Deconstructing the myth of Dharmeratnam Sivaram -Part II
Posted on April 26th, 2010

Ajit Randeniya

 What was remarkable about the Sivaram phenomenon was that the state media and the media consuming general public always suspected that there was more to “ƒ”¹…”Taraki’ than his “ƒ”¹…”commentary’ they came across in the morning newspaper.

 Raising such concerns by the state media in 2001 led to the New York based CIA front “ƒ”¹…”The Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) to write to President Chandrika Kumarantunga, “ƒ”¹…”condemning’ such accusations. The CPJ complained that the accusations were published without any “ƒ”¹…”substantive evidence’, seriously endangering Sivaram and his family.

 Such “ƒ”¹…”lack of evidence’ was also the basis of protestations made by reputed journalists not party to conspiracy, but were simply mourning the death of their friend and colleague. The late Ajith Samaranayake, the most gracious of the English language journalists in Sri Lanka who seemed to have been severely affected by Sivaram’s death, wrote in his “ƒ”¹…”Sunday Essay’ of 15 May 2005, titled ‘Taraki: The selective politics of an assassination’: “ƒ”¹…”One anonymous writer who had obviously read too much of John Le Carre even pictured him as the perfect spy prowling the corridors of power and lurking in the lush gardens of the Colombo diplomatic enclave in the service of the LTTE.’

 Rajpal Abeynayake, certainly not the type in whose mouth butter wouldn’t melt, wrote in Sunday Times of 7 Aug 2005: “ƒ”¹…”The general line of argument among those who saw something evil in lamenting Siva’s assassination was that he was a Tiger propagandist, who would have therefore also been a LTTE intelligence operative in Colombo. About the latter surmise, there isn’t a shred of evidence. The fact is that even if he was the LTTE’s chief spy in Colombo, we don’t know it — and it’s a rare kind of species that seeks to attack a dead man for what’s not known about him. ‘

 There are two issues relating to this expectation of “ƒ”¹…”evidence’ to prove spying and the existence of conspiracies in general: firstly, the challenge to “ƒ”¹…”prove it’ is also the retort of those who are behind such plots generally; they are confident that most accusers would have nothing more than their instinct to go by, because they are masters of this evil business. Secondly, the particular “ƒ”¹…”type’ of evidence the doubters are asking for is the “ƒ”¹…”smoking gun’; such expectation arises from their understandable lack of familiarity with the spy business.

 The reader may be assisted at this point by gaining a brief exposure to the dirty business of espionage: the primary objective of the practice of spying is to obtain information about the plans and activities of a rival, or any adversary, using one or several different “ƒ”¹…”intelligence collection techniques’. Human sources are just one such technique and others include research in open sources, and technological methods.

 Espionage refers to intelligence collection through human sources to access desired information by stealth, or by gaining access to the people who possess the information. This human source is referred to as a spy, or an “ƒ”¹…”asset’, as the CIA calls them. Spies who are deployed to develop contacts with those who have access to information are referred to as Access Agents.

 A domestic servant at an important person’s residence (as President Premadasa and Sarath Fonseka found out) or a plumber or a taxi driver could be deployed as an access agent. The CIA uses university academics in relevant fields, economists, political scientists and anthropologists in particular, to develop contacts with important bureaucrats in foreign governments and political players such as Prabhakaran.

 Analysis of all the available information points to Sivaram’s role being that of an access agent, first cultivated since 1982, by a group of American anthropologists led by Drs Mark Whitaker and Dennis McGilvray for their own purposes.

 It needs to be noted that anthropology is a discipline that grew out of colonialism, in the 15th century, from the observations of human behavior the first European colonisations made e. Marco Polo’s accounts of the peoples he came across during his travels earned him the name “the father of modern anthropology”. Cultural or social anthropology is the study of cultural determinants such as myth, symbols, values language kinship, economic, political and social organisation, law and conflict resolution using ethnography, involving participant-observation.

 Anthropologists are some of the most highly sought after people by the US armed forces and the CIA. The specialised knowledge of “ƒ”¹…”other’ peoples and cultures make them valuable assets in war. They are called upon to decode and translate social reactions of “ƒ”¹…”natives’ to the troops in order to weaken them mentally as well as to help win “ƒ”¹…”hearts and minds’ by “ƒ”¹…”pushing the right buttons’. The ethics and politics of anthropologists in war zones have become a cause for concern.

 Mark P. Whitaker is a graduate in anthropology from the little known, private, Drew University, New Jersey and he spent nearly 18 months in Batticaloa in 1981-82, doing PhD “ƒ”¹…”research’, we are told. He earned his PhD from Princeton in 1986 on a thesis titled “ƒ”¹…”Divinity and Legitimacy in a Temple of the Lord Kantan’ in Batticaloa. In 1999 he published the book “ƒ”¹…”Amiable Incoherence: Manipulating Histories and Modernities in a Batticaloa Hindu Temple’, based on his PhD thesis. Currently he is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of South Carolina, Aiken.

 Whitaker’s account of his first contact with Sivaram is, apparently, through a chance meeting at the Batticaloa Public Library in 1982: the story goes that both Sivaram and he were borrowing one of Gilbert Ryle’s books. This common interest in philosophy was the foundation of their “ƒ”¹…”strong’ friendship: those who believe this story would also believe in the tooth fairy!

 The real story is that Father Harry Miller, a New Orleans born American Jesuit missionary who has lived in Sri Lanka since September 1948 introduced Whitaker to Sivaram; having been a long term teacher and rector at St Michael’s College, as well as a pro-Tamil political activist, Miller knew Sivaram well, and also what Whitaker needed. Having lived in Sri Lanka since he was 23, Miller left in March 2009 with no plans to return, probably disheartened by the impending demise of the Tigers.

 Whittaker wrote in his obituary of Sivaram that: “ƒ”¹…”In the mid 1990s many governments and Human Rights 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’: he obviously does not want to own up to having organised those contacts in collaboration with the US embassy!

 In 1997, Whitaker decided to collaborate with Sivaram on an “ƒ”¹…”intellectual biography’ of his life and work, with the title “ƒ”¹…”Learning Politics from Sivaram’ already decided! He published the Book “ƒ”¹…”Learning Politics from Sivaram: The Life and Death of a Revolutionary Tamil Journalist’ in 2006.

 Reviewers have noted that the book is an ethnography of Tamil nationalism and Diaspora identity politics and the transnational networks that shaped and were shaped by Sivaram, and lays out the ways in which anthropologists can become “ƒ”¹…”entwined’ with their subjects; hardly a biography!

 Whitaker’s studies including the book “ƒ”¹…”Learning politics from Sivaram’ and later work such as “ƒ”¹…”Tamilnet.com: Some Reflections on Popular Anthropology, Nationalism, and the Internet (Anthropological Quarterly: 77; 3, 2004) shows that Sivaram has been virtually a “ƒ”¹…”research lab on legs’ as far as he was concerned.

 In his essay on Tamilnet.com, Whittaker argues that Tamilnet.com, put together to address the Tamil diaspora and influence English-speaking elites, subverted international news coverage during Sri Lanka’s civil war by making “ƒ”¹…”ironic’ use of the discursive styles of journalism and anthropology.

Whitaker is on to something here: Sivaram’s articles often contained such “ƒ”¹…”ironic’ statements which prove to be “ƒ”¹…”dead give-aways’ of his insincerity, at least to those who are trained to “ƒ”¹…”read between the lines’. Here are some examples:

 The article he wrote in the Sunday Times of 20 October 1996, following the indictment of Prbhakaran by the government, titled “ƒ”¹…”After Prabha: question of succession’ is full of sarcasm because he know Prabhakaran was never going to be caught. He wrote: “ƒ”¹…”the main question which arises when one tries to assess the consequences of Prabhaharan’s indictment is can the LTTE survive after him?’ Then he writes: “ƒ”¹…”And finally it should be pointed out that all this has made Prabhaharan take more precautions about his safety which might help him, most probably, survive another long war’!

He ends another article, “ƒ”¹…”Sleeping Tigers and hidden agendas’ in the Daily Mirror of 20 April, 2005, just before his death thus: “ƒ”¹…”In the final analysis it is information that matters in this war’; quite something for an “ƒ”¹…”information thief’ to be saying!

 On another occasion when he was travelling overseas (he has a reputation amongst the LTTE diaspora as a big eater and drinker!), during a drinking session with D.B.S. Jeyaraj and others he is supposed to have rung Gamini Weerakoon and joked about how much he enjoyed “ƒ”¹…”working’ with him, while singing ‘Sinhalaya Modaya’ with mouthpiece covered!

 There were other anthropologists who were involved with Sivaram: Dennis McGilvray of the University of Colorado with a research focus on the Tamils and Muslims of south India and Sri Lanka is one of them. His 2008 book, “ƒ”¹…”Crucible of Conflict’ focused on ethnic identities in the Tamil-speaking region of eastern Sri Lanka. Currently he is supposed to be exploring transnational Sufism and Muslim saints’ shrines in Sri Lanka and southern India! He wrote: “ƒ”¹…”Over the years, Sivaram became a personal friend, visiting my family in Colorado several times’.

 Dr. Patricia Lawrence, also of Colorado, was also engaged in PhD “ƒ”¹…”research’ in Batticaloa in the early 1990s. In September 1995 Sivaram first visited the US on now defunct USIS scholarship under her sponsorship, for the inauguration of The American Institute for Sri Lankan Studies.

 Margaret Trawick from the Massey University of New Zealand investigated how love is expressed among the 20th century Tamils! She discovered that there are four especially important relationships within the nuclear family; the mother-daughter, father-son, husband-wife, and brother-sister. How edifying!

Trawick wrote that: “ƒ”¹…”Sivaram came to the view that Sinhala chauvinists can never be made to change their minds”¦Sivaram advised us to learn to comprehend the Sinhala chauvinist mind if we are ever to make any headway in reasoning with them.’

 While the Americans were cultivating Sivaram for their own agendas in the east, being ever the opportunist, he was pursuing his own interest of becoming a militant leader in the east. But the only avenue available to him, joining the LTTE was blocked by Prabhakaran.

 The LTTE had gained complete control over the north and east, making him essentially a militant holed up in Colombo with nowhere to go; Prabhakaran’s well known paranoid personality was such that he would have never trusted Sivaram, being an acolyte of Uma Maheswaran.

 Sivaram became desperate enough to offer his services to the LTTE, in 1988, as a “ƒ”¹…”walk-in’ spy. The offer was too good to refuse for Prabhakaran because he had much to gain and virtually nothing to loose, with Sivaram living in Colombo with no access or control over cadres, but trying to prove himself with information of political and military value.

 But they had to do some proper house keeping: preparing a “ƒ”¹…”convincing’ synthetic identity, called a “ƒ”¹…”legend’ in jargon, for an access agent is one of the most critical steps of espionage. This was the time his “ƒ”¹…”legend’ as a journalist was developed through the IPS and Richard de Zoysa, with expert help from the US embassy.

 Sivaram’s infiltration of The Island is enabled with the involvement of the now defunct United States Information Service (USIS). Sources vaguely remember a relatively obscure ex-USIS minor employee who joined the Upali Group of newspapers, again as a “ƒ”¹…”journalist’, as part of the plot.

 To assume Gamini Weerakoon knew of the plot would be giving him too much credit, in a way. But the mail is that he is a person with long standing links to both British and American embassies and Brigadier Sunil Tennekoon, Sivaram’s asset in the army was known to him. On balance, Weerakoon was an active participant.

 Sivaram’s mission was to gather specific information by engaging in political discussions with other senior journalists and to gather information on key individuals as well as political and military strategy of the government by using and further developing his synthetic identity as journalist.

Sivaram was so successful in maintaining his cover, he would have contributed significantly to many major military successes of the LTTE as well as assassinations and suicide bombings, apart from the well known ones he is associated with, that took place between 1990 and 2005.

 Since he became an LTTE agent, he had a hiccup in the relationship in May 1994 over the LTTE’s murder of A. Sabalingam in Paris. In 1991 Sabalingam had published a volume of Sivaram’s articles to the Sunday Island. Sivaram argued that Prabhakaran would kill as many as it takes to assert his monopoly over the annals of the Eelam struggle.

 Starting the TamilNet website in 1998 can be considered his crowning glory.

 He also experienced a brief revival of hopes to attempt to vie for political control of the east following the significant blows Prabhakaran received through the Karuna defection and the tsunami. However, he quickly realised that he did not have a base.

 The story of Sivaram in the context of the Sri Lankan war is an interesting, but only marginally significant sideline. What is important to record historically is that Sivaram was not the man some in the media believed he was!

5 Responses to “Deconstructing the myth of Dharmeratnam Sivaram -Part II”

  1. c.wije Says:

    Your research information is fantastic. I wish The Island/ DM or DL print it for the benefit of others in SL. Thank you for your time and effort.
    wije

  2. gunarat Says:

    ENLIGHTENING PIECE. Are you writing a graduate thesis on the subject?
    I came across Whitaker’s essays by accident and wrote the following story a couple of years ago:

    American Expert on TamilNet.com Laments Situation in Vanni

    By Shelton Gunaratne

    The American academic who wrote the story about the “small group of Sri Lankan Tamil people who have devised a way to use the Internet to talk about their community to the world at large” in an essay published in the summer 2004 issue of Anthropological Quarterly, now laments the fate of the thousands of Tamil civilians “caught in the middle” in the war between the Sri Lankan armed forces and the Tamil Tigers.

    The writer of the story, Mark P. Whitaker, an associate professor of anthropology at University of South Carolina Aiken, said in an e-mail interview, “The situation in the Vanni makes me very sad because of all those civilians … caught in the middle. I hope that some sort of cease-fire can save them, but I am not very sanguine.”

    In his 2004 essay, Whitaker claimed that by creating an Internet news agency, TamilNet subtly subverted “international journalistic practices by, rather surprisingly, emulating them exactly” thereby producing “a kind of strategic communal self-description that I will argue is genuinely
    ‘autoethnographic’ … a systematic attempt by members of a disempowered community to represent itself to a hegemonic other—in this case, the Western media—in terms the hegemon can accept.”

    Whitaker said that this constituted a particular form of autoethnographic popular anthropology that challenged professional anthropology, and in some ways sought to replace it.

    Explaining TamilNet’s success, Whitaker wrote, “[Its] articles are written in the same neutral, authoritative tone as the commercial Western press; because its facts and figures, double-sourced and carefully checked, are reliable; and because Tamilnet.com articles may be reproduced without charge, as long as there is attribution.”

    In Whitaker’s view, the genius behind this innovative genre of journalism was the Batticaloa-born philosopher/journalist Sivaram Dharmeratnam, who also doubled as “Taraki” for The Island newspaper until his murder in 2005 at the of 45.

    Whitaker said he made these claims in his essay, part o a 20-year research project, titled “Tamilnet.com: Some reflections on popular anthropology, nationalism, and the Internet,” one year before Dharmeratnam’s murder.

    Dharmeratnam’s distinct contribution, Whitaker claimed, was the creation of “a news-generating network that would give Tamilnet.com no end of ‘ground’—and ‘ground,’ more importantly, that would be focused on what all the other media were ignoring: the provincial villages where the war was being fought and suffered. His notion was that the reporters could write their stories in Tamil, e-mail the results to bilingual editors and translators in the United States, Europe, Colombo, and, sometimes Australia, whereupon the newly minted pieces, in both Tamil and English, could be uploaded to the site.”

    What Whitaker did was to illustrate, ethnographically, how the creators of TamilNet.com, while deeply embedded in civil war and a world-wide diaspora, recognized this aspect of the Internet and used it—again, “ironically”—to construct a site that advances their own nationalist interest.

    TamilNet.com is the Internet news agency put together by a group of wealthy expatriate Sri Lankan Tamils to address the Tamil diaspora and influence English-speaking elites worldwide. Through its French and German editions, it tries to influence the European intelligentsia in general.

    Question: Recent reporting style of TamilNet indicates to me that it no longer has any authoritative status because it has been publishing pro-LTTE stories violating the basic principles of news reporting, e.g., last Sunday’s story interpreting the electoral victories of the Rajapaksa government as another reason for an Eelam. This interpretation was attributed to an expat Sinhala academic who “did not want” his name revealed. I would like to know your current views on TamilNet.com

    [Most recently, the story headlined “Eyewitness account on Vavuniyaa internment camps” published on Feb. 19, carries the revelations of “a professional eyewitness, who visited the barbed-wired internment camps and hospital in Vavuniyaa couple of days ago” but with no personal details.]
    Whitaker: I am no longer following TamilNet.com ethnographically so I can’t really say how reliable or editorially independent of the LTTE it is at present. It still gets cited by the international press, however, because it is the only news service operating in the Vanni.
    Question: What is your own assessment of the current situation in Sri Lanka?
    Whitaker: What I do know, since I am following the situation for journalists in general in Sri Lanka, is that the quality of reporting internally is way down. I think this is because of attacks by all sides on the press — though, recently, I must say, the Sri Lankan government has been doing the most damage lately by barring journalists from the war zone and through its direct legal and physical attacks (and tolerance of attacks) on journalists, Sinhalese and Tamil alike.

    Question: Had your long-time friend, Sivaram Dharmeratnam (alias Taraki) lived to see the decimation of the LTTE, how would he have steered the course of TamilNet.com? What advice would you give those who currently run TamilNet.com?

    Whitaker: As for what Sivaram would think of all this, I shudder to think. Most likely, though, he would be out hunting up a story.

    Shelton A. Gunaratne

    Professor of mass communications emeritus

    Minnesota State University Moorhead

  3. aravinda Says:

    When he was alive he harmed the land which gave him birth, through TAMILNET he continues his curse. What is shocking is how organised LTTE/UK/USA axis was and how naive Sri Lankans were. Thanks for your two incredible articles about Sivaram Dharmeratnam. Keep writing, it is always a pleasure to read your indepth analysis. Sooner or later someone must write a comprehensive book on Eelam war, Mr.Randeniya, you or Mr.Mahindapala are perfect candidates for that.

  4. M.S.MUdali Says:

    Journalism in Sri Lanka always part of the propaganda and nothing as with any “WESTERN STANDARDS”. History of Lake House tells the same story.

    Our journalists are always POPPED-UP from nowhere. It is always a “RISK” to criticize any one in power with evidences. Freedom is not the issue of Sri Lankan journalism.

    In the case of Sivaram, he was a paid agent of the FOREIGN elements which backed LTTE. His FAME was a product of the FRIENDS of the same FOREIGN elements in Colombo.

  5. ajit.rand Says:

    Thank yo for all the comments.

    Prof Gunaratne, Pleased to hear from you. I am student only in the broadest sense.Degree days are long gone!

    As to Whitaker’s article, when he was writing and speaking about Tamilweb, he was speaking in riddles, being the spy he is. What he meant was Sivaram’s articles to the Sri lankan media. You’ll notte that Tamilweb most of the time does (used to) post LTTE propaganda disguised as straight reporting. Sivaram was put in contact with Tamilweb, which is financed by the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, in fact by Karuna. Sivaram received Rs 300000 annual pay from the Norwegians, but after his death, people portrayed him as a ‘poor’ man. I am sure he hid his wealth well.

    There is much more to this story which I tried to present as concisely as possible.

    Regards

    Ajit

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