`They can't function without me'

Print edition : April 09, 2004

Interview with 'Col.' Karuna.

MILES of sheer nothingness separates Karuna, the expelled rebellious military commander of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), from the rest of the island. He extended a firm handshake, deep inside eastern Sri Lanka's rebel-held Batticaloa on March 11. That was the second meeting between this correspondent and Karuna. The first was far back in time and space, much further in context. It was in Thailand, two years ago, when the story was all about the euphoria over the peace talks between the Sri Lankan government and the Tigers.

He, along with the LTTE's political wing leader, S.P. Tamilchelvan, was in the LTTE's negotiating team for the second round of talks in late October 2002.

"We are not here as tourists, but on work," he said on November 1, 2002, at the plush hotel lobby of the Rose Garden resort in Nakorn Pathom in Thailand. His first comment to the international media then had the ring of a rebel who knew what he was up to. In earnest, he and Tamilchelvan answered questions, supplemented each other and agreed on everything the other said. Asked to comment on his erstwhile battlefield adversary - Maj. Gen. Shantha Kottegoda, who led the government troops against his forces - who was on the government's negotiating team as an adviser, Karuna said: "We are not fighting now. We are friends. If the war starts again, we will see."

Sixteen months later, on March 11, 2004, this correspondent, along with colleagues from an international news agency, drove into rebel-held eastern Sri Lanka in a van with its nervous owner at the wheel. The journalists, eager to reach the venue at the earliest, were stumped by his wariness, born of the fear of the van breaking down in rebel territory.

"Just miles of nothing!" a fellow journalist said, surveying the surroundings. "Just drive fast through the puddles! That's the only way you can manage it," another correspondent told the driver. Racing ahead were two LTTE cadres on a motorbike - rifles dangling from their shoulders - leading the team to Karuna's camp.

Several miles and a few puddles later came an LTTE checkpoint. Armed cadres peered intently. After a swift security check, the van drove into the Meenagam camp, from where Karuna had spoken to a few correspondents over the past few days. At the forecourt of a small house was Karuna, extending a firm handshake. In thousands of directly spoken words, punctuated by smiles and chuckles, Karuna came across as one who knew what he was up against. The words were perhaps too direct, bordering on personal animosity, coming as they did from someone who was LTTE chief Prabakaran's most-trusted military lieutenant until March 6.

"I want to spend my final days here," said the 37-year-old, who joined the LTTE 20 years ago, in the aftermath of the 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom.

Excerpts from the interview:

What are your reasons for leaving the LTTE on March 3?

Discrimination within our organisation. I don't feel our leader [V. Prabakaran], has shown regard for the lives of our [eastern] fighters. For several years our fighters were martyred in the Wanni battlefields. From the time the Indian Army came here - I had then sent bodyguards for our leader - our battalions are going to the Wanni to safeguard the leader. Even now, 600 fighters are in the Wanni. Parents don't like children to be deployed during peace. When we recruited here just before the [ceasefire] agreement, most of them - nearly 90 per cent - volunteered. But parents had one request: "We will give them if it is for defending Batticaloa-Amparai; please don't send them to the Wanni." At that time, mothers were given promises in temples.

You promised them?

I did not go. Our organisation did. The one who promised - Ramesh, my deputy - has now run away in fear. Despite that, we sent fighters. The parents protested, but I suppressed them saying, "It is not a problem. I have sent them for a minor necessity. Don't worry. Stop the protests."

There have been several problems within the organisation before you went public. Did you weigh the impact of your move on the LTTE?

Certainly. There will be an impact. They can't function without me. Even if they do, they can't be strong. They may become a real guerrilla movement, but they can't continue as a conventional army. We gave 75 per cent of the strength. We gave fighters, introduced technology and tactics into the military.

What tactics?

Several. For instance, the organisation does not know defence battles. I introduced it. You know the Jaffna Peninsula. With all their strength, they came running in three months. Later, during Operation Jayasikuru, we set up defences and attacked. As I had read a lot of books on history of warfare - Stalingrad, Hitler, Rommell - I knew the importance of defence. We have conducted defence colleges in the Wanni. Most of those in the Wanni leadership have served under my command. There is no problem with that. So it has had a big impact.

Do you think your action affects concepts such as traditional homelands and the Thimphu principles?

I am not even concerned that they will be affected because the northern, Wanni leadership think arrogantly that they are the educated lot; they can do everything; and they go on to suppress other communities. That is not acceptable. They should have shared resources and administrative positions. So when a country or a solution comes what are they going to do? Even then our people are going to be suppressed by them.

From the beginning, there are severe problems between the Jaffna man and the Batticaloa man. When a person goes from here to Jaffna, they give even water only in a serattai (coconut shell).

We thought there will be change and progress with the war. Within the LTTE there was no problem in the beginning. Till their work was done, they took care of us well. With passage of time, we find discrimination within the organisation. Don't you understand by looking at the administrative positions? So what is going to come of it? This arrogant behaviour programmed in their DNA is revealed (laughs aloud). How can we continue to accept that?

Really, before the war there was a good relationship between Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims here. A leader, Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan - a Jaffna man, first started the problem in Colombo.

In the 1983 riots, the Jaffna Tamils were affected, not the eastern people. They were not even there in Colombo. When the conflict started, due to sentiments, we supported northern Tamils. I was the first to go from here. When I went, there was no Army here in Batticaloa-Amparai.

I was studying Advanced Level in school. When I went, there were no Sri Lankan forces here. When we started attacking there, destruction started here. In the beginning, we went to support them; but there was no oppression against us. There was standardisation, even that was only advantageous to Batticaloa. It was Jaffna that was affected. There was one problem here - they were carrying out some colonisation. Apart from that I don't think there was a big problem here. I don't think it will be a big problem now.

In the LTTE there is a disciplinary code. Would you continue to follow it? You are also running an LTTE here.

That discipline will be there. We are not changing the name. We will be the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam - Batticaloa-Amparai. We have not given ourselves a name or changed the name. It is the same flag. They are not qualified to expel us. We gave them 75 per cent of their strength all these days. That was our historical duty. Even they have not said that we are not the LTTE. If they say that then we have to say, "leader, please go", because it is I who saved him all along. He is not in a position to say that. When our demands were known to the international community, they said it was an individual's problem. If it were so, I would have run abroad first. I need not live here, if I were to think of my life. If it was an individual's problem, I should have just kept quiet, stayed aloof and gone my way saying, "Do whatever you want." But as I raised these issues, the world knows about it.

Political killings are also cited ...

That is true. The problem there is the atrocity of the intelligence gang, which is directly under [the LTTE intelligence wing leader] Pottu [Amman]. Pottu is a terrorist. That is what I can tell you. None of his work is acceptable to the international community. He has personal influence on the leader. They do not accept our views. We are consistently for conventional war - ground battles, raids, attacks. I really did not like these games of setting off bombs, killing civilians. For example, during the Jayasikuru operations, a train was bombed. I said: "Hey, we are fighting battles, attaining martyrdom and waging a war. No problem if you attack a bank, or the twin towers, because they are economic targets. But why bomb a train?

Did you ask that?

Yes. Is it not a civilian target? Why should we be fighting so much, attaining martyrdom? They were dismissive: "You don't know these things." We pointed out several problems like this, but they did not accept them. The atrocities of that intelligence gang increased here. We are responsible for Batticaloa-Amparai. The Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) co-ordinates with us, we give them assurances that there will be no problem. Then the next day there will be an incident. We ask [the intelligence] "is there any link with you in this?" They would say, "We don't know." Then the SLMM would ask us: "What is this? You guys are hopeless." Then we would say: "Oh! We don't know who is doing this. It could be other groups". Over a period of time we realised that they were involved. They are linked in everything - hijacking vehicles, abductions, killings. I said: "If intelligence is to operate here they must function under my control, or they must be removed from here immediately." They did not accept it, so I ordered the intelligence out of here, as this is a dangerous job and we are getting a bad name. What they are doing is to portray us as villains; that we are not favouring peace. My inference is that they wanted to blame us.

What happened on March 3 when you informed Norway that you are leaving the LTTE?

I had written a letter to the leader, very humbly. "We regard you as God, please accept our demands. You have appointed 30 administrative heads, none of them is from Batticaloa-Amparai, so they cannot run the administration here. So I will run it from directly under your control, as we have the capacity to do so." He said that he couldn't permit it. I said: "I don't approve fighters coming. I want to function from here." He said: "No. You cannot do that. If you want, you come here or quit [the LTTE]." That was internal communication. I decided that this will not work. I told Norway immediately on March 3: "We have parted ways with the LTTE from today." On March 6, they decided to expel us. That was a ridiculous move.

Do you think the reasons for Tamil nationalism, prevalent during the war, continue to exist?

There is concern now amongst all if Tamil nationalism will be broken because of this. There is no need to abandon Tamil nationalism, as this is not a problem between the people of the north and the people of the east. This is a problem concerning the eastern people and the eastern fighters and the Wanni leadership. If the northern people reject the Wanni leadership, Tamil nationalism will be saved.

Do you still believe in Tamil nationalism?

Yes. I told you, I believe that when the northern Tamil Eelam people discard the Wanni leadership, Tamil nationalism will be rescued. Why I say that is because even there nearly 80 per cent are opposed. If they had popular support, they could have recruited fighters there. Why are we recruiting more from these two districts? You must understand that there is a severe opposition to them there - their taxes, their activities, their behaviour, their approach, their capitalist behaviour, their luxurious lives.

Take, for example, Kilinochchi town. When we captured it - I was the one who captured it, leading our troops - there was only one dog alive in that town. It was flattened. Today see Kilinochchi, it has been built up like a town in Colombo! At the same time, you would have seen conditions in Batticaloa's villages. All development is focussed there. They collect overseas funds. None of it comes here. I had asked them several times to at least reconstruct the houses of our martyrs. Some of our martyrs' families are beggars. I had asked for some allocation to rehabilitate them. They did not do so till the end. They accuse us of financial misappropriation. We get only Rs.1 crore from the Wanni monthly. They collect Rs.50 crores. So it is I who should ask them, "What have you done to the remaining money?" We used to get Rs.1 crore for more than 5,000 cadres. After food and clothing, it is really subsistence. What financial misappropriation can we do with this? The problem is that they are attempting to cover up our just demands by raising such issues.

You grew up in the LTTE since your school days. At this moment of parting, what are you views on the principles that the LTTE represented?

I was truly, completely convinced of them. With great reverence to the leader, I worked with conviction all these years. However, with time, the attitude of the leader changed - his activities co-ordinated with the Jaffna leadership. As this kept increasing, we got disenchanted with the leadership. Nothing we ask for is even considered. Even among his colleagues, three cannot be in the organisation according to our rules. Pottu, Tamilendhi and Nadesan [the heads of intelligence, finance and police]. Tamilendhi is responsible for finance. According to our rules, none can surrender. They must bite the cyanide pill. During the war against the Indian army, he surrendered to Indian troops. Unable to consume cyanide, he surrendered and also betrayed us. He returned during the prisoners' exchange when the Indian army left. How can you keep such a person in-charge of finance in an organisation that has made great sacrifices in the name of Black Tigers, Sea Tigers ... at the same time, ordinary soldiers have been fired for surrendering. I have continuously asked what kind of justice is this. They did not accept. The same thing with Nadesar. In the name of the police force, there is a lot of harassment. Taxing the poor and so on. I have dismantled the police structure here.

As far as Pottar (Pottu Amman) is concerned, he does not have a broad thinking. Only a narrow mindset - all he can do is plot murders and set off bombs. He knows nothing else. With such a kodooravadhi (cruel man) next to him... the leader has these three as his advisers.

The military commanders there are a pitiable lot. They are in the battlefield and we don't blame them at any point. The leader works on the advice of these three people. Now he does not think of our lives, if he had done so, he would have not called for us. He could have planned a political programme with [the political wing leader] Tamilchelvan. If they know that there would be war, they could have recruited there. Why did they not do that? They have the confidence that from here they can get the innocent people. That is becoming clear.

You were a member of the LTTE's team that negotiated with the Sri Lankan government. Were you surprised when your leader named you for this role? What were your experiences?

It was a surprise. Questions would have been raised if someone from the east was not in the team. I feel that was the reason why I was nominated, not for any correct approach. However, the travels were truly a good experience. I could learn a lot of things. I could see some societies, various developments.

Even our leader has given up the demand for Tamil Eelam. His demands now are for a federal system and internal self-determination. That is why we went for talks. Now we can't be accused of giving it up or going back on nationalism. We can't be blamed.

Do you say that your leader has abandoned it?

You would have noticed his position in last year's Heroes' Day speech. I think he has given it up.

You were trained in India. The relationship between India, the LTTE and the Sri Lankan conflict is a much-discussed subject. What are your views?

That was the biggest setback to our struggle. We should have stopped with waging war against the Indian army. Going back and assassinating Rajiv Gandhi, killing him in Tamil Nadu, is not an acceptable act. I consider it the gravest mistake committed by our intelligence wing. This is an obvious and well-known problem. That was the reason why our liberation struggle deteriorated so badly... . The enthusiasm and support that the people of Tamil Nadu had.

I have been a long time in several parts of Tamil Nadu. I underwent training in Salem district - in Kolattur. I have stayed in Madurai, in Madras (Chennai), I have moved closely with a lot of Tamilians. There is a history of them welcoming us enthusiastically as freedom fighters. Even when the Indian Army came here to fight us, we had their support. They accepted us even then though Indian lives were being lost. They accepted even that. Even then there were protests in Tamil Nadu asking the Indian army to leave. But the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi ... . As far as I am concerned, we should have stopped. OK. On the basis of retaliation, we attacked their Army. Their Army left. After that what is the need for rage? It is because of that that we have such a bad reputation in the world. We have been trying to say this on and off, but our version is not being accepted (chuckles).

You have been in the LTTE for 20 years, which started as a small group and is now seen by the world with fear and awe. Now that you are opposing it, what is your opinion of the LTTE? What is the hidden meaning behind your decision?

It is we who were instrumental in getting that reputation of strength. The victories at Elephant Pass and in the Jayasikuru operations are what made the international community look up to us. That is why the international community is even looking at us, because we are excellent [fighters]. We created that reputation of magnificence. If the leader had thought about all this, he would have come to a good settlement with us.

Are you saying that he did not consider these factors?

Whether he considered or not, he was not allowed to by those around him. In modern diplomacy we could have sorted it out through negotiations. We asked politely. We did not raise arms against the leader; we did not send bombs to him.

What are the differences between Karuna and Muraleetharan?

(Chuckles) I have had a long experience in war, (becomes emotional) really I disliked it when I was waging the war. As the war was progressing, the destruction on both sides was affecting my mind. I started feeling, "Is it necessary?" They used to say, "If you bring 1,000 soldiers, we will win. We will take them." Nothing would come of it. Then they would say, "Bring 2,000 here, we will win, we will take them." There is no solution. I am convinced that we cannot solve this through war. I want to prevent the loss of lives. If we have to form a separate Tamil Eelam, we cannot do so antagonising India. By antagonising a neighbouring country that is exerting its influence here, it is impossible to get a Tamil Eelam. Or we should build a good relationship with that country. There is no scope for that as well. They have not attempted to do so except superficially, on and off.

Even Bala Annan [Anton Balasingham] has told me several times we cannot do anything by antagonising India.

If we still want to get a separate country, we will only face more destruction. There will be destruction on both sides - no problem with that - but there will be no solution. We can remain as fighters and kill the Sinhala army, the Sinhala army can kill our people, but beyond that if you see, there will be no solution. That is what I can tell you. We will not get a separate country. That is out of question.

You know a country cannot be created now without the support of any country. In the early days it was possible, Cuba, Vietnam, were all there, but that was a previous phase of world history. That was an era. The reason then was two forces - America and Russia, which supported countries that opposed the other force. Now there is a different situation in the global order. Without any support, I consider winning a separate nation an impossibility.

So you held negotiations (with the Sri Lankan Government) on the premise that a separate country was not possible?

Certainly. There are no doubts about that. Even I was there. We negotiated only about the possibility of considering a federal system we were not negotiating on the possibility of Tamil Eelam.

At this stage, what do you feel should be the solution to the Sri Lankan conflict?

We can negotiate a settlement with a government that comes to power. I am confident that even the governments that come to power will realise that.

Will you continue to maintain your forces?

As long as the northern [LTTE] forces are there, we will need our forces and will maintain them, because we will be certainly threatened by them. When they are weakened there, we will weaken ourselves here. We don't have a problem with that.

There is panic that there may be fighting between Tamils and Tamils, what is your comment on that?

I will certainly blame only leader Prabakaran for that. Our territory is far away from the Wanni. We did not want to leave our territory and wage a war against the Wanni. We are here, in our districts. But now leader Prabakaran is sending troops for a major infiltration in the East. This is an unnecessary action on his part. He can still solve it peacefully. The troops are now at Muttur. They know our strength. If they were to enter our province... . We are not going to Wanni. We have not even said that we are not going to take arms against them. But they have already said, "We will kill the individual Karuna Amman." I will never say that we will kill the leader. It is an unnecessary act. - But if they enter our territory, we will hit them.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor