Friday, April 30, 2010

Remembering Sivaram Dharmeratnam

By Professor Mark P. Whitaker - To begin with I want to thank Mr. Arun Gananathan and Mr. Uvindu Kurukulasuriya and the Tamil Legal Advocacy Project for inviting me to speak at this Sivaram Memorial Event.

It is entirely fitting and proper, I think, that a memorial for Sivaram should also entail public remembrance of the many Sri Lankans of all ethnicities who, like him, have sacrificed their homes, their freedoms, and, in all too many cases, their lives as journalists. Their sacrifices bespeak the intense need to protect freedom of speech as a fundamental right not only in Sri Lanka but in any state proclaiming itself a democracy. Now it is exactly five years since April 28, 2005, the night Sivaram Dharmeratnam -- one of Sri Lanka’s most original, important, and (obviously, to some) infuriating journalists -- was abducted on a Colombo street and, as we soon learned afterwards, murdered.

Since I was unable to attend his funeral and actually see that, yes, the impossible had happened and my friend of over twenty years was now dead, I long felt a nagging, ridiculous suspicion that it was not true. That another late night phone call would come, another impossible knock on the door, and his inimitable voice would say again, “Ah, Mr. Whitaker, what have you been up to, machchaang .” I knew, of course, that this was not the case. His cousin called and told me, immediately after the funeral, that he had touched Sivaram’s surprisingly cold face in the casket. I knew he was indeed gone. But knowing is one thing; understanding quite another; and so a chance, periodically, to grieve for my friend officially is to me still very helpful.

But then, of course, I know there is a larger purpose here that makes this mourning also a kind of necessary civic education. For Sivaram’s death was not, like some sepia photograph of an old atrocity, a singular event in a fading history. From 1992 to 2009 the Committee to Protect Journalists estimates that 18 journalists were killed (by all sides) because of what they wrote or said during Sri Lanka’s long civil war . And if we cast our historical net wider yet to trawl from, say, 1983 to 1992, a period including the Sri Lankan government’s anti-JVP war, then we haul in a far higher number of journalist-victims including, for example, the famously photogenic Rupavahini news anchor Richard de Zoysa, Sivaram’s old friend and mentor, and the very man that drew Sivaram into journalism. (Not long after his abduction, de Zoysa’s body was found washed up on the Moratuwa coast. Sivaram had to identify the remains). The majority of those killed, of course, were Tamil; but others, such as Lasantha Wicrematunga, the late editor of The Sunday Leader, were not. And many other journalists, Tamil, Muslim, and Sinhalese, also clearly due to the war, were forced into exile or, most famously in the case of the J.S. Tissainayagam, jailed (though we can all be thankful for his release on January 13, 2010). Apologists for these actions have often pointed to the harsh necessities of war for their excuse. But as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have both recently noted, the end of the war between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE last May has not meant an end to the violent harassment of journalists . The unsolved disappearance of the political analyst Prageeth Eknaligoda on January 24, 2010 during coverage of the recent elections is but one bitter example among others of its continuance. Sadly, then, the practice of using violence to suppress journalism has, now, a long history in Sri Lanka, and seems to have become unmoored recently even from the martial circumstances originally used to justify it. It has become a kind of tradition – or, worse, a kind of routine, like tea in the morning: very sour tea.

None of this, of course, would have surprised Sivaram. One of his foremost traits as a thinker was his ability to comprehend unsentimentally the key role violence often plays in the politics of states, especially his own. He was never shocked, thus, at the notion that his journalism might make him a target; he simply tried – and for years succeeded – in being an especially difficult target. Similarly, Sivaram never viewed the mistreatment of the press in Sri Lanka as something either unique or disconnected from the world at large. He was always very careful to place Sri Lanka’s political foibles in a wider context of global forces and well distributed international ‘security’ practices. More amazing to me, however, in retrospect, is how anyone who viewed the world and his own mortal fragility within it, as he did, with such brutal clarity could nonetheless blithely carry on being a journalist in Sri Lanka. And I feel a similar amazement, and admiration, for those journalists who have come after Sivaram, risking what he risked, and all too often, ending as he ended. What explains such persistence?

Thinking of all this, I find my mind drawn back fifteen years ago to 1995, the first time Sivaram visited America, and the first time he told me that he thought his journalism was going to get him killed . Sivaram had come to America that year on an exchange program sponsored by the U.S. Information Agency. At that time, the USIA had such programs to spread ‘democratic’ and ‘pluralistic’ values to important journalists they had selected from the world’s inter-ethnic hot spots, a purpose Sivaram found more amusing than helpful given that his visit coincided with America’s burgeoning O.J.Simpson hysteria and the racial tensions revealed therein. In any case, this “Building Democracy in Diverse Communities” program brought Sivaram to Washington D.C. on September 14, 1995, and from there, over the course of three weeks, to Los Angeles California, Akron Ohio, Miami Florida, and eventually back to Washington D.C. From there, Sivaram was supposed to return immediately to Sri Lanka on October 12 – “Have a safe and pleasant journey!” chirped his overly chatty USIA Travel Schedule -- but with his six month, multiple-entry visa in hand he flew down to visit me instead.

He arrived in Aiken, South Carolina, where I teach, wearing a natty gray sports coat, rolling a single small suitcase, and toting a large plastic carrying-bag full of pamphlets on democracy and grass-roots political action which he gleefully deposited in my trash can since, as he put it, “they appear to have all been written by giddy insects.” But he told me, nonetheless, that he liked his first look at America and Americans. “You are such a happy, naive people. It’s been really very pleasant, machchaang, like looking at children playing. Very cheering.” He was especially cheered by Aiken’s local supermarkets, which, in those pre-Keels supermarket days, he found ridiculous in their fecundity. He liked being taken to the Wal-Mart Supercenter so he could stand in one of the food aisles and simply laugh. “I could kill myself eating here, machchaang. I could easily murder myself.” After my wife, who was teaching in California at the time, arrived for the Thanksgiving holidays, we took Sivaram to Charleston, South Carolina’s tourist city, and the very place where the American Civil War started. It was partly for pleasure, of course, but partly for Sivaram’s own research, for while Sivaram was thoroughly enjoying his first trip out of South Asia, his journalistic curiosity was fully engaged. He was forever striking up conversations, buttonholing, and generally chatting up strangers; and not the tame people USIA had paraded before him in their ‘workshops’. Rather, in every city he visited, Sivaram had slipped out, and walked around, seeking the poor and the angry and the marginalized. By the time he got to me in Aiken he had spoken with Ethiopian political refugees in Washington DC, Mexican laborers in several states, a prominent Chinese-American dissident in LA, several black labor activists there too, a Marxist priest in Miami (with whom he had, one evening, sipped wine on Biscayne Bay while talking about the Haitian boat people disaster), and unorganized low wage workers everywhere – none of whom were on his official itinerary. He simply had an ear for those voices others do not hear. So it was in Charleston, walking down Meeting Street with Ann and I, when Sivaram noticed a picket line in front of the Omni Hotel and shopping arcade. He immediately joined it, asking questions, striking up conversations, eventually finding out the whole story behind the strike. In about an hour he knew more about the labor politics of South Carolina than I had learned in several years. Buying a local paper, he pointed out that the whole event was simply not covered. “And your USIA people, my friend, think they have a free press.”

And he laughed.

At various times, during that first long visit, I had to take him to dinner parties with other academics. These were invariably a disaster. We would go and there would be wine and cheese and attempts at witty talk over discretely sipped goblets of expensive wine. If the academics were older or especially self-important they would then attempt to lecture Sivaram on what they thought he should know about the world, politics, philosophy, and literature. Since Sivaram was generally better read than they were, and his experiences more concrete, these were intensely uncomfortable moments, made worse by Sivaram’s penchant for subtly – and sometimes not so subtlety --baiting such people. I remember once a young fancily degreed academic attempting to explain Kojeve’s writing on Hegal to Sivaram, only to stand dumbfounded and stone-faced as Sivaram, after pointing out how profoundly mistaken this young man was in his interpretation of Kojeve, proceeded to quote, from memory, the relevant passages. Sivaram was particularly, loudly, and rudely hard on academics who thought of themselves as ‘politically active’, maintaining, with a dismissive wave of his wine glass, that the only true sign of political activism in an academic was a death threat and imminent imprisonment. “You have to risk something. Otherwise you are just playing,” he would say. He ended the evening, as he often did such occasions, by laughing at the selection of tasteful ‘eastern’ music, the under spiced food, the ersatz antique ‘Third world’ paraphernalia on the walls, and the politics. He also ostentatiously drank too much, and let it show, something which he rarely did unless he wanted to. After we left, I was furious.

“Couldn’t you have been more polite? For God’s sake!”

“Machchaang, machchaang, don’t upset yourself. They will think nothing of it.”
“Come on! They’re not completely naive!”

“No, Mark, you are wrong. They are all completely naïve.”

On the way home from one of these affairs, I forget which one, Sivaram looked longingly on the moonlight silvering the oak trees flashing by and said that he hoped when he died that his molecules would mingle with the soil of the Batticaloa district so that, in this way, he would eventually become one with its jungles and flowers.

“Why are we talking about death?” I asked, still somewhat testy about the disastrous party.

“Because, young man, what I am doing now is eventually going to get me killed. It has to.”

We argued about this and he ended up telling me that when he died I would know it because a bottle of arrack would arrive in the mail. “I’ve put it in my will”, he said.

“Unless you would prefer something else. Should it be a bottle of gin?”

“Arrack is fine. But you are not going to die.”

“Oh I am going to die, young man. Just remember the arrack.”
In the event, when he was killed, I heard by phone call and not by post. Over the next several weeks, as his death sank in, people kept calling me – his friends, his journalistic colleagues, academics -- all offering theories about who might have killed him. Nobody knew exactly anything, of course, and we still don’t, though we all shared suspicions that are probably accurate. But I know why people kept calling. For to work on solving the mystery of his death was, at least, to be doing something like what he would have done. It was a kind of final tribute, an acted memorial, completely fitting, and still going on in the actions of his endangerd journalistic peers. The day after his murder, however, as I sat down to drink a glass of arrack and ginger, the arrack taken from the last bottle I purchased with him – at the Cargills in Dehiwala, as it happens – I began to think not about who killed him but why he was killed. Or, rather, as he was intimating to me fifteen years ago, why he had to be killed by someone, eventually. And the answer I came up with is that he was simply too good at his job. He refused to withhold his insights, or cloak them in diplomatically vague abstractions. He believed, instead, in being perfectly clear, in letting everyone know, in making sure all those left out were included in, even if this meant he had to painstakingly teach them what ‘in’ looked like. He was, in short, far too blatantly Sivaram.

Consider, for example, the kinds of judgments, insights, and principles Sivaram brought to his work as Taraki and as an editor for Tamilnet. Let me, in fact, enumerate some of them.

First, Sivaram was one of the few journalists who understood early on how profoundly the end of the Cold War had transformed Sri Lanka’s geopolitical circumstances. This was something he had remarked upon on as early as 1990, long before other commentators were taking this tectonic shift into account; and it gave him an insight into the complex politics being played out between India, the US, the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government that, I suspect, was embarrassing in its clarity for all the players involved. Second, Sivaram from 1990 onwards wrote with insight and sympathy about the problems of east coast Muslims and upcountry Tamils, the excluded of the excluded. This unusual insight enabled him to note without surprise the kinds of spanners their particular problems frequently threw into the works of proposed political settlements and strategies by all sides. I do not imagine this pleased overmuch those in love with false and simplistic clarities. Third, Sivaram had a thorough understanding of the role violence plays in the running of modern nation states -- even supposedly peaceful ones. With this knowledge Sivaram was able to show how, for example, the then current Sri Lankan state was in fact dependent upon its oppression of Tamil people; and to argue, hence, that any settlement would have required not only a radical restructuring of the state, but an equally radical reordering of the means of violence currently at its disposal. I can’t imagine how threatening this notion must have been to those in charge of the guns and shackles, but I can guess. Fourth, Sivaram had practical experiences as both a warrior and a politician. This is because, unlike many intellectuals who participated in the Tamil nationalist movements of the eighties, Sivaram was equally active in both the military and political wings of PLOTE, his organization then. The practical consequence of this was his ability to understand and explain both the political and military aspects of Sri Lanka’s complex situation equally well -- a fact of no small chagrin, I would guess, to politicians wishing to be hazy about military fiascos, or to militarists too much in love with force for force’s sake. Fifth, Sivaram was willing and able to talk with anyone. Moreover, his electric personality was such that most people, regardless of political stripe, were willing to talk to him as well. It should be borne in mind that many of his most prominent public mourners in Sri Lanka, for example, were Sinhalese journalists, some of them quite Chauvanist in their attitudes, and a number of whom eventually labored under death threats on his behalf, and went on to suffer similar fates for covering other stories displeasing to those in charge. This ability to talk to all sides in Sri Lanka, and occasionally to provide a span of insight between them, was not just a shallow conviviality over drinks but the deep undergirding of his journalism: he left no one out of his conversation, and he made sure you knew it in his writing. I’m sure this rankled his killers and would-be killers no end. Sixth, Sivaram was the consummate journalistic professional. What he meant by ‘professional’ is, of course, a pretty complicated business to explain, since his beliefs about this ranged from the deeply political (‘professional’ meant you could not hide, even on pain of death, from the implications of what you thought were right) to the deeply practical (never write anything unless you had checked and double checked the facts). But Sivaram’s professionalism, nonetheless, will perhaps be his greatest contribution to South Asian journalism. When he died, I could hear the painful creaking of spines stiffening all over the region, and all over the world. And clearly, given the journalistic body count, this has lasted. Finally, seventh, there is Sivaram’s fierce and unrelenting dedication to what he perceived as his ultimate goal: achieving due rights and justice for all the Tamil people. Although he was astutely adjustable and strategic when it came to discussing how this goal might be achieved, he never hid his disdain for anyone who thought it appropriate to aim for something less. For him it was worth his own death, worth taunting his enemies with his refusal to leave or temporize, and, finally, worth a kind of resolution for his molecules as they mingle with the soil of the Batticaloa he so loved. “I find this idea strangely comforting,” he once said to me, ten, or fifteen or twenty years ago, about this eventual recycling. “I will bloom with the flowers.”

And then he laughed.

So I think I know why he was killed. But they killed him, of course, for their purposes, far too late.

As for what his death has meant to me? I remember talking with one of his close cousins on the phone soon after Sivaram died. He told me that, although he felt selfish saying so, what troubled him most about Sivaram’s death were the conversations he now would never have with anyone else like Sivaram again. For Sivaram, he claimed, could talk about ideas with him in a way no one else could. I knew exactly what he meant. I think all those who knew him well do. When he died, that died – that kind of talking, that flash of brilliance, that fierce irony, and fearless thinking. He made us all uncomfortable in the most valuable way. What a legacy to be carrying on with.

Thank You.

The full text of the speech delivered on April 29, 2010 by Professor Mark P. Whitaker at a meeting held in London to mark the 5th death anniversary of slain journalist Darmaratnam Sivaram (Taraki). The event was organized by Friends of Sivaram and Tamil Legal Advocacy Project. Mark P. Whitaker is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of South Carolina, Aiken, where he also holds an endowed chair in Social and Behavioral Science. He is a cultural anthropologist, and has conducted research in and on Sri Lanka since 1981. Most of his research has focused on politics, religion, and journalism in Sri Lanka’s Tamil community. He is the author of two books: Amiable Incoherence: Manipulating Histories and Modernities in a Batticaloa Hindu Temple (1998), the University of Amsterdam Press; and Learning Politics from Sivaram: The Life and Death of a Revolutionary Tamil Journalist in Sri Lanka (2007), Pluto Press. He has also written 17 articles. He met Sivaram Dharmeratnam in 1982, shortly after arriving in the Batticaloa district to begin fieldwork, and the two of them remained close friends and intellectual colleagues till Sivaram’s death on April 28, 2005.


1. Sivaram liked to pronounce the word 'machchaan' (male [cross] cousin) as 'machchaang.' Note: in the interest of avoiding transliteration problems, I am showing long vowels by doubling letters.

2. “18 Journalists Killed in Sri Lanka since 1992/Motive Confirmed”, Committee to Protect Journalists [] accessed 16/4/10.

3. “Sri Lanka: Demand Investigation into missing journalist” Urgent Action, ASA 37/003/2010 [] accessed on 4/16/10; “Sri Lanka: end Harassment, Attacks on Journalists”, Human Rights Watch [] accessed 16/4/10.

4. The following story is drawn from my book. See Whitaker, Mark. (2007) Learning Politics from Sivaram: The Life and Death of a Revolutionary Tamil Journalist in Sri Lanka, pp. 113-116. London: Pluto Press.

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