Sri Lanka politics and commentary

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Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Prageeth Ekneligoda Abduction


By C.A.Chandraprema
Political Correspondent-The Island

Over the past few months, there has been quite an issue created over the disappearance of a ‘journalist’ by the name of Prageeth Ekneligoda. I have remained silent on this disappearance up to now, for a purpose. Now however, irrespective of the purpose I had in mind, I have been compelled to break my silence on this issue because Sunanda Deshapriya writing to the Ravaya last week, said quoting Prageeth’s wife Sandya, that the first time Ekneligoda is said to have been ‘abducted’ around August 2009, it was I who had got him released. Of course Deshapriya has not mentioned me by name, but referred to a mediaman attached to an English language newspaper. This is a reference to me. I was not very surprised at seeing this because a few weeks back, I got a call from Sandya telling me that she had got to know from one Gunadasa Jayalath, a close friend of Prageeth’s who works as a coordinating secretary to deputy minister Salinda Dissanayake, that the first time Prageeth disappeared, in August last year, I who had saved him.

What is strange is that I know both Prageeth and Sandya. If I had saved Prageeth from abductors last year, why would Sandya have had to hear it from a third party? Prageeth should have told Sandya himself, and they should have prepared a good meal for me at home and introduced me to their sons as the uncle who saved their father’s life. In addition to that, a photograph of me should have been placed below the Buddha statue in their home, and I should have been worshipped day and night. But none of this happened. To Sandya Ekneligoda, it does not seem strange that her husband never told her that it was I who had rescued him the first time he had been abducted. This incongruity is a pointer to the nature of the campaign that has been drummed up over the disappearance of Ekneligoda.

Political activist

I have known Prageeth Ekneligoda for well over twenty years. It was Prageeth who designed the cover of my book ‘Kolapata Samajaya’ in 1997. It was some people known to Prageeth who computer typeset the book as well. The reason why I said not a word about his disappearance is so as to be in a position to make an intervention on his behalf if it became necessary. Making known my views on his disappearance publicly would not have helped Prageeth in any way. However, I believe it would not be in my best interests to keep quiet any longer. The first thing to get cleared is who Prageeth is. I am probably the only employee of Upali Newspapers who had even heard of someone called Prageeth Ekneligoda even though he is supposed to be a journalist. C.J.Amaratunga a staff columnist to the Lankadeepa would be the only person at Wijaya Newspapers who would have known him in that media institution. I doubt whether anybody at Sirasa TV, Swarnavahini or Derana had ever heard of him. Even Amaratunga and I knew him only as a left wing political activist and not as a journalist.

Very few journalists in the newspapers and TV and radio stations that abound in this country had ever heard of Prageeth until his disappearance. The reason for that is that Prageeth was never a journalist. He made a living as a freelance graphics artist. He had various small businesses dealing with printing, typesetting or graphics at various times in his life. He was also a freewheeling intellectual and a left wing political activist. I got to know him in the 1980s as a left wing political activist. I believe he had worked with Dr Newton Goonesinghe and helped him with his research projects. Prageeth had an intellectual bent. He had plenty of ideas on politics and how things should be. However he was never even a freelance journalist. He has published a few articles in various publications. If an occasional contributor can be called a journalist or a mediaman, then quite a few of those who write to our letters to the editor page are also journalists. Long time regular contributors will have to be designated ‘senior journalists’.

First disappearance

Even if he had wanted to, Prageeth could never have become a journalist or media man because he had a stilted left wing intellectual style of writing that nobody, not even intellectuals, could understand. When he spoke he did not make things seem so complicated, but his writing was incomprehensible even to those familiar with his line of thinking. This claim that he was a journalist was due to his association with the website lanka e-news. But there too, according to Bennet Rupasinghe its editor, he had been only an occasional contributor and not even a regular freelance contributor. Had lanka e-news regularly published the analyses that Prageeth wrote, they would have had to close down the website because nobody would have understood what he was writing. So Prageeth was never a journalist, but a graphics artist and a freewheeling intellectual. This will answer the question why so few journalists or media men in this country had ever heard of a media personality called Prageeth Ekneligoda until he disappeared.

Now we come to the question of Prageeth’s disappearance. This apparently, was not the first time that Prageeth had disappeared. Around August last year, Prageeth had told his friends that he had been abducted and released by an unidentified gang. Nelson Edirisinghe is a veteran left wing activist and long time buddy of Prageeth’s. Nelson now works for minister Douglas Devananda as a coordinating secretary. Last year, Prageeth told Nelson that he had been abducted and released and he had described the incident as follows - he had been returning to Colombo from Dambulla and at the Pettah bus stand, he had got into a bus bound for Homagama to go home. At that stage Prageeth had sensed that there was a man following him. When he reached his bus stop, he had got off and the suspicious man had got off with him. There was a white van parked along the road that led to his house and he had been bundled into the van and handcuffed and blindfolded. He could not see where they took him because of the blindfold, but he had been taken to a house and with the blindfold still on, he had been chained to a bolt driven into the floor. He had spent the entire night on the floor. He had not been asked any questions, but some recorded ‘noises’ had apparently been played, (probably to deprive him of sleep). In the morning, they had removed the blindfold, told him to wash his face and said that they had made a mistake and that he was not the man they wanted. At around 10.00am they had dropped him off at a quarry somewhere in the Malabe-Athurugiriya area from where he had made his way back home.

Mistaken identity

Naturally, Nelson did not believe a word of it. Neither would anyone else who heard the story. A man may be arrested by mistake in a cordon and search operation where mass arrests are made. But there could be no case of mistaken identity when a man was under surveillance and had been followed in Dambulla and there was another man to follow him from the Pettah bus stand, with a white van waiting for him on the road to his house. This would suggest that he had been watched for days, if not weeks or even months, before the abductors made their move. There can be no question of mistaken identity in such an operation and only very wanted men would be followed in that manner. There were instances that we heard of in the past, where uninvolved people had been abducted to get information about third parties and had been released after obtaining the necessary information. In such instances, the abductions were obviously carried out deliberately and were not ‘mistakes’. Prageeth’s was the only instance that anybody has ever heard of a man being abducted by mistake. Such things are not within the realm of possibility. Besides almost all abductions reported in the recent past were those of Tamils. Prageeth is a Sinhalese. Could it ever be possible that some security agency had followed a rare Sinhala suspect and nabbed the wrong man by mistake?

Naturally, not even the most sympathetic listener would have believed a word of what Prageeth said. Later he went to see yet another close friend of his, the afore mentioned Gunadasa Jayalath also a veteran left wing activist now working as coordinating secretary to deputy minister Salinda Dissanayake. Jayalath used to be a left wing activist monk under the name of Karambe Gunananda. He has since given up robes. When Prageeth told Jayalath about his first abduction. Jayalath asked him why the government would want to abduct him. To this, Prageeth had replied that he had once stated that both the LTTE and the government had used chemical weapons during the last stages of the war and that the government may have been unhappy about that. Jayalath then asked him, if he had been taken in for something like that, how he had managed to get out. To this Prageeth replied that some influential person like Chandraprema (Yes myself!) would have brought pressure on the government to release him. He had not stated this as a certainty but as what probably would have happened. Prageeth had all along been stressing the need to go into hiding as there were people after him. He asked Jayalath for some money. Jayalath gave Prageeth Rs. 300.

Hearsay

Jayalath obviously told Prageeth’s wife Sandya about what they had discussed the last time they met, and it was on the basis of this that Sandya phoned me saying that Jayalath had told her that I had saved Prageeth the first time he had been abducted. The information flow seems to be going in a circle here. Prageeth tells Jayalath that I may have saved him, and Jayalath tells his wife Sandya that Prageeth told him that Chandraprema may have been his saviour and Sandya phones me probably in the expectation that I could save him a second time and she also tells Sunanda Deshapriya that according to Edirisinghe and Jayalath it was Chandraprema who had saved Prageeth the first time. But the fact is that I never knew of Prageeth’s first ‘abduction’ until Prageethfriend Nelson Edirisinghe told me about it much later. Indeed had I at the time of his first abduction known that he had been abducted and had I known that some state agency was involved, I would have got a shed constructed in front of the Fort Railway station and gone on a hunger strike, not to get Prageeth released, but to protest against the fact that this most powerful of post independence governments led by the most popular political leader that this country has seen in recent times, had fallen to the level of considering it necessary to abduct a harmless, penniless, insignificant non-entity like Prageeth Ekneligoda.

Prageeth was against the Rajapaksa regime no doubt, but that meant nothing. He was always anti-establishment. When the UNP was in power before 1994, he was against the UNP. When Chandrika was in power, he was against Chandrika. When Mahinda is in power he is against Mahinda. There was no harm that he could ever do to any government. Even if he had written anti-government articles every day, nobody would have read them. Even though many left wing activists that Prageeth associated with, have become well known personalities, Prageeth was always a non-entity until his ‘second abduction’ made his name widely known. Prageeth’s anti-government activities counted for nothing. In the 1980s when we were young men, there used to be a Marxist-Trotskyist organization called ‘Kamkaru Mawatha’ the leaders of which who used to openly say that an armed struggle should be launched against the government. Despite the fact that the J.R. Jayewardene government was allergic to Marxists, even they took not the slightest notice of ‘Kamkaru Mawatha’. Prageeth’s anti-government activities were also in the same league.

Nonentity

In any case, even if he was involved with a group of like-minded people, Prageeth would never play a central role in anything. He was always on the periphery of things. Nobody really believed he had ever really been abducted in August 2009 and I don’t either. What Sunanda Deshapriya had written in last week’s Ravaya is what had been told to him by Sandya Ekneligoda. She had apparently told him that both Gunadasa Jayalath the co-ordinating secretary to deputy minister Salinda Dissanayake and Nelson Edirisinghe the coordinating secretary to minister Douglas Devananda had told her that I had been instrumental in getting Prageeth released the first time he had been abducted. I am in contact with Nelson Edirisinghe and he had most certainly not said anything of the sort to Sandya. When I asked Jayalath over the phone last week about this, he too denied that he had said that I had been instrumental in getting Prageeth released and that it was Prageeth himself who had told him that it was ‘probably’ I who may have saved him the first time.

Sandya Ekneligoda is involved in deliberately spreading falsehoods around. I see this whole episode as a massive scam and my name is being used in an attempt to establish that Prageeth was indeed abducted the first time. If I had rescued him, then he had to have been abducted. Well, I resent my name being used for such a purpose and this is what compels me to say publicly, what I told Sandya privately when she turned up at The Island office asking me for help.

Prageeth Ekneligoda disappeared without a trace about 48 hours before the presidential election in Jaunary this year. I first heard about the disappearance over the Sirasa TV. His wife Sandya lost no time in blaming the government for the disappearance. Later, when she phoned me, she told me that Prageeth had gone to see his long time associate Gunadasa Jayalath coordinating secretary to deputy minister Salinda Dissanayake and that he had been told by the latter that his name was on the government’s hit list and that after this, Prageeth had been living in fear. Now I knew this Gunadasa Jayalath but I had had no contact with him for nearly twenty years. So I phoned another one of Prageeth’s long term associates Nelson Edirisinghe the co-ordinating secretary to minister Douglas Devananda and asked him whether he had heard anything about Jayalath telling Sandya that Prageeth had been on the government’s hit list.

Nelson just laughed it off and said that when Jayalath and Prageeth met, they would have been drinking and that neither of them would know what the other said. When Sandya came to The Island office and repeated this story that Jayalath had told Prageeth that he was on the government’s hit list, I told her that they had been drinking the last time those two met, and let the matter rest at that. However after Sunanda Deshapriya mentioned my name last week, I got the impression that various people’s names were being used to establish that Prageeth has actually been abducted. I am supposed to be the friend who saved Prageeth the first time he had been abducted, then Jayalath was supposedly the friend who passed inside information to Prageeth and warned him that he was on the government’s hit list. I decided to make some further inquiries and I phoned Jayalath and asked him whether he had told Prageeth that he was on the government’s hit list. Jayalath flatly denied saying any such thing.

I believe Jayalath. He’s just a co-ordinating secretary to a deputy minister and in no position to know who was in, or not in a government hit list. Even his employer deputy minister Salinda Dissanayake would not be privy to such information. If a government prepares a hit list, copies of it are not circulated to the personal staff of government MPs and deputy ministers. What I find suspicious about this whole thing is this pretence of naivety. Prageeth is an intelligent man and quite capable of understanding that a minor functionary like Gunadasa Jayalath would not be privy to top secret decisions made by the government. Yet Prageeth’s wife tells me with a straight face that her husband had been living in fear after Jayalath told him that he was on the government’s hit list. In doing so, she was insulting my intelligence. What is even more galling is that this lady told me once again with a straight face that this same Jayalath had told her that it was I who had saved Prageeth the first time he had been abducted. She should have asked herself why it was that Prageeth himself had not told her that without leaving it to third parties to tell her who saved her husband? And wouldn’t she have been feeling guilty at not having invited me home for a meal after such a favour? This show of extreme naivety is just a pretense to use various people’s names to give credence to the fact that Prageeth has been abducted for the second time.

When I got a call from Sandya telling me that Jayalath had told her that it was I who had got Prageeth released the first time he had been abducted. I told her that Prageeth has had no dealings with me for more than three years. The last time I saw him face to face was perhaps nine years ago. For some years I was overseas and Prageeth did telephone me after I got back, but then he suddenly cut off connections with me for no apparent reason and since it was always he who contacted me and not the other way about, all contact between us ceased. I told Sandya at that stage, that I was sorry to disappoint her but that I had nothing to do with his ‘release’. At that time, out of politeness, I did not tell Sandya what my theory was regarding Prageeth’s ‘disappearance’.

Sandya Ekneligoda seems to be engaged in creating a picture using various people’s names including mine. First she says that Jayalath had said that Prageeth is on the government’s hit list. Then she says that it was I who got Prageeth released the first time he had been abducted. By propagating such nonsense she is trying to establish that he was in fact abducted the first time. I do not believe for one moment that Prageeth was ever abducted, the first time or even the second time. Prageeth may have made some money in fits and starts, but he was never really well off, and life was always a struggle. He has never asked me for money, but people who were closer to him like Nelson and Jayalath had been giving him small amounts of money from time to time. My theory is that he staged his abduction the first time with the hope of being able to obtain political asylum overseas with his family. However since not even his closest friends believed his story, the plan ended up as a flop.

When it came to the second attempt, Prageeth was better prepared with a coterie of friends associated with General Fonseka’s election campaign to support him to stage a better disappearance as an election gimmick. At the last presidential election, Prageeth supported General Fonseka along with quite a few former left wing political activists. Prageeth was always an anti-establishment type. His disappearance took place in the last 48 hours before the election. The plan I believe was to come out after Fonseka won claiming he had been released by his captors after the government lost the election, and to claim political asylum on the grounds that his life was in danger. However, Fonseka lost the election and the plan went awry with Prageeth unable to come out of hiding. Now the stage managers of this play have been trying to take it in a different direction by using this ‘disappearance’ as an ongoing issue to keep ‘media freedom’ under discussion and Sri Lanka in the international spotlight. The reason why I never said a word about this abduction was so as to be in a position to bail out a friend for old time’s sake. But I have been compelled to make my theories public because my name is being used to give credence to these cock and bull stories about Prageeth’s multiple abductions. When Sandya met me at the Island office, I told her point blank that this was a scam and that Prageeth should come out of hiding and I will intercede with whoever I can to ‘shape things up’ so that he will not have to be behind bars for misleading the police and disturbing the public peace. I told Sandya that at the last stages Prageeth had been associating with ‘gamekarayas’ who were quite capable of staging something like this, especially when it meshed with Prageeth’s own desire to stage an abduction and get political asylum.

In fact at the 2001 parliamentary election Prageeth and I were involved in just such a little game. In 2001, the UNP was up against two enemies the PA and the JVP. Prageeth came up with a brilliant idea to discredit the JVP. He knew of a young man who had participated in the JVP’s attack on the Dalada Maligawa in the late 1980s. This young man was now unable to go back to his village because he was a noted JVP activist and the JVP had no programme to help people like him who were no longer with the party and wanted to lead normal lives but could not do so because they had criminal cases pending against them for deeds done during the JVP insurrection. What Prageeth suggested was that the public should be reminded that it was not just the LTTE that attacked the Dalada Maligawa and that the JVP also had done so earlier. I thought it was a good idea and told him to bring the young man. After meeting this young man, I took them both to see Lasantha Wickrematunga.

Lasantha got his former wife Raine to interview him on the spot for the Sunday Leader. Later Chamudita Samarawickrema interviewed him for TNL. Prageeth told me that this young man will need to go underground for a while after he makes these revelations and that he would need some money. I told this to Lasantha, and he spoke to Malik Samarawickrema and got something like Rs. 200,000 for the young man so that he could go underground. So a gimmick like staging his own disappearance on the eve of an election, in order to bring the government into disrepute, is well within Prageeth’s capacity. The little game that Prageeth and I pulled off was a case of revealing the truth. But what is happening now is nothing but fraud!

Some may wonder whether anybody can remain in hiding for so long. Prageeth is an old left wing activist. In the 1980s, he helped some left wing activists including those belonging to Dayan Jayatilleke’s group, to hide from the J.R.Jayawardene government. UG’ (underground) we called it at that time and when somebody goes underground, it will be for months and years not just weeks. Rohana Wijeweera was underground for over six years from 1983 until he was killed. Prageeth comes from a left wing subculture for whom hiding for months even years is nothing. Besides Prageeth had contacts in various remote parts of the country, people whom he had met probably when he was helping Newton Goonesinghe with his research work. If anyone can hide for an extended period of time, it’s Prageeth.

There seems to be a well orchestrated attempt to establish that has been abducted and that it has been done by the government. Some weeks back, I was surprised to see in an article by Victor Ivan where he had said that according to what some of Prageeth’s close associates had told him, Prageeth had been instrumental in penning a scurrilous article on the sex life of a certain minister of the government, which was published in a certain website. Even though I was surprised to see this comment, I did not pursue the matter or talk to Ivan about it because my policy at that stage was to ignore the matter until Prageeth sent me a message asking for my help. Last week however, after Sunanda Deshapriya mentioned me name as Prageeth’s saviour the first time he was abducted, I decided to pursue the matter. I told Ivan that the Prageeth I knew, never discussed sex, did not appear to have a sexual imagination, and he never uttered even an obscenity in his day to day speech. My firm conviction is that Prageeth could not have written a scurrilous article about anybody’s sex life. Even if he had tried to write something like that, it would have been a treatise on human sexuality and Marxist theory which nobody could have read or understood. Moreover, if that website wanted a scurrilous article about somebody’s sex life, they didn’t need Prageeth for that. They had past masters at that game. While Prageeth may engage in revolutionary activity like hiding political fugitives and organizing little political games to discredit an opponent, writing scurrilous articles about somebody’s sex life is completely out of character for him.

As readers of the Ravaya will know, Ivan had over the past couple of months, declared war on the culture of passing off unsubstantiated, scurrilous stories as news. Ivan’s view was that if a journalist publishes unsubstantiated stories and slander as news and some physical violence is done to him by the aggrieved parties, that cannot be construed a suppression of media freedom. When someone who is trusted tells Victor Ivan that Prageeth had been in the business of writing unsubstantiated scurrilous articles for websites, that is basically the end of the road as far as Ivan is concerned. Naturally, Ivan made public what had been told to him by Prageeth’s friends. That is exactly what these people wanted. The moment Ivan says that Prageeth was in the business of writing scurrilous articles, the implication would be that what happens to him after that is his own lookout, and that he was indeed under threat.

I spoke to one of the individuals who had convinced Ivan that Prageeth had authored a scurrilous website article about a certain minister. This individual knows that I know Prageeth very well whereas he knew that Ivan did not. So the stories he told Ivan and myself were different. What he told me was that Prageeth could not have authored any such scurrilous article. I phoned Ivan and told him that this story of a scurrilous article had been planted on him. Those involved in this scam, have been hard put to find some motive that the government may have to cause the disappearance of Prageeth. Nobody believes that a government would want to make an unknown non-entity like Prageeth disappear. So a motive had to be created, and one way to do it was to create the suspicion that somebody in the government may have had a motive to do away with Prageeth because of something he had written - even a scurrilous article would be better than nothing for this purpose. The best part of it was that the very person who had planted that story of a scurrilous article written by Prageeth on Victor Ivan had later told Nelson Edirisinghe (mentioned earlier in this article) that he will never speak to Ivan again because of what the latter had written about Prageeth in the Ravaya!

What is noteworthy is that this individual who had been feeding wrong information to Ivan is not one of Prageeth’s enemies but a friend, and one who worked with Prageeth in General Fonseka’s campaign. Why would an old friend plant stories about Prageeth writing scurrilous articles unless this was for some purpose? I see this as nothing but a desperate attempt to create a motive for the government to abduct Prageeth. What is now plain is that this was a gimmick of the Fonseka election campaign gone wrong. By staging the disappearance of Prageeth in the last 48 hours before the day of the election, the objective was to bring the government into disrepute by making them go into an election with the abduction of a ‘journalist’ in the headlines. By the time the public would get to know that Prageeth was no journalist, the election would be over and Fonseka would be in power. Now things have gone wrong and Prageeth cannot come out. So there are attempts to build up a false case to the effect that he was wanted by the government.

I regret having to make public my theories on the alleged abduction of Prageeth Ekneligoda. If given a chance, my choice would have been to make a discreet intervention if Prageeth asked for my help to come out of hiding. However the use of my name, in an attempt to turn a falsehood into a fact leaves me no choice but to make my views known. This whole disappearance or abduction of Prageeth Ekneligoda is in my view a fraud and his wife and some others in the Fonseka election campaign are involved in this. When he met Jayalath the last time, (which was after his supposed first abduction) Prageeth had been talking about the need to go into hiding because of the threat against him. When he met Nelson Edirisinghe, once again he had been talking about the threats he had to face. After his second disappearance, Prageeth’s friends have been comparing notes. A veteran left wing activist by the name of Kalyana Karunaratne had told Nelson Edirisinghe that he had met Prageeth about a month before his second disappearance and he had been talking about the need to go into hiding and asked him for help. In closing what I have to say in public is what I told Prageeth’s wife in private – there is no point in continuing with this pantomime any longer. Prageeth should come out now and give his friends a chance to ‘shape’ things up so that he could get back to normal life.

However I am aware that this may not happen. There is now a campaign calling for the ‘release’ of Prageeth Ekneligoda. Demonstrations are being held, books are being published, exhibitions are being held, press conferences called, statements issued by international media organizations, the Mahanayakes are being met, meetings with the president are being sought, money is obviously coming in from overseas, and for the first time in his life Prageeth’s name has become widely known. A whole new cottage industry has come up. One may ask whether Prageeth would want to be away from his family in order to keep this fraud going. The fact is that in normal life, he was in dire financial straits and had taken the Rs. 300 given to him by Gunadasa Jayalath. He had even been asking Nelson Edirisinghe for reloads for his mobile phone. These are the unvarnished facts of this case. Prageeth was penniless and his sons were growing up - the typical profile of a man who would want political asylum overseas, where he will get a dole and will not have to struggle for day to day survival, and there will be subsidized housing, health care and free ‘overseas education’ for his sons. The scams that various people may be involved in do not interest me, so long as my name is not used to perpetrate a fraud.


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