Karuna’s Split with Pirapāharan in 2004 in his Own Words

In Q and A with Jeremy Liyanage 

Jeremy Liyanage is a Sri Lankan of mixed Sinhala-Burgher ancestry whose family moved to Australia when he was 9 years old. He  has been deeply involved in a social service project called BRIDGING LANKA in Mannar Island since the years 2009/10. As a spin-off from this work, he and several colleagues were in Sri Lanka in July 2010 in a venture supported by International Alert when they received an invitation to join Karuna Amman, in his capacity as Minister for Resettlement, on a work visit to the fields of IDP settlement in the Kilinochchi-Mullaitivu areas.  The local International Alert officials were aghast and warned them against venturing on this trip on the grounds that IA could not guarantee their safety. They decided against going, but went to the initial meeting that had been set up as a matter of courtesy. At that gathering Karuna’s Media Officer Justin assuaged their fears and persuaded them to participate in the trip. This turned out to be a  helter-sketer journey involving their vehicle as one element in a convoy bearing  Karuna and his personnel and several vehicles with  STF (police commando) personnel. 

karuna-and-vp  Karuna, Adele & Anton Bālasingham, Pirapāharan, Thamil Chelvam, Rudrakumāran, & Jay Maheswaran in the LTTE’s halcyon daysPic from Lanka Guardian karuna-aklila Commanders All -Karuna with two senior female commanders 


It was a hectic journey involving a sojourn initially at Nelli Star Hotel in Vavuniya, field visits to areas of fresh IDP re-settlement in the Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu Districts watching Karuna and his officials as they listened to the complaints and requests of the returning Tamil people and proceeded to deal with them in efficient and courteous style. The procedure was for a tarpaulin to be placed on the ground for Karuna to sit and for him  to listen to the Tamil returnees and then give instructions to an aide with mobile phone who promptly pursued the instructions, while Karuna proceeded to listen to the next request.

This trip included a tour of the war zone in and around Nandikadal Lagoon. There was a hairy moment when they reached Kilinochchi town and were ordered to move enmasse to the SL Army base in the area because their arrival was unannounced. Their concerns abated when the Commander and Karuna shook hands.

 It was at some point afterward that Jeremy Liyanage discarded the warnings by International Alert not to ask questions and  tentatively ventured on what turned out to be fruitful Q and A Session with Karuna, an exchange at which the Army General was also present and occasionally participated. The outcome is highly revealing. It happens to be in line with grapevine tales about the manner in which Pirapāharan reacted to the political deal worked out by Anton Bālasingham and the GSL representatives at Oslo – an event that saw Bālasingham being shifted to the sidelines.


Let Jeremy present the rest of the story in his own words. Michael Roberts, with highlights in red being my imposition to mark important statements.

“I remembered that the International Alert staff had cautioned against us raising any questions. However, it was not every day that one had the opportunity to explore the mind of a dreaded ‘terrorist’. I decided to riase a few questions although I felt certain that Karuna would dismiss them, and me. To my surprise Karuna answered. The Commander also joined in with this process.

JL: Why did you join the LTTE and how old were you at the time?

He said that while he was studying at (Batticaloa) Central College there were many refugees also at the school. He talked to them and heard their stories of struggle and powerlessness. This was an initial influence. He was 19 at the time when he joined the LTTE.

The Commander said, “You sure you weren’t 16?”

JL: How did you develop such a strategic mind?

I read a lot of books. I had to ask people to translate the books for me because I didn’t know English. I read books about great leaders and studied their strategies.”

The Commander asked: “Did you see Prabhakaran’s body?” Karuna replied, “A lot of things people know but I know two things about Prabakaran. When Prabakaran was shot, the Government asked me to testify if the body was actually Prabhakaran’s. I and Daya Master[1] went to where the body was lying. I looked for and found Prabhakaran’s pistol and verified that it was his. I also looked for the scar on his leg he got from a shell blast accident some time before. And I saw it. Apart from all the other familiar things, those two things made it very clear that this was Prabhakaran’s body.

JL: Why did you break away from Prabhakaran?

“I was in Norway for the fifth round of peace talks. Anton Balasingham was leader of the delegation. There was Tamil Chelvan, in charge of the Political Wing of LTTE. G.L. Peiris, the Government’s representative and Visvanathan Rudrakumaran, a lawyer from America[2]  were also with me. And a Minister of Norway ran the peace talks.

Somewhere in the discussion Minister Peiris said, “This is the fifth round of talks. We meet and talk and nothing progresses. First thing is you have to give up the Tamil Eelam dream. The world won’t accept it, including India. The Sri Lankan government said it will offer a federal system with autonomy for the North-east.”

Karuna continued that in response to Minister Peiris’ statement the LTTE contingent asked to break to discuss this further. Karuna said to Balasingham, “It is really a good offer. They are right because the world has changed a lot after September 11th. All western countries are against terrorists and we are on the terrorist list, even India has done that. The federal system is good for our people. If we continue to come for peace talks yet nothing moves forward, the world will get tired of us.

Balasingham replied, “We have to talk to Prabakaran about this matter.” Karuna responded, “We have not signed up to the final deal. We will only consider a federal solution. I will discuss this with Prabhakaran when I return.” Balasingham said, “I won’t be coming to Killinochchi. I will be returning to the UK so you’ll have to speak to Prabhakaran alone.” The outcome was that the modest deal was signed and Karuna returned to Kilinochchi.

Prabhakaran summoned Karuna who took the signed document with him. “Prabhakaran already knew what I had done. From the time I walked into the office he started yelling, very angry. He shouted, “You deceiver, you betrayer (thuroki)!  Karuna explained, “We signed up but it’s not to anything final.” He showed Prabhakaran the decision, “We are only going to consider a federal solution. We signed up to consider only.” Again, Prabhakaran exploded with, “You are like Maathayaa! [Mahaththaya!]”**

“That afternoon, there was a meeting of high level LTTE people including Tamil Chelvan[3], Pottu Amman[4], Nadesan[5], me and Pulidevan[6]. Again, Praba expressed his rage toward me. In front of them Praba said I was a ‘kāṭṭikkoṭhavan’[7].  The word is very powerful and I was very hurt.”

“I went back home in the evening and was very worried. The last thirty years I was so dedicated to the LTTE so why would Prabhakaran use those words on me? He compared me with Mahaththaya!![8] I know Prabhakaran. If he is that angry and uses the word, ‘Mahaththaya’, I needed to escape from Killinochchi fast; otherwise something bad will happen to me.”

“I was the one who used to arrange SLMM[9] to provide transport to LTTE for talks. I asked for a helicopter to go to Batticaloa. They asked me for a pickup point and time. I said early morning at a school ground in Kilinochchi close to my house.” At which point, the Commander, listening intently to Karuna, laughed and said, “Ah, it’s just over there!”

Before dawn Karuna was whisked off to Batticaloa. “Prabakaran stayed in an underground bunker so he wouldn’t know I had gone.”

Karuna said that soon after the escape, that Prabakaran had contacted him and asked to send 4,000[10] cadres to Kilinochchi from the East. Karuna refused. The soldiers didn’t like going to Kilinochchi and also a majority were young[11]. Karuna argued, The ranks of the LTTE are swelling because of youngsters from the East, and what for? We are never going to get a better deal than this. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. We are not going to send soldiers.”

The next day, Batticaloa-based Karuna convened a meeting of all the educated people including university lecturers and doctors and explained to them the current situation and what had transpired in the recent past.  He told them that the agreement on the table had been the best opportunity they had been offered. He reiterated that it was recruits from the East that bore the brunt of the war but were never given any high positions in the LTTE.[12] All the LTTE heads were drawn from the North with no one from the East. Karuna was the leader of the East and his talents were known to Prabhakaran.

Karuna explained, “Most of those who came supported my views. Some were not in favour because this would mean giving up the dream of Tamil Eelam.” Following the meeting, Karuna summoned all the LTTE commanders in Batticaloa district and explained the situation. He said he had made a decision and that was to separate from the North. He said, “If you agree with this, stay with the LTTE East, otherwise you can leave for the Vanni.” He continued, “If Prabhakaran was in my position, he would have killed any dissenters but I gave them free choice to join the Vanni LTTE[13].

A number joined the Vanni LTTE including Sivagnanam Karikalan, the head of the political wing from the East.[14] Later the Vanni LTTE came to Batticaloa to fight and capture Karuna[15]. Karuna ordered the LTTE East commanders and leaders to throw away their weapons and go home. In the past the LTTE had killed thousands of Tamils from groups like TELO and EPRLF, so he didn’t want this to happen again, that brother kills brother[16].

In the aftermath of Karuna’s decision, a deep despondency settled on his followers. Weapons were on the street everywhere. Groups of people were wandering around. Young people were crying because they didn’t know where to go or what they would do with their lives. It was a heart-rendering time. No hope. Some of those who were intelligent and could have gone to university but had joined the LTTE, what were they to do now? Where would they go? What sense would they make of their struggle for Eelam? It especially affected the young women cadres as it would be difficult to find marriage partners. When part of the LTTE they were treated with respect but there was a stigma associated with marrying one.[17]

The Commander asked Karuna: “How did you escape?” Karuna laughed, trying to evade the question, he said, “I escaped to Colombo.”

The Commander with a softening regard for Karuna said to him, “It was you who were our enemy, not Prabhakaran. We feared you the most. If you were in Jaffna we knew something was going to happen there. If you were in Batticaloa, we know something would happen there. We were always tracking you because you were the mastermind behind all the battles and attacks against our men. You were the real enemy to us but also a real hero because without you we would not have won the war. For a long time I have wanted to meet you.

Justin piped up and said, “Not only you but in the south all the people want to meet you too, especially the women.”[18]

JL: Before you were the mastermind behind many of the battles and was involved in killing thousands. Now you have changed your position. How can you bring this strategic approach to bear on reconciliation?

Unfortunately, the Commander interrupted and the conversation went elsewhere. It was close to 3:30am. Things had gone smoothly but the Commander and Karuna kept drinking. Before things went array, I decided to excuse myself, feign tiredness and ask to be taken to where I would be sleeping that night. I ended sharing the Commander’s room in the only air conditioned room at the base.

   ***  END  ****

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ADDENDUM: Memo from Gerald H Peiris, 1 March 2017

Karuna’s recounting of the circumstances of his defection from the LTTE (as recorded by Liyanage) has some factual inaccuracies.  The so-called ‘Federal Solution’ on which there was a tentative and highly qualified agreement between the two delegations took place at the 3rd round of negotiations in Oslo – i. e. 2-5 December 2002. Karuna’s decision to formally disobey VP (i.e. to defy the order to transfer a further 1000 trained cadres from the East to Kilinochchi) took place in March 2004, by which time it was common knowledge that the “agreement” was no longer a serious concern. Anton Balasingham, who was the main exponent of the ‘federal solution’ in the LTTE leadership continued to remain close to VP. Indeed, as shown in pp. 92-99 of my book Twilight of the Tigers, the 4th, 5th and 6th rounds of negotiation were not concerned at all with the ‘federal solution’ or its modalities. VP was also aware that Karuna, who was co-opted to the LTTE delegation only from the 2nd round (mainly because of his heroic image among the Tiger activists abroad), was only an onlooker at the negotiation table. So the story of VP’s tantrums towards Karuna because what had transpired in the 3rd round should be attributed to Kanuna’s lapse of memory when he answered Liyanage’s questions in 2010.

My understanding of the reasons for Karuna’s defection as documented in Ch. 6 of ‘Twilight’ is quite different. This reading was published as: ”An Assessment of the Current Crisis among the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam,” Jane’s Information Group Occasional Paper, Sentinel House, Coulsdon, Surrey, UK.** Jane’s Sentinel has a wide circulation and my interpretation has never been challenged. In the longer term, Karuna’s contribution to the final defeat of the LTTE was decisive – a fact that has not been adequately appreciated.

** A longer version of this appeared in the Ethnic Studies Report, XIX (2), ICES: pp. 179-234


[1] Daya Master or Velayutham Dayanidhi, head of the LTTE media division.

** My Tamil friends tell me that there is no ‘”ha” in Tamil-speak and that the Sinhala term “Mahaththayaa” would be expressed as “Maathayaa”. In this particular instance the word, clearly, is highly pejorative and a synonym for horrendoutraitor. Michael Roberts

[2] . Visvanathan Rudrakumaran, a lawyer from America now Prime Minister of the Trans National Government of Tamil Eelam.

[3] LTTE Political Wing Leader and Brigadier S.P.Thamil Chelvan.

[4] LTTE intelligence chief, Shanmugalingam Sivashankar also known as Pottu Amman.

[5] Balasingham Nadesan, head of LTTE police.

[6] Seevaratnam Pulidevan, head of the LTTE Peace Secretariat.

[7]காட்டிக்கொடுப்பு – “kāṭṭikkoṭhavan” (traitor) is the term given to a former LTTE cadre who wears a hood with spaces for eyes cut out and forced by the army when it rounds up a group of Tamils to identify who are the LTTE or LTTE supporters in that group.

[8] Mathaya was LTTE’s second in command. There are two opposing versions. Prabhakaran’s version was that the reason why he had Mathaya killed along with 300 of his loyal LTTE cadres in Vavuniya forest was because he felt that Mathaya was an informant for RAW and in 1987 tried to convince Prabhakaran not to fight against the IPKF but instead to enter into peace talks. The other version was that Mathaya was gaining in popularity within LTTE ranks and also the people so could be a threat to Prabhakaran’s leadership.

[9] Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) was a multinational body that existed from 2002 to 2008 to monitor the ceasefire between the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE.

[10] The number is uncertain – it could have been either 2,000 or 4,000.

[11] Many of the cadres were below eighteen years of age. At that time every family had to contribute one member to the LTTE so parents were angry if their children were sent away. Also the East gave up 10s of thousands of its young people as did the Sinhalese south but not from Jaffna.

[12] LTTE had three major divisions – military, intelligence and political wings. The military wing alone consisted of at least 11 separate divisions including the conventional fighting forces, the suicide wing called the Black Tigers; naval wing, the Sea Tigers, air-wing, the Air Tigers and several brigades and regiments. The political wing included further divisions including economic development, peace secretariat, police, LTTE court, Eelam bank, Voice of Tigers and sport. There was also a women’s wing and a global network. In spite of the number, none of the heads were chosen from the East.

[13] The Vanni LTTE was commanded by Vanni Pulikal.

[14] Those to defected to the Vanni included Karikalan (East Political wing), Nagash (Lieutenant Colonel), Ramannnan (Colonel), Praba (Lieutenant Colonel), Howshliyan (Lieutenant Colonel), Ramesh (Colonel), Ram (Colonel), Stalin (Lieutenant Colonel Ampara District) and Nagash (Master). Those who continued with Karuna,  all Lieutenant Colonels, were Robert, Vishu, Thaththa, SP. Easwaranathan, Reginold (Karuna’s brother), Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan alias Pillayan, Eniyaparathy (Ampara), Thilipan (Head of medical), Geventhran and Markandayan. This information was provided by Karuna’s bodyguard.

[15] Two weeks later the Vanni LTTE, led by Colonel Banu and two Lieutenant Colonels, Ramesh and Nagash, who were under Karuna, came to oppose him.

[16] The LTTE East obeyed Karuna and started going home to join their families but the Vanni LTTE pursued them, torturing and killing some three hundred East LTTE cadres. This occurred in Vakarai

[17] Recently one of my Tamil colleagues added this story which his brother had experienced first-hand to demonstrate the deep angst and hopelessness that Karuna’s decision caused. It will be explored in greater depth in a subsequent article.

[18] Former President Rajapaksa had invited Karuna on many occasions to speak at his political rallies in Sinhala areas of the South.



Filed under accountability, anton balasingham, authoritarian regimes, democratic measures, economic processes, governance, human rights, landscape wondrous, life stories, LTTE, performance, prabhakaran, Rajapaksa regime, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, social justice, sri lankan society, unusual people, world events & processes

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