Friday, January 16, 2009

On Lasantha Wickramatunga

This is a remarkable letter, published posthumously after the killing in broad daylight of Sri Lankan journalist Lasantha Wickramatunga. He had written this statement, entitled "And then they came for me" to be published only in case he was assassinated, and as is often the case in Sri Lanka, his words proved sadly prescient. The SL government has its hands dirty as it allowed and fostered such vitriol against a journalist who exposed corruption and nepotism as well as highlighted the human cost of military 'solutions' to terrorism.

Important questions all, which have been made outside the purview of 'acceptable' public debate because that would be 'unpatriotic' and aiding and abetting the enemy. Sound familiar?

Really, the entire letter is worth reading- for its balance, courage (especially in the section where he calls out Mahinda Rajapaksa even while reflecting on their friendship) and the sheer dramatic quality of it all. I'll highlight two sections that I liked because I like that Wickramatunga also places the onus of political participation and courage on civilians:

The free media serve as a mirror in which the public can see itself sans mascara and styling gel. From us you learn the state of your nation, and especially its management by the people you elected to give your children a better future. Sometimes the image you see in that mirror is not a pleasant one. But while you may grumble in the privacy of your armchair, the journalists who hold the mirror up to you do so publicly and at great risk to themselves. That is our calling, and we do not shirk it.

If you remember nothing else, remember this: The Leader is there for you, be you Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, low-caste, homosexual, dissident or disabled. Its staff will fight on, unbowed and unafraid, with the courage to which you have become accustomed. Do not take that commitment for granted. Let there be no doubt that whatever sacrifices we journalists make, they are not made for our own glory or enrichment: they are made for you. Whether you deserve their sacrifice is another matter. As for me, God knows I tried.

So while at a macro-level, Wickramatunga's death reminds us of the need to defend journalistic freedom and free speech and spotlights the government of Sri Lanka for its increasingly undemocratic actions; at a micro-level, it reminds us of our duty as civilians to be citizens. It also targets our complacency and cynicism about such vital questions as what living in secular liberal democracy means and the institutions on which that rests. What is our role as citizens? How can we uphold these values? In the outrage against the impunity that the SL government seems to give itself that has followed this killing, we have another opportunity to reflect on these questions. So, what can I take away from this? Well, the first thing that come to my mind was to be more critical and open to criticism about things and issues that I take for granted, care about and defend. Indeed, whenever I flinch internally when colleagues or students take what I think are uncomfortable, even radical stances on politics or issues, I will try to keep in mind the value of having such spaces and the importance of dissenting voices. And I will resist the urge to instinctively label those I disagree with as 'radical', 'ignorant' etc. Though sometimes the shoe just fits!

On another level, the story makes me sad as so much of the news coming out of Lanka does. I love Sri Lanka, have many Sri Lankan friends and count my time there as amongst the happiest in my life. I am always saddened by the violence that devastates this lovely country. Here's hoping that peace will return to Sri Lanka during my lifetime.

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