The good that men do is not always interred with their bones. This week saw the publication of a remarkable posthumous column by Lasantha Wickrematunge,a Sri Lankan newspaper editor. He had written it in anticipation of his own murder. That duly came on January 8th,when gunmen on motorcycles shot him on his way to work in the capital,Colombo. He was a brave campaigning journalist. And like too many brave campaigning journalists in Sri Lanka,he is now dead. But at least from the grave he has left an eloquent warning to the government,led by a man he called friend,President Mahinda Rajapaksa: that as the army grinds relentlessly towards final triumph in a 25-year civil war,the very foundations of the democratic free society it should be fighting for are in jeopardy.
Mr Wickrematunge carried no brief for the enemy,the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam,who have been fighting for an independent homeland for the Tamil minority in the north and east of the country. He rightly described the Tigers as among the most ruthless and bloodthirsty organisations to have infested the planet. But he railed against both the conduct of the war by the Sri Lankan army and the curtailment of civil liberties even among the Sinhalese majority.
Many journalists have suffered harassment and intimidation. Human-rights groups reckon a dozen have been killed in the past two years. Mr Wickrematunge himself had twice been beaten up and his house had been sprayed with machine-gun fire. Two days before his murder,gunmen with grenades attacked a private television station,which,like Mr Wickrematunge,was accused of being less than wholehearted in its celebration of the army’s recent victories.
Mr Wickrematunge predicted that Mr Rajapaksa would be anguished by his killing,but would have no choice but to protect the killers. The president has indeed roundly condemned the atrocity. He has suggested it was a plot to deflect attention from the military successes. But journalists find this hard to believe. They know that nobody has been brought to justice for earlier attacks. They suspect that in fact the murder was timed not to distract from military victories but to be drowned in a tide of nationalist enthusiasm. They believe that the security forces must,at the very least,have connived at the brazen attack. Many are understandably scared.
Losing the peace
This is dangerous,leading to a one-sided,triumphalist portrayal of the war. The press has largely been excluded from the main battlefield in the north. Little is known about the condition of some 250,000 civilians displaced by the fighting. And there is a risk that the dangers of a military victory that is not accompanied by a political settlement will be ignored. If Mr Wickrematunge was indeed killed with the acquiescence of the security forces,this was his crime: to point out that a victory which is perceived by a large minority as the subjugation of their rights will be short-lived. The wounds of war,he wrote in his self-penned obituary will scar them for ever,leaving an even more
bitter and hateful diaspora.
On the battlefield,the Tigers have nearly lost. Few neutrals can be sad about that. Alarmingly,however,Tiger methods-ruthless silencing of dissenting voices,insistence on fanatical loyalty-seem to be catching on. Spokesmen often justify the government’s murky behaviour by reference to the awfulness of the Tigers. But the outside world and Sri Lanka’s own citizens have the right to hold a democratically elected government to higher standards than a banned terrorist outfit. That demands a swift and decisive end to the impunity which those who menace and kill the government’s critics enjoy.
© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2008