V.Thangavelu, President TCWA
On the day my friend and colleague Dharmaratnam Sivaram (Taraki) was murdered I was blissfully ignorant of the tragedy unfolding in Colombo city till very late in the evening. On that fateful day, I was attending the International Conference hosted by Caldwell Educational Conference Organizers Inc, Toronto, Vasantham and Carleton Thamil Graduates Union, Ottawa and held at Grand Hotel, Toronto. Tsunami Disaster in Sri Lanka: Opportunities and Obstacles for Rehabilitation and Resettlement was the theme of the conference. There were panel discussions in which prominent scholars and experts spoke on a diverse subjects related to tsunami. The morning session was chaired by Prof. Joseph Chandrakanthan of the UoT.
On reaching home, I noticed my answering machine blinking. So even before changing cloths I started retrieving the messages. Among several messages, there was a short message left by the editor of Muzhakkam weekly newspaper. It said that there are unconfirmed reports that Sivaram (Taraki) has been abducted by unidentified gunmen at Bambalapitiya at around 10.45 p.m. the same day.
Thereafter, I received several calls and then went and checked the TamilNet. It carried a brief news item that confirmed the abduction story.
A little later other wire-news started carrying the bad news. Many bizarre scenes raced through my mind. I was trying to figure out the consequences. I resigned myself to the inevitable bad news sooner or later. It is a well known fact that abductors normally don’t release their victims for fear of betraying their identities. Past midnight news agencies reported the founding of Sivaram’s body with gun shot injuries behind the Sri Lankan parliamentary complex.
The loss of Sivaram (Taraki) is irreparable. He wielded his mighty pen to seek justice for his people. He was not a mercenary writer like some others. There is no one to replace him or take his place. He was the only Thamil journalist who wrote regularly both in English and Thamil for a very wide international audience. His articles and interviews were published and re-published in several newspapers and web-sites abroad. His superb in-depth analysis on defence and politics earned him respect not only locally but also from foreign diplomats, bureaucrats, journalists and educationists. He was invited by the US State Department for briefings. He was also invited by the Indian Foreign Ministry for similar briefings.
Sivaram took to journalism after falling out with PLOTE chief Uma Maheswaran. He was then the General Secretary of Democratic Peoples Liberation Front (DPLF), the political wing of PLOTE. In the early days he was critical of LTTE’s policies and tactics.
When in 1991, LTTE mounted a frontal attack and laid siege to Elephant Pass military base, the then National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali and army top brasses were at wits end not knowing how to rescue the forces entrapped inside. The army broke the siege finally by landing its forces at Vettilaikerni and marching towards Elephant Pass. It took a whole month to do so and the army suffering heavy casualties. It was claimed that the idea for the naval landing at Vettilaikerni came from reading Taraki’s articles.
Over time Taraki dropped his anti-LTTE stance when he realized that Sri Lankan governments of whatever hues are incapable of offering any reasonable solution to end the festering ethnic conflict. His reading of the socio-political history of Ceylon taught him a few lessons. He concluded that Sinhala polity will never agree to share political power with the Thamil people.
Sivaram figured out two important historical factors. Firstly, he found the Sinhalese ethnic identity is all –inclusive ethno-religious identity, that is Sinhalese Buddhists. It is impossible to think of Sinhalese ethnic identity sans Buddhism. Secondly the myth, artificial but deliberate, linking Vijaya’s landing with the passing of Buddha into Nibbana (death and enlightenment). Buddha just before his death was supposed to have summoned Sakka (Indra) and instructed him “Vijaya, son of Sinhabahu, is coming to Lanka ……. together with 700 followers. In Lanka, O Lord of Gods, will my religion be established, therefore, carefully protect him with his followers and Lanka.” This myth has been systematically and continuously exploited by Sinhalese politicians and Buddhist monks to promote the chauvinistic theory that Sinhalese Buddhists are a chosen people entrusted with the task of safeguarding Buddhism in the whole island. In essence it meant the island belonged to Sinhalese Buddhists only.
Secondly the interpretation of war between Elara and Duttugemunu as one between Thamils and Sinhalese Buddhists. As an extension the victorious Duttgemunu a great Sinhalese Buddhist national hero. This fiction is portrayed to paint the Thamils as historical enemies, non-believers, aliens and usurpers by the Sinhalese. Sivaram called this the Mahavamsa mind-set! Sivaram in his writings used to quote passages from such well known Buddhist chronicles like the Deepavamsa, Mahavamsa, Chulavamsa and Rajawalia, in that order, to reinforce his argument. He even quoted the Kandyan Convention to prove Sinhalese historical animosity towards Thamils. The Kandyan Convention signed between the British and the Kandyan chiefs consisted of 12 clauses of which the following four are significant and give an insight in to the Sinhala psyche.
- Sri Wickreme Rajasinha, the Malabari king to forfeit all claims to the throne of Kandy.
- The king is declared fallen and deposed and the hereditary claim of his dynasty abolished and extinguished.
- All his male relatives are banished from the island.
- The religion of the Buddha is declared inviolable and its rights to be maintained and protected.
Sivaram gradually came to admire the superior fighting’s skills, military strategy and tactics of the LTTE in fighting the Sinhalese armed forces. Especially LTTE leader’s far-sighted leadership by example. Sivaram, once an armed militant himself, was convinced that LTTE possessed the necessary military prowess to fight the occupying Sinhalese army and finally expelling it from Thamil homeland.
I met Sivaram for the first time in 1999 in Ottawa. He was one of many prominent scholars who spoke at the International Conference On Tamil Nationhood & Search for Peace in Sri Lanka. The Conference was hosted by the Academic Society of Tamil Students, Carleton University, Canada from 21-22 May, 1999. Sivaram presented a paper titled Media Bias and Censorship in Conflict Reporting in Sri Lanka. Among others who spoke at the conference were Ms Karen Parker, V. Rudra Kumaran, Dr.wickramabahu Karunaratne, Prof. C. Manogaran, Margaret Trawick just to name a few.
Incidentally, I have both the English and the Thamil versions of the paper he presented.
After 1999, Sivaram visited Canada a few times. His close relatives from his wife’s side live in Canada. Whenever he came he made it a point to see me, but scrupulously avoided public appearances.
Sivaram was planning to spend at least 2 weeks in Canada last December, 2004. He was invited as a guest speaker for a seminar in New Jersey organized by the World Thamil Organization Inc. So he planned to come to Canada before going to US. However, his plan came to naught when the Canadian High Commission in Colombo refused him a visa without even the courtesy of an interview. He was very disappointed since he had no difficulty visiting Canada before. As for US he already had multiple entry visas.
I met him in New Jersey on December 11 and spoke to him before and after the seminar. When asked to pose for photographs, he remarked whether they are meant for use after his death! None of us took his remarks seriously and no one that day had any premonition that death was lurking in the dark. This despite the fact he remained a target of the Sri Lankan army intelligence and pro-government para-military groups. Extreme Sinhalese elements, notably the JVP and Hela Urumaya, published his photos and branded him as a LTTE ‘terrorist.’
In 2001 Sivaram had a close shave with death. He was brutally attacked by a group of persons armed with clubs and batons inside Thinakathir newspaper office in Batticaloa town. Apparently this group had close connections with the security forces. Sivaram suffered extensive head injuries and was hospitalized. He required 5 stitches.
Attack and intimidation of Thamil media persons by security forces have become a routine affair for a considerable period of time. Freedom of the press and the independence of journalists in Sri Lanka is a huge joke. More so for Thamil journalists.
When ever his personal safety was broached Sivaram brushed it aside saying if anyone is determined to kill him nothing could stop it. He also brushed aside the suggestion that he stays abroad for some time till the security situation in Sri Lanka improved.
While he was in US, some of Sivaram’s close friends thought he should be provided with some monetary help as a show of affection rather than to ease his stay. But he did not like the idea. Typical of the man he told me over the phone in colloquial Thamil “ Enakku kAsu thEvai Illai. Nan Mandayai POddAl enathu peNsathy pillaikku uthavi seyunKo!” (I don’t need money! If I die help my wife and children!)
After returning to Sri Lanka, Sivaram was in constant touch with me by phone and email. The last message he sent me was the tidings that Vanni has decided to create a separate department to promote rationalism and science on an institutional basis. Also publication of books on science and rationalism to educate the people. He told me he has read most of my articles I wrote in Muzhakkam and re-published in Thamil Natham web site. Especially the series that debunked belief in Astrology. He thought by writing on social and religious issues, I was doing a great service in weaning people from superstitious beliefs that have become the curse of the Thamil society.
I feel less sad and more angry that the killers stilled his voice so brazenly and in the most brutal fashion.
The question before us is how long we have to put up with the loss of such versatile journalists like Nimalarajan, Nadesan and now Sivaram? How many more lives have to be sacrificed so that the rest could live in peace and dignity?
Eleven days have gone since the gruesome murder of Sivaram, yet the Police say there has been no break-through in apprehending the murderers. Even the vehicle used by the assassins has not been traced. Is this because the GOSL has set those behind Sivaram’s killing to catch the killers?
Thamil people abhor the prospect of war resuming once again. They have suffered privation and deprivation well beyond human endurance for two decades. But then what is the alternative to war? Should we allow the destruction of a nation in installments by a shadow war waged by President Chandrika Kumaratunga and her armed forces? It is time we re-think critically and act wisely.
Sivaram’s senseless murder has been condemned by prominent people around the world. UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura condemned the murder describing it as a “shameful crime” and his death “a great loss for Sri Lankan journalism and for UNESCO.”
” Man who Knew Too Much Dead” wrote Prof. Prof. Tom Plate, Director of Asia Pacific Media Network, in an article published in Korean Times.
Director Ann Cooper of The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) condemned the murder saying “This audacious and brutal crime is an attack on free speech in Sri Lanka.”
The Foreign Correspondents’ Association of Sri Lanka condemned the killing saying “To gun down an unarmed man is pure cowardice; to gun down a journalist is to attack freedom of speech.”
Reporters Sans Frontières (Reporters Without Borders) said “It was revolted at the brutal killing of well known journalist and the premeditated murder of one of the most renowned Tamil journalists is a huge loss for Sri Lanka’s press.”
Sivaram is not among the living any more. A powerful voice of an enslaved people has been silenced for ever. However, his ideas and ideals will survive his death and will live on. Let us then resolve to carry on his unfinished task as a lasting tribute to his loving memory. (This article was first published in 2006)