Flamboyant Lasantha

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By 2018-01-13

By Manekshaw

English, Sinhala and Tamil newspaper editors and senior journalists, from all leading newspapers, were taken on a media tour to Kilinochchi, in 2002, to look into the LTTE's political activities. It was during the time when the peace process, facilitated by Norway, between the United National Front (UNF) Government, led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was in progress.

The tour was jointly organized by the Norwegian Embassy and the European Union (EU), two of the four, co-chair members engaged in the facilitation process.

EU's former media coordinator and senior journalist Manique Mendis along with former Lankadeepa journalist and political columnist Upul Joseph Fernando, with the cooperation of the Norwegian Embassy in Colombo, coordinated this well planned tour.

According to Manique Mendis, the former Sunday Leader Editor late Lasantha Wickrematunge had been of great support to her and Upul Joseph Fernando in organizing the tour and played a key role in the logistics of the tour.

When the Norwegian facilitated peace process was in progress, Kilinochchi turned into a politically significant place with foreign diplomats and media personnel visiting frequently. This, once LTTE territory, became the location to meet the outfit's bigwigs as well as a place from which to gather news stories of the area.

However, it was for the first time that a large group of senior journalists went, together, in a luxury coach of a leading tour operator, from Colombo to Kilinochchi to meet the LTTE.

The media contingent from Colombo to Kilinochchi left in the early hours and reached Anuradhapura in time for breakfast. It was nice to see Lasantha walking up and down and coming out with jokes on political issues making everyone laugh.

After breakfast the journey continued and we arrived first at the Omanthai Army checkpoint. On getting clearance from there, the coach travelled a few kilometres more and reached the LTTE checkpoint in Omanthai.

Thereafter, the coach carrying the senior journalists from Colombo reached Kilinochchi and the media personnel were received by the LTTE's media spokesperson Velayutham Thayanithy alias Daya Master, at his office.

After the formal welcome the media personnel were taken to a guest house run by the LTTE in Mallavi where the outfit's biggest cemetery of its dead cadres was found.

Apart from the LTTE camps and other places run by the outfit, which were supplied with electricity from generators, there were no street lamps or electricity beyond Vavuniya.

As the big coach headed, through small gravel roads, towards Mallavi, in the night hour, Daya Master and two LTTE cadres accompanying the media team found the driver was going in the wrong direction and wanted the vehicle stopped.

Lasantha asked Daya Master, how far the bus had travelled in the wrong direction? Daya Master replied it was around four kilometres and pointed out, that as the road was a narrow jungle path it would not be possible to make a turn around.

Lasantha went up to the driver and spoke to him on the possibilities of taking the bus safely in the right direction to reach Mallavi.
So reversing the bus covering a distance of four kilometres, Lasantha came forward to navigate the reversing bus and sought the support of then Sunday Observer journalist Ananth Palakidnar, who was in the media team, to help the driver to reverse the bus with its tail lamps, in that pitch darkness.

Both Lasantha and Ananth kneeling on the rear seat of the vehicle looking through its wide rear screen went on directing the driver for nearly an hour to ensuring the bus arrived at the right spot to take the turn to continue its journey to Mallavi.

When the reversing was in progress Ravaya Editor Victor Ivan came near Lasantha and Ananth and jokingly said, be careful the jungle path may even have land mines.

A few hours later, the coach got on the right path and reached the guest house allocated for the media personnel, by the LTTE.

Next day after breakfast, the media contingent comprising Editor Lanka Deepa Sri Ranasinghe, Editor Virakesari A Sivanesaselvan, Sunday Times Senior Journalist Keith Noyahr, Virakesari News Editor N. Nadaraja and the other editors and senior journalists from Colombo were taken to the LTTE's Norwegian funded Peace Secretariat in Kilinochchi, where the outfit's political wing leader Suppiah Paramu Thamilselvan was standing at the entrance to the building to welcome them.

With all the journalists agreeing on Lasantha representing them, as well as Sirasa and his newspaper The Sunday Leader, at the interview, the late editor conducted the interview, with S.P. Thamilselvan speaking extensively on the political stance of the outfit, to all journalists.

During the interview, Lasantha requested and gave time to the other journalists also to question Thamilselvan, proving himself a gentleman journo.

So, in the backdrop, this year, of the media fraternity mourning the ninth death anniversary of veteran journalist Lasantha Wickremetunge, who had been a prominent figure in the legal circle as well, the journalists who had the opportunity of travelling with him deep into the LTTE territory will remember him as a flamboyant personality with an accommodating nature.

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