Sri Lankan Protest Demands New Probe of Journalist’s Killing

 in ‘The Washington Post,’ April 29, 2016

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Hundreds of journalists and media rights activists protested on Friday to demand Sri Lanka’s new government start a fresh investigation into the abduction and killing of a prominent ethnic Tamil journalist 11 years ago, during the country’s civil war.Those demonstrating in front of Colombo’s main railroad station said Dharmeratnam Sivaram was targeted because of uncompromising coverage of political and military matters.Media rights activist Lasantha Ruhunage said even 11 years after, the law enforcement authorities have failed to find the killers and “therefore they should start a fresh investigation and bring the culprits before law.”Sivaram was found dead on April 29, 2005, in the capital, Colombo, after being abducted the previous evening.The 30-year civil war ended in 2009 after government troops defeated the Tamil Tiger rebels, who fought to create a separate state for minority Tamils. Scores of journalists and media workers were killed during the war, and several dozen journalists fled the country.The government has promised to implement a compensation plan for 44 journalists and other media workers killed under the former government, but Ruhunage said “more than compensation, the attacks on journalists, media workers and media institutions should be properly investigated and those responsible for the attacks should be punished, in order to ensure justice to the media community.”The new government that came into power last year promised to ensure media freedom and to investigate attacks on media under the previous government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who lost last year’s presidential election. While Rajapaksa was in power, a prominent opposition newspaper editor and scores of journalists were killed and some others were assaulted while some private TV stations were attacked.

The Washington Post’s original article on Sivaram’s killing

Prof. Mark Whitaker’s biography of Sivaram

Film made after Sivaram’s killing, ‘Media under threat in Sri Lanka’:


Learning Politics from Sivaram: The Life and Death of a Revolutionary Tamil Journalist in Sri Lanka. By MARK P. WHITAKER. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Pluto Press, 2006. xiv, 251 pp. $90.00 (cloth); $28.95 (paper). doi: 10.1017/S0021911807001830

Review by MICHELE RUTH GAMBURD Portland State University, ‘PDXScholar,’ 2007

The book is a must-read for scholars interested rebellions, revolutions, and power struggles. Mark P. Whitaker’s evocative prose captures the urgent and unsettled nature of life in eastern Sri Lanka over the course of the nation’s ethnic conflict.

Sivaram Dharmeratnam was a militant, a journalist, and a strategic analyst. Unlike many Tamil commentators on Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict, Sivaram lived and worked in Sri Lanka. Knowing the danger, he repeatedly refused to leave the country. “How can you scream from the outside?” (p. 94) Sivaram asked rhetorically, spurning the life of the detached academic. Whitaker asserts that Sivaram strove to create and disseminate knowledge about the nature of political oppression and resistance, working to better the lot of the disenfranchised and disempowered. As his fame grew, Sivaram traveled widely, consulting with foreign governments, military strategists, think tanks, nongovernmental organizations, and activist groups. Though never elected to office, Sivaram was committed to political action. He worked to build alliances between Sinhala and Tamil leftists and to mend relations between factions of the Tamil insurgency. Sivaram pursued his political project until he was assassinated in April 2005.

Foremost, the book is an intellectual biography. Sivaram was a complex man with a deep range of scholarly interests. Whitaker and Sivaram started talking about philosophy in 1982 and continued the discussion for the next two decades. This biography records their rich debates and their deep friendship, both cut short by the conflict that encompasses the book. Whitaker argues that anthropologists usually write life histories, wherein scholarly projects prevail over the subjects’ interests, which the writers translate and interpret for the readers. Biographers, in contrast, often take a back seat to their subjects. Stretching the boundaries of life history and autobiography, this subject-led biography was written in consultation, and two strong voices emerge from the narrative: the self-assured Sivaram and the humble but incisive author.

This review focuses on three themes in the book, one being journalism. A world-renowned journalist, Sivaram wrote as the columnist Taraki (influential in the English-speaking Sinhala south) and in the last eight years of his life served as a senior editor for the online independent news agency TamilNet (which presents accurate, timely, subversive, firsthand English reporting from the north and east of Sri Lanka). His opinions were widely respected by the Tamil diaspora and by international news agencies covering the conflict in Sri Lanka. Sivaram saw the level of risk involved in writing articles and editing TamilNet as indicative of the influence and importance of his work.

Counterinsurgency tactics and methods for resisting them form a second theme in the book. Speaking about Sri Lanka specifically and state practices more generally, Sivaram analyzed how states suppress dissent and pacify and contain rebellions. He identified overlapping political and military strategies, including propaganda, divide-and-rule tactics, checkpoints, disappearances, torture, and massacres. Having created an atmosphere of terror and caused the collapse of the social fabric, counterinsurgency governments can then take moderate positions and engage in confidence-building measures without making any fundamental changes to the structure of the state. A war-weary population might willingly accept any measure that stops the conflict. Sivaram formulated “a cookbook” (p. 118) for resisting and challenging counterinsurgency tactics, for example, suggesting that counter-counterinsurgents can create autonomous zones of control and engage in countermedia (such as TamilNet). Sivaram did not wholeheartedly approve of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam but viewed them as the “only game in town” (pp. 129–132) for waging a rebellion and achieving military parity with the Sri Lankan state.

Nationalism forms a third theme of the book. Sivaram argued that many scholars fundamentally misunderstand the importance of violence in the analysis of nationalism. Sivaram viewed ethnicity and nationalism as the basis for nation building, not as “epiphenomenal byproducts of modern nation-states” (p. 172). Ruling elites are not multicultural but support their ethnic group. Premodern states used to have multitiered forms of governing, with local elites governing members of regional cultures. Modern states have replaced this inefficient intermediate tier, using ethnonationalism to govern instead (p. 168). But centralization and homogenization inevitably draw attention to cultural and linguistic differences between national elites and those they govern, and local elites rebel. International dynamics normalize some elite-led states and brand others as illegitimate.

Whitaker’s finely crafted book relates the evolution of Sri Lanka’s civil conflict through the story of one of its main commentators. It will interest anyone who is engaged in studying, perpetrating, or resisting counterinsurgency strategies. It is also of critical use to students of nationalism and to anthropologists who are interested in cutting-edge experimental ethnography. Finally, it offers a touching tribute to Sivaram, a dynamic intellectual respected and mourned the world over. MICHELE RUTH GAMBURD Portland State University

The Return of the White Van

by Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice, London, April 28, 2016

White vanThe Tamil Guardian today reported two “white van abductions”; incidents in which unidentified persons driving a “Dolphin” van snatched individuals off the streets. This follows three similar incidents in recent weeks: former LTTE commander, Kanathippillai Sivamoorthy (also known as Nagulan), was reportedly abducted in Jaffna on 26th April; former LTTE commander, Ram, was reported as abducted in the Eastern province on 24th April; and a Tamil man was reportedly abducted by a white van from his home in Jaffna on 10th April.

The three previously reported abductees all turned up in detention having been remanded by Sri Lanka’s Terrorist Investigation Department (TID). It remains to be seen whether the two latest abductees have also been arrested in such an unorthodox manner.

These arrests seem to be connected to the discovery of explosives in the Jaffna suburb of Chavakachcheri. Eleven people have so far been arrested (through conventional means) including S Sivakaran, the leader of the youth wing of ITAK, the largest political party within the Tamil National Alliance (TNA).

The “white van” occupies a particular place in the Sri Lankan psyche. It was the method of choice for gangs linked to the military to snatch human rights defenders and political adversaries off the streets. Most victims disappeared forever, although some were detained and tortured before being released. To this day Sri Lanka ranks second in the world for enforced disappearances according to the UN working group on the subject, and was joint first for new cases in 2015.

If, as these latest reports suggest, the Sri Lankan Police are once again using abductions as a means of arrest then this raises serious concerns regarding due process and arbitrary detention. But even more importantly it does phenomenal damage to chances for reconciliation in Sri Lanka – raising, as it does, the memory of state terror and further destroying trust in the government. Indeed it is hard to think of any reason for the TID to behave in this way unless it is to perpetuate the climate of fear that still grips northern and eastern Sri Lanka.

Given the manner in which Sri Lanka’s civil war ended it is inevitable that weapons and explosives will turn up from time to time in war affected areas. This is to be expected in the aftermath of any lengthy civil war. If, on each occasion, the Sri Lankan security sector’s response is this disproportionate, and this reminiscent of the era of unbridled state terror, then it will be impossible for a sense of normality to return to these troubled regions.