LASANTHA TAPES OPEN A CAN OF WORMS (Sunday Observer)
Former Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge made headlines again when the audiotapes of two telephone conversations between him and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa surfaced on online media platforms, this week.
Wickrematunge, who started his journalistic career at the Sun newspaper in the late 70s, had a longstanding friendship with Rajapaksa, despite their political differences.
The former editor, at one point, served as the Private Secretary to Sirimavo Bandaranaike when the latter was the Opposition Leader. Wickrematunge’s stint as Bandaranaike’s Private Secretary allowed him to build close links with Rajapaksa who was a dynamic member of the SLFP at the time.
It was no secret that Rajapaksa was given step motherly treatment when he became the Opposition Leader in 2001. The party machinery did not back him and former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, who always treated Rajapaksa with suspicion, did not want him to be her successor.
Rajapaksa, who climbed the rungs of the party with the greatest difficultly, had to work hard to draw the support of the party’s grassroots level. A sizable proportion of party MPs were reluctant to work with him, fearing it would earn the ire of the party leadership.
Lasantha Wickrematunge was among those who helped Rajapaksa during this difficult phase.
Despite obstacles and roadblocks within his own camp, Rajapaksa, a thick skinned politician to the core, became the Prime Minister of the UPFA government in 2004, under Kumaratunga’s presidency.
Although Rajapaksa was the Prime Minister and the second in command of the government, Kumaratunga was grooming her brother, Anura Bandaranaike, to be the Presidential candidate of the party in 2006, at the end of her second term.
Even though Rajapaksa did wield much authority in his own camp, he was a popular figure among journalists who addressed him as “Mahinda Ayya”. He was one of the most accessible Cabinet ministers and journalists hardly criticized him due to their friendly relations.
It was against this backdrop that Wickrematunga dropped a bombshell on July 3, 2005, by revealing that Prime Minister Rajapaksa and a handful of officials close to him had allegedly siphoned off a colossal Rs. 82 million given to the Prime Minister’s Fund as Tsunami relief and reconstruction aid into a private account called ‘Helping Hambanthota’ maintained at the Standard Chartered Bank, in direct violation of Presidential directives.
Wickrematunge’s newspaper said the actions of the Prime Minister’s team had raised many questions and bordered on offences under the Public Property Act as the four signatories to the account were private persons not connected to the Prime Minister’s Office.
The Helping Hambantota controversy became a hot topic in the run up to the Presidential election in 2005 and it nearly cost Rajapaksa the office.
After Rajapaksa’s ascension to power, Wickrematunge was highly critical of the government and he often came under criticism from the top brass of the UPFA administration.
He soon ran into problems with former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the most influential public servant under the Rajapaksa administration and a few other top level members of the country’s defence apparatus.
During the first few years of the Rajapaksa administration, Wickrematunge had to deal with various problems. The Sunday Leader newspaper press was burnt down in 2007, and journalists attached to the paper received constant threats. Former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa even sued the paper and its Editor, over alleged attempts to tarnish his reputation.
Therefore, in the eyes of the public, Wickrematunge and his newspaper company were among the arch enemies of the Rajapaksa administration.
However, multiple sources close to Wickrematunge told the Sunday Observer that months before his death, the journalist revived ties with former President Rajapaksa. Wickrematunga’s interactions with the former President remained a closely guarded secret until his death, in January, 2009.
After Wickrematunge’s killing, some even went on to argue that Rajapaksa’s friendship was a trap he ignorantly walked into.
“His telephone conversations and meetings with Rajapaksa made him blind to the threats to his life. He did not believe he would be killed under the Rajapaksa presidency,” a close friend of Wickrematunge, who currently lives overseas, told the Sunday Observer.
It is in this context that one has to analyse the audiotapes of the telephone conversations between Wickrematunge and Rajapaksa.
The audiotapes were leaked to online media platforms through a ‘Guerilla Mail’ hiding the identity of the sender.
Guerrilla Mail is a free disposable email address that offers the ability to send and receive emails. Visitors do not need to register to use the service, they are logged in automatically and a random email address is issued on each visit or they can set their own address.
Therefore, the e-mail was generated by a person who did not want to disclose his identity to the media.
It was first sent to Uvindu Kurukulasuriya, a friend of Wickrematunge and former convener of the Free Media Movement, who now runs the website Colombo Telegraph. He received the first audiotape on December 17.
Kurukulasuriya, however, did not publish the audiotape as he wanted to do a thorough research on the tape.
As there was no response from Kurukulasuriya’s online publication, the audiotape was then sent to another Sri Lankan website run by a well-known journalist who has strong political links.
The first of the two conversations is based on the Sunday Leader’s report on a procurement by the military. The involvement of the Navy Commander in the incident is discussed by the two. Hence, there is some basis to believe that the procurement had something to do with the Navy.
The matters discussed during the telephone conversation, especially, Rajapaksa’s visit to Oxford, suggested that the conversation had taken place after May, 2008 – nearly seven months before Wickrematunge’s murder.
Rajapaksa visited Oxford in May, 2008, with former External Affairs Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris, former Foreign Ministry Secretary Dr. Palitha Kohona and Rajapaksa’s second son, Yoshitha Rajapaksa.
The telephone conversation had taken place a week after Rajapaksa’s visit to Oxford. During the telephone conversation, Rajapaksa asks Wickrematunge about the newspaper report and clarifies certain points; the conversation then moves on to the Provincial Council elections, global oil prices, Rajapaksa’s future political ambitions and the government’s action against corruption.
Towards the end of the conversation, Wickrematunga urges Rajapaksa to take action against corrupt individuals in the government, without taking their positions into consideration. The journalist points out that those who are close to the former President are embezzling public money, causing embarrassment to the government.
Rajapaksa, in response, says, he has directed his allies to “be careful” – he also urges Wickrematunge to expose them, so that the government can take action against wrongdoers.
At the end of the telephone conversation, Rajapaksa invites Wickrematunge to what seems to be a casual meeting – Wickrematunge, however, refuses to meet at Temple Trees, Rajapaksa’s official residence, fearing news of the meeting would leak out to others in the media industry.
Instead, he suggests he meet the former President “somewhere else” – at a safe location away from the eyes of the journalistic and political circles.
The second conversation occurred after the Sunday Leader Editor had received a ‘hit list’ of sorts. Wickrematunge informs Rajapaksa that several diplomatic missions in Colombo were also aware of the hit list and they had alerted the journalists of the development.
The journalist also informs the former President that the embassies had received letters in this regard. There are grounds to believe that the second conversation had taken place a few months after the first conversation – not too long ago from Wickrematunge’s murder.
The recording makes it clear that a go-between, whom Wickrematunge identifies as “Doctor”, has facilitated the conversation between the former Sunday Leader Editor and the former President.
There are reasons to believe that the “Doctor” is Eliyantha White (Pic), the former President’s personal physician. A close friend of Wickrematunge, White was often the link between the two during the Rajapaksa administration, even when Wickrematunge’s newspaper was highly critical of the government.
The former President, in the second conversation, allays Wickrematunge’s fears though, by saying he does not intend to harm him. He also assures a probe into the threats against Wickrematunge.
When Wickrematunga requests the former President to check for fingerprints on the letters received by embassies, the former President responds positively, saying he would instruct the parties handling the inquiry to examine for fingerprints.
During the conversation, Wickrematunge also highlights that the official website of the Minister of Defence had labelled certain media organizations as ‘traitors’. He says, it will create a smokescreen for anyone who wants to attack journalists.
Rajapaksa- Wickrematunge relations
The leaked audiotapes suggest that despite various upheavals on the surface, Wickrematunge had a secret and safe channel of communication with the former President, soon before his murder.
In fact, Rajapaksa was among the invitees to Wickrematunge’s wedding on December 27, 2008 – eleven days before his murder – and the former President had at that occasion, invited the newlyweds to Temple Trees for a meal.
While addressing a meeting with newspapers editors and media heads on January 14, 2009 – a week after Wickrematunge’s murder – President Rajapaksa even said, it was Wickrematunge who told him that Karu Jayasuriya had decided to quit the UPFA the government and join the UNP.
Wickrematunga’s wife, Sonali Samarasinghe, another senior journalist and lawyer, later wrote that her husband had mentioned Jayasuriya’s possible defection in passing during an informal chat with Rajapaksa in the presence of Dr. Eliyantha White and another businessman.
Against this backdrop, it is important to assess who wanted to leak the audiotapes at this juncture. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa gave a strong indication in this regard when a group of journalists asked him about the audiotapes this week.
“I spoke to him often. I can’t remember when this conversation took place. But, we were friends,” Rajapaksa said, after the first audiotape was leaked to the media.
“But, he had a habit of recording telephone conversations. It’s something any reporter would do,” he added, attributing the audiotapes to Wickrematunge. Interestingly, the former President attributed the audiotapes to Wickrematunge even before the journalists raised that question.
The former President’s act of jumping the gun hints that the email was generated by a party close to the Rajapaksa camp. On the other hand, the audiotapes clear Rajapaksa’s name in the public eye as they inform the public of the connection between the former President and Wickrematunge.
It will allow the Rajapaksa allies to claim in public that the Rajapaksa government did not have a reason to harm Wickrematunge as he was a friend of the former President.
In fact, UPFA MP Dinesh Gunawardena made a similar statement when he addressed a press conference in Colombo, after the leaked audiotape surfaced in the media.
Gunawardena said Rajapaksa became a friend of Wickrematunge when the latter was an electorate organizer of the SLFP. He said they often had telephone conversations on various matters.
It is now clear that the former President’s camp has suddenly embarked on a mission to show the longstanding friendship between Rajapaksa and Wickrematunge.
The mission, quite surprisingly, has been launched as the Criminal Investigations Department’s (CID) investigation into the journalist’s murder has reached its final stage.