Admired and hated

Print edition : April 09, 2004

IN a flash, Karuna, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam's (LTTE) Eastern military leader, had an image makeover when he broke ranks with the organisation in early March. He was loved by those who had hated him and despised by those who had once referred to him in reverential tones.

"I want to stick his photograph on my car," a middle-aged woman in Colombo said as the news of Karuna's revolt came in. "I think he is definitely more handsome than other rebels," her friend joined in. "What has he studied?" they asked. "Perhaps he has done a course in engineering... How old is he?... " The conversation meandered.

Critics in the south, who had condemned him, now append the respectful "Amman" to Karuna. "He needs to be supported and protected," said a political observer, who has been critical of the LTTE.

In the northern Jaffna peninsula, however, it is an image overhaul in the reverse, with Karuna `Amman' becoming the "traitor". Karuna's defiance of the LTTE leadership, the northern resident felt, "is letting down the Tamil cause". The predominant view, which echoes the LTTE's position, is that "it [Karuna's revolt] will not affect" the Tigers. One resident was more moderate in his comment. Giving it a patronising flavour, he said: "Karuna may have a reason, but I think he went too far when he accused us northerners of discriminating against the easterners. That is unfair."

In Batticaloa district in the East, Karuna's home district, the reactions vary. An influential resident was emphatic that Karuna was correct. "The East," he felt, "has been continually looted of its human resources". Despite his acceptance of Karuna's cause, he was doubtful of the outcome. "In any other organisation, it would be considered a democratic assertion. Not in the LTTE," he said. For a villager from Kiran, the birthplace of Karuna, the revolt is "very much correct". Referring to what he calls "popular opinion in the East", the villager said: "They may accuse Karuna of many things, but he is standing up for the East and I support him." In a hushed tone, a resident asks if this correspondent wants to interview Karuna: "I can arrange it. No problem." Realising that it has been done already, he is both happy that his icon has been interviewed and disappointed that he had no role in it. "The next time you want to, please tell me," he requests.

For Jaffna residents who are in Batticaloa, the revolt is a cause for fear and anger. "This is betrayal. You have heard of Ettappan (who betrayed Kattaboman, a local chieftain of Panchalankurichi, now in Tamil Nadu, who put up stiff resistance against the East India Company)? Karuna is his present-day version," a Jaffna resident said, not concealing his anger. "At one stroke, he undid all the efforts of the past 20 years."

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