A rebellion in the east

Print edition : March 26, 2004

Although the "national leadership" of the LTTE responds "firmly" to `commander' Karuna's revolt, the episode indicates that trouble is brewing in the terrorist organisation.

in Kilinochchi

Leader of the LTTE's political wing S.P. Tamilchelvan (centre) announces the expulsion of Karuna, at a press conference in Kilinochchi on March 6.-AFP

AS Sri Lanka hesitantly trudged along the path of an electoral campaign, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was faced with a reality check, in the first week of March. In an organisation where defiance spells disaster, a rebel had emerged, who dared to challenge the "national leadership". Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan (a.k.a. `Colonel' Karuna), admittedly a master military tactician who is credited with charting several military victories along with LTTE supremo V. Prabakaran, raised the banner of rebellion. The challenge posed by Karuna was not the first in the LTTE's history. Certainly, he is not the highest-ranking rebel to be branded officially as a "traitor". The battle-hardened eastern fighter, however, was the first to take an "internal rift" into the public domain.

From deep inside rebel-held eastern Sri Lanka, Karuna fired the first salvo against the LTTE's rigid structure, demanding that the east be "treated separately" as it was "discriminated against" and wanted to "function independently" - of course, under the "direct leadership" of Prabakaran. The public spat reached a climax four days later when the LTTE dismissed him for "acting traitorously" against the "Tamil people and the Tamil Eelam national leadership". A terse statement denounced the renegade commander, who was also a member of the LTTE's negotiating team in the suspended peace process, as one who, "instigated by some malicious elements opposed to the Tamil Eelam Liberation struggle", had "planned to secede himself from the liberation organisation".

On March 3, Karuna, the special commander for Batticaloa-Amparai, asked the Norwegian facilitators from his stronghold that he be treated separately on matters relating to the ceasefire agreement. He also wanted a separate ceasefire agreement with the Sri Lankan government, a call rejected by Colombo. His aide made public Karuna's decision to act independently. Among the "immediate reasons" given by his aide, was a request from the LTTE's northern command to deploy an additional 1,000 eastern fighters in the north. The other reason given was the killing of two non-LTTE political activists. On March 1, a day before the LTTE's internal spat went public, a candidate of the ruling United National Party (UNP) was shot dead by "unidentified gunmen" in eastern Batticaloa town in a manner that is straight out of the silver screen. However, the candidate who was shot at during electioneering survived and reportedly told the police that he would be able to identify his attackers as LTTE cadres. At the crack of dawn on March 2, as he was being treated for his injuries, two "unidentified gunmen" walked into the Batticaloa Base Hospital at 5-40 a.m., shot him dead at point-blank range, and before anyone knew what had happened, got away. The same day a political activist from the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP) was shot dead in a town about 30 km from Batticaloa by an "unidentified gunman". The EPDP, known for its open defiance of the LTTE, blamed the Tigers for the killing. Differences of opinion had reportedly emerged between the northern administration and Karuna over "disciplinary action" against the cadre suspected to have pulled the trigger. According to reports, Karuna's position was that the killings were carried out by the LTTE's intelligence wing, which was not under his command, and that the northern administration could not ask him to bring things under control.

Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan alias Karuna.-JULIA DRAPKIN/AP

According to Karuna's aide, there are deeper issues such as "discrimination" against the eastern cadre by the "northern leadership", the lack of financial resources for rebuilding the east, and the poor representation of the eastern wing of the LTTE within the rebel administration. "There are 30 administrative divisions in the LTTE. Not one of them is headed by an easterner," Karuna's aide told Frontline. He also said that a substantial amount of money had been raised overseas by the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation, but it had not flowed to the east. The northern leaders, he charged, were "living in luxury", while the "eastern fighters are manning the forward defence lines". On the issue of troop deployment, Karuna's aide asserted that the decision to turn down the request was that more eastern fighters had lost their lives in battles with the Sri Lanka Army and that the eastern command "could not answer the parents" as they had assured them that the recruitment was not for combat. The east, the weakest point in Sri Lanka's conflict resolution process, is a zone where all Tamil militant parties have also had a difficult run.

Meanwhile, as Karuna's position was being asserted, the LTTE's central committee met at an undisclosed location in rebel-held northern Sri Lanka. According to the LTTE, at the meeting, chaired by Prabakaran, Karuna's deputies were "unable to acquiesce with" their special commander's "traitorous act" and had "refused to comply with orders". The eastern commander, divisional heads and cadre who were under Karuna, the LTTE's headquarters said, "met the national leadership" and "explained the ground situation prevailing there". The central committee, a couple of days after the internal rift hit the public domain, said: "Karuna has been discharged from the Liberation Tigers organisation and relieved of his responsibilities". A new eastern leadership was also appointed. Karuna's unranked deputy, Ramesh, was made the special commander; Ram was made the commander; Pirabha, the deputy commander and Kousalyan, the political head of the Batticaloa-Amparai district. According to reports, Karuna has rejected the decision to expel him from the LTTE. Some residents of Batticaloa have reportedly left the town.

Announcing the central committee's decision, the LTTE's political wing leader, S.P. Tamilchelvan, denied all charges raised by Karuna. The claim about a "request for 1,000 cadres", he said, was "false". On the killings of non-LTTE political activists, Tamilchelvan said that since the commencement of the election campaign, the Tigers had taken the polls seriously and had committed themselves to work for the four-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which backed its positions. Karuna's charge that the eastern LTTE cadre was inadequately represented was refuted with the statement that the head of the administration in the rebel headquarters was from that region. Tamilchelvan, who has been Karuna's colleague at the negotiating table, said that the sacking was "satisfying" as the "leadership" had "acted firmly". Downplaying the impact of the first open rift within the organisation, Tamilchelvan said that it was a "problem concerning a single individual" and that it would not impact the peace process or the military strength of the Tigers. Asked who would replace Karuna on the negotiating team, Tamilchelvan said that the decision would be taken by the leadership. Karuna, the only regional leader to remain in the position for 17 years, was dismissed "as soon as the leadership was convinced of his betrayal," he said. Tamilchelvan did not admit of any intelligence lapse in foreseeing the "traitorous act". On the contrary, it was the "hard evidence" provided by the rebels' regional unit that convinced the leadership, he said.

Ramesh, the new commander of Batticaloa-Amparai appointed by the "national leadership".-ANURUDDHA LOKUHAPUARACHCHI/REUTERS

The sacking of Karuna, who was one of the seven `colonels', the highest military rank in the nearly 18,000-strong rebel force, brings to an end one phase of the internal rift. However, with Karuna maintaining a belligerent tone, the likelihood of the crisis deepening is not yet ruled out. According to the code of the Tigers, those branded "traitors", as in the case of the former deputy leader, Mahatayya, are executed. Some others who were found to have worked against the organisation's interests were shunted into insignificant positions, but these were not carried out publicly. The high profile gained by Karuna as a member of the LTTE's negotiating team was one of the factors that brought the current internal crisis into the public domain. The expulsion of the renegade commander, who admittedly stood shoulder to shoulder with Prabakaran in charting out several military victories, was described as a "routine disciplinary action".

Karuna was one of Prabakaran's trusted lieutenants and the two are said to have devised several military strategies together in the past, the most successful one being the takeover of the Elephant Pass military garrison in April 2000. The move was preceded by months of battlefield deceptions that lulled the Sri Lanka Army into a sense of complacency. The number of fighters under Karuna's command is not known, but estimates place it between 6,000 and 8,000 well-trained troops, including the most-feared `Jayanthan Brigade', which overran Elephant Pass.

In a display of support for the LTTE's "national leadership", Karuna's former military, political and intelligence deputies, including the head of the `Jayanthan Brigade', were present at a media conference convened hurriedly by Tamilchelvan on March 6. With Karuna remaining entrenched in his Batticaloa hinterland, the latest episode in the history of the 30-year-old guerilla organisation may not have been completed as yet.

Whichever way it goes, Karuna's public assertion against the LTTE's leadership indicates that it is time for a reality check on the guerilla organisation.

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