23 June, 2024


Remembering Sivaram Dharmeratnam

By Mark P. Whitaker –

Prof. Mark P. Whitaker

Taraki Sivaram or Dharmeratnam Sivaram (11 August 1959– 28 April 2005) was a popular Tamil journalist of Sri Lanka. He was kidnapped by four men on April 28, 2005, in front of the Bambalapitya police station. His body was found the next day in the district of Himbulala, near the Parliament of Sri Lanka. He had been beaten and shot in the head.The following lecture was given by prof. Mark P. Whitaker in London on April 2010. 

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[1].” 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.Dharmeratnam Sivaram

Dharmeratnam Sivaram – Photo Johan Mikaelsson

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[2] .  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[3]. 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[4]. 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.


[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 [www.cpj.org/killed/asia/sri-lanka/] accessed 16/4/10.

[3] “Sri Lanka: Demand Investigation into missing journalist” Urgent Action, ASA 37/003/2010 [www.amnesty.org/en/region/sri-lanka] accessed on 4/16/10; “Sri Lanka: end Harassment, Attacks on Journalists”, Human Rights Watch [www.hrw.org/en/news/2010/01/29/sri-lanka-end-harrassment-attacks-journalists] 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.

*Mark P. Whitaker,Professor of Anthropology , University of South Carolina, Aiken

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Latest comments

  • 2

    Prof. Mark P Vitaker has eulogised late Sivaram Dharmarathnam. In hind sight, when I look back at events how much of this violence that had been committed in this country where many have died at the hands of the govt. and the LTTE, who could have influenced the country away from a destructive path for both sides, by getting rid of them using the otherside, as otherwise it is counter productive to the very forces out side. I begin to question myself seeing the duplicity of these very goodsamaritans as to how they handle other issues on related matters, whether people as Mark P Vitaker are used to further the ends of the perpetrators of crime, either knowingly or unknowingly by these Zionist Forces, under the pretext as sympathisers and saviours of the situation? Is it not that these very outside forces that once campaigned the Tamil cause that have let the Tamil Diaspora down, including their counterparts in India claiming blood relationship, using fractions of the very LTTE Tamil groups in betraying the cause? I am sorry, it is not paronia but I see a Zionist behind evry bush, with false pretenses using our own back yard to further their cause using us both the Sinhalese and the Tamils for their own agenda to control the Region. Looking at the holocaust of the Jews by Hitler, I begin to wonder whether he had some strange foresight to understand the misery, the Jews would bring up on this world someday. Only time will tell, but then again how many will understand the intrigue.

    • 4

      Most of the mayhem created in SL had nothing to do with the Jews but had everything to do with Colonisation and the divide and rule policy of the British Empire. In this batton game the British have passed the batton to the American Imperialists and then America will pass it on to India. In other words SL will always be the victim and a “Colony” to be passed on from one super power to another. Of course the minorities get the full benefit of this endless divide and rule policy which the GOSL is happy to carry out in order to stay in power as a puppet of whichever super power is in control.

      • 10

        It is more habit than truth that inspires the Sinhala Chavinists to blame the British for deviding and ruling this country, whenever it suits them. The reality is otherwise. It is the British who introduced the current system of governance, educated and trained a required workforce, from the inhabitants of the country, consisting of all Ethnic Groups who lived in this country at that time. The system worked well and all who acquired positions in society necessarily had to have the educational qualifications purely on merit. The system had no open biassness or injustice to an extent for the natives to have qualms or grieve about, to blame on the multi culture or the multi Religion, as the workforce represented a cross section of the community. The appointments were strictly on merit. An Education being a prerequisite to hold office, where education earlier was made available only to those who converted to Christianity, was later made available to all and sundry. It is at this juncture, the British still governing this country, Education was made available free, even to the poor Sinhalese Buddhists to come up the social ladder to become the new elite of this society. The products of such generocity of the British and the open policy they practised, rather than being accused of deviding and ruling, resulted in the creation of the Malalasekaras, Iriyagolles, Kularatnes becoming the new elite of this society and before that they were nonentities or for that matter all the Prfessionals and Academics who achieved status, their ancesstry were all vassals in a Fuedal System. Therefore todays Academics and Professionals should be thankful to the British for making them sombody in this society. Thus, to accuse the British of deviding and ruling this country has no valid basis.

        It is the non vissionery Sinhala Leadership of Sevala Banda, Phillip Gunawardene and the new born Patriots who started to make the false allegation against the British, that they devided and ruled this country because the Govt. work force had an out of propotion of Tamils holding office. This came about mainly due to the fact that the Tamils took to Education more seriously than the Sinhales as they had the necessary educational qualifications to hold office, while the Sinhalese were generally lazy and content with the style they led as peasants engaged in agriculture. When power was transfered to the Natives after Independence seeing the newly acquired life styles of the rest of the community, the Sinhalese became jealous and believed that the British had been unfair having helped only the Tamils and the Western Educated only. To make matters worse the Politicians of the day espoused vernacular education, even sideling the Sinhalese who were Western Educated as non welcome along with the rest the Burghers, Tamils, Muslims and Malays. It was then that the Sinhalese saw an opportunity to become somebody in society, and the likes of Mervyn Silva type from mere shop assistants, office clerks, lawyers clerks, peons, bus drivers, hiring car drivers, have become the new elite in this society, holding positions as Ministers, Corporation Chairmans, Directors of Boards etc. today. Therefore is it any wonder that this society is still lagging behind with this type of character at the helm of affairs and a President of equal calibre. Therefore to accuse the British to have devided and rule this country is stretching one’s imagination a little too far.

        The truth about deviding the contry

        • 4

          ‘the British……educated and trained a required workforce, from the inhabitants of the country, consisting of all Ethnic Groups….The system had no open biassness or injustice to an extent for the natives to have qualms or grieve about, to blame on the multi culture or the multi Religion…..Education was made available free, even to the poor Sinhalese Buddhists to come up the social ladder to become the new elite….while the Sinhalese were generally lazy and content with the style they led as peasants engaged in agriculture’

          Your utter ignorance of the history of your country is staggering.

    • 11

      The removal of Taraki from our midst – like those of Rajini Thiranagama, Neelan Tiruchelvam, Lasantha W and dozens of others – are signs of how sick, violent and intolerant our society has become in the background of the self-inflicted and pyrrhic “War” that has made us near paupers. That todate who killed Taraki and why remains a mystery. How can we call ourselves a free society if the Police, judicial system and governance have all fallen by the wayside. The Status Quo has by no means changed except, arguably, to say it has become substantially worse now with many State actors and their proxies playing the role of assassins. The fair name of the country – both within and outside – has never been this low.

      R. Varathan

      • 4

        Taraki can never ever be clubbed with Neelam T, Rajini and Lasantha. A good attempt to hide a wolf in a sheep’s skin. Taraki is the unofficial LTTE journo in SL in english language who even justified suicide terrorism

  • 9

    What was Rajapakse’s reasons for the Tamil holocaust killing 100,000 Tamils in a few months? Using chemical weapons, cluster bombs and phosphorous bombs? I guess win at any cost and destroy all evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity without getting caught?

    Even Hitler thought the same way..

    Hitler did not win as he did not have the nuclear bomb or use chemical weapons as Rajapakse.

    Sinhalese have to always remember, breaking all rules to win the war, does not have a good or happy ending. Even the Jews could not be totally eliminated despite them being scattered all over the world for 2,500 years, and hardly anyone was in Palestine. But they came back and grabbed their land and more, and established a new country- Israel in 1948, the same time Ceylon got it’s independence. Palestine as a nation was eliminated, and since then there has been wars and oil prices from 1 dollar PB is $111 per barrel causing economic turmoil.

    In 3 years after the end of the war, Sri Lanka is losing friends around the world, no good will, and the economy is going down hill, begging for $2.6 Billion dollars from the IMF. Just bogus investments and development, other than Hambantota Port – $3 Billion, Hambantota Air port $1 Billion, Sports Stadium $0.5 Billion, Roads/railways in Hambantota another $1 Billion dollars. Total= $5.5 Billion dollars.

    Rest of the country starved of real investment by it’s own government, except the MOD has already spent $6 Billion dollars in 3 years.

    It is not Mahinda Chintana but Mahinda Madness!!!!!!

  • 1

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  • 11

    Sivaram was killed by the same forces which killed thousands of Sinhalese in two insurrections,and tamils in batches since 1956, and in larger numbers from around 2006 until the final massacre in 2009.
    These forces are entombed in minds of men who desire power over fellow men at any cost along with wealth.
    Even now,these men with their slavish supporters have settled themselves in total control of all citizens who dare not protest.
    State Terrorism which budded around 2005 killing Sivaram,has now fully bloomed and spread its tentacles into all citizenry.

  • 5

    An interesting insight into Zionism.Ex-MOSSAD agent VICTOR OSTROVSKY in his book,By Way of Deception wrote that Mossad trained
    Srilankan troops,Tamil TIGERS and Indian security forces- All at the same time at different locations.
    The Israelis tried hard to get the book banned,but failed.

  • 5

    I have to agree Tamilnet has contributed extensively to comedy in the 21st century . For the longest time they even forgot that the sun god had joined the angels :)



  • 8

    Sivaram’s murder happened while CBK was still President, so she should be asked to explain it. After all, when Vijaya was alive, he had been to her home (not sure if this was in the process of getting a safehouse for himself or providing a safe house to Dayan Jayatilleka). Whitaker of course gives his perspective as Sivaram’s friend, but it is kind of incomplete.

    Though Sivaram had prodigious talent and was well-read, he had his many flaws and was sometimes wrong on critical issues.

    Back in the early 2000’s I met him right after he had been invited to Washington DC by Teresita Schaffer.
    I told him I was skeptical about the claims among my fellow Tamils as well as by Sivaram himself, that the LTTE was a fully capable conventional force, as they didn’t have any air power and not even enough artillery. I told him the GoSL could take the LTTE by surprise in the Vanni if they committed enough forces and were prepared to accept high casualties. He pooh-poohed it. We all know how it turned out in the end.

    He carried himself as a well-known ‘military analyst’ and wasn’t prepared to accept contrary views from those of us in science and engineering who didn’t have a public record of writings, but nonetheless read widely and had exposure to SL politics from childhood. His friendship with Whitaker and his exposure to some academics in anthropology had given him a bloated sense of himself in the academic realm; but South Carolina, Ankem, is relatively unknown in US academics, even in the arts. In fact, at that time, I hadn’t even known that such a university existed.

    Moreover, he carried a lot of secrets and was somewhat disingenuous. For instance, he was a major figure in both political and military wings of the PLOTE, as Whitaker confirms above. But when I asked about the internal killings within PLOTE—such as that of the early militant Santhathiyar whom I had met at a TULF election meeting when I was a child–he would say he didn’t know. But of course he knew it all.

    And when I pointed out to him about his earlier anti-LTTE writings being in conflict with his then pro-LTTE writings, he would simply shrug.

    To me, the fact that most of his close friends (some of them drinking buddies)—DJ, Rajpal Abeynayake, Chandraprema—would all turn out to be pathetic Rajapaksa sycophants with deep character flaws, is evidence enough of Sivaram’s own character flaws. The reason I care is that had Sivaram and many others maintained their independence from the LTTE, and rationally counseled Tamil society at large about the LTTE’s deep flaws and even military weaknesses, the tragedy of Tamil ‘holocaust’ in the Vanni might well have been avoided, though given VP’s deep psychological problems, we could never be certain. But what we saw instead was drunken self-regard, and in Whitaker’s words, pleasure in ‘baiting’ others.

    • 1

      It should read South Carolina, Aiken, not Ankem.

    • 1

      Agnos — say Sivaram had indeed “maintained his independence and rationally counseled LTTE and Tamil society”, what could have gone differently and when?

      • 4


        Sivaram could have given a more realistic picture in his writings. His writings gave many people, especially Tamils, a false sense of the LTTE’s strengths (also of Tamil strengths). Maybe he took upon himself the task — or was asked to do so– of creating the ‘invincible LTTE’ psychology, but the real weaknesses of the LTTE were all too clear for rational people to see.

        And along with the LTTE, he failed to read the post-9/11 international climate correctly. After the ceasefire, he was one of those who maintained that the LTTE should stick to the goal of a separate state; but the rationale for any ceasefire and peace talks is to see how parties can compromise. He could have explained that realism demanded that the LTTE come to an agreement while the Co-chairs were involved, and CBK/Ranil were still in power, because it was clear if the LTTE stuck to its guns, the international community would support the GoSL against the LTTE.

        When one sits down against an opponent to negotiate, he needs to have a sense of how far his opponent can go. The goal should be on getting to ‘Yes’ in a way that is optimal under constraints. The old tactic of declaring ceasefire when one is weak, and then pulling a surprise attack, had been played too often; the GoSL and the international community had enough intelligence to see that, and weren’t going to be played again. The ISGA was maximalist, which no Sinhalese leader who wanted to be elected to power could realistically have agreed on. Why didn’t Sivaram talk about these realities? He was someone who used the ‘writing on the wall’ phrase often, but he failed to write about the ‘writing on the wall’ for the LTTE. He was too smart not to know it. But he had come to play a role for the LTTE akin to what DJ has been playing for the Rajapaksa regime, so he had lost his balance and objectivity.

        None of this justifies the war crimes by the Rajapaksa regime. I am every bit as committed as anyone else to see justice is done for war crimes.
        But the Tamil community needs to re-examine the past, and talking openly about Sivaram’s flaws, rather than repeating how smart and talented he was, etc., is part of that process.

        • 1

          Agnos — fully agree!
          I wish you would write a full length article in CT.

      • 5


        To add to my second post– I have always maintained that the LTTE’s real strength was not its conventional fighting capacity, which it didn’t really have, but the stealth and surprise of its guerrilla attacks, and its seemingly inexhaustible supply of cadres willing to commit suicide. Such suicide attacks acted as a force multiplier, and benefited the LTTE in earlier years. But 9/11 had made suicide bombings unacceptable for the world; such things happening even in a tiny corner of the world would act as an example to other groups elsewhere, so the West was increasingly engaged on this issue; but the LTTE leadership acted as if nothing had changed. Sivaram should have seen it for what it was.

        • 1


          Your above two comments are absolutely correct. Thanks. Taraki was too biased to be objective despite his width of knowledge and excellent writing skills.

          Does anyone know about his murder case. I remember a few PLOTE cadres were arrested. 3why is this case not being resurrected?


  • 3

    “…had Sivaram and many others maintained their independence from the LTTE, and rationally counseled Tamil society at large about the LTTE’s deep flaws and even military weaknesses, the tragedy of Tamil ‘holocaust’ in the Vanni might well have been avoided, though given VP’s deep psychological problems, we could never be certain. But what we saw instead was drunken self-regard, and in Whitaker’s words, pleasure in ‘baiting’ others.”

    Beautifully put, Agnos!

  • 1

    Whitaker has taken a good shot attempting to capture Sivaram but I suspect he was too large a man with too many facets and too many secrets to his personality – he could on the same evening be the savant and boor. Perhaps the savant in him sought out the likes of the Tissanaiyagam whilst the boor sought out Abeynaike. There is room enough to criticize the efficacy of his moral gyroscope particularly with regard to the PLOTE fratricide. But the breath of his knowledge was always astounding – at a time before the internet and wikipedia he would in a night talk of strategy and military theory from Alexander to Liddel-Hart or with equal assurance rant about the Greek theft of Egyptian philosophy or ruminate on Indian erotica. The baffling question was where had he the time to gather all that knowledge.
    He was probably justified in his assessment of LTTE military superiority at the time since this was before the tsunami, the Chinese air support, the western blockade of funds or the naval blockade of supplies and before the SLA grew by 70% in the three years after his death. He undoubtedly realized the paradigm shift of 9/11 whether he was able to influence change in Tamil militancy as a result is a moot point.

  • 3

    The best kind of terrorist Is a dead one



  • 1

    I don’t know much about Sivaram. I don’t know about his personality flaws or disingenuous writings. What I know is he was killed prior to MR and his brothers coming to power – during the time of Chandrika. I don’t know much about Chandrika but know that she stole the money meant for the Tsunami destitute just like MR did.

    But what I know is that killing a journalist, no matter which way he rubs your nose is not the way to go. It is a case of cutting the nose to spite the face.

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