Media & Culture

Dharmaratnam Sivaram: Murder of a brilliant journalist

On Thursday 28th April, at about 7.30 pm German time I received the shocking news from Sri Lanka  that the Tamil Journalist Dharmaratnam Sivaram had been abducted by 4 men in a SUV type vehicle. From that time, for the next Eight and a Half hours, we were engaged in frantic activity to try to save Sivaram's life. At 4am (Friday morning) German time I heard definitively that his body was found. The depth of the collective sorrow was unbearable. 

Tamils, Sinhalese, Europeans etc., weeping uncontrollably on the phone lines - with a common feeling of hopelessness engulfing us. Each an every one of us, who were engaged in this action had many past experiences of sudden death, the loss of people who were special to us and who were special to the struggle - but there was something else to the sadness that we felt. It was to do with what Sivaram's death represented.

Sivaram had succeeded in bringing the Tamil struggle into the light in a world dominated by big media. This was a sensational achievement in a world dominated by media spin, where the voice of the oppressed had no chance of being heard. It was a special sadness because Sivaram was at the peak of his powers and surging forward with all aspects of his work. He combined the exceptional analytical skills, lucid writing, acute understanding of media, a deep grasp of the cultural base of the oppressed Tamils who he was giving voice to, understanding of economic, political and military forces at play in the world, together with a familiarity of the technical possibilities offered by new media like the Internet. He made an incalculable contribution to success of the website Tamilnet. This website is a model to all oppressed people in the world.  

His work had many facets. His weekly column in the Sri Lankan mainstream daily English newspaper The Daily Mirror, had, like its editor said, a massive following. People from all parts of the world waited with baited breadth, every Tuesday night, to read the Internet version of it. He was one of the best military analysts in the world. Most of his articles were miniature classics, profound but written simply and lucidly. His political articles had such sharp and faultless logic that even those who opposed his views looked forward to reading and enjoying them. But he was never arrogant. As, when the Tamil theologician Prof. S. J. Emmanuel complimented him recently at an international conference about his deep and quick insights, he had immediately - in his characteristic humility, laughed at it and stated, 'Father - I am a simple fellow collecting information with the help of a computer and putting it together'. Sivaram proved Galileo's words that 'in matters of science the authority and the power of millions is worth less than the calm reasoning of one person'. And Galileo certainly knew what it cost to fight against the ideas of the powerful status quo of his day.

Nearly one year ago he was in Germany. I accompanied him to several meetings with influential people here. I was taken aback by the completely direct and convincing way in which he explained how the US/British interests in Trincomalee harbour destabilised the peace process and how people in Germany should play an active role in supporting the peace process before the needs and the pressures of the US war in the middle east destroys it (See the video interview). In fact we had planned a series of meetings in different parts of Germany at the end of this month with Sivaram as one of the main speakers.

Sivaram was not just an effective propagandist who was able to package the information cleverly for western consumption. He was immersed in the politics of the Tamil society from which he came. The depth of his involvement in the internal politics of the Tamil society came into light with his stunning intervention in the Karuna affair. Karuna a renegade commander of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, threatened to cause a big disruption in the Tamil movement and in Tamil society. Karuna, who was from the East of island like Sivaram himself, was well known to him.

Karuna, by virtue of being an important LTTE commander during the time of war had gained a support base among the Tamil people in the east. As the propaganda war erupted inside the Tamil community there was inevitable confusion and fear that a fratricidal war will erupt. The effectiveness of Sivaram's political intervention in the Tamil community contributed greatly to the de-escalation of the crisis. In is inimitable direct style and faultless logic he explained to Tamil people what was at stake. He explained which of the arguments were genuine and which were opportunistic. He explained who will gain if this conflict were to escalate. He explained the importance of the cohesion of society and the protection of the sovereignty of the people - which had been so hard won. Sivaram had much experience about the effects of society breaking down in many parts of the world. When he was in Bremen he went to great lengths to explain to us how the western big business gains from the death and destruction in the Congo. How the different centers of power with various warlords benefits certain big companies in the west because it allows them to buy the normally extremely valuable substances like Coltan (Columbite-Tantalite - essential for mobile phones and certain electronic devices) for very low prices. When there is a complete breakdown of society and groups of war lords compete to sell Coltan and other substances - it will reduce the price dramatically. So as millions of people die in the Congo, Coltan will be cheap for the mobile phone industry. With the Karuna affair he not only intervened effectively from deep within the Tamil community but his positions and analysis was also reflected outside it - even in the International media. I, as a Sinhalese gained most insight into the Karuna affair through Sivaram's English language writings. So there was a unity to his thoughts and actions inside and outside the Tamil community. He explained the reality in its totality as he saw it - with refreshing honesty. He treasured and defended his intellectual sovereignty with the same vigour as he defended the sovereignty of his people. In this sense he was not a propagandist but a searcher and a fighter for the truth.  

All the different aspects of Sivaram's work were combining with a beautiful synergy at the time he was murdered. But the multifaceted reality of his work meant that he had many enemies. Who was responsible for his death?

Will the killers be found? History is against us on this one. His colleague Nadesan was killed while Sivaram was in Bremen last year. Sri Lankan government has found no one yet. Another one of his colleagues Nimalrajan (who also worked for the BBC) was killed several years ago and the perpetrators are still unknown - according to the government.

Who is responsible? I think of it a little like the Agatha Christie mystery 'The Murder on the Orient Express'. It turned out that all the suspects were involved in the murder. All the people he was exposing had a motive to see him dead - all those who benefited from exploitation, all those who sowed division among the people, those who promoted racism, external powers who wanted control over parts of the island for their strategic interests etc etc. Although which of these forces collaborated to organise the assassination of Sivaram is not definitively known – the fact that they all benefited from his death is clear.

His physical murder is not enough for his enemies. They want to discredit the ideas that he fought for. There are attempts by various people to reconstruct him according to their wishes - to distort him and his work. Unable to refute his brilliance Sinhala commentators like Dayan Jayathileke try to separate the form of his argument from its content. They try to disconnect him from the struggle of his people. They praise him in order to destroy what he stood for. The reality is that he managed to give expression to a risen people. The struggle of the Tamil people cannot be dislocated from the brilliance of Sivaram. Prabhakaran had described the period of war as a period of moving inside a tunnel and the peace process as coming out of the confines of this tunnel. With this, Prabhakaran had signaled that the necessarily narrow contours that democratic processes take during war must be rapidly changed and the boundaries must be expanded to give expression to a lively debate. Sivaram's abilities thrived under these conditions. When the struggle was transformed from the domain of guns to words, Sivaram was the supreme warrior. His aim was true - through 'the barrel of his pen'. Whether he was writing in the Tamil press about the necessity to push forward the class struggle within Tamil society, or the dangers of the peace trap or whether he was writing in the Colombo based English press (also translated into Sinhala) about Sinhala chauvinism and Western interests or when he was speaking in the rich industrialist countries about why the war was threatening to break out, he was effortlessly convincing.

As Dr. S. Sathananthan commented, 'what antagonised Sinhala chauvinism most' is that 'Mr. Sivaram employed Lenin's dictum to devastating effect. He confined himself to describing what is actually happening; he did not engage in impotent speculations about possibilities...'

To people who like Dayan Jayathilleke, who try to separate Sivaram from the LTTE led struggle of the Tamil people, I would direct the question: Is the fully fledged development of an intellectual possible without an ongoing development of the people, the society around him? Did not the brilliance of someone like Beethoven reflect the rising confidence of the German bourgeoisie, standing  up against the aristocratic forces? In the same way, albeit in a different epoch, Sivaram's development and effectiveness was an intellectual expression of the confidence of the risen Tamil people.

The JVP seems to go one step further that Dayan Jayathilleke. On the 3rd May, on "Lakhanda" radio station, Dharmashri Kariyawasam, speaking on behalf of the "Lanka newspaper" argued that in his view it was the LTTE that had killed Sivaram! People might think that a statement like this coming from an organisation that had a campaigned against Sivaram, just a week ago, that he was a Tiger and provoking people to attack him is a just a joke - but there is more to it.

The JVP argumentation is that, as recently, Sivaram had been writing articles 'sympathetic' to the JVP, that would imply that he was critical of the policies of the LTTE, and that led to the LTTE killing him! Knowing how easily the media in Sri Lanka can manipulate reality, I am obliged to try to deal with this argument.

One of the outstanding features of the character of Sivaram was his openness. He was reachable by everyone and he was open to everyone’s ideas. The range of people who regarded Sivaram as their friend was phenomenal. He was completely non-sectarian. He was endlessly optimistic, endlessly searching for a way in which Sinhala people could unite with the Tamils. I know that during the time of the Indian Peace Keeping Force's (IPKF) occupation of the north and east, Sivaram was hopeful that the JVP and the Tamil movement would get together to work towards this goal. Since substantial part of both the Tamils and the Sinhala people were opposing the IPKF there seems to be the basis for a principled unity. There seems to be a possibility that the deep seated chauvinism against the Tamils can be broken - because of the common interests. I understand this very well as I too (completely independently of Sivaram) was trying to do this. During the terrible days of 1989, I met and worked (on human rights issues) with several outstanding student leaders from the JVP axis who had a genuine commitment to the mass of the Sinhala people. The heroic way that they continued to keep struggling even in spite of the fact that the state forces slaughtered tens of thousands of them was inspirational. The intense armed conflict, the danger to their lives, and the revolutionary atmosphere also opened up the mind of these JVP supporters to think about all things in a new and revolutionary way - including, their attitude towards the Tamil people. The physical conflict, suffering, and sacrifice, also created conflicts in the mind and opened up their mind and heart with regard to the Tamil question. I had deep and penetrating discussions while we were hiding from the death squads. My closest comrade Gayan (from Students for Human Rights) was arranging to translate Rohana Wijeweera's book on the Tamil question into English so that I and others could more fully react to the arguments in it. (Shamefully, being away from Sri Lanka for a long time, my grasp of Sinhala was not good enough to understand the complex language that was used by Wijeweera). I know now that one of the other people that the book was so quickly translated was for Sivaram. Because, from a very different angle he was trying to do a very similar thing.

I certainly thought, at that time, during the heat of the struggle, with so much at stake, the JVP leadership itself could change their position from a backward, provincial, Sinhala chauvinist line to a principled position based on Lenin on the national question. I am sure that Sivaram had the same optimism. But does this mean that I had in any way changed my support for the Tamil liberation struggle? No, nor did Sivaram, I am sure.

With the Tsunami and the wave of external powers and NGOs invading the country, Sivaram was, I am sure looking within Sinhala society to see which sections had the possibility to retain their sovereignty. He was deeply suspicious of the motivations for western help of any type.

As Condoleezza Rice said th January that the tsunami as "a wonderful opportunity" that "has paid great dividends for us". This fits in with the Bush administrations Carlos Pascuals earlier plan for changing "the very social fabric of a nation". Their plan is not to rebuild old states but to create 'market-oriented' ones. So his re-constructors might help sell off "state-owned enterprises that created a nonviable economy". As he explained, sometimes, rebuilding means tearing apart the old.

It is true that the terrible tragedy caused by the Tsunami waves brought out a massive humanitarian response from people from all over the world. The trouble is that it is not just a group of victims on one side and a group of people who want to help on the other. There is also something in between. When the practical support comes, the policies of the western governments, sometimes covered in the attractive clothes of the western based NGOs, transform the original intentions of the openhearted people who gave the aid. Then, it is often the case that, it is the material interests of the dominant western powers that are the driving force behind the whole operation.

Sivaram, I am sure, wanted the Sinhala people to defend their sovereignty from these external pressures and the agenda's of the External powers, like the Tamil liberation movement had done so successfully. He, no doubt thought that the JVP is more capable of resisting this external pressure that any other part of Sinhala politic.

Like the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiongo said several decades ago, I am sure he wanted the Sinhala people to say:

'Now we know the secrets of all the robes that disguise your cunning. You commit murder, then you don the robes of pity and you go and wipe the tears from the faces of the orphans and the widows. You steal food from the peoples stores at midnight, then at dawn you visit the victims wearing your robes of charity and you offer them a calabash filled with the grain that you have stolen. You encourage lasciviousness solely to gratify your own appetites, then you put on the robes of righteousness and urge men to repent, to follow you so that you may show them paths of purity. You seize men's wealth, then you dress in robes of friendship and instruct them to join in the pursuit of the villain who robbed them.'

Like in the late 80s when the IPKF came into the island, Sivaram again tried to see some good in the JVP - and reached out to them. But such is the mean-spiritedness of the JVP that it tries to use the very fact that he reached out to them as a means to insult his memory.

In the Sinhala Tamil cultural conference organised by the Hiru and held on October 2003 in Colombo, Sivaram was asked  why he lives in Colombo when there is such danger to him? He answered that if a Tamil journalist cannot operate in Colombo without getting shot dead - the final condition for a separate state for the Tamils will be fulfilled. In being brave enough to live in Colombo, Sivaram with great risk to his life gave expression to the possibility of solidarity  between the Sinhalese and Tamil people. Have his killers made it impossible? It is only our actions which will give an answer to that question.


Viraj Mendis  has been living in exile as a political activist and human rights campaigner for over three decades. He is the chair-person of the International Human Rights Association in Germany, a refugee based organization. This obituary was written on the 03rd of May 2005, a week after the assassination of Dharmaratnam Sivaram and was published in Sinhalese.

© JDS