The end of a dissenter

Print edition : June 03, 2005

Another journalist is abducted and killed in Sri Lanka, marking a continuation of the muffling of dissenting writers and opinion-makers.

V.S. SAMBANDAN in Colombo

A demonstration in Colombo on May 3, World Press Freedom Day, to protest the murder of Dharmeratnam Sivaram.-SENA VIDANAGAMA/AFP

ON April 28, one of Sri Lanka's widely read columnists, Dharmeratnam Sivaram (46), was abducted around 10-30 p.m. by an "unidentified gang" as he was leaving a restaurant-bar at Bambalapitiya in Colombo's main Galle Road. He was probably killed a couple of hours later. The next morning his body, with the mouth gagged and with bullet injuries on the head, was found dumped on the banks of a lake that encircles the Sri Lankan Parliament building.

Sivaram's companion for the evening, Kushal Perera, recalling the abduction drama, told Sri Lankan newspapers: "As we were walking, I was pushed aside and Sivaram was bundled into a vehicle. I gave up after a short chase." The abduction took place opposite a police station. Attempts during the night to trace the Tamil militant-turned journalist were futile. Sivaram is survived by his wife, two daughters and a son.

Ten days after the incident, a mysterious Sinhalese group, "Theraputthabhaya Balakaya", claimed responsibility for the killing. In a letter reproduced in Sri Lankan dailies, the group blamed Sivaram for "defacing and darkening the international face of Sri Lanka". Reviving memories of a frightful past, the letter, copies of which were also sent to non-governmental organisations, concluded on a threatening note: "All those who are doing harm to the motherland... should be ready to become manure to the motherland very soon."

The government condemned the "reprehensible and dastardly abduction and killing" and ordered a full-scale investigation. Even as police investigations are under way, a concern expressed widely is that the murder will merely be one more on the list of unsolved cases of journalists killed in the past decade.

A wide spectrum of journalists and political leaders has condemned the killing. Sivaram's murder varies significantly from three other killings of journalists between May 2004 and May 2005. The Free Media Movement, which led a memorial rally on World Press Freedom Day (May 3) to condemn the murder, said "the underlying causes of the murder of Sivaram are far more complex". Three of the four journalists were Tamils - A. Nadesan, a provincial correspondent in the eastern Batticaloa district of the Tamil newspaper Veerakesari; Bala Nadaraja Iyer of the newspaper Thinamurasu; and Sivaram, who also hailed from Batticaloa. Lal Jeyasundara, a photographer, died in a grenade explosion at a music show featuring Shah Rukh Khan. Investigation has made no headway in any of these cases.

The FMM said the deaths of two Tamil journalists "can be linked to the factional war in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam [LTTE]. Nadesan was killed by the faction led by [`Col'] Karuna [the LTTE's former special commander for the eastern Batticaloa-Amparai district] and Bala Nadaraja Iyer was killed by the LTTE". These killings "affirm that both the LTTE and its Karuna faction do not respect the freedom of expression and [they] mete out severe punishment to dissenting voices", it said.

Sivaram's writing as a dissenter had a common character - an overarching advocacy of Tamil nationalism.

The body of Sivaram, when it was found near the Sri Lankan Parliament building in Colombo.-AFP

In the early days of Tamil militancy, Sivaram dropped out from the Peradeniya University, a premier institution in the island-nation, to join the People's Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE). After training, he conducted political classes for PLOTE cadre. Sivaram was based in Trincomalee district. When the PLOTE joined the political mainstream after the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, Sivaram became the first general secretary of the Democratic People's Liberation Front (DPLF), the registered political party of PLOTE. He quit politics in 1990 to pursue a career in writing.

Starting as a defence and political columnist with The Island newspaper, whose Editor gave him his nom de plume Taraki, he moved on to write for other English newspapers. At the time of his abduction and murder, Sivaram was a columnist with the English language newspaper Daily Mirror and also Veerakesari.

In the mid-1990s, he was involved in reviving a nearly defunct web site, TamilNet, as a portal for news on Tamil affairs. "We wanted it to bring out a Tamil nationalistic point of view. He was the backbone of this portal. In the early 2000s, with the formation of the LTTE-backed Tamil National Alliance (TNA) the web site shifted towards an LTTE point of view," an initial supporter of the portal said. More recently, Sivaram was keen that the web site presented balanced reportage.

His associates recall that while writing became the main focus of his post-militant days, Sivaram remained a Tamil nationalist, as a result of which he continued in a form of political activism. His role in the formation of the TNA is cited as a case in point. While Sivaram laced his columns with insights from his long involvement with Tamil nationalism, his critics see him as a "politician with a journalist's hue".

"He was more of a Tamil nationalist than an LTTE supporter. In the beginning of his writing career, he never supported any particular party line but reflected Tamil nationalism laced with eastern pride," one of them said.

On a broader level, Sivaram's killing exposes the vulnerability of writers and opinion-makers in Sri Lanka in the context of the protracted ethnic conflict. "They are caught in the crossfire; there is no neutral journalism possible. Even if someone wants to be neutral, it will not be tolerated. It has become a high-risk profession," a political observer said.

Although there is no indication so far about the motives behind the murder, a defence analyst said that with his past association with PLOTE and his subsequent commentaries as a journalist, Sivaram "could have made enemies all over".

Condemning the killing, PLOTE leader D. Sithadthan said: "Sivaram was one of the intellectuals among Tamils who knew the history and the struggle well." Calling for an end to such killings, he said: "Tamils killing Tamils must be stopped if we really want the liberation of the Tamil people."

Calling it "a crime and a stupidity", Dayan Jayatilleka, political scientist, said in a web column: "Sivaram challenged us with his writing. He was an uppity Tamil: confident, aware of Sinhala society and political trends, knowledgeable of international affairs. He held up a mirror before us. He was the `Other' in our midst. Now that he is dead, this is a lonelier place."

The LTTE blamed the paramilitary groups for the killing and awarded Sivaram a posthumous "Maamanithar" award. His body was taken briefly to rebel-held Batticaloa where the LTTE cadre and second-level leaders paid their last respects before he was buried in government-controlled Batticaloa.

The most complex part of the Sivaram episode will be in unravelling it. Unlike other killings where either the modus operandi was evident or there was a clear motive, in Sivaram's case everybody is blaming everybody else, a former militant said.

Pointing out the positions taken by Sivaram, which were underlined by a consistent endorsement of Tamil nationalism, he said: "Siva was unarmed. He had a particular position. Once a particular position is taken by a person, even if he is saved from one side the person will not be safe from another adversary."

While fears of further erosion of confidence in the state mechanism if it failed to bring the perpetrators of the murder to book were palpable, protesters at a rally organised by the FMM on May 3 were unanimous in crying a halt to such killings. "Never Again", was the theme of the protest. Journalists who participated in the rally said Sivaram had brought "diversity and dynamism" to the Sri Lankan media.

MORE significantly, Sivaram's killing revived memories in sections of Colombo's civil society of the unsolved murder of the journalist, actor, dramatist and newscaster Richard De Zoyza more than a decade ago for his alleged leanings towards the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which was then leading an insurgency. Very much an activist-journalist, De Zoyza was bundled into a van from his residence on the night of February 17 and his body was found washed ashore on a beach outside Colombo the next afternoon.

De Zoyza, in his role as a contributor for the Inter Press Services (IPS), was instrumental in exposing Sivaram to international journalism when he got him to write for the IPS.

As in the case of De Zoyza's murder, Sivaram's killing was also debated in Parliament. The collective shock that followed De Zoyza's killing triggered a dynamic that changed Sinhala polity, which was then marked by JVP insurgencies and state action to crush the rebellion. It resulted in pushing democratisation, human rights and acceptance of plural views back into the Sinhala political mainstream. Will Sivaram's death trigger a similar change in the bitterly divided Sri Lankan society?

Sivaram's murder marks a continuum of three decades of muffling of dissenting voices with a bullet or bomb.

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