The fall of Karuna

Print edition : May 07, 2004

Rebel leader `Col'. Karuna on March 19. - V.S.SAMBANDAM

The LTTE snuffs out the eastern rebellion but the political issues raised by the rebel leader Karuna are too serious to rule out any dissension in future.

THE eastern revolt within the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has come to an end after renegade ex-commander Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan alias Karuna called it off on Easter Sunday (April 11) and escaped to Colombo with some of his trusted confidants.

The rebellion, which became public on March 3, "unofficially", ended six weeks later after a discreet deal was struck between Karuna and the LTTE leadership based in the northern Wanni mainland.

It was made possible by the collective efforts of several people in Sri Lanka and abroad who tried to end the crisis in the best interests of the eastern people and the LTTE itself.

The lives of LTTE cadres on both sides, the safe return of child conscripts to their homes, safety and peaceful life of civilians and the overall impact on the East were the issues at stake.

According to the arrangement worked out, Karuna was required to provide and deliver on certain undertakings. They are: 1. to cease fighting permanently; 2. to disband and disperse his forces and send them home; 3. to facilitate arrangements for the smooth handing over of military assets including arms, armaments and ammunition to the LTTE; 4. to release all Tigers and supporters in Karuna's custody safely; 5. to vacate "the soil of Tamil Eelam" (Northeastern Province) immediately and never return to it again; 6. to refrain from any direct or indirect military or political activity in future; 7. to maintain silence about all matters concerning the LTTE and avoid all related media publicity; and 8. to seek a new life outside Sri Lanka as early as possible.

In return the LTTE provided the following assurances to Karuna: 1. will not deter Karuna from leaving the East or Sri Lanka; 2. will not try to eliminate him while in Sri Lanka or abroad; 3. will not demand return of any money or things of value taken away by Karuna. 4. will not harm all cadre under Karuna's control and allow them to return to a normal life. 5. to reabsorb only those cadres willing to rejoin the movement; 6. to refrain from punishing all senior cadre who stood by Karuna against the LTTE leadership; 7. to permit them wherever possible to leave the East and/or Sri Lanka; 8. to refrain from taking revenge on Eastern civilians who supported Karuna and engaged in acts like burning effigies, destroying LTTE offices and so on.

After the deal was struck, Karuna disbanded his units and dispersed around 3,500 to 4,000 cadre, asking them to go home and resume normal lives. The weapons, uniforms, cyanide capsules, identity tags and so on were confiscated.

Karuna, along with more than 20 trusted associates and some of their family members travelled by road in six vehicles to a Colombo suburb. Though his whereabouts are unknown, it is reported that he will soon travel to a South-East Asian country for an indefinite period of stay.

An injured fighter of the Karuna faction at the General Hospital in Batticaloa, with her mother, on April 10.-JULIA DRAPKIN/AP

There is much speculation in the media that Karuna is being helped by Sri Lanka's military intelligence. There are also reports that hundreds of cadre loyal to Karuna have taken refuge at the military camps of Minneriya, Welikanda and Punanai.

Defence Secretary Cyril Herath has denied these allegations and stated that they are not in contact with Karuna. Army Chief Lionel Balagalle, however, admitted to maintaining links with Karuna, in interviews to sections of the media.

Though an unpublicised arrangement was arrived at with Karuna that he would not be harmed if he flees, the mainstream LTTE is reportedly angry with him because of a grave breach of discipline.

Karuna had released a number of LTTE men and supporters in his custody after striking the deal on April 11. On April 12, Karuna allegedly killed a senior Tiger in his custody before fleeing Batticaloa.

The LTTE considers this a serious offence and indications are that an intensive manhunt will be launched against Karuna despite the arrangement. The Tigers regard the deal as invalid now.

The person reportedly killed by Karuna is `Lt. Col' Neelan Sinnathamby, a native of Aarayiampathy in Batticaloa. Neelan was the deputy chief of the intelligence wing led by the dreaded Pottu Amman, and was wanted in India for the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.

Neelan himself was involved with the assassination squad led by the one-eyed Sivarasan and had contacts with several others convicted in the case, including Nalini.

He had many aliases in India, including Kanthan, Santhan, Kundu Santhan and Periya Santhan. He and another Tiger cadre Nixon were proclaimed as offenders in India. Despite a widespread search, Neelan succeeded in evading capture and returned to Sri Lanka.

Later, Neelan was involved in planning several assassinations in Colombo. The Tigers hold him in high esteem and have organised and elaborate funeral. He was arrested on March 1 by Karuna after attending a meeting at the Tiger district political headquarters housed at "Thenagam" in Karadiyanaaru.

KARUNA'S decision to call it quits was heavily influenced by ground realities. The mainstream LTTE had militarily outmanoeuvred and politically outsmarted him. Protracted warfare would have debilitated him further, and without extraneous assistance, ended in abject failure.

There was also a regional backlash, as parents of cadre did not want a fratricidal fight in which people from the East would have been casualties. Eighty-five to 90 per cent of the invading force consisted of Batticaloa cadres too (Frontline, April 9).

Since Karuna justified his revolt against the leadership on regional lines and objected to eastern cadres fighting and dying unnecessarily, he could not allow a massacre of eastern cadre on either side to happen on account of his revolt.

The LTTE too knew the pitfalls of protracted warfare. After the Good Friday fighting of April 9, in which the LTTE got the upper hand, it suspended the fighting. It also issued a statement saying that efforts are on to expel Karuna from "Tamil Eelam soil". This indicated that the LTTE wanted Karuna to leave rather than stay and fight. This made the task of peacemakers easier.

After rebelling, Karuna, in many interviews to the media, had ridiculed LTTE leader Velupillai Prabakaran and boasted that he (Karuna) was the military genius behind earlier Tiger victories. The recent fighting, however, demonstrated that Prabakaran was indeed a better military strategist of the two.

AFTER the split, Karuna had concentrated the bulk of his forces in the Koralaipattru division of north Batticaloa. He expected an invasion across the Verugal river, which demarcates the border between Batticaloa and Trincomalee districts. Karuna set up lines of defence to the south of the river.

Initially, Karuna also patrolled most major highways coming into Batticaloa-Amparai districts and also the coast. Later, he relaxed his guard along the seaboard and roads because a large-scale movement of Tiger cadre and weapons would be considered a violation of the ceasefire. Besides, such movement had to be through government-controlled zones.

He also left the sprawling Amparai district virtually unguarded. As for Batticaloa, Karuna mainly focussed on fortifying the areas north of Chenkalladdy, some areas on the western shore of the lagoon and the Tharavai-Kudumbimalai region. This left many gaping holes in his defence.

The LTTE exploited these skilfully by infiltrating the region in twos and threes. Many members of the intelligence wing moved in clandestinely as well. Some trained LTTE "Leopard" commandos also did so. Thus a powerful fifth column was created.

Karuna failed to retain the loyalty of several frontline eastern leaders. Among those who fled to the Wanni were Karikalan, Ramesh, Kausalyan, Praba, Jegathan, Bawa, Ram, Ramananand Nagesh.

Another advantage Prabakaran had was the presence of nearly 1,800 eastern cadre in the Wanni on various assignments and as part of different units. (Frontline, April 9). After the split, most of these cadre were found trustworthy enough to be sent along with the commandos for combat.

Thus, Prabakaran was able to dilute the regional divide to some extent. The inevitable clash was between the East and the East and not between the North and the East. Apart from this, the eastern cadre knew the terrain and were also familiar with cadre in Karuna's camp. Most eastern leaders who defected were in the vanguard of military advances and fighting.

THE LTTE formally declared war on Karuna on March 25 after issuing a harsh statement against him. It was, therefore, anticipated that a military campaign would be inevitable after elections.

Despite Prabakaran's assertion that the problem would be resolved without bloodshed, most eastern Tamils were concerned that a bloodbath was on the cards. This too was to Prabakaran's advantage as a lot of internal pressure was exerted on Karuna to avoid a fratricidal fight.

The military campaign was preceded by selective terror in typical LTTE fashion. A Tiger pistol squad shot and wounded an eastern university professor and the Batticaloa Government Agent (a designation similar to the District Collector in India). Both were regarded as being close to Karuna.

A Karuna-supported Tamil National Alliance (TNA) candidate and his brother-in-law were shot dead as they left a shrine after morning puja. A teastall owner in the Batticaloa bus stand, Kiran, was hacked to death. He was from Karuna's village and had displayed a large picture of Karuna behind the counter.

The LTTE's targeting of these people was to drive home the message that anybody partial to Karuna was in danger. Thus it gave out a stern signal to the people not to support Karuna.

Karuna retaliated by conducting a predawn raid on some homes and arresting suspected LTTE intelligence operatives. A campaign was also started to drive away people of Jaffna origin from Batticaloa. Karuna with his strong regional mindset felt that all Jaffna Tamils were potential enemies.

While the tensions were on, it became apparent that the five Members of Parliament elected on the TNA ticket from Batticaloa and Amparai would be under Karuna's control. The military was assisting Karuna to maintain this control. This further irritated the LTTE high command as its monopoly on the 22 TNA parliamentarians was eroded.

Few people would have thought that the LTTE would pick April 9 to commence the attack, as it was Good Friday. It was only last year that V. Puthirasigamani, an up-country Tamil MP in President Chandrika Kumaratunga's party, quit in protest against the launch of a political demonstration on Deepavali day.

Sigamani charged that Kumaratunga was insensitive to the Hindu minority. The issue was given prominence in the Tamil media and Kumaratunga was severely criticised for this "fault".

Against this backdrop, the possibility of the LTTE launching an attack on Good Friday and hurting Christian sentiments seemed improbable. The LTTE obviously ignored this.

The LTTE's operation was multi-pronged and began around 1.30 a.m. on April 9. Karuna had placed 600 cadre in batches of 30 at various points south of the Verugal river. A Tiger contingent came by sea and landed south of Verugal estuary and proceeded inwards.

Simultaneously, a group of Tigers came across saying they wanted to surrender. These included some senior cadre who had defected from Karuna earlier. Some of Karuna's cadre had been trained by these men and they welcomed their former "gurus" and "Annans" ("masters" and "elder brothers").

But the LTTE men suddenly opened fire on the unsuspecting Karuna cadre and took control of the ferry point. More Tigers started coming over. The Tigers from the beach, too, proceeded inwards.

Thereafter, fighting commenced. The eastern cadre, mostly in their teens, were no match for the LTTE. The LTTE also maintained a steady artillery barrage. But at least eight 120 mm guns in the hands of Karuna along Verugal river were seized.

Karuna's command control system too went haywire. An LTTE flotilla of 50 boats landed near a place called Paalchenai situated on the coast between Kathiraveli and Vaaharai. The men were led by Karuna's former deputy Ramesh. They took control of Paalchenai and proceeded north and south in two batches.

One contingent took Kathiraveli and the other the Kandalady base near Vaaharai. This was the operational headquarters of Karuna with his own brother Sivanesathurai alias Reggie in charge. Apparently Reggie was taken by surprise and fled after sustaining injuries.

The LTTE had also infiltrated the area in small boats and bullock carts, carrying arms. Unarmed infiltrators now joined up and struck after collecting arms. This enabled Prabakaran's men to commence an attack in the rear too. Thus Karuna's cadre was trapped on three sides.

The infiltrators also functioned as classic fifth columnists and set up landmines along interior roads to hamper the movement of Karuna's cadre. Several civilians too were killed and injured in landmine blasts.

The fighting at Verugal was savage initially. Though the LTTE claims a bloodless victory and makes no mention of casualties, several lives were lost. This writer spoke on the telephone to two young cadre of Karuna and the family members of two others.

According to them, several groups fighting at Verugal had begun surrendering after receiving no instructions from their superiors. Several of them had been shot for offering resistance. This frightened others cadre, which led to their surrender without resistance.

One 17-year-old boy who returned home on April 11 told this writer that the members of the group he belonged to were shot at for running instead of surrendering. He said he fell into a mud hole and lay there as other comrades were shot brutally. He claimed to have hidden in the underbrush for a day and a half before making his way home. Karuna's cadre had been killed in Vaaharai too.

By the evening of April 9 the LTTE had taken control of the Verugal-Kathiraveli-Vaaharai region, including eight small and big camps. Apart from those killed, at least 500 of Karuna's cadre had surrendered. Of these 269 child soldiers have been returned to the United Nations Children's Fund.

On the night of April 9, two counter-attacks were launched by Karuna against the main base under LTTE control in Kandaladdy, Vaaharai. They were led by Robert and Jim Kelly Thatha respectively. The Tigers, with a battery of heavy guns, beat the attackers back.

Karuna changed tactics and asked his cadre to fall back from the area. They were asked to go to camps in the interior. These consisted of the Tharavai-Vadamunai-Kudumbimalai region and the Kokkatticholai-Karadiyanaaru areas on the west coast.

The LTTE, however, began following and had, by Saturday, entered several spots on the west coast of the lagoon known as "Paduvaankarai" (shore of the setting sun). It is also reported that at least two incursions were made into the Tharavai-Vadamunai-Kudumbimalai region known also as Thoppikkal.

Meanwhile, another batch of cadre landed off the Thirukkovil coast in Amparai district. They first took control of the famous Kanchikudicharu base in the jungles. With more than 350 Karuna cadre fleeing from Amparai to Batticaloa without a fight, the LTTE men established control easily.

Many remaining cadre simply switched sides. Soon the LTTE had taken control of most Tamil areas in the multi-ethnic Amparai and also began moving from the south into the western hinterland.

Karuna's political headquarters "Thenagam" was at Karadiyanaaru and military headquarters "Meenagam" at Tharavai. His own jungle hide out "Marutham" was at Kudumbimalai. Karuna, therefore, was expected to entrench himself in this region and hold out.

It became clear to Karuna that a long drawn out struggle would cause serious logistical difficulties. It also appeared that the Sri Lankan armed forces and the Norwegian facilitators would not prevent further violence against him. Continuous supply of food and ammunition was going to be a problem with the LTTE slowly creeping in.

There was also strong dissension within Karuna's ranks about continuing a fratricidal fight. The enemy was not the Sinhala army or even northern Tigers but their own kith and kin. There was strong pressure from parents of cadre to end the fighting.

So Karuna decided to throw in the towel. Concerned persons in Sri Lanka and abroad acted as mediators. The LTTE too was willing to end fighting because it knew the dangers of protracted warfare.

Verbal assurances were given on both sides. Karuna faxed a letter to Kilinochchi promising to disband and leave. The Tiger statement of April 10 gave a sign of the envisaged settlement when it referred to sending Karuna out from Tamil Eelam soil.

So Sunday and Monday saw more than 3,500 cadre leaving the camps. The last to leave were about 400 girls at Meenaham. When Karuna assembled them and asked them to go home they refused thinking Karuna was testing their loyalty. To demonstrate his seriousness Karuna had to explode a few grenades.

Given the LTTE's reputation for untrustworthiness there is every chance that the Tigers after removing Karuna from the East and isolating him would pursue their vendetta despite the ad hoc arrangement. Karuna too knows this and may take precautions.

The media publicity generated by the Tiger victory makes out that Karuna was defeated militarily and, therefore, gave up. This is only part of the truth. The reality is that Karuna gave in more due to a desire to avoid further bloodshed. There are many eastern citizens who are happy that Karuna has avoided an East versus East fratricidal fight.

The safe future of cadre under Karuna is also a serious question. So too is the safety of those who supported Karuna and went to the extent of burning Prabakaran's effigies - an unpardonable sin from an LTTE perspective.

The LTTE prefers to resolve issues militarily and has treated the Karuna rebellion the same way. The issues raised by Karuna, however, are political in nature. Eastern grievances vis-a-vis the North cannot be glossed over. Unless and until these issues are constructively addressed, problems like the Karuna phenomenon will not cease to emerge.

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