Taraki’s death seven years on: What we have lost

It has been nearly seven years since the journalist Dharmeratnam Sivaram or ‘Taraki’ was murdered on April 28, 2005. He was dragged off the Galle road, shot to death, and dumped in a high security zone for his wife and eldest daughter to identify.  To this day no certain public understanding has been arrived at about exactly who killed him.

The one suspect arrested by police, Arumugan Sriskandarah, a member of the military wing of PLOTE, remains so far accused but not convicted. Moreover, suspicions that larger political forces arranged his death remain unaddressed by any official investigations. In this Sivaram has much in common with the 18 other journalists killed in the last twelve years, Tamil and Sinhalese, whose deaths remain unresolved.  What is more certain, perhaps, is what Sri Lanka lost by his death.

Sivaram as a journalist was both famous and infamous. He was famous because everyone talked to him and everyone read him. I remember once in 2004, shortly after the eastern section of the LTTE broke away, sitting in a bar (with Sivaram it was always a bar), watching him put together a story for the next day. Within a very short space of time he called or was called by members of the Government of Sri Lanka, members of the LTTE, and by a spokesman for the rebellious eastern LTTE commander Colonel Karuna Amman  - that is, Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan, the current Minister of National Integration. At the same time he was also fielding calls from various European and American cities, and from a number of national embassies in Colombo. Thus, it was all there: all sides to the story, all talking to him.

His readership was exactly the same, only in reverse. Traveling around Sri Lanka in those days it was difficult to find anyone in a position of power unaware of Taraki’s last column, whatever it was.  None of this, of course, signaled approval. Many of his informants and readers loathed Sivaram and just about everything for which he stood (or everything for which they thought he stood – not always the same thing).  But people who wanted to understand the politics and military situation of the moment knew they had to see what Sivaram had just said.

But Sivaram was also infamous because he was a partisan in favor of a cause most non-Tamil Sri Lankans distrust, Tamil nationalism, a cause problematically shared by the LTTE, an organization whose single-minded ruthlessness eventually helped precipitate its own downfall. But partisan or not, Sivaram was passionate about getting his facts right, and about presenting the sometimes complex machinations of those he wrote about in the clearest possible way. This latter ambition sprang from an underlying Marxist conviction that clarity was the ultimate weapon to use against hidden injustices and the dizzying fog of war. This was why, regardless of creed or community, everyone read him.

So, hate him or heed him, it is easy to see what was lost when he died. I was thinking of this past August  while reading about the puzzling  ‘grease man’ epidemic that paralyzed large parts of eastern and central Sri Lanka last year. I was fascinated by the array of contradictory theoriespeople put forward about what those events signified. Some people speculated that the attacks were precipitated by army intelligence to back-handedly justify an increased army presence in Tamil and Muslim areas of the east.  Others sensibly pointed out that regardless of the truth or falsity of this unproven claim the attacks – always against Muslim and Tamil women - highlighted the vulnerability of eastern women after the Civil War. Still others, however, blamed organizations recording the attacks, such as the Women’s Action Network (WAN), claiming they were merely doing so to court foreign NGO dollars by asserting anti-Tamil racism was involved.  In a similar vein, an article in 'Divayina', on August 21, 2011, rather confusingly argued that the whole ‘grease man’ business was, somehow, a conspiracy involving both the Tamil diaspora and Muslim Fundamentalism – unlikely companions indeed! Finally, the BBC reported that an unnamed government minister, apparently worried by events like the besieging of a police station in Potuvil and the killing of a police man, Navaratne Bandara, by anti-‘grease men’ vigilantes, represented the whole affair as essentially a collective delusion. And so on.

It is difficult to know how to either sift or weigh this variety of contradictory views, though some are obviously more reasonable than others, because of the lack of verified evidence. It is easy to see, however, the need for more journalists like Sivaram. That is, canny partisans, unafraid to talk to anyone, careful to run down all the facts, and capable of producing clear and distinct analysis based on what is actually known and knowable. Then, even if people disagree with them, perhaps even because people disagree with them, we would all finally know where we are.

Mark Whitaker is a professor of anthropology from the United States of America who has written about Sri Lanka since the 1980s. In 2007 he published a biography of DharmeratnamSivaram, Learning Politics from Sivaram: The Life and Death of a Revolutionary Tamil Journalist in Sri Lanka.



Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

  • JDS is the Sri Lankan partner organization of international media rights group, Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The launching of this website was made possible by the EU’s European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), of which Reporters Without Borders is a beneficiary.