Yesterday morning local time, a newspaper editor who has long been critical of the government was shot dead here in Colombo. Time magazine:
Lasantha Wickrematunge, one of Sri Lanka's leading journalists, a freelance reporter for TIME and an outspoken critic of the Sri Lankan government, was shot this morning as he drove to work in Colombo, his country's capital. He later died of his injuries.
The attack, by two gunmen on motorcycles in the middle of morning-rush-hour traffic, was brazen even by the standards of Sri Lanka... Wickrematunge wasn't far from his home in Colombo South when he was approached sometime between 10 and 11 a.m. by the two gunmen, who blocked his car and shot him in the head and chest. He was taken to a nearby hospital, where he died shortly after 2 p.m. local time.
Lasantha turns out to have been a friend of a friend, although in the tiny bubble of Sri Lankan civil society that isn't surprising. His murder is a message to the circle of people in Colombo working for democracy, justice and human rights, and the message has been well understood: time to start getting people out.
On New Year's Day, the Government of Sri Lanka finally announced their capture of the Tamil Tiger's northern stronghold and de facto capital, Kilinochchi.
It had been on the cards for months. President Rajapakse had promised that Kilinochchi would fall by the end of the year, and that this would symbolize the final and total military defeat of one of the world's most feared terrorist organizations. On the day of the announcement, firecrackers were set off in the streets of the South as ethnic Sinhalese, the majority group, took to the streets in celebration at the prospect of an end to the 30-year war and the demise of the Tigers.
The military defeat of terrorist organizations is all the rage these days, so the international community has largely watched from the sidelines as the Rajapakse regime, in its single-minded prosecution of the war, has allowed a culture of fear and impunity to take hold in Sri Lanka. Arbitrary detention, harassment, killings and disappearances are the norm, with ordinary Tamils the main targets.
Observers were wondering just what would happen in the North once Kilinochchi fell. The conventional wisdom was that the Tigers would just go back underground to resume their campaign of suicide-bombings in Colombo and the South; the "reset position" for the conflict. The Government would take hold of the North, and bloody retribution against and among Tamils will most likely commence.
This outcome is partly why conventional wisdom has long held that there is no military solution to the conflict, and that political negotiations must take place. Conventional wisdom forgot that if you drop enough bombs on Kilinochchi you can get something that looks enough like a military solution that it validates all the Government's brutal tactics so far. Conventional wisdom forgot to ask what an emboldened and self-confident Rajapakse regime might do to its critics and opponents in Colombo once it thinks that the Tigers are out of the way.
Lasantha's murder is the answer to that unasked question.
For me, the violence is always one step removed; no further and no nearer. I just hope that it stays at least one step removed. That's normally the best I can do. But if someone reads this then that helps a little, too.
PS. With the situation in Gaza, some in the media are pointing to the success of Sri Lanka's military campaign against the Tamil Tigers as justification for Israel's attacks against Hamas. I hope this diary gives evidence of how it's not as simple as that. For example, after bombing the town of Kilinochchi back to the stone age, President Rajapakse has expressed solidarity with the Palestinians. Go figure.