Sonali kneels down at the Washington National Press Club for “refugee” status
Posted on April 29th, 2010

Ajit Randeniya

The National Press Club in Washington (NPC) is an awe inspiring place with a long history of over 100 years, albeit a racist one. This writer had the first opportunity to enter the hallowed rooms of the NPC, back in 2002, June 17 to be exact, after being signed in by a friend who worked for the Washington Post. It was a warm Monday morning and the occasion, starting at 10 am, in the Lisagor Room, was a “ƒ”¹…”Newsmaker’ News Conference: “ƒ”¹…”Watergate: 30 Years Later’. The speaker was none other than Bob Woodward himself, who had become Assistant Managing Editor of The Washington Post by then.

 Since then, the visits have mainly been to “ƒ”¹…”The Reliable Source’ Bar and Grill on the 14th floor where still a decent lunch could be had for around $10, quite cheap by Washington standards, and to the “ƒ”¹…”Fourth Estate’ restaurant for the occasional brunch or official dinner.

 The last visit to the Fourth State however, for evening refreshments on the last 21 however, proved eventful: an acquaintance informed that a compatriot was giving a talk at 6.30 pm. She didn’t have any further details apart from the fact that the speaker was “ƒ”¹…”Sri Lankan’. The time sounded a bit odd for a speech, for the regular NPC program usually present speakers at luncheons, with “ƒ”¹…”forums’ in evenings.

 The extra hour to be wasted was bound to result in a somewhat higher level of inebriation than was prepared for, but patriotism dictated that this event had to be graced!

 The walk in to the room at 6.15 pm produced one of the bigger surprises of the day: the notice on the door said, “Sonali Samarasinghe, widow of Lasantha Wickramatunga, the slain editor in chief of The Sunday Leader in Colombo, Sri Lanka, was speaking at an event sponsored by the “ƒ”¹…”Freedom of the Press Committee’; She was going to discuss “ƒ”¹…”the dangerous nature of reporting from Sri Lanka’ and the events leading up to her husband’s murder.

 An involuntary murmur of “ƒ”¹…”Allo, “ƒ”¹…”Allo, what’ve we got here’ er turned a couple of heads.

 Upon entering the room with bated breath, we found it was all worthwhile. There she was; for the first time, we are seeing her in the flesh! The most persecuted woman in the world for trying to correct a “ƒ”¹…”culture of impunity’ imposed by a brutal dictatorial regime, the woman who led a campaign to awaken the ignorant populace of Sri Lanka who simply couldn’t or wouldn’t see the “ƒ”¹…”culture of impunity’: here she is, sitting right before our eyes, hallelujah!

 The rather small size of less than 20, mainly geriatric audience was a minor disappointment, but who cares? Sonali is here!

 She was introduced as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. So she lives at Boston these days? After the formalities, including Sonali’s acceptance of the National Press Club’s “ƒ”¹…”2009 International Freedom of the Press Award’, given to her husband posthumously, she got down to business.

 Sonali seemed nervous, and she was suffering dry mouth, but there was no drinking water, and no one offered. Bloody Americans!

 Sonail also seemed to be unable to make eye contact with any particular part of the audience; her eyes were rolling back and towards the ceiling periodically, giving us cause for concern that our civil rights guardian may be about to suffer a seizure or some other calamity was going to befall the nation. Thankfully it was just the nervousness.

 Then the speech started to stumble along. Sonali thanked Bob, Gill, Mark, Randy, and Dick who have all been “ƒ”¹…”nothing but friends’. She started poetically: “ƒ”¹…”How I worry about for the fate of that little resplendent island off the southern tip of India where I was born. I worry when it will again become a country with a thriving democracy’; but the emphasis was on the last sentence, “ƒ”¹…”I worry whether I will ever be able to go back to it’.

 No tissue box around either! Bloody Americans.

 From there on, we were given a reminder of The Sunday Leader for the 18 months or so, and Sonali’s speech was essentially a verbalisation of the same: “ƒ”¹…”Lasantha and I were used to being threatened, over the years, he had been followed, dragged from his car, attacked with clubs and nearly arrested for what he wrote. Just three weeks after our wedding, Lasantha was ambushed just five minutes from his office, she said. “ƒ”¹…”It was a commando-style operation conducted by eight men doubled up on four motorcycles. When they finished, witnesses found Lasantha slumped in the front seat bleeding from a blow to his head’.

 You get the flavour, a narrative of that awful incident.

 Without allowing the audience to wander away from the key point, however, Sonali made it a point to reinforce the key message: “ƒ”¹…”how very happy she is to be here; how she cannot return to Sri Lanka ‘as long as the government of Mahinda Rajapakse is in power’. This is the opportunity, grab it with both hands, lodge in a refugee application, she seemed to be thinking, and saying, I deserve it after all the human rights protection work I have been doing!

 But little does Sonali know about the “ƒ”¹…”milk and honey’ utopia she is craving to get in to: she is currently on a 10 month Nieman Fellowship founded on a $1 million bequest left, in 1937, to Harvard by a woman named Agnes Wahl Nieman, with a directive to “… promote and elevate the standards of journalism and educate persons deemed especially qualified for journalism”. The then Harvard President James Bryant Conant committed the gift to funding a sabbatical fellowship program for experienced journalists instead.

 Conant was in fact a racist and a Nazi sympathiser who welcomed the Hitler regime. He had high ranking Nazi official Ernst Hanfstaengl deliver the 1934 commencement address. He restricted admission of Jewish students to Harvard, and hiring of Jewish faculty.

 In 1940 he apologised to the commanding admiral of Annapolis after the Navy’s coach refused to field his lacrosse team against the Harvard team that included a player of African-American descent, Lucien Victor Alexis Jr. Harvard withdrew the player, and also refused him entry in to Harvard Medical school after serving in World War II, on the grounds that, as the only black student, he would have no one to room with.

 Similarly with the NPC, its doors were only open to white male journalists until well after World War. It was only in 1955, when the Club voted to admit African-American journalists to its membership. Women were admitted only in 1971.

 Had she known this history of human rights violations of her benefactors, would Sonali have accepted the Fellowship or the award? Or would she not care about any human rights violations committed by people with pale skins?

 We wonder.

3 Responses to “Sonali kneels down at the Washington National Press Club for “refugee” status”

  1. Siri Says:

    This is a case of another Sri Lankan woman trying to curry favor with the Americans and get into the country through the back door. Another Sarath Fonseka situation I would say. Maybe she would even win the Lotto to enter the USA. Anybody who is prepared to come out publicly and condem Sri Lanka usually ends up winning the Lotto. Sri Lankan Traitors are America’s friends and end up winning all kinds of awards that may not be worth the paper they are written on. She does not know who the killers of her husband are yet, but thinks it OK to blame the Government anyway. Does she think the American media is impartial. She has a lot to learn, but I guess these are the least of her concerns. Maybe she can find employment in another field of work. Lasantha’s newspaper attacked many people. What was he thinking he was doing behaving like a rabble rouser. Sarath Fonseka’s group is suspected of the killing, but facts don’t count when you have a different agenda. She is prepared to condem her motherland for personal gain like SF. I wonder where she will finally end up.

  2. c.wije Says:

    Why do you think that Sonali would not prefer dollars to human rights??? Do we forget that Lasantha was a double agent? He went to meet MahindaR in the mid-night while writing against the govt (Gotabhaya) during the day!! Was this not the same Sonali who was violating the liquor quota allowed in the SL embassy in Australia?

  3. Sita Perera Says:

    She does not seem to be a competent woman even to address an audience of 20. Some say both her and Lasantha’s articles were all edited by a white guy they before went into publication (note – Lasantha last editorial was wirtten after his death, by the same white man)

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