Feature Article

Sivaram Dharmeratnam: A Journalist’s life

[TamilNet, Friday, 29 April 2005, 21:11 GMT]
Mark Whitaker, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of South Carolina, Aiken, U.S.A, is completing an intellectual biography of Dharmeratnam Sivaram’s life and work in a book entitled “Learning Politics from Sivaram.” Prof. Whitaker summarizes Sivaram’s life and work in this feature.

Sivaram Dharmeratnam, the well-known and controversial political analyst and a senior editor for Tamilnet.com, was born on August 11, 1959 in Batticaloa, Sri Lanka to Puvirajkirtha Dharmeratnam and Mahesvariammal. His was a prominent family with significant land holdings near Akkaraipattu, though his immediate family later lost much of their inherited wealth. Nicknamed “Kunchie” as a child, Sivaram was educated at St. Michael’s College in Batticaloa, and later at Pembroke and Aquinas Colleges in Colombo. He was accepted into the University of Peradeniya in 1982 but soon dropped out due to tensions associated with the first phases of Sri Lanka’s civil war.

In 1982 Sivaram joined the Ghandian Movement, then a front organization for the People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE). After Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict erupted into civil war in 1983, Sivaram, under the alias “SR”, soon became a prominent PLOTE militant. Sivaram’s role in PLOTE was unique because he played an important part in both the organization’s military and political wings at a time when PLOTE kept those functions, to its eventual misfortune, completely separate from one another. In 1988, a year after the Indo-Lankan accords were signed, Uma Maheswaran, PLOTE’s leader, appointed Sivaram General Secretary of the Democratic People’s Liberation Front (DPLF), the organization’s registered political party. Sivaram left PLOTE in 1989, however, after arguing against Maheswaran’s attempts to establish firmer relations with the JVP and due to his distaste for the group’s involvement in an abortive coup in the Maldives.

On September 8, 1988 Sivaram married Herly Yogaranjini Poopalapillai of Batticaloa. They eventually had three children: Vaishnavi (16), Vaitheki (13), and Seralaathan (10).

In 1988 while still General Secretary of the DPLF, Sivaram met the newscaster, journalist and actor Richard De Zoysa. De Zoysa, impressed by Sivaram’s ability to produce off-the-cuff political analysis, asked him to write articles for the UN-funded Inter Press Service (IPS), for whom De Zoysa was a correspondent. In 1989, when The Island newspaper found itself in need of a Tamil political analyst, De Zoysa suggested Sivaram. The Island editor, Gamini Weerakon, proposed tharaka (or ‘star’) as Sivaram’s pen name but a sub-editor accidentally printed “Taraki” instead, giving birth to Sivaram’s famous nom de plume. Sivaram’s Taraki articles were an immediate success. They combined a dispassionately, ironic style with accurate, inside information, and took care to explain in crystal clear prose the military, political, strategic and tactical assumptions of all sides in Sri Lanka’s complex conflict. Moreover, Sivaram’s wide reading in military science and political philosophy (especially in Marxism and post-structuralism) allowed him to bring intellectual tools to his articles that soon made them more powerful than mere punditry.

Dharmeratnam Sivaram (Photo: BBC)
(Photo: BBC)
In 1990 Sivaram helped identify Richard De Zoysa’s body after De Zoysa was abducted from his home and killed.

By the early 1990s Sivaram’s Taraki column had become a ‘must read’ for anyone interested in Sri Lanka. In 1991 fans of his writing among the Tamil community in France published a collection of his work entitled The Eluding Peace (An Insider’s analysis of the Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka). As a free-lance journalist, Sivaram, eventually wrote for many newspapers including The Island, The Sunday Times, The Tamil Times (London), The Daily Mirror, and Veerakesari. In 1997 Sivaram helped Tamilnet.com reorganize itself into a Tamil news agency with its own string of reporters, and remained a senior editor there until his death. He filed his last story for Tamilnet.com at 7:30 PM on the night he was murdered.

Sivaram’s work was not limited to journalism. Sivaram’s grasp of Tamil politics and literature and Sri Lanka’s complex history made him a magnate for scholars. Hence, Sivaram collaborated and argued with historians, political scientists, anthropologists, policy experts, and geographers from many of Sri Lanka’s universities and think tanks, as well as with foreign and foreign-based scholars from (among other schools around the world) the University of Colorado, the University of South Carolina, and Clark University. As recently as April 2005, Sivaram provided a purely scholarly introduction to the Mattakkalappu Poorva Sariththiram (Ancient History of Batticaloa), a recently released definitive edition of an ancient Batticaloa palm leaf manuscript.

Beyond this, in the mid-1990’s many governments and Human Right’s NGOs turned to Sivaram for advice on political and military matters. He soon became widely traveled in Europe, Asia, and North America and equally well known to governments, the diplomatic community, and human rights activists. Indeed, his death arrived just ahead of a scheduled trip to Japan to consult with the Japanese government.

As opposition to his reporting mounted, and as death threats began to multiply, friends and colleagues from around the world frequently begged Sivaram to move himself and his family out of Sri Lanka. He always vehemently refused to leave. “Where else should I die but here?” he often declared. Yet in 2004 the police twice searched Sivaram’s home, and various groups in Sri Lanka publicly threatened him. Given the uncompromising nature of his reporting, his death by violence was no surprise.

“He will be an irreplaceable loss to the academic and human rights community around the world,” said Dr. Jude Fernando, of Clark University, a sentiment echoed by many.

I should add a personal note here. I am an associate professor of anthropology at the University of South Carolina, Aiken. I first got to know Sivaram in 1982 while I was conducting cultural anthropological research in Batticaloa. We became friends because we discovered a common interest in philosophy, and because we also shared some horrors during the 1983 riots. My own work in Sri Lanka initially focused on Batticaloa’s local politics and religion, as can be seen in my 1999 book Amiable Incoherence: Manipulating Histories and Modernities in a Batticaloa Hindu Temple. But as the conflict in Sri Lanka grew more complicated and intense, and as Sivaram’s role as its primary chronicler and analyst loomed ever larger, I felt it my duty to try, in some way, to record his thoughts and efforts – especially since I grew worried over the safety of his life almost since I first met him. In 1997, therefore, we decided to collaborate on an intellectual biography of his life and work. It should, we agreed, be entitled Learning Politics from Sivaram; and he insisted also that the book be as uncompromising as he was. I hope to have this biography completed shortly; I only hope as a memorial it can even partly do him justice. I shall mourn for him, my lost best friend, for the rest of my life. I ask all of you who knew him well, friend or foe – for he would talk with anyone – to raise a glass and toast him. And may those that killed him look on in shame.

External Links:
theacademic: The Slaying of Sivaram



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