Published : Apr 09, 2004 00:00 IST

With the Eastern rebel `Colonel' Karuna determined to go the whole hog and the high command apparently unable to strike at him decisively, the LTTE faces the worst crisis in its history.

in Jaffna and Batticaloa

Rebels, as I have come to realise, are never quite emancipated from the people against whom they rebel. Whatever these people have admired, they have to decry; whatever these people have decried, they have to admire. Their opinions are thus dictated in reverse by their enemies.

- Bertrand Russell in "Revolt in the Abstract".

AFTER decades of tactical manoeuvres and scores of battles, which finally took it to the negotiating table with the Sri Lankan government, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) now faces its most serious challenge: revolt within. Its Eastern military commander, Karuna, has struck a belligerent note, which is an early sign of a possible implosion in the once-monolithic group. It also raises serious concerns about the direction in which the already-fragmented Sri Lankan polity is headed. The state of flux that the Sri Lankan polity was in late last year following President Chandrika Kumaratunga's decision to assume the portfolios of Defence, Interior and Mass Communications has now extended to the island's Tamil politics as well. The sparring in the Tiger camp has also rocked an already unstable political situation into further disequilibrium. The uncertainty in the ever-simmering eastern region gives no cause for comfort on both the political and military fronts. According to the latest reports, although attempts at rapprochement are continuing between the LTTE leadership and Karuna, there is no clear public indication yet of a possible patch-up.

There are varying versions on the backdrop to Karuna's assertion of his greater power in the east, the central command's decision on March 6 to "discharge" him from the LTTE, and Karuna's subsequent defiance. But the issues that have surfaced raise serious questions about the LTTE's organisational structure and the concept of Tamil nationhood in Sri Lanka.

The LTTE has officially not gone beyond mentioning that the former special commander for Batticaloa and Amparai was "discharged" for his "traitorous acts" and that he was acting in self-interest, "instigated" by forces "opposed to the liberation struggle". Supporters of the LTTE's decision say Karuna had already painted himself into a corner through a series of financial and personal misconduct. "Disciplinary action," they say, was being contemplated against him, when he chose to revolt.

The LTTE sees the rebellion as "a temporary aberration". Colombo has declined to comment on the matter and the international community, led by the Norwegian peace facilitators, has distanced itself from the biggest internal spat in the rebel group.

The impact of Karuna's rebellion should be weighed on three fronts - popular perception and image, negotiations and political bargaining, military strength and strike capability. In addition, it questions the raison d'etre of the decades-old war for separation, which now appears to be veering round to the federalist option.

The Tamils' assertion for nationhood is based on theThimphu Principles, which encompass the right to a nation spread across a traditional homeland based on self-determination. Karuna's rebellion is the first challenge to the Thimphu Principles, which have been broadly accepted by the diversified and mutually opposed Tamil parties and groups. The LTTE terms the latest crisis an "internal" one perpetrated by a "lone individual with a lost cause". The big difference from the past, however, is that it is being fought in the public domain, with the expelled commander making the Northern-Eastern divide a public issue.

Proponents of the theory of "pre-emptive strike by Karuna" argue that his actions were built up over several months. "He was regional commander for 17 years something, unparalleled in the organisation. Why did he not raise the issue of so-called discrimination of the East earlier?" a Jaffna resident asked.

Karuna's defence against allegations of personal and financial misconduct is that if it were so, he would have fled and not stayed on to assert his position.

The issues, supporters of his position say, were on the back burner for quite some time.

As the debate on the rights and wrongs of Karuna's revolt continues, the LTTE's image - as an organisation that has kept its problems to itself, as a tightly ruled, disciplined group, and as one fanatically uncompromising on Tamil nationalism - has taken a battering. The allegations of financial and personal misconduct, if true, could well be too embarrassing for it to admit.

More damaging is Karuna's charge that "discrimination" was behind his decision to break ranks. In a society where caste and regional consciousness run high, the LTTE was seen as a grouping that overcame such differences and was focussed on "Tamil nationhood". The past undercurrents of regional jostling by mainstream Tamil political parties, it was made clear, was beyond Tigerism, which saw the North and the East as one. Moreover, of late, the LTTE has also made a subtle, but significant shift from claiming to be the sole representative of the Tamils to seeking to be that of the "Tamil-speaking people", which would include the Muslims, who are a predominant force in the East.

The LTTE has faced a "history of betrayals", says its chief negotiator and ideologue Anton S. Balasingham, the most high profile one being that of its deputy leader, Mahendrarajah alias Mahatiya, who was executed on charges of "treason". However, the Mahatiya episode was known to the world only after it was over. Karuna's high position in the organisation, the public acknowledgment by the leadership of his military skills, and his role as a member of the negotiating team, make his case very difficult for the LTTE to handle.

Now that Karuna has put on public the domain issues of internal autonomy, how the LTTE handles the crisis and how it seeks to cope with internal demands could indicate whether the organisation is willing to move away from its own centrist approach. A resident of Batticaloa said: "Karuna's case would be seen anywhere else as a democratic assertion. Not in the LTTE."

IRONICALLY, the most telling comment on Chandrika Kumaratunga's constitutional takeover last year came from Karuna. "It is like breaking the pot when the butter was being churned," he had said. Tamil political observers see a parallel in the timing of Karuna's revolt. "Our negotiating position [in the peace talks] is likely to be affected and our bargaining power could be weakened," a Northern politician said. The impact of Karuna's revolt could become an additional component of the negotiations. The possibility of the LTTE guaranteeing the implementation of any solution in the East depends largely on the manner in which the group overcomes the crisis.

All through the stalled negotiations, the LTTE had presented its position on two basic planks: that it was speaking for the Tamils and that it would not compromise on its basic political and military positions. Against that backdrop, Karuna's dissent, coming as it does from the weakest spot of the conflict-resolution process - the East - will have an impact on the final solution. The LTTE's moral high ground of "a united Tamil voice" at the talks, already questioned by non-LTTE Tamil parties, will also be challenged seriously.

The largest uncertainty, however, is on the military front. The LTTE as a military organisation has evolved into a force capable of countering and launching conventional warfare since the 1990s. It was also then that Karuna moved away from being a local warlord facing allegations of instigating manslaughter to the position of a military leader. The longest and severest military engagement between the Sri Lanka Army and the LTTE in the 1990s saw the emergence of Karuna as a battlefield commander leading rebel ground forces.

The result of that test between the rebel and government forces is now common knowledge. Untested, however, is the situation of a military engagement between LTTE factions. As Karuna's rebellion continues, his assertion that he will "hit back" if attacked by the "Northern forces" introduces a new dimension with calamitous consequences for the island's Tamil population in the North and the East.

The LTTE leadership has made it a point to emphasise that the problem will be solved without endangering the lives of civilians and cadre. Ground-level indications from the East are that there is resentment against any intra-Tamil violence. "We sent our boys to fight the Sri Lanka Army, not against our own people," a pamphlet from the East, said.

The Eastern rebel cadre, according to Sri Lankan military sources, are known for their "tenacity and precision in warfare". The number of Eastern fighters varies between 5,000 and 6,000. The exact details of Karuna's armoury are unknown, but it is acknowledged that its prowess cannot be underestimated. In addition, the possibility of overt or covert support from Sri Lankan forces is also not ruled out, depending on the situation. A former militant cites the LTTE's unhesitating acceptance of support from the Sri Lankan forces when it turned its guns against the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) and a Tamil group that supported the Indian Army.

Now, a week after Karuna's defiance, there is dead silence over the crisis. According to current indications, the attempts for a re-alignment of forces have not been abandoned completely. Karuna, who had planned several battlefield deceptions to defeat the Sri Lankan forces, has demanded the expulsion of three administrative heads - Pottu Amman (Intelligence), Tamilendhi (Finance) and Nadesan (Police).

In an interview to Frontline, he did not conceal his personal animosities, when he called the intelligence leader a "terrorist". The finance and police chiefs, he alleged, were "not qualified to be in the LTTE" as they had "surrendered" to the Indian Army. The selective targeting of these three heads raises suspicions about the motives behind the opposition. According to Karuna's critics, his displeasure towards the three chiefs could stem from the fact that they are in charge of the subjects under which charges have been made against him.

The high stakes placed by Karuna make reconciliation a seemingly difficult task. The reasons behind the crisis remain unclear and are fast becoming inconsequential outside the LTTE. As Sri Lanka gears up to face a hitherto untested political and military sparring between two Tiger factions, a difficult, possibly violent, phase lies ahead.

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