Once a supporter of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (the LTTE or more popularly known as the Tamil Tigers), she left the movement and, under extreme risk, began collecting evidence of human-rights tragedies suffered by Tamils at the hands of both Tamil insurgents and government-aligned forces. Her murder has made her the face of the underground human-rights movement in the region.
Now, nearly 16 years later, in the National Film Board of Canada documentary No More Tears Sister, her older sister alleges that LTTE insiders told her privately that Thiranagama was killed because she was undermining their independence struggle. Local protests condemning her death were crushed and their organizers threatened and killed, according to the film. Human-rights reporting in the region, as in so many conflicts worldwide, became an increasingly clandestine act.
"I think this film and the story of Rajani [touches on]many generic issues about human rights, about justice, about armed violence. They are not exclusive to Sri Lanka," said the older sister, Nirmala Rajasingam, in a telephone interview.
Both she and the documentary's director emphasized that blame for human-rights abuses should be placed on all sides of the conflict, including the Sri Lankan army and the years of repression by the Sinhalese-dominated government which helped to spark the Tamil fighting (to say nothing of the initial tensions between Sinhalese and Tamils caused by British colonial policies which were perceived as favouring certain Tamil groups).
Rajasingam, who was also once a pivotal figure in the LTTE movement, has so far accused the Tigers of killing her sister only at small gatherings. This is the first time she has come out so publicly. The Tigers have never claimed responsibility for the murder and no one has been charged, she noted.
Because of her accusations, the NFB has taken a number of precautions, such as keeping the project quiet during its two years in production and not giving out information about where Thiranagama's family currently lives. In fact, the Film Board is becoming somewhat expert in maintaining security surrounding controversial documentaries, particularly after last year's premiere of What Remains of Us, a documentary that directly puts some Tibetans at risk of imprisonment.
Security concerns are nothing new to Thiranagama's family. Rajasingam, for instance, can no longer return to Jaffna because of worries about her safety. "I'm not underground, but I'm being very cautious about where I go, what I say, who I meet, that sort of thing. Once the film is shown, I'll have to take greater precautions," she said. She won't be attending today's premiere at the Hot Docs festival in Toronto, which has a thriving Tamil community with varying views on the nationalist struggle.
"We as a family and myself personally, we made a very conscious decision to go public about the killing of Rajani. We thought long and hard about it. It was our decision. We were ready to tell the story, because really the whole discussion about Rajani's murder wasn't a closed chapter," Rajasingam said.
There has been at least one other film about Thiranagama made in Sri Lanka, but without the family's involvement. The family hated it, said Helene Klodawsky, the director of No More Tears Sister. The NFB film was shot with the full co-operation of the family, although family members did not have the final say in its content, Klodawsky emphasized. The documentary has been endorsed by a host of notables including former Ontario premier Bob Rae and former United Nations special rapporteur on violence against women, Radhika Coomaraswamy. It is narrated by Michael Ondaatje.
Rajasingam, who talks at one point in the film about how she feels responsible in some ways for what happened to Thiranagama, is careful to add that she is the one making the film's main accusations, not the other family members.
But what unfolds in the documentary is not just a story of how a family got caught up in armed rebellion. It's a far more complicated story of how Rajasingam, the older sister, was buoyed by 1970s leftist radicalism and early insurrections in the country. She wound up becoming involved with the Tigers and was imprisoned by the state. Thiranagama had also become a strong supporter of leftist causes while in medical school. Her husband was a Sinhalese radical who could not bring himself to support the Tigers. This ultimately tore their marriage apart.
While studying in Britain, Thiranagama made her sister's imprisonment into an international cause, which in turn provided an important boost for the LTTE movement.
But the more the sisters were drawn into the Tigers, the more they began to question the armed struggle, particularly as fighting between nationalists and Indian peacekeeping forces escalated in the late 1980s. By then, the sisters had quit the LTTE. After another stint in Britain, Thiranagama returned to Jaffna to reopen the anatomy department at the university, while also working to document human-rights abuses perpetrated by all sides of the fighting. She was then murdered.
As the film shows, those who are left behind to brave the fighting, most often women and children, change armed struggles into multifaceted, humanitarian crises. What often lingers is a fearful silence, which perhaps only a foreign documentary can help pierce: At least that's what some from the Sri Lankan community have said after attending early screenings of the documentary, according to Klodawsky, the film's director.
"One man described it in a very moving way, 'We're surrounded by barbed wire. Our houses are not surrounded. The barbed wire is around our minds,' " Klodawsky said. "So, on the one hand, there was a very strong desire to see this film made. On the other hand, people could not talk [on camera]"
Filming the documentary was very intense for the family, and one of Thiranagama's daughters even plays her mother in a number of re-enactments. This is a family which describes itself as very ordinary and middle class. The father had been a schoolteacher and administrator. Education was stressed. The daughters read Jane Austen and George Bernard Shaw and sang Christian spirituals (which the remaining sisters sing again in harmony in an opening scene in the film when they are reunited in Colombo). But after Thiranagama and Rajasingam's radical student days and subsequent activism, the family has had to get used to being in the political crossfire.
Sri Lanka is in "a really bad and very dark period," Rajasingam said. Atrocities continue and dissidents are increasingly being targeted, while Tamils receive little protection from the state, the film notes.
It's as if they aren't considered citizens, Rajasingam added. "The state has kind of washed its hands and doesn't appear to be serious about ultimately achieving a soon-enough political solution," she insisted. "It is in this climate that this film is coming out."
The hope among those involved with No More Tears Sister is that it will encourage others to speak. "Now, even though killings are continuing at a very high rate, other voices are cropping up, inspired by the [human-rights movement's]long and arduous, very insistent, courageous work," Rajasingam said. "Rajani remains an inspiration. They keep her memory alive."