It was around 10.45 a.m. on January 8th, 2009 when my mobile rang. It was my publisher.
I listened in shock to his voice choked with emotion, telling me that his brother, the editor-in-chief of the newspaper where we worked, had been ambushed by men on motorbikes and shot while driving to work.
The assassination made world news. A high-profile journalist, Lasantha Wickrematunge and the English-language newspaper he edited, ‘The Sunday Leader’ had earned a reputation not just in Sri Lanka, but internationally, for its investigative journalism. Lasantha’s writing had been hugely critical of then Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Not long after a very public funeral, Lal Wickrematunge, his brother, owner and publisher, asked if I would take over as editor.
When I did, other journalists and I had already been threatened with death or bodily harm on countless occasions. ‘The Sunday Leader’ in particular had been slammed with politically-motivated litigation. Together with Lasantha and Lal, I was already in court, facing charges of contempt and defamation in multiple cases.
It wasn’t long before I began to receive death threats due to my work. The first threat came, in October 2009, via a letter splayed with red ink, saying, “I will chop you up if you don’t stop writing, bitch.” A graphologist found the handwriting to be the same as in a threatening letter that had been sent to Lasantha three weeks before his murder.
Prior to this, at the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war, in May 2009, I had written an article suggesting that Sri Lanka’s defense secretary (and brother to the president), Gotabaya Rajapaksa, shared a similar psychological profile to that of the leader of the Tamil Tigers, their sworn enemy.
In the winter of 2009, I interviewed the main opposition candidate in the presidential elections, a former army commander in the Sri Lankan army, who confirmed rumors that the army had shot a group of Tamil Tiger rebel leaders who were attempting to surrender at the end of the war.
I ran the story, and it led, in part, to the opposition’s election loss. Now the newspaper was enemies of both the government and the opposition in a political climate that was contemptuous of the independent press. Again, I received death threats both verbally and in writing. This time though, they were coming from the main opposition camp.
In July 2012, I learned that Gotabaya Rajapaksa had arranged for Sri Lankan Airlines to bump a flight-load of passengers to transport a puppy from Switzerland to Sri Lanka for his wife. When I called for his comment he said angrily, “If you and I were at the same function together and I were to point you out… 90 percent of the people there would want to see you dead.” He went on to abuse me using foul language I won’t repeat here.
I printed the full transcript of his tirade under the headline “Gota Goes Berserk.”
The article resulted in a huge backlash against him. The writing was on the wall. People were saying there was a good chance I was going to go the same way as Lasantha. A host of media organizations including Article 19 and PEN International expressed concern for my safety and called for an investigation into the threats.
In September 2012 an ally of the president, bought a 72% stake in The Sunday Leader and its sister newspaper with financial help from the government. The new owner asked me to stop publishing articles critical of the Sri Lankan government and the Rajapaksa family. I refused and on September 21st, 2012, I was sacked as editor.
“After the election of Donald Trump I feel trapped in the country where I once sought refuge.”
But the harassment and intimidation did not end there. I was informed by my attorneys that Gotabaya Rajapaksa intended to pursue with litigation against me in my private capacity, that there were plans to impound my passport, and I was facing time in jail. I was also being followed at various times by men on motorbikes.
By this time, 14 journalists had been killed, and I was afraid I could be next.
On the advice of a top diplomat, I decided to seek political asylum in the United States. I packed and left with my two young sons (aged 19 and 6 at the time) a week after being told by lawyers that my time to remain free was limited.
We arrived in Seattle and it has taken us four years to really get settled. We were recently granted permanent resident status.
But now, after the election of Donald Trump, I feel trapped in the country where I once sought refuge, in a situation that threatens to repeat what my two sons and I were forced to flee.
But there is another leader that Trump resembles, a man I used to sit with in breakfast meetings toward the end of my time as editor of the The Sunday Leader. This is Mahinda Rajapaksa, the former president of Sri Lanka:
The first parallel between Trump and Rajapaksa is nepotism. During the 10-year tenure of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, he appointed his three brothers to three of the most important posts in the government: speaker of the parliament, defense secretary, and economic minister. He went on to appoint another 136 family members to government positions.
Meanwhile, Trump has appointed his family members as unofficial advisors with security clearances. As pointed out in an article by Aaron Blake, Donald Trump’s family being in the White House is problematic for a host of reasons. As Blake observes, “the Trumps appear primed to press the envelope of what’s legal and ethical in the new administration.”
Rajapaksa praised his Sinhalese ethnic majority, while presiding over a civil war that targeted the minority Tamils.
While we don’t expect Trump to massacre minorities in the way that Rajapaksa did, there are potential similarities. For example, Trump has expressed support for stop-and-frisk policies like those used in New York City. Trump has proposed mass deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants, and a registry of Muslims living in the U.S.
In Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka we had something similar: no Tamil could walk free. Thousands would be stopped at any given moment and if found to be Tamil, they were frisked and often arrested with no compunction – based entirely on their ethnicity. Their homes would be raided – searched – at dead of night, by armed military personnel who had the authority to do so based entirely on an existing law in Sri Lanka called the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).
Conflict with the media
Rajapaksa feared the independent press and allowed his vicious, foul-mouthed brother Gotabaya, who held the powerful position of defense secretary, to conduct a hate campaign against members of the privately-owned press. Gotabaya earned a reputation for insulting journalists, publicly shaming them, screaming at them. Journalists were murdered during this time and mysteriously “disappeared.” It is widely believed that Gotabaya Rajapaksa ordered those assassinations. To date, the perpetrators walk free.
Again this is a more extreme example, but Trump’s enmity with media is unparalleled among modern presidents. He almost habitually tosses the label “fake news” at coverage critical of his administration, and recently reiterated strategist Steve Bannon’s statements that “the media is the opposition party.”
There is hope
As a person who lost friends and colleagues to Rajapaksa’s murderous regime, these parallels frighten me. But they also give me hope, because Rajapaksa was defeated. And Trump can be too.
After Rajapaksa defeated Tamil tiger separatists in a civil war that lasted nearly three decades his popularity in the country reached an all time high — with Sinhala Buddhist nationalists. But instead of grasping the opportunity to bring all communities together to unite as one, he polarized the minority communities, failing to address their grievances with a political solution. The second term of Rajapaksa’s presidency also saw massive abuse of power and rising corruption.
After he amended the constitution to scrap the two term limit, Mahinda Rajapaksa may have believed his authoritarian rule would continue. But in a shock election result in January 2015 he conceded defeat to a former ally, Maithripala Sirisena, who had also been his health minister in his cabinet. The two biggest minorities in the country the — Tamils and Muslims – voted for Mr. Sirisena in large numbers, and probably swung the vote his way.
Significantly, his two terms saw a climate of fear that affected not just the media but political dissenters and human rights activists. It got to a stage where people were terrified of voicing their opinion even on the telephone – convinced government secret service agents were tapping and monitoring all calls.
So what can America learn from the successes — and failures – of those who opposed Rajapaksa during his regime?
Perhaps, that voters will always get in the way of even the most craftily maneuvered political administration. That a nation will always tire of corrupt leaders. That a functioning democracy (which Sri Lanka, despite all her trials and tribulations, continues to be) will always triumph. That Nepotism, racism, and above all, fear of a leader, will always end in his political demise.