The Liberation Tigers in Crisis

Gerald H. Peiris, being a reprint of Chapter Six in his Twilight of the Tigers,  Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2009, with Vijitha Yapa Publications in Colombo as local distributors, pp. 151-77 … a reprint inspired by the presentation of Jeremy Liyanage’s Q and A with Karuna in mid-2010.

tamil-eelam  karuna7

The contents of this chapter, except its ‘Introductory Notes’ and the ‘Postscript’, are based almost entirely on an article titled “An Assessment of the Current Crisis among the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam” written by me in March 2004 while the events that constituted the early stages of the revolt led by ‘Colonel Karuna’ against the Vanni-based Tiger leadership were unfolding in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka.  It was published by the Jane’s Information Group, UK. Written as it was in the context of acute paucity of documented information on the rapidly changing and bewilderingly complex scenario in the ‘north-east’ of Sri Lanka at that time, the article contained a fair amount of reasoned speculation. Here, in this chapter, I have retained the original article largely unchanged mainly for the reason that some of my speculations and predictions proved subsequently to be correct. The changes of the original article made in the formulation of this chapter have involved only some alterations of tense, and the addition of foo-notes for clarification and substantiation, and a ‘postscript’, intended to update the impact of the events examined in the article from the viewpoint of the thematic concerns of this volume.   Gerald Peiris


Territorial Demands of Eelam

  • Those engaged in efforts to establish a Tamil-dominated sovereign nation-state on the island of Sri Lanka at some point of time in the future believe that its geopolitical survival and economic viability would depend crucially on its territory encompassing not only the predominantly Tamil northern plains of Sri Lanka but in addition at least the island’s resource-rich eastern lowlands. This is probably why the adherents of the concept of Eelam have all along been intensely resentful and hostile towards the contention that the eastern lowlands are not, and have never been, an exclusive homeland of any one ethnic group inhabiting the island, disregarding the authenticity of the empirical base of that contention. This is also why the various groups of Tamil militants in pursuit of Eelam have been so fiercely engaged, ever since their inception in the 1970s, in their efforts to establish their hegemony over the Eastern Province.
  • Most of the LTTE military efforts since the declaration of the ceasefire in December 2001 had also focused multi-dimensionally on this vital task. Extracting through negotiation a maritime passage for the Sea Tigers across Sri Lanka’s ‘territorial waters’ from their bases in Mullaitivu to their emerging strongholds along the Batticaloa littoral; the establishment of a civilian administration parallel to that of the government in the coastal townships of Batticaloa and Trincomalee districts (in both these efforts the LTTE received Norwegian backing along with a measure of cooperation from the UNF); the surreptitious military build-up around the geomorphic citadel of Thoppigala with strengthened fortifications, stockpiles of weapons, satellite communication facilities and other accoutrements of a second major military high-command; the barely concealed establishment of a network of military bases and encampments along the entire eastern sea-board, but  extending to the interior in  Māduru and Mahaveli deltas (the latter strategically poised for a major onslaught against Trincomalee); and the intensified campaign of extermination of political rivals in these areas, were all part and parcel of that task.
  • It is in the context of the foregoing phenomena and events that the study of the ‘Karuna Revolt’ examined in the present chapter must be placed. Without the East, there could be no Eelam. And, it was Karuna who took the first decisive step towards wresting the control of the East from the Tiger leadership of the North.

Ethnic Relations in the Eastern Province

  • The coastal lowlands of the Eastern Province have hardly ever been entirely free of localised friction between the Tamils and the Muslims constituting in their aggregate numbers (at the time of the population census of 1981), 42% and 35%, respectively, of the total population of the province. These, it must be remembered, are areas of excessively high population density in which residential loci of one community are juxtaposed by those of the other in an intricate and closely entwined micro-spatial mosaic. The eastern lowlands are also featured by intense pressure of population on terrestrial resources, agrarian unrest, and poverty, and hence, interpersonal disputes with communal undertones especially in localities where class stratifications correspond to ethnic differentiations.
  • It was against the backdrop of the demographic setting sketched out above that several Tamil militant groups began in the 1970s to build up a support base among those of their community in this part of the country. At that stage, evidently in response to harassment by the Tamil militants, the Muslims of their larger communities also attempted to form armed groups, and did achieve a measure of success at the early stages of their attempt. These, however, soon succumbed under the weight of the overwhelmingly more powerful Tamil militants.
  • Following the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987, the SLMC — which, by that time, had emerged as the foremost political party in the Eastern Province — and certain Tamil groups including the EPRLF (the most prominent among the militant groups operating in the east at that time) decided to abide by the Accord and to collaborate with the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF). Observers believe that it was at this point that the LTTE turned its wrath in earnest towards the Muslims in this part of the country.
  • In the aftermath of the withdrawal of the IPKF from Sri Lanka in the early months of 1990 and the concurrent emergence of the LTTE as the most powerful among the separatist groups, Muslim communities in the Eastern Province and the Tamil groups that had collaborated with the IPKF became the target of a large-scale LTTE offensive. In the case of the Muslims, this took the form of an attempt at ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the ‘Traditional Tamil Homeland’. Several gruesome massacres of Muslim civilians, each involving death-tolls exceeding one-hundred, were carried out by LTTE cadres resulting in mass evacuation by the Muslims of certain localities. By January 1991, about 350,000 Muslims had been displaced from their villages and towns of the Eastern Province. In October 1990, the LTTE also evicted en masse all Muslims (total number estimated at about 70,000) from the Northern Province. Though the policy of ‘ethnic cleansing’ appears to have been abandoned since that time, throughout the 1990s, LTTE attacks were sporadically targeted at the Muslims mainly for their suspected collaboration with armed forces of the government.
  • The experiences of the Eastern Province since the commencement of the peace negotiations of 2002 have not allayed the fears of the Muslims. Throughout, there have been clashes between the LTTE cadres and Muslim civilians, triggered off mainly by Muslim resistance to extortion. Among the major post-MOU confrontations, each of which lasted over several days and caused extensive damage and destruction, were those of Muttur, Valachenai, Akkaraipattu, and Potuvil. That the Muslims have also suffered intensely through large-scale internal displacement has been a major influence in the formulation of their perceptions.
  • The Sinhalese of the Eastern Province also have a persuasive case against being placed in a position of a minority in an LTTE-dominated autonomous unit of government. They too have suffered intensely from the violence unleashed from time to time by Tamil terrorist groups.  In addition, the idea that the Sinhalese constitute “encroachers” of an exclusive Tamil homeland — the encroachment sponsored by Sinhalese-dominated governments of the country — has continued to be propagated by the adherents of the Eelam campaign.

6.1. Defiance of Soorya Deivan, the ‘Sun God’

“We look to you as our god. We are not leaving you. We are not opposed to you.…  (But) I do not want to commit the blunder of not pointing out to you the aspirations of our people in disregard of their feelings and those of our fighters here.… I want to do my duty by the people of Southern Thamil Eelam. It is my final goal that I should fight for these people and die at their feet”.[1]  So wrote Vinayanamoorthi Muralitharan, alias ‘Colonel Karuna’ alias ‘Karuna Amman’, the military wing leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the Eastern Province districts of Batticaloa and Ampara in a letter he addressed on 3 March 2004 to his supreme chief Veluppillai Prabhakaran at the LTTE headquarters in the northern township of Kilinochchi.

The letter was evidently a response from Karuna to an order from Prabhakaran for the transfer to ‘Vanni’ (the LTTE-controlled area of the Northern Province) of 1,000 armed cadres operating under Karuna’s command in the Eastern Province. The letter, published the following day in the form of a pamphlet distributed in the Eastern Province, also contained a firm refusal to obey the order for the transfer of troops, and a list of grievances against the Tiger leadership along with a rationalisation of Karuna’s defiant stand. It claimed that, though the Eastern Province (referred to, for the first time, as the ‘Southern Thamil Eelam’) had made disproportionately high contributions towards the LTTE’s secessionist efforts — those from the east killed in military confrontations with the security forces of the government in the northern venues of war numbering well over 4,500 — it has tended to be neglected in the rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts initiated after the Sri Lanka government-LTTE ceasefire of December 2001. The letter asserted that the LTTE high-command has continued to discriminate against activists from the east in making appointments to key military, political and administrative posts in the LTTE-held areas. It also contained two other charges potentially more harmful in their repercussions. The northern leaders, according to Karuna, enjoy a life of luxury, grabbing the material benefits that accrue from the flow of foreign aid for the development of war-ravaged areas, while the cadres from the east continue to be confined to the arduous security duties far away from their homes, the two-year old ceasefire notwithstanding. Even more damagingly, Karuna charged that the forced conscription of children into the fighting cadres of the LTTE, the spate of attacks on contestants from non-LTTE political groups of the Eastern Province in the national parliamentary elections scheduled for 2 April 2004, and various other forms of violence including murder and extortion (all of which have evoked condemnation from some of the diplomatic missions in Sri Lanka and detracted from the LTTE’s attempts at gaining international respectability) is the work of those from the north operating in the Eastern Province under the direction of Pottu Amman, the chief of the Tiger Intelligence Unit, independently of Karuna, and (implicitly) with the approval of Prabhakaran.

Karuna’s letter, though initially trivialised for the world outside by the Tiger leaders at Kilinochchi as an internal dispute of no consequence, undoubtedly evoked among them intense anger and indignation. The type of open and calculated defiance which the letter represented was unprecedented in the annals of the LTTE at least since the outfit came under the control of Prabhakaran in 1976. Indeed, one of the main ingredients of Prabhakaran’s unchallenged supremacy had throughout been his capacity to command absolute obedience from his subordinates, and the ferocity with which he dealt with renegades, his rivals, or with any other force that stood in his way.

It is against this backdrop that a series of harsh retaliatory measures taken by Prabhakaran following the receipt of Karuna’s letter could be understood.  He dismissed Karuna from the post of military commander in Batticaloa and Ampara districts. He recalled Karuna and all other LTTE officers manning key posts in the Eastern Province to Kilinochchi. He placed those suspected of being Karuna loyalists serving in the Vanni area under strict surveillance (there were unconfirmed reports of some among them being brutally executed). He summoned to the Vanni headquarters Sivasubramaniam Varathan alias ‘Pathuman’, the head of the LTTE military units in Trincomalee District, and a close associate of Karuna, and placed him in detention. Soon thereafter Prabhakaran initiated an inquiry against Karuna on charges of betrayal, misuse of funds, and moral turpitude.[2]

The conciliatory embellishments in his letter of 3 March notwithstanding, measures that Karuna himself took soon after the dispatch of the letter leave no room to doubt that what he intended to achieve was, if not a complete break-away from the LTTE, at least a drastic change in his relations with the LTTE leadership at Killinochchi.  On the same day, Karuna’s secretary Banu Avalian contacted Lt. Gen. Wimal Balagalle, Commander of Sri Lanka Army stationed in Colombo, and requested that government troops manning the entry/exit points of the LTTE-controlled areas be ordered to prevent the movements of Tiger cadres to and from the Northern and Eastern provinces.[3]  More importantly, in the course of Avalian’s communications with the army commander he disclosed Karuna’s intension of breaking ranks with the LTTE and entering into a separate ceasefire agreement with the government.  Avalian is also said to have conveyed the same information to the Norwegian embassy.[4]

On 4 March 2003 Karuna summoned his senior political, military and intelligence wing loyalists for an emergency meeting at the LTTE regional office at Thennagam (located close to the Batticaloa-Trincomalee district border), made a series of fresh appointments to key posts in his area of control, ordered the expulsion from the east of senior LTTE cadres from the north, and arranged to seal-off all exit/entry points of the Batticaloa-Ampara area.

Over the next few days there were several developments that widened the Prabhakaran-Karuna breach. There was, first, an exodus of Prabhakaran loyalists from the Batticaloa-Ampara area to the Vanni. Those who fled included all high-ranking LTTE officers of ‘northern origin’ — Karuna’s deputy Ramesh, Kausalyan, Ramanan, Keerthi, Gihaththan, Ram and Karikalan.  Further, on Karuna’s part, there was an attempt to mobilise support for his revolt from the civilian population.  That he achieved a remarkably high level of success in this attempt was indicated by several demonstrations of protest against the Vanni leadership — a public display of military prowess, enforcement of a day’s stoppage of civilian activities in urban areas (hartāl), a ‘Gandhian’ fast, several processions and rallies, destruction of a consignment of the pro-LTTE newspaper Thamil Alai, and, more outrageously than all else, the burning of Prabhakaran in effigy. Large numbers of civilians, especially Tamils, participated in some of these demonstrations – amazing, given the fact that since many of these events were photographed and accorded much media publicity, their participants, identifiable individually, risked harsh retribution in the event of Prabhakaran re-establishing his control over the East.

Throughout these early days of the Karuna revolt both sides maintained some space, albeit marginal, for a possible compromise. This was, at least in part, a response to hectic external interventions from various quarters such as representatives of the governments of Norway, Germany and Britain who claimed to be concerned with preserving intact the on-going peace efforts, and influential Roman Catholic clergymen and prominent intellectuals including those of the Tamil diaspora whose principal interest was the wellbeing of the LTTE and its secessionist effort. Thus, for instance, Karuna, while remaining defiant, persisted with the claim that he would return to the fold if Prabhakaran were to expel several persons from the LTTE apex — Intelligence Chief Pottu Amman and Head of the Political Wing Thamilchelvam, and if he were to be vested with authority over all LTTE affairs of the Eastern Province subject only to general direction by Prabhakaran. Likewise, Thamilchelvam, acting on behalf of Prabhakaran, offered Karuna amnesty and asylum in any part of the world provided he withdrew from the movement.

A further escalation of the crisis occurred with the outbreak of the news that on 6 March Prabhakaran had imposed death sentence on Karuna and “all other traitors”, and had dispatched killer squads to carry out the sentence. This resulted in several armed clashes. According to Colombo-based press reports (denied, however, by Vanni spokesmen) Prabhakaran’s men suffered heavy casualties in a confrontation with Karuna loyalists on the night of 7 March in the northern parts of Batticaloa District where there had evidently been a further build-up of troops from the north.

Several statements made by Karuna on about 12 March in the course of an interview granted to the prestigious Indian daily, The Hindu, probably marked his absolute point of no return. He is reported to have disclosed that one of the main reasons for his decision to quit was the preparation being made by Prabhakaran to resume armed hostilities against the government of Sri Lanka in the event of a victory of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) at the forthcoming parliamentary elections. While denouncing Prabhakaran’s belligerence, Karuna expressed the belief that the ‘Eelam objective’ is unattainable, given the lack of international support for the concept of an independent Tamil nation-state in the north-east of Sri Lanka. He blamed the Tiger cadres working in the Eastern Province under Pottu Amman for all the acts of violence (murder, abduction, extortion, harassment of the Muslims) and all violations of the government-LTTE MOU. According to the editor of The Hindu (14 March), the most damaging ‘confession’ made in the course of this interview was that it was Prabhakaran and Pottu Amman who masterminded the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 — the first time such an admission has been made by a Tiger leader concerning that horrendous crime.[5]


6.2. Karuna’s Motivations and Impulses

Colonel Karuna was, until early March 2004, one of only two persons at the apex of the Tiger hierarchy who could have been considered as representing the ‘new generation’ in the LTTE elite. The Tiger leadership has, in general, continued to remain largely in the hands of the close-knit group from Jaffna peninsula of northern Sri Lanka — many among them hailing from the township of Velvettithurai on the northern coast — who, by the early 1980s, had acquired notoriety for their politically motivated brigandage and crime. It appears that Karuna, the teenager who joined the LTTE in 1983, hailing as he does from a farmer family in the village of Kiran in Batticaloa District, never really belonged to the inner core of the LTTE from the north.

Soon after his entry into the LTTE ranks, Karuna received training in guerrilla warfare at a camp in Salem, South India — one of several such centres which the Indian government under late Indira Gandhi operated for promoting insurrection in northern Sri Lanka.[6] Karuna’s appointment to the post of LTTE Military Wing leader for Batticaloa-Ampara in 1987 when barely 20 years old probably reflected both the recognition of his skills by the Tiger leadership as well as the relative insignificance of Batticaloa-Ampara during the 1980s as an arena of LTTE activity.[7]

      Karuna’s rise in the LTTE ranks during the 1990s was truly phenomenal. He planned and executed many of the attacks on rival groups of Tamil militants. Among the other LTTE ‘victories’ in the Eastern Province in which Karuna participated (probably as one of the leaders) was the execution of some 600 members of the Sri Lanka police who had surrendered to the LTTE on instructions from Colombo shortly after the collapse of peace negotiations undertaken by President Premadasa in July 1990; the gunning-down of more than 200 Muslims in surprise attacks on mosques at Eravur and Kattankudi carried out in the course of LTTE efforts of the early 1990s at making Eastern Province a part of the ‘exclusive Tamil homeland’ through ethnic cleansing; and attacks on several Sinhalese villages located in proximity to the Eastern Province boundary slaughtering all inhabitants not sparing even the infants.

Karuna’s reputation as a ruthless fighter totally dedicated to the LTTE cause received a further boost in the period after the eviction of the LTTE from Jaffna peninsula by the Sri Lanka army in December 1995. Since the sparsely populated forest-clad Vanni region to which the LTTE leadership retreated provided little scope for finding new recruits, Batticaloa emerged in importance as the principal source of Tiger manpower. In these circumstances, Karuna recruited (sometimes forcibly) thousands of young men, women and children, trained them in guerrilla warfare, and despatched most of them to the north where the main military confrontations between the LTTE and the security forces of the government were taking place. Not infrequently, he was called upon to personally lead guerrilla attacks against military encampments of the government in the Vanni area. In 2000 Karuna was appointed the overall co-ordinator of the LTTE offensive named ‘Unceasing Waves III’, a massive and highly successful operation involving about 8,000 fighters. His crowning achievement as a guerrilla leader was the defeat he inflicted on the Sri Lanka army at the capture of the military base at Elephant Pass (located at the point of overland entry into Jaffna peninsula) in April of that year which, apart from causing heavy casualties among government troops and securing a strategic advantage, enriched the LTTE arsenal with a huge cache of weaponry. By this stage, as a battle-field hero, Karuna had no equal among the Tigers. He, it is said, figured among the trusted few admitted by the ‘praetorian guard’ to Prabhakaran’s exalted presence with a loaded revolver in his gun belt. Karuna’s prestige was such that he was also accorded the honour of serving as an LTTE delegate at several rounds of peace negotiation in 2002-03, and at the meeting of experts in Paris that drafted the ISGA proposals.

In the circumstances sketched out above Karuna’s revolt does appear somewhat strange unless one were to accept at face value his disclaimers of responsibility for excessive violence in the Eastern Province, his renunciation of the struggle for Eelam, his ardent commitment to the wellbeing of the people in the Eastern Province whom he professed to lead, and his denunciation of the avaricious lifestyle of the Vanni leaders. Admittedly, these could have caused genuine resentment in Karuna’s mind. Personal ambition for further elevation of power and status, coupled with resentment at the prominence accorded by Prabhakaran to persons like Thamilchelvam whose contribution to the LTTE had not been readily evident, could also have added to Karuna’s resentment. But could this type of grievance have driven Karuna to a course of precipitate action that had the potential of destroying the entire LTTE edifice and what it had unyieldingly stood for over more than two decades?

Speculatively, one could identify several other interrelated explanations for Karuna’s revolt, one of which is that it was a desperate pre-emptive move intended to forestall impending fall from grace and eventual destruction. It is possible that, with Karuna’s growing stature as a charismatic leader commanding loyalty from a large segment of LTTE armed cadres, he might have been seen as posing a threat to Prabhakaran’s supremacy. It could have been that, unlike most of the other second rung Tiger leaders operating in Vanni within easy reach of Prabhakaran’s tentacles and hence needing to perpetually genuflect in the course of their dealings with the chief, Karuna’s assertive and forthright ways caused displeasure and a desire on the part of the high command to cut him down to size. There is a possibility that Karuna might have felt the beginnings of an estrangement of relations with Prabhakaran several months earlier. For instance, in the course of an address to a gathering of his troops on 17 March, Karuna is reported to have narrated an encounter at the Tiger headquarters in Kilinochchi the previous December in the course of which, according to him, Prabhakaran humiliated him in the presence of several others, accusing him of deviating from the LTTE stand, and, when he tried to explain his position, Balraj (one of Prabhakaran’s deputies since the demise of Gopalasamy Mahendrarajah, alias Mahattaya, in 1994) shouted him down with a show of intense fury. It was also of interest that Prabhakaran’s order for the transfer of 1,000 fighters from the east to the north which triggered off the revolt had been preceded by a similar order in September 2003 (with which Karuna complied) for the transfer of 750 fighters. Both these orders, given the absence of military necessity in the prevailing truce, could have been seen as being intended to weaken the Karuna faction prior to an impending purge.

Yet another explanation for the revolt is that Karuna himself realised the existence of both an objective need as well as a capacity to display independence from the Vanni leadership. The need stemmed from the perceived marginalisation. As for capacity, there were several relevant considerations. As Karuna himself publicly asserted, since about 5,000 trained cadres were operating under his direct command and would remain loyal to him, a large-scale armed offensive against him was unaffordable to the northern leadership. This assertion was in conformity with an observation made at this time by the journalist Iqbal Athas, one of the more authoritative Tiger-watchers in Sri Lanka, according to which a greater part of the LTTE military build-up witnessed since the declaration of the ceasefire of December 2001 — procurement of arms and ammunition, and the increase in the number of trained fighters — had taken place in the Eastern Province, mostly in areas controlled by Karuna.

Similarly, the possibility that there were external impulses for Karuna’s drastic move cannot be ruled out.  An obvious weakness in his objective of creating and sustaining a territorial entity in the east that could exist independently of the Vanni leadership — a ‘Southern Thamil Eelam’ — relates to the problem of replenishment of his arsenal.  It is known that both the flow of funds to the LTTE from outside the country as well as the LTTE’s links with external sources of arms and ammunition have always remained under the exclusive control of the Vanni high-command. The fact that the exact locations of arms stockpiles in the east were known to the leaders of the north was an added strategic advantage they possessed in a possible armed offensive against the rebel. In these circumstances it seemed unlikely for Karuna to have acted without some assurance of external assistance if needed. A possible source of such assistance was, of course, India which, though continuing to profess non-involvement in Sri Lanka’s conflict, had ample reason to desire a curtailment of Prabhakaran’s growing power and influence in Sri Lanka facilitated by the ceasefire agreement.  Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of the Karuna revolt there was speculation that Delhi’s intelligence agency ‘Research and Analysis Wing’ (RAW) had actually instigated Karuna’s revolt.[8]

Karuna’s decision to revolt against the LTTE leadership must surely have drawn strength from the ‘traditional’ resentment prevalent among the Tamils of the Eastern Province about being dominated and exploited by the Tamils from the north. To some extent this perception is a past legacy, and is rooted in the wide contrasts that prevailed between the two areas in living standards prior to the escalation of the ethnic conflict into a full scale secessionist insurrection in the 1980s. Jaffna District of the north, the largest concentration of Sri Lankan Tamils, ranked at that time among the most economically advanced areas of the country, being well ahead of almost all other districts when measured with any ‘indicator’ employed in comparative assessments of the physical quality of life — mortality rates, life expectancy, literacy, educational attainment, real income and consumption expenditure, etc. Batticaloa, the second major Tamil concentration, on the other hand, was among the least developed districts, peopled largely by an impoverished peasantry. Given their commonalities of language and religion, one of the main consequences of the contrast, especially the differences between the two districts pertaining to education and social mobility, was that a large segment of the upper income strata of the east — businessmen, landlords, professionals and others in salaried occupations — consisted of migrants from the north. Moreover, throughout the ‘modern period’ of Sri Lankan history, Tamil politics of this part of the country continued to be dominated by the migrant ‘Jaffna Tamil’ elite — a group that had gained ascendancy over the indigenous Tamil elite of the eastern lowlands which consisted of the so-called Mukkuvars and those of the local Vellala caste.[9]

As noted in the first chapter of this volume, the concept of a ‘Tamil Eelam’ consisting of the Northern and Eastern provinces had only lukewarm support from the Tamil inhabitants of this part of the country.

There is a thin scatter of evidence, admittedly inconclusive, to reinforce the contention that many Tamils of the Eastern Province (probably the majority) feared the possibility of such an arrangement perpetuating the dominance of the Jaffna elite over the entire Tamil community of the island.

It is the existence of this antipathy of the east towards the north that Karuna intended to tap in his efforts to mobilise popular support for his defiance of Prabhakaran and to thus vindicate his stand. This is why he publicised his emotionally charged letter of 3 March among the people of his area soon after it was dispatched to the LTTE headquarters in Vanni. And, this is also why his charge of discrimination by the northern leadership against the east found favourable resonance in the civilian population of his area.

akaruna-island from The Island

6.3. Impact of Karuna’s Revolt[10]

It was with disbelief and bewilderment that most observers of Sri Lankan politics reacted to the outbreak of news about the rift in the LTTE. A serious challenge to Prabhakaran’s leadership from within the LTTE was so inconceivable that many did not rule out the possibility of the reported rift being an elaborate hoax intended to distract attention, especially that of the international community, from the increasing incidence of blatant violations of the MOU and of human rights norms by the LTTE. There were also those who recalled the tragic fate of Mahattaya, (Prabhakaran’s bosom friend and deputy until he was branded a traitor, tortured and executed in 1994), and said that if, indeed, there was a revolt in the LTTE, it will soon be suppressed.  Even by late March 2004 there was lingering doubt, not so much about the reality of the revolt, but about its sustainability.

In the immediate aftermath of the Karuna revolt, there were three distinct but interrelated dimensions of its consequences that deserved to be placed under scrutiny — namely, its impact on (a) electoral politics of Sri Lanka in the context of the impending parliamentary elections (scheduled for 2 April) and the related responses and reactions of the main political forces of the country, (b) the durability of the on-going ceasefire and the prospects for a resumption of peace negotiations between the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE, and (c) the future of the LTTE. Needless to stress, reasoned speculation and conjecture were unavoidable in a commentary on all these aspects.

(a) Impact of the Revolt on Electoral Politics

For the Colombo government, information on the revolt posed the dilemma that anything it does or fails to do could go wrong in regard to both preserving the ceasefire agreement with the LTTE intact as well as the electoral prospects of the two segments of the government presently at fierce competition with each other in their respective campaigns leading to the parliamentary polls of 2 April 2004. For instance, while the recognition of Karuna as de facto leader of the Tamil militants of Batticaloa-Ampara or even granting one of his lesser requests such as personal protection from LTTE assassins to which all citizens of the country are entitled could have been interpreted as constituting a breach of the MOU and evoked Prabhakaran’s wrath, the non-recognition of Karuna’s leadership status or a refusal of a request from him could well have resulted in a violent retaliation from his loyalists of the Eastern Province. Similarly, any step taken either by President Kumaratunga or by her political rival Prime Minister Wickremasinghe in relation to the changed scenario in the ‘north-east’ of the country could have had a decisive impact upon the extent of support they could mobilise for their respective parties from the Tamil community at the polls and, thus, the final outcome of the elections.

In any event the overall impact of the Prabhakaran-Karuna split on the parliamentary elections was profound. Over the period leading up to the polls, the LTTE high-command engineered a closing of ranks of the parties that constitute the ‘Tamil National Alliance’ (TNA).[11]  At the nomination of contestants, it was the LTTE head-office that selected the TNA candidates for the electoral districts of the Northern and Eastern provinces. The objective of these manoeuvres was that, if the LTTE could ensure the victory of its handpicked candidates — there was, indeed, hardly any doubt that it had the capacity to achieve a measure of success in the related efforts, employing intimidation and threat, and various other forms of rigging the poll — it would have up to about 20 members in the new parliament to serve as its puppets. In view of the fact that under the prevailing system of ‘proportional representation’ neither the UPFA nor the UNF could obtain anything more than a slender majority in the 225-member parliament, the LTTE leadership, having twenty members at its beck and call, could then have an almost decisive say over the affairs of the country’s legislature. In pursuance of this strategy the LTTE had, since the nomination day six weeks prior to the poll, murdered a contestant and an activist in the Eastern Province from parties opposed to the TNA, and induced several other candidates to withdraw from the contest.

Moreover, there was a clear preference of the LTTE leadership for a victory of the UNF, and a barely concealed understanding that the LTTE-controlled TNA members would support the UNF in parliament. The LTTE, its announced willingness to conduct future negotiations with any party returned to office at the elections notwithstanding, was firmly opposed to the UPFA whose manifesto contained a categorical commitment to oppose any future constitutional change that accommodates the concept of an ‘exclusive traditional homeland’ of the Tamils in the Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka — a core demand of the LTTE.[12]  Moreover, given the fact that on the eve of the presidential election of December 1999 the LTTE attempted to assassinate President Kumaratunga and was almost successful in that attempt, Karuna’s charge that Prabhakaran was preparing for a resumption of armed hostilities against the government in the event of the UPFA victory could not have been peremptorily dismissed. The least one could have said on this charge was that it could have been intended to intimidate the Sinhalese segment of the electorate into supporting the UNF. The charge that there existed a clandestine agreement in this regard between the UNF and the LTTE cannot be placed entirely in the realm of fantasy.

Karuna’s revolt transformed the electoral scenario outlined above. Soon after his departure from the LTTE, Karuna summoned all TNA candidates of Batticaloa-Ampara to a meeting at his headquarters, and instructed them to sever their links with the Vanni high-command and to discard their campaign platform of devolution of political power to the Tamils in a unified ‘north-east’. Only one TNA candidate —Joseph Pararajasingham, Vice-President of the TULF and a political veteran of Batticaloa — rejected Karuna’s call.  When asked, at a press conference, about the position taken by other TNA candidates of the area, Pararajasingham was reported to have said: “I cannot comment much on the position of others. But they generally agreed to abide by the new framework at the meeting”. Thus, there emerged the makings of a split in the TNA — one that was life-threatening for its activists, their being exposed to possible violence from both Prabhakaran as well as Karuna.  As matters stood on the eve of the polls, it seemed that the electoral prospects, if not the survival, of the TNA candidates in the Eastern Province would depend crucially on whether they abide by Karuna’s fiat.

(b) Revolt and the Peace Negotiations

The parliamentary configurations that would emerge from the elections of 2 April were expected to have a vital bearing upon the prospects for peace and stability in Sri Lanka. There was, first, the faint possibility of the Karuna faction entering into a deal with President Kumaratunga’s UPFA in the period leading up to the elections, thus dividing Tamil support between the UPFA and the UNP. This would have enhanced the prospects of the UPFA securing a comfortable parliamentary majority and forming the next government. A resumption of government-LTTE negotiations thereafter would need to overcome two formidable obstacles — the UPFA electoral pledge to oppose the notion of a traditional Tamil homeland consisting of the entire Northern and Eastern provinces, and the UFPA obligations to the LTTE renegade and his support base in the east. Secondly, in the less likely event of the UNF being returned to office, it was bound to fulfil its pledge to accept the Vanni leadership of the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamils of Sri Lanka, and to work towards a constitutional reform facilitating internal self-government to a spatial unit comprising the amalgamated Northern and Eastern provinces which, at least over an undefined interim period, will remain under the absolute control of that leadership. In such a situation, UNF would face stiff resistance not only from large segments of the Sinhalese and Muslim electorates, but also from Karuna and his followers in the east.  Here it needs to be stressed that the logic of Karuna’s claim to being the genuine representative of the Tamils of Batticaloa-Ampara, and his demand for autonomy for the Batticaloa-Ampara area over which he held sway carried the same legitimacy, no more and no less, as that of the demands adumbrated on the entire ‘north-east’ by Prabhakaran and his spokesmen.

Those of the government of Sri Lanka who had figured at the forefront of negotiations with the LTTE (Prime Minister Wickremasinghe and his close associates, ministers G L Pieris and Milinda Moragoda) persisted in their belief that, at the negotiation session held at Oslo in December 2002, the LTTE delegates led by Anton Balasingham had accepted the idea that a federal system ensuring internal self-government to the ‘north-east’ of Sri Lanka will satisfy the LTTE demands and will induce the LTTE to abandon its secessionist struggle, and thus pave the way for  permanent peace.[13] In this context, to recapitulate the thematic contention of Chapter 4, Balasingham’s pronouncement referred to below contains a crucially significant clarification to which the government negotiators would have done well to devote careful attention. In response to a question concerning Prabhakaran’s ‘Heroes’ Day Speech’ of 26 November 2003 (which furnished the basis for the stand taken by the LTTE delegates at Oslo a few days later) Balasingham clarified:

There is no reference in the text (of the speech) to say that Mr Pirapaharan (sic.) has abandoned his political objective structured within the framework of the right to self-determination, which includes the right to secede and form an independent state. (emphasis added)

The significance of this clarification from the perspectives of the present chapter is that Karuna’s revolt had afforded an opportunity for the government negotiators to abandon their illusion and to redefine their negotiation stances in the light of the continuing adherence of the LTTE leader to the goal of secession.

(c) Karuna Revolt and the Future of the LTTE

It is not surprising that the spokesmen for the LTTE high-command persisted with their efforts to trivialise the Karuna revolt.  However, the following thematic extract from a record of an interview granted by Anton Balasingham, Prabhakaran’s principal spokesman, to the pro-LTTE Tamil Guardian (published in the Tamilnet website) illustrates, in an unintended manner, the magnitude of the problem faced by the LTTE leadership.

Our organisation has faced similar problems of betrayals, treachery and disloyalty in the turbulent history of our freedom struggle. Our leadership has confronted these challenges and resolved them successfully as and when they arose.  Therefore Karuna’s dissent is not a new phenomenon. Certainly it is a challenge.  I am confident that we will be able to resolve the problem soon.  Our leader is not agitated or anxious over the issue. Pirapaharan (sic.) is maintaining a calm, cool and composed attitude.  He has decided to avoid a confrontationist approach. We have a strategy to overcome the situation without armed violence and bloodshed.  Karuna’s rebellion is a temporary aberration which will pass away in time.

This, of course, was bluff and bravado of the expected type. A careful reader of Balasingham’s lengthy and, often, vitriolic responses to the questions posed at the interview would have realised that the LTTE leadership was reeling under the impact of Karuna’s blow. It is true that on earlier occasions Prabhakaran had successfully crushed internal dissent.  One also cannot but admire the resilience of the LTTE and the capacity it had shown in the past to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds as, for instance, it did in 1987 when it defied the might of the Indian army. But certain unique features of the crisis of Karuna’s revolt made the earlier experiences almost totally irrelevant.

Karuna, unlike the earlier ‘traitors’, was not within Prabhakaran’s grasp. He could not have been caught, incarcerated, tortured and killed with the same ease as, say, the former deputy and friend Mahattaya.  Karuna commanded the loyalty of a fairly large segment of a well-trained guerrilla army — one that could, if required, match what Prabhakaran could have offered at an armed confrontation in the eastern lowlands in an area where heavy artillery (largely in Prabhakaran’s possession in the Vanni) would have been of little use in an offensive. Karuna’s extraordinary skills of combat were also well known. His men knew the terrain especially of the almost impenetrable Thoppigala wilderness that served as a Tiger hideout in the Batticaloa interior. All indications, moreover, were that Karuna also had considerable popular support in his area of control. Another novelty of the crisis was that the Sri Lanka armed forces were unlikely to remain uninvolved in a major Prabhakaran-Karuna clash, ignoring, on the one hand, the MOU stipulation that LTTE cadres could traverse government-held territory to and from Vanni and Batticaloa only if they are unarmed, and, on the other, the inevitable spill-over of such a clash into government-controlled areas in the form of refugee flows and the disruption of infrastructure systems. An assassination attempt targeted at Karuna (possible, but difficult), even if successful, was unlikely to re-unify the Tiger ranks of the north and the east. A purge in the east would involve an unaffordable blood bath and a prolonged witch-hunt, given the fact that the majority of Karuna’s followers made no attempt whatever to conceal their loyalty. Moreover, in the event of a successful overthrow of Karuna by the Vanni leadership, the replacement of Karuna’s men at key positions thereafter would have been hazardous because the new appointees will have to survive amidst erstwhile enemies. There was an inkling of this difficulty in the fact that Thambirasa Thuraisingham, alias Ramesh (Karuna’s former deputy who fled to Vanni at the commencement of the revolt), appointed by Prabhakaran as ‘Special Military Commander’ of Batticaloa-Ampara following Karuna’s dismissal, was reported to be holed up at Kilinochchi over several weeks before he could take up his post.  And then, there was the great unknown — the possibility that Karuna would have external backing. Finally, bringing back Karuna into the fold was not an option mainly because Karuna knew that Prabhakaran is unreliable, fiercely vengeful, and is unlikely to forgive and forget the treachery of Karuna’s irremediably damaging disclosures such as those on the Rajiv Gandhi assassination.  What all these added up to was that Karuna had irremediably weakened the LTTE as a terrorist outfit.

Yet another major setback suffered by the LTTE was the exposure of the fallacies in the basic beliefs which its propagandists have been publicising the world over throughout the past few decades — first, that there is a single, indivisible homeland exclusive to Sri Lanka Tamils extending over the entire area covered by the Northern and Eastern provinces, and second, that the LTTE has a right to act as the sole political spokesman and representative of the Tamils of Sri Lanka.  Karuna, while abandoning the ‘homeland’ claim and declaring that an ‘Eelam’ founded upon that claim is unattainable, had vividly demonstrated the superficiality of the assertion that the LTTE leadership in Vanni has a power monopoly over the entire Tamil community of Sri Lanka.

Over several weeks following the revolt it seemed likely that Karuna will strengthen his hold over the LTTE cadres in Batticaloa-Ampara, and increase his popularity among the civilian population of the area.  His placing the blame for past misdeeds, especially the harassment of the Muslims living in the coastal areas of Batticaloa and Ampara districts, on the Vanni leaders, was unlikely to have carried conviction. Most people remained aware that Karuna could be as brutal and as ruthless as his erstwhile leader Prabhakaran. But his overtures to the Muslim and Sinhalese inhabitants of these areas — returning to the former owners that land that had been forcibly acquired by the LTTE, closing down of police stations and law courts that were being manned by LTTE cadres — increase his political clout. Karuna was expected to figure prominently, though behind the scene, in electoral politics of the period ahead. Regardless of the outcome of the forthcoming elections, it would not be possible for the new government to ignore Karuna in a peace bid.

At matters stood in late March 2004, however, it was inconceivable that any attempt by Karuna to expand his area of control or encroach into territory under the control of the Vanni leadership would succeed.  In the foreseeable future Prabhakaran’s power over ‘Northern Thamil Eelam’ (to formulate a new phrase in the conflict lexicon) will, in that sense, remain unassailable. Prabhakaran had, in fact, succeeded in tightening his grip over parts of Trincomalee District by infiltrating a large number of his troops from the Vanni into military encampments established by him during the previous two years at locations within striking distance of Trincomalee harbour which serves as a major military base of the government of Sri Lanka in the ‘north-east’ (this, as shown in Chapter 5, was a blatant violation of the MOU which Colombo and the Scandinavian ceasefire monitors had chosen to ignore, presumably to save the peace negotiations). Contemporary press reports also pointed to a build-up of guerrilla cadres from Vanni along the right bank of Verugal (a rivulet forming the northern border of Batticaloa district) facing a similar gathering of well-armed Karuna loyalists stationed along the left bank.

That Karuna was not entirely without friends outside the country was indicated by a report (Iqbal Athas, ‘Showdown at Verugal’ in The Sunday Times, Colombo, of 21 March, p 11) according to which, the LTTE split “…seems to have caused sharp divisions in the Tamil diaspora overseas (and that) …in France, leaflets strongly critical of Mr Prabhakaran had been distributed among the Tamil community”. Athas also referred to similar activities in Switzerland and Canada. There was no doubt that an erosion of support for the LTTE from the Tamil communities of these countries will have a profound impact on its overall strength.

6.4. A Postscript on the Revolt


By early April 2004 there was evidence of an impending confrontation between the two factions into which the LTTE armed cadres stood divided consequent upon Karuna’s revolt. There were reports of a military build-up of Prabhakaran’s troops along the northern banks of the Verugal rivulet (the southernmost distributary of the Mahaveli delta, along which the Trincomalee-Batticaloa boundary runs) which seemed to indicate both the continuing loyalty to Prabhakaran of those who were manning the Tiger military bases in Trincomalee as well as a fairly large infiltration of Prabhakaran’s men into the southern parts of Trincomalee District which the armed forces of the government and the SLMM had either collaborated with or ignored. With the passage of time it became increasingly evident that, although Karuna repeatedly expressed confidence regarding his capacity to meet Prabhakaran’s challenge, he had no intention of doing so. What he did instead in anticipation of a Vanni invasion was to systematically destroy Prabhakaran’s capacity to hold on to the Batticaloa-Ampara coastal lowlands (which had been the Karuna domain) following such an invasion. With this end in view, Karuna embarked upon a process of destroying the LTTE infrastructure and stockpiles of weaponry and other military necessities for the Vanni troops to retain their control over the area, disbanding the LTTE armed cadres that had been under his command up to that time; and then, when Prabhakaran’s invasion actually began, withdrawing with a small band of loyalists with proven skills of combat into scattered jungle hideouts from which he could have access to other parts of the country.

Needless to say, Karuna’s retreat paved the way for an easy victory for Prabhakaran within a few days of the advent of his troops with only some minor skirmishes in the Verugal floodplain. The reason adduced by Karuna for his withdrawal — the desire to avoid a bloodbath — considered in the context of his earlier bravado, was treated by most observers of that time with derision. However, based upon a persuasive body of indirect evidence, one could argue that Karuna’s forecast regarding both Prabhakaran’s inability to perpetuate his grip over the eastern lowlands, as well as the absence of a compulsive need to engage in an enormously destructive military confrontation to liberate the east from the clutches of the Vanni despot were absolutely correct. Though the more ardent supporters of Prabhakaran might prefer to believe that Karuna “fled and went into hiding” because he had no alternative, that belief ignores several key aspects of the revolt — that Karuna did manage: to save himself and his close associates from a brutal purge (death preceded by leisurely torture in a Vanni dungeon, as had been the fate of the Mahattayas of the Tiger world); to engage in sporadic but devastating guerrilla attacks on the Vanni troops throughout the next few years; to prevent Prabhakaran’s killer squads from having a free run in the east; and to demonstrate more emphatically than anyone else had done that by no stretch of imagination could the LTTE be considered the sole representative of the Tamil people of the ‘north-east’, leave alone those of Sri Lanka.

Karuna was no doubt fully aware of the awesome risks and dangers of the new course he had charted for himself. He could not have expected tangible support from the Tamil diaspora which consists almost entirely of those with their roots in Jaffna. Building up a business empire of the type which his erstwhile leader had developed for sustaining a global campaign of propaganda and a steady supply of arms was also not a feasible proposition. Even at the time of his breakaway he was conscious of the possible hostility of the ‘international community’. He, moreover, could not have expected overt cooperation and support from the government of Sri Lanka. Thus, despite his talk about a ‘Southern Eelam’ and of his intention of forging a separate peace accord with Colombo, it is extremely unlikely that he still expects to spearhead a politico-military movement of his own similar to that led by Prabhakaran.

The new government of Sri Lanka, formed after the parliamentary elections of 2 April 2004, continued to place its bets on Prabhakaran. It ignored Karuna’s peace overtures. To President Kumaratunga, re-invigorated by the electoral victory of the UPFA, the poor performance of the ‘Tamil National Alliance’ (TNA) at the polls in the east despite the efforts by Prabhakaran to ensure for it an astounding victory meant nothing as an expression of popular feeling in the Eastern Province.[14] To her, moreover, the state of anarchy and the innumerable violations of the MOU by the LTTE in that part of the country were of no consequence. An alliance with Karuna — even a non-military one within the political mainstreams — was never considered by her as a serious proposition. She also chose to ignore the pressure being exerted by the JVP for a change in the prevailing policy of non-intervention in the turbulences of the east, and for the adoption of measures aimed at securing strategic advantages from the crisis within the LTTE.[15]  Instead, all her efforts continued to be directed exclusively at the objective of prolonging her own stay at the apex of the country’s politics.  And for that, she had to emulate the erstwhile “prince of peace”, Wickremasinghe — rejected at the polls — in his policy of pacification; she had to ensure for herself the hosannas of the anti-Sri Lanka NGO lobby in Colombo; she had to remain a supplicant of the ‘donor community’; and, above all, she had to persist with her efforts at making a deal with the UNF in order to push through a reform of what she frequently referred to as the “bahubootha” (devilish/diabolical) constitution promulgated in 1978, and thus prolong her stay at the helm of affairs in the country, not as president, but as any other ordinary head of government — graciously dropping the ‘Excellency’ part.

To return to the continuing turmoil in the east, the Vanni-Batticaloa confrontations, usually low-intensity but with occasional flares, continued over many months, taking the form of random hit-and-run killings for which both sides were responsible.[16] When once the military footholds of Prabhakaran were established along the eastern littoral, there also came the deadly retributions. Scores of fighters formerly under Karuna’s command were captured from their homes, and re-enlisted as slaves of the labour camps in the north. Some were tortured and maimed. Those of higher rank were executed — sometimes publicly, as it was in the case of Balasundaram Sritharan and Thillaiampalan Sudharmarajan in the village of Illapadichenai on 9 July.[17] Another publicity stunt was the extraction of “voluntary confessions” from Karuna’s ex-loyalists to establish the claim that Karuna is being aided and abetted by the Government of Sri Lanka. The publicity given to these confessions through LTTE organs outside Sri Lanka was meant initially to save face among the diaspora. But, with the passage of time, these and other “eye-witness accounts” formed the basis of what became the most acrimonious demand of the Tiger high-command — that Karuna cadres constitute a ‘paramilitary group’ which, under the terms of the MOU of February 2002, the Government of Sri Lanka must disarm.

What continued to appear more grotesque than all else in the aftermath of this entire episode was the response of the ‘international community’ to the Karuna revolt.  Mention has already been made of the ‘friend-in-need’ role played by Erik Solheim in his rush to Vanni and the prolonged sojourn there soon after the outbreak of the revolt. Once it became apparent that Karuna will not abandon his revolt, the announced policy of the Norwegian government was one of not according any recognition to the Karuna faction and its claim to legitimacy. Karuna was the leper. Yashushi Akashi, the redoubtable peace-maker from Japan, soon took a similar stance, one which, in fact, was identical to that he had adopted earlier towards smaller Tamil groups such as the EPRLF and the TELO operating in the ‘north-east’ (Otherwise, how could he continue to have his Vanni high jinks?).  Emissaries of Britain and Germany also abandoned all dealings with Karuna. There were many indications that the ‘Co-chairs’ were resentful about the fact that Karuna had muddied the waters of the Sri Lankan conflict, causing embarrassing ripples which they had not contended with earlier.

The unanswered question that looms large is why the principal actors of the ’international community’ in the Sri Lankan arena at that time (to whom, for convenience, I shall refer as ‘interventionists’) were so prejudiced against Karuna, and why they preferred to disbelieve or ignore nearly everything Karuna said in justification of what he did. To recapitulate Karuna’s principal claims and to raise questions on the response of the interventionists to such claims:

  • It was obvious that ‘Eelam’ had become an unyielding stance of the LTTE, but that Karuna was acting on the basis of his conviction of Eelam being unattainable without international support for a secessionism.

Did the ‘interventionists’ really find Karuna’s position untenable?

  • Karuna maintained that the Vanni leadership cannot claim to be representatives of all Tamils of Sri Lanka.

Was it reasonable for the ‘interventionists’ to reject this idea and believe, instead, that the interests of the Tamils correspond to those of the LTTE?

  • Karuna, soon after his decision to disobey Prabhakaran, stated that, especially in the context of the prevailing ceasefire, there was no need for the transfer a further 1,000 LTTE fighting cadres, natives of Batticaloa, to Vanni (750 had been transferred a bare six months earlier), as ordered by Prabhakaran.

Did the ‘interventionists’ believe that everyone would tremble and obey all commands from the celestial throne at Vanni, regardless of circumstances?

Karuna implied (in the letter he addressed to Prabhakaran on 3 March) that the large-scale transfer of troops loyal to him from their ‘home bases’ to the Tiger strongholds in the north represented discriminatory treatment of the cadres of the Eastern Province, and that, in any case, the ordered transfer of troops was a prelude to purging Karuna and his loyalists.

Was this too far fetched for the ‘interventionist’ to believe?

  • Karuna claimed that one of the compulsions of his revolt was the increasing brutality and violence in the east — murder, mutilation, abduction, extortion — for which Prabhakaran’s men were responsible.

Why did the ‘interventionists’ disregard the corroborative evidence to this claim such as, say, the disclosures in the relevant reports of the ‘University Teachers for Human Rights Jaffna’. 

  • Karuna stated that when the ‘Vanni invasion’ of the east really began in early April he decided to disband his troops, destroy the stockpiles of arms etc. because he wished to avoid sacrificing the lives of thousands of young Tamils in a full-scale armed confrontation.

Was it not possible for the ‘interventionists’ to realise that, however barbaric Karuna might have been in the past, his claim of having exercised ‘karuna’ (compassion) at that critical point of time had credibility, for the reason that, had he ordered his troops to resist the Vanni invasion, it would have caused immense losses of life on both sides, but (given the geography of the venue of confrontation) not closed his channels of retreat and escape?

  • Karuna maintained that he neither asked for nor received protection or help from the government of Sri Lanka.

Even if the ‘interventionists’ accepted the LTTE allegation of government collaboration with Karuna and rejected Karuna’s claim that he has remained independent, what prevented them from asking themselves the question:[18] “Why should the government  have any qualms or inhibitions in giving Karuna and his comrades protection, either on humanitarian or political grounds”.

These are among the questions that must surely be asked from the Solheims and the Akashis of this world (and those of the ‘international community’ whom they represented), in the context of their barely concealed hostility towards the LTTE rebel, their willingness to provide tacit support to the Vanni onslaught in the east, and their continuing willingness to stake anything and everything (of Sri Lanka, of course) on the basis of some hazy confidence they seem to have about their ability to eventually make Prabhakaran see the error of his ways.

      Overall, their continued backing of Prabhakaran lent a measure of credibility to the widely held ‘western conspiracy’ theory according to which the only interest of the ‘West’ in their intervention in the Sri Lankan conflict is that of dismemberment of the nation-state of Sri Lanka. This theory, based though it is on a formidable scatter of evidence that highlights the duplicity of many spokesmen for the ‘West’ in their involvements in the Sri Lankan conflict, lacks, however, a convincing explanation of motive. Somewhat more plausible therefore than such a theory is the contention[19] that the anarchy and violence that engulfed the eastern parts of the island were the consequence of an exclusive preoccupation of the ‘international community’ with the policy of appeasement of the LTTE, “giving second place to the much vaunted ideals of democracy and human rights”.


The foreign edn of TWILIGHT in hardback as well as paperback has, now in 2017, had a seond printing. The ISBN in my pb copy via Yapa is 978-955-665-034-.1. There is also an e-version.


[1]      This is a careful translation of extracts from the Tamil original by a Tamil scholar of impeccable repute.

[2]      According to a version of events carried in the Tamil Times of 15 March 2004 — a version distinctly anti-Karuna — Prabhakaran had initiated the inquiry entrusting that task to Pottu Amman, Nadesan and Thamilendhi several weeks prior to the revolt, and the inquiry could have represented an impending  purge of an emerging ‘Karuna faction’.

[3]      This request was turned down on the grounds that it would constitute a violation of the MOU.

[4]      Although the Norwegian withdrawal from its ‘facilitator’ role, announced on 14 November 2003, was still operative, Norway had continued to maintain close links with the Vanni high-command. Not surprisingly, Erik Solheim was the first foreign envoy to descend on the Vanni after the Karuna revolt. He remained in the company of the Tiger leaders over an unusually long spell of two weeks.

[5]      Four members of the LTTE killer squad were sentenced to death by the Indian courts.  Prabhakaran and Pottu Amman, its principal suspects, are yet to be tried. They continue to figure among the ‘most wanted criminals’ of that country.

[6]      India’s ‘Sri Lanka policy’ changed after Indira’s death in October 1984 when India ceased to provide support to the Tamil militants in Sri Lanka. Following Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, Delhi proscribed the LTTE, and began to maintain close watch over its activities, collaborating with Colombo in coastal surveillance in the Bay of Bengal especially for prevention of arms smuggling.

[7]      Tamil insurrectionary forces in this area at that time were dominated by the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) which did not refrain from violence and terrorism directed at civilians. At the time leading up to the ‘Thimpu Talks’ of 1985 (the first of the four attempts to resolve the Sri Lankan crisis through direct negotiation which was sponsored by the government of India), for example, this outfit carried out massacres at several Sinhalese villages in Ampara District. However, the EPRLF was systematically decimated by the LTTE in 1991. LTTE attacks on rival Tamil insurgent groups such as the EPRLF, TELO, PLOTE, often involving innumerable killings, actually began in 1986 and were sustained over several years well into the early 1990s, until they were no longer a serious challenge to the Tigers in the form of retaliatory violence. Typically, what the LTTE has persisted with thereafter been either ‘revenge killings’ intended to prevent the emergence of rival political forces and punishment meted out to suspected collaborators with the security forces. Somewhat less frequently, the LTTE has also resorted to the murder of prominent Tamil personalities in mainstream politics and in the media.

[8]      This speculation, it later transpired, had no basis other than the ‘007 style’ which RAW operatives had at times tended to adopt in their ‘secret service’ activities in Sri Lanka, and the fact that Vartharaja Perumal (EPRLF leader), at the time he served briefly as Chief Minister of the North-East Provincial Council of the late 1980s, was a protégé of the ‘South Block’ of Delhi who, since his eviction from Sri Lanka was living under the protection of the Indian government for several years. A similar speculation is found in a statement attributed to Karikalan (a Prabhakaran loyalist, operating at the time of the revolt in Batticaloa) according to which Karuna has been acting in collusion with ‘foreign forces’ that have been keen to subvert the Tamil national struggle, implying that the ‘foreign forces’ he refers to is the United States.

[9]      Dennis B McGilvray (1982) “Mukkuvar Vannimai: Tamil Caste and Matrician Structure in Batticaloa, Sri Lanka” in Caste Ideology and Interaction, D B McGilvray (ed.), Cambridge University Press; (1997) “Tamils and Muslims in the Shadow of War: Schism or Continuity”, South Asia, 20, 239-53: (1998) “Arabs, Moors and Muslims: Sri Lankan Muslim Ethnicity in Regional Perspective”, Contributions to Indian Sociology, 32 (2). These studies have been based largely on McGilvray’s own intensive field investigations in Batticaloa and Ampara, and hence provide deep insights into the inter-ethnic relations in this part of the country.

[10]     The reader’s attention is drawn once again to the fact that the discussion in this section of the chapter is based on the facts available to me and my perceptions in the early stages of the ‘Karuna Revolt’.

[11]     There is no doubt whatever that threat and intimidation were employed by the LTTE in the formation of the TNA. It is no surprise that the overwhelming majority among the leaders of Tamil political parties did succumb to the pressures, given the record of systematic extermination by the LTTE of those in leadership positions of all Tamil parties who, in the past, showed even a faint semblance of deviation from the path prescribed by the Tiger leadership.  Up to the time of the ‘Karuna Revolt’, only the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) persisted with its resistance to the LTTE.  Its leader Douglas Devananda, however, barely escaped several assassination attempts by the LTTE, at one of which his survival was almost miraculous given the seriousness of the injuries sustained.

[12]     The radical Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, (JVP) one of the main components of the UPFA, has persistently opposed devolution of power based on a spatial frame, but has advocated other modalities of power-sharing between the Sinhalese and the minority ethnic groups at the ‘Centre’ of the unitary Sri Lankan nation-state. The JVP, however, has been supportive of the concept of administrative decentralization that facilitates genuine people’s participation at the grass-roots.

[13]     See Chapter 5 for a detailed discussion of the so-called ‘Oslo Accord’.

[14]     The TNA consisted of an alliance of the TULF, TELO, EPRLF and the ACTC formed in Mid-October 2001. On the eve of the parliamentary elections of April 2004, the TULF leader, Anandasangaree, left the party in protest against its control by the LTTE and decided to contest the election as an ‘Independent’ candidate.  Other TNA contestants never bothered to conceal that they were lackeys of the LTTE. Nor did the LTTE refrain from using all power it could muster to ensure a spectacular victory for the TNA at these polls.  Yet, even in Batticaloa District where Tamils constitute over 70% of the population, the TNA was able to obtain only 41.4% of the total vote.

[15]     At a meeting between the UPFA leaders and the commanding officers of the security forces held in mid-April 2004, JVP’s Wimal Weerawansa was reported to have made a persuasive case for such a policy change. See, The Sunday Times, 18 April 2004.

[16]     According to press reports, up to the end of May, Karuna had killed 21 Vanni operatives.

[17]     This was reported world-wide, but did not evoke a response either from the ‘Co-Chairs’ or from the human rights wallahs in Colombo.

[18]     This question was raised by ‘Sathy’ (pen-name adopted, according to the writer himself, for fear of LTTE reprisals) in an article titled ‘Cross-Currents’, published in Tamil Times of 15 July 2004, in which he also asks: “Why should anyone, UPFA government and opposition UNF included, be apologetic about giving protection to Karuna at a time when the Vanni-based LTTE deployed its fighting forces to quell an internal dissent through the force of arms and, in the process, violated many provisions of the ceasefire agreement?”

[19]     UTHR-J, Bulletin No. 36, May 2004.


Leave a comment

Filed under accountability, devolution, disparagement, Eelam, historical interpretation, Indian Ocean politics, landscape wondrous, life stories, LTTE, military strategy, politIcal discourse, power politics, power sharing, Rajapaksa regime, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, Tamil Tiger fighters, truth as casualty of war, unusual people, vengeance

Leave a Reply