In Memory of Richard de Zoysa

Anurang Singh, in Sunday Observer, 17 February 2019, where the title is Remembering Richard, a multifaceted personality””

At three in the morning on February 18 1990, Arjuna Ranawana, a news producer for Rupavahini woke up to a call at his residence. Wondering as to who it could be, he answered the phone to hear Kenneth Honter’s voice at the other end. “What is Richard’s address,” he asked and Ranawana said that he didn’t in fact know of an address but gave directions. The line was then disconnected. Ranawana was baffled as to what was going on when he got a second call just 10 minutes later.It was Honter agian. Explaining what had happened Honter told Ranawana that the police had come to his residence asking for Richard’s address and to warn Richard immediately of it.

“Richard was living with his mother and a domestic at that time. Unfortunately he didn’t have a telephone at his residence. I immediately called his neighbour and asked him to pass the message, but we were too late by then,” Ranawana recollected the fateful day that Richard de Zoyza, a much loved journalist, actor and rights activist disappeared. The police team headed by former SSP Ronnie Gunasinghe who took directions at the Honter residence didn’t get the directions correctly. The team mistakenly surrounded and raided another house before getting to the de Zoyza residence.

“He was taken in his sarong and wasn’t even allowed to take his spectacles,” Ranawana said.

It would have taken a few hours, not even a day, for everything to conclude and for the news to start making rounds that Richard de Zoyza’s body had washed ashore at the Moratuwa beach.

Identify the body

Ranawana, was one of those who was asked to come to identify the body. Immediately after, he lodged a complaint with the Welikada police. Recalling fond memories of his friend, colleague and his son’s god father Ranawana, presently a senior journalist, said that de Soyza was a multifaceted brilliant man. De Soyza was a debater in school and had won several prizes for best actor at Inter-school Shakespeare competitions.

Director, Centre for Policy Alternatives Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, a dear friend and relative of Richard de Zoyza remembers him as a large-hearted human being who cared about suffering. “He was a very charismatic and wonderful person. At the end of the day he was a very caring person,” he said agreeing that de Zoyza was a person who had “Defined himself very much against the establishment of the day.”

De Soyza was also involved in the Psy Ops Operation with the Army against the LTTE. He had a bit of a checkered career and wanted to become a doctor before finally deciding to taking to journalism, said Saravanamuttu. “He was a brilliant guy who had an excellent memory. Ultimately he stood by his journalism and acting careers. He and I spent a lot of time just talking. In the seventies you could walk around the city of Colombo without any hindrance whatsoever. We would walk for miles and miles just talking about people to issues and international politics.

Those were the days I cherish the most because we got to know each other extremely well,” Saravanamuttu reminisced.

There had been instances where the motorbike owned by de Zoyza was borrowed and not returned. He would just opt to walk instead.

According to Ranawana, Richard was taken to the Kalutara Bridge and shot below the chin before being thrown into the water.

Fleeing the country

“At that time there were threats against journalists. I was not aware of any instances where I was personally threatened. However, my family and I took the precaution of fleeing the country with the help of my then employer, who looked after us for months and we were like refugees,” Ranawana said. Citing similar incidents of the era, Ranawana said that a BBC correspondent who was residing at a hotel in Colombo found one day when he returned from work that his room had been ransacked. He immediately went to his embassy and the ambassador himself drove him to the airport.

The trend of intimidating journalists is not something new. Richard de Soyza’s was not the first incident of this nature and surely was not the last.

But what seems to be the drift is that all these incidents remain unresolved.

“It is absolutely shocking. You speak to people and some have a general idea about actually who was responsible for all of it and the culture of impunity that is being protected and perpetuated.

We, therefore, cease to be a country where the law is supreme and become a country ruled by the whims and fancies of our rulers,” Dr Saravanamuttu said. Richard de Soyza’s mother before her demise said that she was at least lucky to see her son’s body.

“The attacks on journalists, killings and abductions show that if we are a democratic country we would resolve our differences through debate not by abductions and killings. When people’s rights are violated and ignored with impunity you then set in a trend of structural governance which is entirely dependent on one person’s whims and fancies.

“You need to get that information out to get other countries to act on them to save these people. Governments do horrible things to its people. So where do we go when that happens? We have to go outside,” Dr Sarawanamuttu said reiterating the importance of the need for stories to be told irrespective of how sour it may be.

In remembering the charismatic story teller on his 29th death anniversary which falls tomorrow (18) we remain a country where intimidation, killing and abductions of journalists are kept at bay, unresolved.

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One response to “In Memory of Richard de Zoysa

  1. Such a tragic and very shocking story which is very believable to me. I offer my condolences to this man’s friends and family. I deplore his fate and the suffering inflicted on all who loved him.

    In 2010 while visiting my aunt in Kandy, I stood at the her garden wall facing Peradeniya Road to take some pictures of the street life. A little later a couple of policemen arrived at the gate in a white, panel van and asked me to accompany them to the police station.

    I went in the house to tell my cousin (who was visiting from Canada) that I was leaving for the police station, and asked that she inform my aunt about my whereabouts when she woke up from her afternoon nap.

    My cousin woke my aunt up immediately, and my aunt rushed outside as I was getting ready to leave, and she confronted the police officers and adamantly refused to let me go past the gate. A little later a higher ranking officer came by with his entourage while the two little underlings explained to him that I had refused their summons.

    No one laid a hand on me.

    My aunt was vehement in explaining that I was an American citizen and my mother’s only child and that she would not let me leave her home as she feared to incur the wrath of her older sister in case I came to any harm.

    Soon an even higher-ranking officer arrived. After some discussion with my aunt and uncle the officer asked to see the photographs in my camera. I showed them to him, and he asked for a download. My other cousin got out a pin drive and we complied. My cousin could not restrain her laughter since the photographs included one of a crow in the pomegranate tree by the garden wall.

    This officer (I think he may have been the Chief of Police) was apologetic and conciliatory. He was visibly upset when I swore I would never visit SL again, and he hastened to assure me that this was my country, the land of my birth, and that I should not say I would not return.

    He then dictated a statement on my behalf and when the junior policeman was unable to take dictation he wrote the statement down himself.

    In the meantime my aunt sent away for soft drinks and biscuits for the crowd of policemen and women milling in the garden and verandah. All ended well, of course, due to my aunts fierce defense of me and her refusal to relinquish custody.

    I think the problem arose because there was some kind of government office across the street, and the fervent patriot at the kotha roti kade next door to the office called the police station out of his urgent need to defend his country from someone taking photographs with a professional camera of the dogs and people on the street.

    That was my first and last experience with almost being abducted. It was a close call, and I am certain I owe my life to my aunt. Besides being a well-known, published writer and poet in SL and a retired teacher of a highly respected private school in Katugastota, my aunt was a formidable force that could not easily be overcome even by senior members of the police force.

    Eternal rest grant unto her O Lord. May she rest in peace.

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