I had arrived in Sri Lanka in 1987 to help set up the regional bureau of the news agency, Inter Press Service. The favourite watering hole for my colleague Richard de Zoysa and me was Beach Wadia, which had not yet become the fashionably gentrified seafood restaurant for Colombo’s chic category that it is today.
One evening in May 1988, Richard brought along his friend Sivaraman Dharmeratnam and we sat on the sand gazing out at the Arabian Sea waves crashing on an offshore shipwreck and talking about the Tamil liberation struggle. I was taking tennis lessons then, and was trying to buy a good racket. Siva sad he had a pair he could sell. The very next day, I bought two Slazengers from Siva for 50 dollars. We joked, wondering if Siva had passed the money on for the purchase of a six pack of 71mm mortar rounds.
Siva was taken from his home on the night of 28 May this year and killed soon after, his body found near the Sri Lankan Parliament outside Colombo. My old dog-eared Colombo address book is full of names of people who are now dead. Siva was just the latest. Richard himself was killed by a suspected anti-JVP death squad in 1989.
Sivaram, 46, was a Sri Lankan Tamil who was different from other militant contemporaries still alive today. For one thing, he came from a family of landed gentry. His grandfather was a member of the State Council from Batticaloa during British times. Siva dropped out of university in Kandy in 1982. After being rescued by a Sinhalese friend during the anti-Tamil pogroms of 1983, he joined the People’s Liberation Organiation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), one of the numerous militant groups fighting for Tamil independence. Siva was the Marxist conscience in PLOTE, but eventually fell out with its leader Uma Maheswaran over the group’s involvement in an anti-Gayoom coup in the Maldives in 1988.
What most friends in Colombo admired about Siva was his sharp intellect, his passion for bringing about social and political change and, despite his Tamil nationalism which he wore on his sleeve, a commitment to peace and justice in the island he cherished. “He was accessible and accommodative,” says ex-JVP activist Sunanda Deshapriya. “He could sit down and have a drink even with a Sinhala extremist.”
It was his friendship with Richard de Zoysa that got Siva interested in journalism and, briefly, he wrote analytical pieces for Inter Press Service and a popular column in The Island under the pseudonym, Taraki. In recent years, Siva was the moving force behind TamilNet, the Tamil news portal that was considered by many to be sympathetic to the Tigers. Siva had himself often been critical of the Tigers, but saw them as the only credible bulwark against the chauvinist-influenced mainstream politics in Colombo.
“He was of that fine generation of Tamil youth that refused to shirk its responsibilities,” recalls another contemporary, journalist Qadri Ismail. “He was by any standard, brilliant.” Dayan Jayatilleke, another maverick Sri Lankan politician and writer wrote in an obituary: “No unarmed man deserves to be killed. Those who do (so kill) are cowards. Sivaram was unarmed and therefore whoever killed Sivaram…was a coward.”
Shedding of blood
Extremists are threatened more by the freedom of those who stand for non-violence and reconciliation than enemies with whom they share the belief in resolving conflict through the shedding of blood. As in other countries in conflict, this makes it difficult to identify the true assassin because the fanatics can always blame each other. Siva had made many enemies with his militant past, his politics and his writings. Chauvinists and ultra-nationalists of all types hated him equally. Who killed Siva? Was it the Tigers’ splinter group in the east led by Karuna? Was it the JVP? Was it the ultra-nationalists in the military retaliating for the Tiger’s killings of its intelligence officers? Was it the Tigers?
Siva wrote the following lines a few days before he was killed: “Sri Lanka forces’ excesses in the east in the name of Karuna gang are on the rise. People of the north and east remain without economic growth or jobs. Scars of the war remain. Thousands of people who have lost their homes, land and whole villages to the Sri Lanka armed forces still live in desperation. The neglect of Tamil language continues. Many ills likes this can be listed. The Tsunami has caused great damage in addition to these difficulties. But there is no solution in sight for any of these. These, however, haven’t created much political disquiet amongst our people. They have not protested in anger that solutions have not been forthcoming. They have the fervour for liberation yet it is not to the extent that they will mass together for political reasons.”
Back in Kathmandu I looked for the old Slazengers that Siva sold me 17 years ago. Only one of them remains, the handle are frayed and the strings tattered.