Ranil’s futile war with the media
On the night that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe won the no-confidence motion in Parliament (April 5, 2018) three separate but interconnected incidents occurred, within stone’s throw of each other: 1. he held a thanksgiving pooja to the deities at Gangaramaya Temple for saving his job which was on the line that day; 2. at the Head Office of the MTV station, which is within earshot of Gangaramaya, a mob led by UNP thugs threw stones, lit crackers, and threatened the media staff in an obvious attempt to teach a lesson to MTV which had persistently exposed the manipulative role of the Prime Minister in the “Bond Scam” and 3. in a swift move the leader of the thugs, Kithsiri Rajapakase, a UNP councillor, disappears from the scene of thuggery at MTV only to reappear, more or less, as the guardian of the Prime Minister standing right behind him at Gangaramaya.
Of all the media institutions it was only MTV that was facing the wrath of the UNP mob on the night of Ranil’s so-called victory. Why only MTV? It was the only media outlet that had consistently and relentlessly exposed the “Bond Scam” – the biggest bank robbery in Sri Lankan history with the advice and consent of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, as revealed in the Presidential Commission of Inquiry. The angry UNP mob was aiming to get even with MTV for exposing the roles of the key UNPers in this robbery.
As I was watching the wrath of the mob unfit-olding on online NEWS1 a cold chill ran down my spine. My mind went back to the day when the mob of Mrs.Bandaranaike-Marxist coalition lined up on the pavements of the Regal Theatre and Regal Flats yelling and screaming for the blood of those at Lake House. Ranil’s father, Esmond Wickremesinghe, who was manipulating the anti-SLFP-Marxist politics of Lake House at the time, was watching the mob waiting to break-in. Like my fellow-journalists, I too was watching from the window of the Observer end of Lake House building, facing Regal Theatre directly.
The coalition of Mrs. Bandaranaike and the Marxists had won, despite Lake House campaigning against them, and their pumped-up mob had decided to demonstrate their power opposite Lake House. They were in an aggressive mood to get even with Lake House. Fortunately, they didn’t come in that day. They raided Lake House on a subsequent day and ran berserk, burning precious books and rare back numbers of newspapers. After that came the deluge. It was the beginning of the full frontal attack on free media. What began as a mob attack later developed into a massive assault on free media with the state moving with full legal force to take full control of the historic institution. Denzil Peiris, Editor of The Observer, and I received life-threatening phone calls. We had to go into hiding. Eventually, we had to flee the country we loved.
The MTV footage told me that Ranil was repeating Mrs. B’s history, this time as a pathetic comedy. In Sri Lanka the characteristics and the objectives of violence seldom change. Only the parties that initiate, engineer and perpetrate the violence change. Sri Lankan history becomes so predictable and boring because it repeats itself so often. The three UNP events listed above are not much different from the SLFP-Marxist violence against the media. They stand out as a unique snap shot – or is it a close-up? — of the prevailing pernicious political culture in Sri Lanka directed currently by the UNP. MTV footage is also notable for one other aspect : it is a rare reality show that has captured the thuggery and piety, moving together on parallel lines in a symbiotic relationship, one feeding the other.
The filmic evidence links the head of the government, either directly or indirectly, to a violent mob in the streets. In the opening shots it showed a die-hard UNP henchaiya of Ranil, Kithsiri Rajapakse, leading the mob against MTV. In the next scenes the story takes a tragi-comic turn when the cameras caught the UNP henchaiya, Rajapakse, standing right behind Ranil at Gangaramaya, offering his thanks, with hands put together, for his master’s victory in Parliament.
In a politically charged situation when a wing of a political party operating violently in the streets join hands in a politically sensitive religious centre to offer prayers together with the highest leadership of the land what is the message that is delivered to the nation? Does it mean that Ranil has tamed another Angulimala? Or does it mean Ranil and Rajapakse (No pun intended!) are both taking refuge behind the yellow robes to cover-up their street violence?
The TV images needed no commentary. When the leader of a violent gang joined his leader in thanksgiving prayers, the TV footage spoke eloquently of the politics behind the thuggery. To this day Ranil Wickremesinghe, the leader of the UNP, has neither condemned publicly the violation of the laws of the land by his henchaiya, nor has the UNP leader apologised to MTV for threatening the journalists – an act which the Yahapalana-ya-kos swore never to do when they condemned the previous Rajapaksa regime.
Needless to say, the UNP henchaiyas of the Prime Minister, who threatened the TV journalists, were making a political statement. First, the underworld henchaiyas linked to the UNP were making a public demonstration of their loyalty to the Prime Minister. They were signalling that their violence at MTV is the pay-back for consistently exposing the “Bond Scam” which began with Ranil importing his Singaporean henchman, Arjuna Mahendra, who ganged up with his in-laws to rob the Sri Lankan Central Bank.
Second, they were demonstrating that they could get away with pro-UNP thuggery because they have the protection of the ruling party. Third, they know that they are among the protected species like Ravi Karunanayake and Arjuna Mahendra who can get away with blue murder. Some of them have confessed publicly that they were acting under the instructions of the Prime Minister.
For instance, his Singaporean protégé, Arjuna Mahendran, told the Presidential Commission that he acted under the instructions of the Prime Minister. This confession puts the responsibility for the underhand wheeler-dealings of the “Bond Scam”, fairly and squarely, on the shoulders of Ranil. The evidence in the Presidential Commission Inquiry points the finger to Ranil. The damning evidence robs Ranil of the last two vestiges of respectability that were attached to his name. Well, if the biggest daylight robbery at the Central Bank occurred under his stewardship (and “instructions”) of Ranil, aided and abetted by his handpicked henchman, the Governor of the Central Bank, he can no longer be rated as either (1) “Mr. Clean” or as (2) “the best economic manager”, eh?
Besides, the sly nudge-and-wink he gave as the green light for the overall operations of the robbery at the Central Bank, on the one hand, and the thuggery on the streets, on the other, will not – I repeat NOT — add to his glory. Neither has it gone down well with the voters as seen in the recent local government elections, nor will it get any marks in history books to come. Ranil clearly has fallen from grace into the “pathala lokaya” and not all the king’s men and horses can lift him above the crooked rest in his camp.
Which apologist can cook up an excuse to white-wash the role of a known thug joining the Prime Minister at prayers at Gangaramaya immediately after leading his gang to attack critics of the UNP? It cannot be dismissed as a coincidence or another bit of cynical drama that occurs in every corner of Sri Lankan politics these days. More than the irony, hypocrisy and the cynicism, it is the horror of a thug closely associated with Ranil, standing beside him as his guardian deity at Gangaramaya, which sends shock waves down the spine. At what point of political morality does Kithsiri Rajapakse standing next to Ranil as his “help-karaya” justify his commitment to the Lichchvai principles – the oft quoted political mantra of Ranil?
The TV footage also questions whether Ranil is taking refuge in the Triple Gems or in Kithsiri Rajapkase? Or is Ranil saying that he is keeping Rajapakse in the background in case the deities at Gangaramaya fail him?
Ranil combines in his person the twin roles of the Prime Minister and the Presidency of his party, both of which carry the responsibilities of providing security to all citizens of the nation, including the media. As Prime Minister it is his duty to uphold law and order of the country. If he is to deliver the principles he promised in the Yahapalanaya manifesto there is no way that he could be with Rajapakse. (Repeat: No pun intended). Besides, how does he propose to run a fair, just and stable government from “Temple Trees” when in the nearby streets thugs allied to him are running amok?
As head of the UNP it is also his duty to control his rank-and-file, particularly those close to him, to inspire confidence in a nation recovering from a destructive war. How can the people place confidence in Ranil when Ranil has placed his confidence in his gangs? Then there is his role as the Asian Head of the IDU which makes it incumbent upon him to use all his powers to guarantee the rights of media to act freely.
Above all, he comes from the Wijewardene-Wickremesinghe families – two iconic families that not only laid the foundations for free media but also fought the greatest battles against the state to protect and preserve the rights of free media. I know the trials and tribulations of those agonising times because I was then a foot-soldier in the frontline of those battles. Ranil’s father, Esmond Wickremesinghe, was awarded the Golden Pen by the IPU for his courageous leadership.
Ranil inherited the moral and political duty to protect the rights of the media from the paternal and maternal sides. His grandfather, D. R. Wijewardene, was the pioneering media mogul, who introduced the nation to mass media and, through it, defined the future of the nation as an integrated, undivided entity that belongs to all those who call it their home. His mother was steeped in the nationalist traditions that fostered the Sinhala-Buddhist roots.
Perhaps, Ranil’s ambition in his early life to be a journalist was inspired by his father’s courageous stand against the state. With all this familial background what excuse has he for praying at Gangaramaya with a thug who led the attack on MTV? Of course, there is no bar for even fascist killers like Rohana Wijeweera and Velupillai Prabhakaran to pray at Gangaramaya with Ranil. The issue here is not the right of anyone to pray at Gangaramaya but the licence given to one of Ranil’s henchaiyas to attack the media in the streets near Gangaramaya. What is the message he is conveying to the journalists who dare to oppose him? Isn’t he saying: “If you come after me I’m going to come after you?”
There seems to be a pattern emerging from the latest act of UNP thuggery at MTV. The pattern highlights Ranil’s links to the underworld. In the beginning it was Gonawila Sunil who was Ranil’s loyal sidekick. It is well known that this convicted rapist of a 13-year-old girl was close to Ranil. It is also well-known that Gonawila managed to get out of jail without serving his full term with the blessings of Ranil. After he came out he was even showered with a JP. One fine day, when Gonawila was becoming an embarrassment to all concerned, he went up in smoke. Boom! That was the end of Ranil’s Gonawila.
He was replaced by a young sub-inspector, Sudath Chandrasekera, who was stationed in Batalanda – the notorious killing field during the JVP reign of terror. He served Ranil as his Personal Assistant / Man Friday for 33 and in his recent letter of resignation – a sensitive and critical document that exposes his master’s character – he reveals how his gang hammered the anti-Ranil forces marching from Matara with cinnamon sticks. Describing himself as “red-lipped catamite” of Ranil he says that he risked his life for Ranil and without his attack with cinnamon sticks on the opposition Ranil would not be sitting in PM’s chair today.
Now that Sudath has resigned Rajapakse seems to have stepped into his place. He not only leads attacks on Ranil’s media critics he also puts up massive posters of his master, with him posing as Sancho Pancho in a bottom corner of the poster. It is clear that behind the façade of Ranil’s respectability (“Mr. Clean”?) is a dark underworld that does the dirty work for him.
Ranil began his attack on the media by picking on selected journalists who had refused to toe his line and labelling them with crude name-calling. He called them “frogs” and “cows” etc.. Taking cover from the privileged position in Parliament he looks up at the Press gallery and hurls abuse at non-conformist journalists. His war against the media is like Prabhakaran’s war: any donkey could wage it. It’s a futile war. He should know by now that he can’t win wars against the media unless he becomes a dictator. Using his UNP thugs to attack the media shows signs of escalating his war against the media. Better leaders than him who waged war against the media have come and gone But, as he knows, the war he has declared on the media is not going to make him a winner. He will have will have better chances if he leaves the media alone and gets down to minding his own bloody business of governing, if he can.