimper of denial on the material facts has come from the government which, when parts of the deal was first exposed in 2006, flatly denied any impropriety.”

“We at The Sunday Leader freely admit it when we are wrong, and were wrong in judging the character of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Not for one moment did we imagine that in his breast was a heart so black as to usurp money intended for tsunami victims or unleash terror on his own citizens. Yet, it is now in a regime of terror that we live, as poor Iqbal Athas is fast discovering. Our values are fast vanishing into the abyss as each one of us seeks to look after only our own wellbeing and not that of society at large.”

Then they came for him

In his final days, Wickrematunge met President Rajapaksa frequently, urging his friend to think ahead beyond the end of the war with the LTTE towards a return to his roots of espousing human rights and liberal values. Lasantha Wickrematunge was not to see the end of the war, or what followed. Sensing his fate, he let his final words to the world, and to his friend the President, speak for him in his ‘final editorial’, reprinted in full on Page 22-23 of this newspaper.