Published : Apr 09, 2004 00:00 IST

In the most serious internal crisis the LTTE has faced so far, the Eastern commander `Col.' Karuna is pitted against the North-dominated `high command'. The latter has responded with restraint, but how long will the standoff last? What are the chances of success of the rebellion?

AN uneasily tense peace prevails in Sri Lanka' s Eastern province, thanks to the power struggle between the leadership of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and its former regional commander Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan alias "Col" Karuna or Karuna Amman (uncle). Although Karuna's rebellion against LTTE chief V. Prabakaran is the most serious crisis of its kind to affect the Tigers in their 28-year-old history, the hierarchy has displayed remarkable restraint so far. Instead of launching a powerful military offensive against the renegade Tiger chieftain, the LTTE is overtly soft-pedalling the issue while engaging covertly in activities aimed at undermining Karuna.

LTTE political wing head S.P. Tamilchelvan has announced that Prabakaran has explicitly instructed his cadre to refrain from any military action to retrieve the situation. Assuring the world at large that the Tigers will resolve the crisis very quickly, Tamilchelvan also stated that there would be no bloodshed. Interestingly, Tamilchelvan had earlier dismissed the Karuna affair as a minor matter and ridiculed Karuna as a single individual without any support.

Apparently, the LTTE hierarchy has revised its stance on Karuna and recognises the threat he poses, after several weeks of a politico-military standoff. The glib pronouncements of Tamilchelvan, or for that matter any Tiger leader, are to be viewed sceptically, given the LTTE's track record of deception and acting in bad faith. In this case, however, there seems to be evidence that the "official" Tigers are not keen to invade the East and conduct a frontal assault against Karuna and his rebel band of "unofficial" Tigers. Not for the moment at least. The LTTE may be trying to project an image of magnanimity on this count but the realpolitik nature of the situation suggests that the Tigers are making a virtue out of necessity.

A complex set of factors has contributed so far in circumscribing the Tigers and generally maintaining peace. Not the least among them is the "uncertainty" factor where the Tigers themselves are not sure of an immediate military victory or about the consequences of a military action. As to how long this stalemate will continue is anybody's guess.

If the Karuna crisis had erupted during a time of war as in the case of Mahatiya, the Tigers could have swiftly decimated the "offenders". The former LTTE deputy leader, Gopalaswamy Mahendrarajah alias Mahatiya, was arrested along with around 250 of his suspected supporters on charges of treason on July 31, 1993. He was detained, tortured and interrogated by the Tiger intelligence wing, led by Pottu Amman, at an undisclosed location. A confession of guilt was forcibly extracted, filmed and shown on video to Tiger cadre. Thereafter Mahatiya was executed. So too were many of his one-time bodyguards and supporters. Several hundreds of suspected Mahatiya confidants were detained for prolonged periods and released. The LTTE was purged of all alleged pro-Mahatiya elements.

The Mahatiya affair was the single biggest internal calamity to befall the Tigers prior to Karuna's rebellion. While Prabakaran, aided by Pottu Amman, was able to take swift action on that issue, he is unable to do so now. This is because, unlike Mahatiya who never revolted openly or urged his followers to do so, Karuna has rebelled openly and brought the issue into the public domain. Moreover, Mahatiya had no "army" to fight for him or "territory" under his control, unlike Karuna. In fact, Karuna, who represented the LTTE at peace talks in various parts of the world, is a celebrity of sorts. Mahatiya was virtually unknown outside Sri Lanka and India.

Besides, if the war was on, the LTTE could have engaged in several rounds of military action to end Karuna's rebellion and cover it up. Fortunately for Karuna, the peace process is on. A ceasefire is in force. If the LTTE were to launch a military action openly, it would have amounted to a violation of the ceasefire. If Karuna resists and fighting ensues, the ceasefire itself could be jeopardised. If the Sri Lankan armed forces are drawn into this intra-Tiger conflict, the ceasefire would collapse and war would begin. In that case, the LTTE would be blamed for precipitating war and roundly condemned by the international community.

There is also a very practical reason for the restraint shown by the Tigers. Karuna's rebellion is confined to the Batticaloa and Amparai districts of the Eastern province. Karuna only wants to be the king of the East. He does not want to dislodge Prabakaran from the leader's position. Neither does he want to extend his domain outside the East. The LTTE will be faulted for "invading" the East under such circumstances. More important, the LTTE led by Prabakaran does not control the Batticaloa-Amparai Tigers. The majority of the Eastern Tiger cadre have so far remained loyal to Karuna. Karuna controls the territory and has set up security cordons to detect and prevent infiltration or an invasion.

Against such a backdrop, it is a formidable task to oust Karuna through a military push. Moreover, success is not guaranteed. The chances are that Karuna, after some initial fighting, could slip into guerilla warfare against his ex-comrades. Thereafter the fighting would be protracted, with Karuna fighting with the advantage of being on his home turf.

Even if the LTTE succeeds in destroying Karuna after a protracted campaign of violence, the consequences would be terrible. Karuna will be glorified as an Eastern martyr. Eastern cadres who supported Prabakaran will be depicted as quislings. It will also widen the North-East divide. The LTTE will never be as strong as it was in the East before.

The military balance between Karuna and the mainstream LTTE is quite interesting and precariously fluid. In recent times, the Eastern component comprising Batticaloa and Amparai has become almost indispensable to the LTTE. The cadre strength of the LTTE is about 25,000 now. Of these, around 7,000 are either seniors whose fighting days are over, or injured and maimed fighters who cannot engage in active fighting now. This leaves about 18,000 fighters, including men and women. About 7,500 of them are from Batticaloa and Amparai districts. The region has become the provider of the largest segment of Tiger cadre in recent times. More than 2,000 cadre were recruited or conscripted from the Eastern region after the ceasefire came into force. The rest of the North-East could swell their numbers by only 500 to 600 during the ceasefire.

Another post-peace problem has been the phenomenon of several hundred Tiger cadre from the North leaving the movement. Moreover, not all of the 7,500 cadre from the East are in their native region. An estimated 1,800 of the Eastern cadre were in the North before the crisis erupted. Since then another 200 Eastern cadre have left Karuna and crossed over to the Wanni. Of the 1,800 Eastern cadre, 600 are maintained as a distinct entity. They are the first division of the Jeyanthan brigade, commanded now by Jegathaan. Until recently, these men were deployed on the Northern border along the Kilaly-Eluthumadduvaal-Nagar Lovil axis in the Jaffna peninsula. They manned the security lines and sentry posts to the south of Muhamaalai in the Jaffna peninsula.

After the Karuna rebellion the Eastern brigade became suspect. Its members were relieved of their duties, deprived of arms and kept under mass house arrest. They are being screened and debriefed by Pottu Amman and other Eastern Tiger leaders loyal to Prabakaran, such as Ramesh, Ram, Praba and Ramanan. In addition to this, there are 400 Eastern cadre serving as bodyguards to important Tiger leaders. Prabakaran himself had 75 Easterners in his trusted bodyguard unit of 200. It is reported that the bodyguard in dark glasses seen standing behind Prabakaran during the press conference held in Kilinochchi on April 10,2002 was an Easterner. Another 800 Easterners are serving in various departments and sections of the LTTE in the North. The Sea Tigers, the intelligence wing, the economic unit, the revenue unit, the medical corps, the artillery unit, the political sections of both men and women, the communications corps, the leopard commando unit and even the administrative bodies in the North are manned by Easterners in sizable numbers. The majority of Sea Tigers and members of the Black Tiger suicide squad are from the East.

There are 32 departments-cum-fighting formations in the LTTE. Of these none is headed by Easterners, but all rely heavily on recruits from the region. Three key figures from the East serving in the North are Puthiyavan of the LTTE administrative secretariat, Nalan of the medical corps and Roshan of the communications wing. Except for a select few, most of these men are suspect now. They are being debriefed and screened. Easterners whose loyalties are not suspect and who are willing to fight Karuna will be forged into special units to combat him.

THE latest split is both horizontal and vertical. With 1,800 of the 7,500 Eastern cadre deployed in key positions in the North, the repercussions of a regional split could be severe if mishandled. Various LTTE sections in the North could become dysfunctional if totally cleansed of Eastern cadre. At the same time, continuing to keep them in active service in the North could pose potential security risks. These cadre cannot be quarantined forever. So the option available for Prabakaran is to throw them into battle and ask them to prove their loyalty by fighting their regional brethren.

Militarily and politically, Prabakaran is unable and unwilling to deploy northern cadre to fight Karuna in the East. He would prefer to send in Eastern cadre for the job because they know the terrain and the political fallout would be less risky. The phenomenon of Northern fighters battling and killing Eastern cadre could alienate the entire East from the North. Senior Batticaloa leaders who defected to Kilinochchi after Karuna's rebellion have been appointed "legitimate" Eastern Tiger leaders by Prabakaran. Ramesh is the special commander for both Amparai and Batticaloa. While Ram is the military commander, Praba is deputy military commander. Ramanan is military intelligence chief and Kausalyan the political commissar.

After these defections, Karuna too has reappointed his senior officials. While Rabat is the senior military commander, Thatha and Visu have been appointed deputy military chief and political commissar respectively. Thurai is the new administrative head and Nilavini the women's brigade commander. Premini has been appointed the women's political wing head and Bawa is the new Amparai district head. Of the 7,500 Eastern cadre, 5,700 were in Batticaloa and Amparai at the time of the split. Karuna has two divisions of the Jeyanthan brigade under his command. He also has the Visalagan and Vinothan men's brigades, the Anbarasi and Mathana women's brigades, and the Johnson artillery unit under his command. Eastern officer cadre have passed out from the Balendra officers training college. Almost all middle and junior level officers are beholden to Karuna. He also has an impressive arsenal of heavy artillery. Initially these big guns were moved into the East to pound the Batticaloa town camp, the Veechukalmunai-Pudoor complex, and the Vavunatheevu and Kallady camps if war broke out. Now they are mounted to the south of Trincomalee in anticipation of a Tiger strike.

Prabakaran is relying on Sornam, the senior commander from Trincomalee, to lead the invasion into Batticaloa when the time is ripe. Currently Sornam is camping along the northern banks of the Verugal river in Trincomalee district. The crocodile-infested river demarcates Batticaloa and Trincomalee districts. Karuna has deployed about 800 cadre in the Maavadichenai sector to prevent an invasion across Verugal. The defenders are commanded by Karuna's brother Reggie. The long-range artillery is also a deterrent.

In addition, Karuna's cadre are also patrolling the shores along Vaaharai, Kaluwankerny, Panichankerny and other areas anticipating a sea-borne invasion. The three Eastern Tiger coastal camps of Vaaharai, Paalchenai and Challaitheevu are also under Karuna's control. Key highways and trunk roads coming into the district are also patrolled and suspect vehicles and passengers checked. Key roads in the interior are also patrolled and checked regularly. Karuna fears infiltration by Pottu Amman's men. Large-scale invasion through clandestine routes are also suspected. All three routes of the famous "Beirut trail" linking the North and the East via jungles are also watched. Apparently, Karuna hopes to keep Batticaloa "sealed" as long as possible.

However, Karuna knows that he cannot be under a permanent state of siege for long. Although the Eastern military situation is under Karuna's control for now, the equilibrium could change if and when the "official" Tigers strike back. In a bid to safeguard himself, Karuna has expelled several people closely connected to the LTTE. He has closed down LTTE courts, police stations, tax offices, intelligence offices and administrative units. The Northern Tamils manning them have been sent away. In the process, several Jaffna academics and students in the Batticaloa Eastern University have also been sent away. Several Jaffna traders and a few professionals were also intimidated and sent away. Others left out of fear. Karuna justifies this as a "pressure tactic" to influence the LTTE in the Wanni. However, such moves have created a rift between the Northern and Eastern Tamils in Batticaloa.

The important question perplexing many people is whether all of Karuna's men will fight for him in case there is an open confrontation. How many will stay with him through thick and thin? The loyalties of the LTTE cadre are divided with allegiance to Prabakaran and Karuna. It is a moot point as to whether they would be willing to fight in an internal power struggle for one against the other. Only time will tell.

Meanwhile, Karuna has several troubles facing him on the military front. Of the 5,700 cadre in the East, around 2,000 are young and inexperienced. The greater part of them were recruited or conscripted after the ceasefire and have not seen battle. Already about 1,000 of Karuna's cadre have said they want to be neutral in this internal struggle and have "temporarily" left the LTTE. Karuna, like Prabakaran, knows that people cannot be forced to fight well and has opted to let them go rather than confine them through force. About 200 of the cadre have fled the East to the North. Karuna has also sent home about 500 of the new and young women recruits. They have been asked to remain in reserve for now. They could be called up for fighting duty if the need arises. For the time being, sending them home eases the financial burden of feeding and maintaining them. The male-female ratio among the Eastern tiger cadre is three is to two.

Currently, of the original 5,700 cadre in the East, only 2,500 to 3,000 could be termed as experienced fighter cadre ready, willing and able to fight and die for Karuna. It remains to be seen as to how many of them will remain loyal in the future.

THE mainstream LTTE has been using every counter-propaganda tactic to vilify and discredit Karuna. Among the charges levelled against him are corruption, misappropriation of funds, illicit sexual liaisons with senior women Tiger leaders, internal killings and torture, sending wife and children safely to Malaysia, involvement with an external force, conspiring with the Colombo government, selling out Tamil nationalism, being a cat's paw of those seeking to break up North-East unity and so on. The LTTE game plan seems to be that of waiting and undermining Karuna through this type of propaganda. If more and more loyal cadre believe this propaganda and get alienated from Karuna, his position will be weakened. The Eastern people too would turn against him. Under such circumstances, it would be easier to destroy him and also contain a regional backlash.

Knowing the LTTE strategy, Karuna has been acting accordingly to counter it. Although Karuna has received the sympathy of the international, Sinhala and English media, the Tamil press in Colombo has been hostile. Tamil newspapers have been generally supportive of the mainstream LTTE and published the anti-Karuna propaganda dished out by the LTTE. Enraged Karuna supporters have burnt copies of the Virakesari, Thinakkural and Sudar Oli and "banned" these newspapers in Batticaloa. Karuna uses the four-page Tamil daily Thamil Alai to propagate his point of view in Batticaloa and Amparai. Karuna's idea is to prevent information unfavourable to him from being provided to the people of Batticaloa and promote his own line. This is not an easy task given the reach of radio, television and electronic mail. Yet Karuna persists in trying to embargo information.

Karuna's aim is to retain the goodwill and faith of his cadre and people as long as possible. Even if more cadre defect, Karuna is said to be sure of the loyalty of 1,000 to 1,500. It is reported that at least 500 are ready to die for him as Black Tigers. If this holds true, then Karuna could prove a formidable fighting machine. The Batticaloa district is bisected by 30 miles (48 km) of the Batticaloa lagoon, which runs parallel to the sea. The littoral to the east of the lagoon is known as Eluvaankarai, or shore of the rising sun. The hinterland to the west of the lagoon is known as Paduvaankarai, or shore of the setting sun. The littoral has a mixed Tamil and Muslim population, with villages of both communities being interspersed. The Paduvaankarai hinterland, a Karuna stronghold, is homogeneously Tamil. His two premier base complexes, Thenagam and Meenagam, are located in this area. The bulk of his cadre too are housed in this area.

With several stretches of jungle such as Kudumbimalai, Vada Munai, Unichai, Punanai, Bakiella, Kanchikudichaaru and Sangamankandy, the terrain is certainly conducive to guerilla warfare. So, even if the LTTE transports enough cadre to outnumber Karuna's, the latter can abandon positional warfare and opt for guerilla tactics against the LTTE. Given the Karuna faction's better knowledge of the terrain and support of the Eastern people, the fight could be a protracted one. The longer it takes, the greater the damage to the LTTE.

Prabakaran, aware of such facts, will hope to eliminate Karuna by assassinating or through a quick military strike, sharp and surgical. However, Karuna, a one-time devout disciple of Prabakaran, knows all the stratagems of his former boss. Hence he avoids unnecessary movement and has confined himself to the Tharavai base with three outer circles of cadre guarding him.

Another question concerns Karuna's finances. In the Batticaloa and Amparai region the Tigers reportedly generated Rs.46 lakhs a day as income prior to the split. This revenue comes from taxes on businesses, professionals and transporters and from LTTE-run ventures in agriculture, fisheries, forestry and stone quarrying. The point is whether Karuna can continue to generate the same amount of money to sustain his rebellion. If the generation of finances is not adequate, his group will start to exploit the people ruthlessly for more money. Similarly, shortage of cadre may result in forcible conscription. These could alienate the people.

Another point concerns Karuna's ability to get enough military supplies to sustain a long power struggle. Whatever his strengths, the ability to procure arms and armaments independent of the LTTE seems to be a highly unlikely proposition at present. Unless Karuna enters into an arrangement with an extraneous force, continuous arms supply could be a problem. Karuna has from the time of his rebellion tried to forge a separate understanding with the powers that be in Colombo. He wanted Norway to facilitate a separate memorandum of understanding between himself and Colombo. Karuna claimed that the ceasefire signed by Prabakaran would not bind him, and yet he was willing to abide by it until a new one was signed. Karuna cannot fight Colombo and Kilinochchi at the same time. He seems to prefer a deal with Colombo.

The LTTE, however, acted fast and foreclosed Karuna's option. The Tigers threatened to pull out of the ceasefire if Karuna was recognised. This put all moves in that direction on hold in Colombo. Clandestine help may be on the cards. Despite LTTE threats, the possibility of the Tigers resuming war now seems unlikely because without Karuna and his Eastern cadre the LTTE will not be able to fight as effectively as before. Besides, a resumption of war by the LTTE would make the international community come down heavily on it. Also, it would create an opening for Karuna. Colombo would like to neutralise Karuna by signing a separate ceasefire. This will keep the Eastern front quiet and permit Colombo to target the North more aggressively. Thus the recognition sought by Karuna would be achieved.

At best Karuna can become someone like the "accredited" Afghan warlord Rasheed Dostum and control territory. At worst he could be the leader of a military outfit fighting alongside the Sri Lanka Army against the Tigers. There are many such renegade outfits in the East like the Mohan group of the People's Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), the Razeek group of the Eeelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) and the Varathan group of the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO). In the event of such a development, the "Karuna group of the LTTE" could be the biggest of its kind in Sri Lanka.

With the country's general elections scheduled for the first week of April, Karuna is also aiming to gain indirect political power to enhance his bargaining clout vis-a-vis Colombo. Batticaloa district has five and Amparai seven seats in Parliament. The Tamils, according to the population ratio, can hope to get a maximum of four and two seats in Batticaloa and Amparai respectively. The minimum is three and one. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) is backed by the LTTE in the elections. With the split, most of the TNA candidates are backing Karuna without antagonising Prabakaran. In any event, with Karuna calling the shots in the East, few candidates can afford to defy him now. Hence the likelihood that TNA men and women sympathetic to Karuna would be elected MPs.

If Karuna gets three or four loyalists into Parliament, then he too could become an important player if no party gets a majority in the elections. In the hectic deals that are likely to follow a fractured electoral verdict, even people like Karuna could become important enough to make or unmake governments. Already there is talk of a Karuna loyalist, Rajan Sathiyamoorthy, becoming a Minister in such a situation. If that does happen, Karuna stands a better chance of gaining recognition. The LTTE, on the other hand, will have a say over more Northern seats through the TNA and use that leverage to contain Karuna. If so the LTTE will have to cooperate with the peace process more genuinely and intensively. This augurs well for the peace process at least for a while. Thus Karuna would have been of some positive use.

THERE is no denying the fact that Karuna has a horrible past and is a gross violator of human rights. But the harsh reality is that Karuna's split with the LTTE has given Colombo a golden opportunity to manipulate events in its favour. It would be foolish to ignore such a windfall. If Karuna truly has a reformist agenda and is genuinely desirous of peace and development for the Eastern Tamil people, he has no choice other than to establish peace with Colombo. This also means that he has to arrive at an understanding with the Muslim and Sinhala people of the region. He will have to mend fences with the Northern Tamils living in the East too.

Importantly, Karuna, in his anxiety to condemn the LTTE leadership as trying to impose Northern hegemony on the East, has made several statements that seem to go against the grain of broader Tamil nationalism. The North-East Province merger, brought about through the Indo-Sri Lanka accord of 1987, is a basic principle of Tamil nationalism. The North-Eastern Province is seen as the traditional homeland of Tamils and Muslims. It is also recognised as an area of "historic habitation" of the Tamils in the Indo-Sri Lanka accord. Yet Karuna has opposed such a linkage and wants both provinces to be separate. This position and his overwhelming zeal in rupturing North-East unity is not well received even by some of his supporters.

Karuna's anti-Prabakaran line too seems to have not gone down well with some of his supporters. Earlier, he refrained from attacking Prabakaran and called the Tiger chief a "god". Later Karuna allowed Prabakaran's effigies to be burnt and pictures destroyed. Many people are not happy with this as most Tamils are supportive of both Karuna and Prabakaran. As former TULF parliamentarian Chandranehru Ariyanayagam said, "The Tamil national leader and the Eastern commander are the right and left eyes of the Tamil people." Karuna's direct challenge of Prabakaran is troubling many. It is difficult to predict what the people and cadre would decide if the choice is between Prabakaran and Karuna. The LTTE is sure that Prabakaran's charisma would be enough to wean people away gradually from Karuna. This, however, would take a long time and Karuna could inflict much damage on the LTTE before that.

Well-wishers of the LTTE and ardent Tamil nationalists are fearful of a long internecine warfare and would like to bring about reconciliation between the two groups. The LTTE's Eastern wing is amenable to a reconciliation if complete autonomy is assured. A group of Eastern intellectuals are now negotiating a deal. Although there is no guarantee that the move will succeed, there is hope that a settlement is possible. Karuna himself is sceptical; he confided to a Tamil journalist that he was suspicious of the LTTE's intentions about peace. He felt that it was a trap to make him relax his guard and the Tigers would use the opportunity to assassinate or abduct him.

Whatever these suspicions, there are several influential circles that doubt whether the rift will continue. This suspicion is preventing an early accommodation of Karuna by other forces. There is a lingering doubt on two counts. One is whether the split is really deep and whether rapprochement between both factions could be possible in the future. The second is whether Karuna can withstand the LTTE onslaught and survive independently for a sufficient period of time. Could he continue to retain the support of his cadre and people for a significant period of time? If the split is indeed permanent and Karuna demonstrates that he has the stamina to survive Tiger attacks, then both Colombo and other powerful forces could look at the Karuna phenomenon differently. This may result in Karuna becoming a powerful player in the resolution of the ethnic crisis. There will be four parties at the negotiating table - the Sinhalese, Muslims and the Northern and Eastern Tamils.

In the final analysis, Karuna's fortunes will depend a lot on international opinion. Will he be seen as a wild factor impeding the peace process or as a force conducive to peace in the long run despite the current crisis? If he is viewed as a positive influence, his chances of survival are greater. The relative calm in the East could shatter after the elections. Both Karuna and Prabakaran want the elections to occur without much trouble and both will try and get their proxies elected. For the LTTE, it will also provide time and space to assemble an Eastern militia, consisting of cadre already deployed in the Wanni, to combat Karuna's cadre. The fight will be portrayed as an East versus East confrontation.

Although Prabakaran will like to win this fight without bloodshed, it is not feasible. A victory without bloodshed is possible only if Karuna's cadre turn against him and defect to Prabakaran's side, or some important deputies aided by Pottu Amman's intelligence wing succeed in assassinating Karuna. Otherwise, the people of Batticaloa and Amparai should rise against him. If none of these happens, Karuna's position would be strengthened. Open confrontation could become inevitable at some point of time.

Sporadic fighting could begin after the elections. The coming elections and the subsequent developments could have a lasting effect in charting the destiny of the island nation. Intertwined in this major process will be the future of Karuna too. One thing, however, is definite. Whatever the outcome of this power struggle between Karuna and the LTTE leadership, the Eastern warlord will go down in history as the man who revolted against Prabakaran openly. Whatever the final result, the LTTE would have been weakened considerably. Also shaken would be North-Eastern Tamil unity.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment