A face-saving manoeuvre

Print edition : August 17, 2002

With his credibility at stake, Velupillai Prabakaran sacks three senior LTTE leaders of the Eastern Province for their reluctance to implement the LTTE-SLMC accord that was arrived at with Muslims in the East. But is the move for real?

IN a sudden, decisive move that sent shock waves through Batticaloa and Amparai districts, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) chief Velupillai Prabakaran relieved three senior Tiger leaders of Eastern Province of their duties from July 31 for rebellious conduct and engaging in activities amounting to defiance of his directives. The three men are Karikalan, Visu and Thurai, who functioned respectively as special political commissar, political wing head and deputy political chief of the Batticaloa-Amparai districts of the East. Both districts are regarded as a composite administrative unit by the LTTE as the present Amparai district, officially known as Digamadulla, until 1959 constituted the Batticaloa South division.

The "dismissal" orders were conveyed to the three leaders by the Batticaloa-Amparai special military commander 'Colonel' Karuna, alias Karuna Amman, who was acting on orders given by the LTTE leader. The LTTE publicised the move in the Tamil media through curt announcements. Usually the Tigers do not give publicity to their internal administrative functions or changes but in this case a media communique was released. The statement gave no reasons for the changes. However, he announced that Karikalan, Visu and Thurai were "transferred" to the military wing and that they had been "summoned" by the LTTE high command to the northern mainland of the Wanni.

LTTE leader Karikalan, who has since been removed from the post of special political commissar, riding a bus along with Major-General Sunil Tennakoon on the A-5 Highway that was reopened to the public on July 15, 2002.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

The action made a tremendous impact on the eastern region as the trio had been politically "managing" the Batticaloa-Amparai region for quite a while. Karikalan, in particular, was a very senior leader with a larger-than-life image in the area. It was only a few weeks ago that Karikalan enjoyed the spotlight when he accompanied Sri Lankan Army commander Major General Sunil Tennekoon in a historic journey down the A-5 Highway when it was reopened for public transport after several years (Frontline, August 16, 2002).

The 51-year-old Karikalan, with an LTTE track record of 23 years, was not merely a regional figure but is regarded as one of the seniormost leaders and a close confidant of Prabakaran himself. A former deputy leader of the LTTE's political wing, Karikalan had been elevated from the position of the Batticaloa-Amparai political commissar to that of special political commissar only in April 2002. This position by itself was unique in the LTTE administrative structure as no other district has a sirappu arasial poruppaalar or special political commissar. Significantly, the replacements announced by the LTTE left vacant the positiion that Karikalan held. Kausalyan, the LTTE's financial controller for the region is the new Batticaloa-Amparai arasial poruppalar (political leader) and the regional political chief, Reginald, the current administrative head for Batticaloa city, will be the thunai poruppalar or deputy chief and be in overall charge of the region's administration. Senathy and Janarthanam will be the new political heads for Batticaloa and Amparai districts respectively. Interestingly, Senathy was until now the political officer for Aandaankulam zone in the north of Batticaloa district. This zone comprised the Valaichchenai , Ottamavady, Punanai and Vaakharai assistant government agent divisions where Tamil-Muslim communal violence occurred in June.

While many Tamil people in the East were somewhat dazed by the sudden turn of events leading to Karikalan's removal, many Muslims of the district were elated as he had a negative image among members of that community. Karikalan has not tried to hide his anti-Muslim bias. In recent times, he contributed to much tension among Muslims when he asserted that most Muslim lands were formerly Tamil-owned and that the Muslim community had to pay its dues as taxes to the LTTE. Moreover, it is suspected that Karikalan was personally involved in the Kattankudi and Eravur massacres of 1990. It had also been said that he was instrumental in pressuring Prabakaran to drive Muslims out of the north in 1980 as a reprisal for Muslim Home Guards collaborating with the armed forces in the East. In recent times, Karikalan was seen as the primary impediment to the implementation of an agreement that Prabakaran reached with Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) leader Rauff Hakeem on April 13.

When the government-LTTE ceasefire came into force on February 23, LTTE cadres in the East moved into the Muslim areas and started demanding donations and taxes. Several people were abducted for ransom. This led to tensions among Muslims. In media interviews, Karikalan admitted and justified these actions. He was summoned to the Wanni by Prabakaran and according to newspaper reports was admonished. He was specifically excluded from the meeting Prabakaran held with Rauff Hakeem. Despite this show of displeasure, Karikalan was given a promotion from political leader to special political leader and was sent back to the East. Muslims of the region were aghast at this lenient treatment.

Prabakaran's leniency has a number of reasons. First, Karikalan is immensely loyal and efficient and has built up the LTTE in the East amidst danger and hardship. He is a few years older than Prabakaran and has been active in the movement in various spheres for more than two decades. Prabakaran is also conscious of the particular socio-political environment of the East and so does not expect the same patterns of conduct from his cadres as expected in the north. Moreover, Prabakaran is careful to prevent any notion of northern hegemonism being imposed on the East and has allowed functional autonomy to a great degree. Besides, there is no denying the fact that many Tamil Tigers in the East too harbour anti-Muslim prejudice and Prabakaran did not want to upset the Batticaloa bloc by disciplining Karikalan on this account. The latter is quite popular among the LTTE cadres there.

IN the unofficial LTTE-SLMC accord, Prabakaran provided categorical guarantees to Hakeem that Muslims in the East would not be harassed, taxed or subjected to extortion. They would be provided freedom of movement in the LTTE-controlled areas in order to engage in agriculture, fisheries and, more important, trade. Moreover, the accord also provided for the establishment of joint LTTE-SLMC committees in all districts of the North-Eastern Province to resolve problems affecting Muslims at the district level. The agreement paved the way for a fresh beginning in troubled Tamil-Muslim relations in the East. Hakeem himself welcomed the development with cautious optimism (see interview Frontline, June 21, 2002).

Karikalan, perhaps hurt by the slight administered to him in the Wanni, owing to what he perceived as "SLMC pressure", was determined to show who ruled the East. While not daring to defy Prabakaran openly, Karikalan and his loyalists continued with the taxation and extortion of Muslims, albeit on a modest scale. The local LTTE cadre also did not follow up on the April 13 agreement by setting up joint committees with the SLMC. Muslims in the East found that their situation had not improved and began to complain.

The euphoria of the April 13 LTTE-SLMC agreement was fading, with the pledges made by Prabakaran being observed more in the breach by the LTTE in the East. The LTTE was now perceived as untrustworthy and unreliable. Moreover, Prabakaran's credibility as a man of his word was at stake. The greatest disappointment in the Muslim perception was that a pledge given by Prabakaran himself had been dishonoured. The fate of the Prabakaran-Hakeem accord was becoming in the Muslim eyes a symbol of Tamil betrayal.

What was puzzling and troubling to most discerning observers of the situation in the East was the blatant manner in which sections of the LTTE in Batticaloa and Amparai districts were flouting the terms of the LTTE-SLMC pact. Was it that the Eastern component was defying Prabakaran and getting away with it? If so, was Prabakaran powerless to check this tendency that was threatening to tear Tamil-Muslim unity apart? On the other hand, was Prabakaran too a part of the conspiracy and wilfully turning a blind eye to all that was happening in the Tamil-Muslim sphere? If the latter surmise was correct, then the April 13 accord was by itself an exercise in duplicity and Prabakaran's credibility as a leader of integrity was flawed.

ACCORDING to informed Tamil sources close to the LTTE, the queries made by the Wanni high command to the Eastern regional commanders about Muslim complaints were met with the stock reply that there was no truth in the allegations. It was admitted that a few errant cases were reported but that there was no major drive to collect funds from Muslims. Apparently the soliciting of funds from Muslims was not done through the regular LTTE finance division but through a political wing sub-division. The money was collected under the pretext of administrative expenditure. It is said that the Wanni command was kept in the dark about rising Muslim resentment until communal violence erupted in Mutur and Valaichchenai in June.

According to informed sources, the LTTE high command became aware that something was wrong in the East after the Tamil- Muslim violence in June. An internal investigation was launched without the knowledge of Karikalan and his loyalists. The findings shocked the high command. Muslims were being harassed and being subjected to extorting in direct contravention of Prabakaran's assurances to Hakeem. Karikalan was promoting anti- Muslim sentiment within the Tiger ranks and was not making any attempt to establish goodwill among Muslims as required by the April 13 agreement. Even if the LTTE was not directly involved in the violence that occured in June, the various acts of omission and commission by Karikalan and his cohorts had had a distinct impact on the situation, it was felt.

A troubled Prabakaran was pondering over his future course of action vis-a-vis Karikalan when the latter made a colossal blunder. After the June violence Hakeem had asked for a direct meeting with Prabakaran. In the meantime, another meeting with eastern commanders such as Karuna was arranged.

Hakeem kept away stating that he would only meet the LTTE leader and sent a junior representative instead. A chagrined Karuna too kept away. Alluding to this, Karikalan emphasised to the Colombo Tamil daily Virakesari that any decisions that are arrived at with the top hierarchy could not be implemented without cooperation from regional leaders. "Solutions to real problems can be achieved by holding discussions with the regional commanders in areas where such problems really exist. Instead of doing so, making attempts to resolve problems by talking to our hierarchy will not help because solutions about the exact field situation, the ongoing problems and how to resolve it won't be available there. Matters should be resolved through discussing issues in places where they exist. Unity cannot be reached through commandments or insistence," Karikalan told the newspaper.

While Karikalan's intended target was Hakeem, the views amounted to open defiance of Prabakaran too. In short, Karikalan was telling his leader that the high command could not impose anything through orders and that anything that was tangible had to be discussed at a regional level for success.

A furious Prabakaran called for an explanation. Once again Karikalan pleaded that he had been misquoted but the response cut no ice. So Prabakharan conferred with Karuna and in one fell blow "fired" Karikalan, Visu and Thurai.

It is too early to predict the final outcome of Karikalan's downfall. While a death sentence, as was awarded to the LTTE's former deputy chief Gopalaswamy Mahendrarajah alias Mahattaya, is ruled out, there are sceptics who believe that given past experience and Karikalan's closeness to Prabakaran the punishment would not be severe. It is likely that following a disciplinary inquiry in the Wanni, Karikalan and the others would be relegated to different low-key functions temporarily but ultimately restored to their former positions. If this is not done, the eastern cadres of the LTTE would rebel, some circles warn.

ANOTHER point of view is that the entire episode is an optical exercise intended to salvage Prabakaran's image. The proponents of this viewpoint allege that the harassment of Muslims in the East could not have gone on without the tacit endorsement of the high command and that Karikalan, Visu and Thurai alone cannot be held responsible. The harassment of Muslims did not take place only in Batticaloa-Amparai districts but also in Trincomalee district, they point out. Also, why did the Batticaloa-Amparai special military commander Karuna, the most powerful leader in the eastern region, keep quiet while Karikalan and cohorts were making merry? they ask.

Thus, this perspective presents the Karikalan affair as a stratagem to absolve Prabakaran of responsibility in the harassment of Muslims in the East. Hakeem's criticism on this count has added to the Tiger discomfiture. The LTTE is laying all the blame on Karikalan and company, claiming that Prabakaran was in the dark about the developments and was trying to mend fences with Muslims, goes this argument. The removal of Karikalan allows the LTTE hierarchy a face-saving explanation for the non-implementation of the Prabakaran-Hakeem accord. Karikalan, therefore, is only a scapegoat, according to this line of thought.

If Karikalan and his lieutenants were really guilty of the offences that they are alleged to have committed, then Karikalan being removed should remedy the situation in the East. The harassment of Muslims should cease. Meaningful contact between the leaders of the LTTE and the SLMC should be revived; LTTE-SLMC committees need to be set up. A direct meeting between Prabakaran and Hakeem is also the need of the hour.

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