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Home > Tamil National ForumSelected Writings by Dharmeratnam Sivaram (Taraki) > Karuna affair: The military connection

Selected Writings by Dharmeratnam Sivaram (Taraki)

Karuna affair: The military connection

7 July 2004

The Karuna affair started with a big bang but ended with a whimper. It has now reared its head again. The renegade LTTE commander, according Douglas Devananda, will appear in public soon to announce the inauguration of a new party. The EPDP's propaganda organ, 'Thinamurasu' is busy doing the groundwork for D-Day.

We saw sensational reports in a section of the press in Colombo until recently, quoting unidentified Army sources, that Karuna and his men were regularly wreaking havoc against the LTTE in Batticaloa district. And it appears to be the opinion of some influential persons in the military and in the opinion making circles of the capital that the Sri Lankan state should seriously exploit the Karuna affair to weaken the LTTE. They argue that to do so is its sovereign privilege and hence the government need not feel squeamish that it might upset the peace process.

The Jathika Hela Urumaya has articulated this sentiment most forcefully. The Hingurakgoda temple affair on Monday shows that those who believe that Karuna should be fully utilized to destabilise the LTTE's hold on the east are going ahead with their project. The ultimate value in the Karuna affair for the Sri Lankan military and government depends on whether it can weaken the LTTE in any significant manner.

Let me give some details of the Karuna affair in perspective as a preface for the answer to this question. Firstly, one should point out that the Karuna rebellion is qualitatively different from other splits in the LTTE. The first was when Uma Maheswaran left the LTTE in 1978 with the major share of its resources. Then in 1985 Pirapaharan's de facto second-in-command Raghavan left. In 1992-93 Mahaththaya rebelled. (I do not count the Kuttimani episode in the LTTE's history as a split)

All these three belonged to a generation of Tamil militants who addressed Pirapaharan as 'Thambi' (younger brother). All of them wanted to kill him and they had clear plans to do it. (Uma changed his mind later in life though)

I argue here that Karuna's rebellion was ad hoc from start to finish. There was no long-term plan behind it. There was absolutely no intention to reject Pirapaharan's leadership, nor any plan to turn against the separatist cause, as Karuna kept assuring his close confidantes and local peacemakers during the forty-two days of his rebellion. Karuna belongs to the generation of Tamil militants who address Pirapaharan as 'Annai' (elder brother) - the generation that stands in awe of the LTTE leader and his achievements. In his first public letter announcing his decision to function independently in Batticaloa, Karuna told Pirapaharan, "you are like a god to me".

Initially, Karuna's rebellion was nothing more than a request that he be allowed to function directly under the leadership of Pirapaharan; that the various heads of division of the LTTE should not interfere in Karuna's administration.

The problem started on February 16, 2004 when the renegade commander told his leader that he could not come to the Vanni as directed by the LTTE's military headquarters. Karuna clearly knew that he would forthwith be stripped of his rank and position for this insubordination. He was celebrated as a great hero wherever he travelled in Europe. Enthusiastic crowds ignored Thamilselvan and rushed to greet him.

Karuna began to slowly, but inevitably, lose his grip on reality - that ultimately he was a cog in the LTTE machine grinding towards achieving the 'cause'.

Also his relationship with Pirapaharan was so special that he could not bear to face the man who had always held his eastern commander in high esteem, regardless of several damning reports on him by the LTTE's audit and intelligence. Pirapaharan apparently assumed that Karuna's loyalty to the cause was so impeccable that he would submit to regulations and rectify the shortcomings.

The LTTE leader severely reprimanded Karuna once during a visit to the Vanni last year for letting his men disrupt the functioning of the LTTE courts and Police in Batticaloa. And Karuna was embarrassed. The 'Batticaloa International School Affair' was another cause for discomfiture, although the LTTE leader didn't take him to task but only offered friendly advice on the matter. In the years since he was promoted senior commander he had, for the most part, heard praise, kind words and paternal advise from his leader. And now he was faced with the prospect of a very harsh 'dressing down' from his leader for financial mismanagement and insubordination. For Karuna, such an encounter with his leader meant unbearable embarrassment. His solution to the problem was what all truants come up with when they cannot face their teacher for not doing their homework - keep away from school.

Firstly, the LTTE set about investigating whether Karuna's insubordination had any external dimension.

And apparently the Tigers confirmed that neither the Sri Lankan intelligence nor any foreign power was behind his refusal to obey his supreme commander's order. (Karikalan's comment that the US was behind the split was an aberration which was forced out of him by a media person who asked him an inescapable leading question at a function in Jaffna)

At this point Thamilselvan offered to go to Batticaloa, 'talk some sense into Karuna' and persuade him to come over to the Vanni. Many well-informed persons in Kilinochchi who knew of Pirapaharan's high regard for Karuna felt that the eastern commander would be promoted back to the same position after undergoing 4-6 months of punishment for insubordination and for not keeping proper accounts of his district's expenditures.

In corroboration of their argument, they pointed to the case of Col. Jeyam, now the commander of the LTTE's Western Front Forces. He was accused of a far more serious crime than Karuna - high treason and plotting with Mahaththaya to kill Pirapaharan.

Jeyam was imprisoned, subjected to severe punishment and was stripped of his LTTE membership. But he refused to leave the Tigers, hung around until he was taken back as an ordinary cadre and rose in rank over the years. Jeyam was eventually made 'Colonel' on a personal appeal made by Pirapaharan to the council of LTTE's senior commanders which has the final word on granting military ranks to Tigers.

In comparison, insubordination and the audit query regarding 50-60 million rupees did not amount to the "supreme crime of treason", although it certainly meant stripping of Karuna's rank as a Colonel and months of punishment. But his problem was that the inevitable demotion would shatter the aura of heroic greatness his boys and followers in Batticaloa had cultivated around him. Karuna was not prepared to accept it.

The LTTE's attitude was summed up in what Pirapaharan told Ramesh when they were deliberating how to deal with the eastern renegade; "In the past I have faced only treachery in the movement. And I know how to deal with treason. But this fellow's problem is a case of lunacy (visar)".

Thamilselvan's proposed mission to Batticaloa was aborted when Karuna went public that he was going to separate from the LTTE. He was immediately sacked from the organisation. Yet the LTTE offered him a convenient way out, as his crime was not treason and as it was strongly felt that his role in the war against Operation Jaya Sikurui should not be forgotten. The Tigers sent a message of amnesty to Karuna through several channels in the first 5-6 days after he went public about the split by telling Associated Press that he was going to function independently in the east.

They offered to find him asylum in a foreign country to settle down with his family and to let him take the money that was in his personal custody. One of the mediators in Batticaloa went one step further and informed Karuna that if he could not trust anyone in the LTTE, he could secure the services of the SLMM to leave the country safely with his family.

Ali Zaheer Moulana was one of the persons in Batticaloa through whom the amnesty offer was conveyed to Karuna. Here, one must make a digression to describe certain aspects of the UNP-Moulana episode in the 'Karuna story'.

Moulana and Karuna developed a close relationship only after the cease-fire agreement was signed in February 2002, contrary to some reports that the UNP politician and the LTTE renegade had know each other since their school days. Moulana is many years senior to Karuna and studied at St. Michael's College, whereas the former came for his A.L to Central College from the Kiran Government Tamil Mixed School. Since he reassumed duties as special commander for Batticaloa-Amparai in early 2001, LTTE intelligence, as a routine part of its work - based on the motto 'knowledge is security' - very discreetly kept track of Karuna's dealings with 'outsiders'. A few months after the signing of the ceasefire, the LTTE came to know that a powerful person in the UNP government had attempted to establish direct contact with Karuna through a TNA MP in the east. The Parliamentarian, though a die-hard Tamil nationalist, had good rapport with bigwigs in the UNP.

Realising the gravity of this request from Colombo and the dire consequences if the matter were to come to light, the TNA MP declined to make the connection. The same month, a defeated UNP candidate from Batticaloa town who is normally based in Colombo and with close links to Sri Kotha, had a secret meeting with Karuna in an abandoned wadiya, a few kilometres west of Kokkaddicholai.

LTTE intelligence however was fully aware of the details of this meeting. Months later, Karuna was advised that he should be wary of attempts by the UNP to make contact with him. But he was not told why.

But this did not perturb Karuna, for he was certain that Pirapaharan's trust in him was unshakable. "Our leader knows that anything that Karuna Amman does would ultimately be for the good of the LTTE. He (Pirapaharan) does not accept slanderous stories that people carry to him about Karuna", one of his long-standing loyalists in Batticaloa told me once.

Meanwhile, Karuna's UNP link 'blossomed' into a family friendship with Ali Zaheer Moulana, who was advisor to the Prime Minister at the time. The eastern commander's wife 'Nira' and her two children regularly visited Moulana's wife Thanuja in Colombo and on some occasions in Eravur. This close relationship, among other things, saw the opening of an International School in Batticaloa by Mrs. Moulana. The institution's main clients were the children of Karuna and his close associates such as Thurai and Rabert (both of whom are, incidentally, still alive).

The kids came in luxury vehicles from LTTE controlled areas in Batticaloa's western hinterland. This naturally irked hundreds of parents whose children Karuna and his men had forcibly conscripted in Batticaloa. Many of them took their complaints, as usual, to Kilinochchi and Puthukkudiyiruppu.

The LTTE runs an English medium special school in Kilinochchi. Regulations of the institution strictly prohibit admission for children of commanders or heads of divisions in the LTTE. Priority in admissions is given to gifted children from deprived families of Tiger fighters killed in the war. Pirapaharan raised the Batticaloa International School issue with his eastern commander and advised him that apart from the moral implications, there was the question of safety. He advised Karuna that it was very risky for a senior LTTE commander to let his children study in a place completely dominated by Sri Lankan security forces and their intelligence units.

But after Karuna explained that schooling facilities in the LTTE controlled part of Batticaloa were limited, Pirapaharan suggested that he (Karuna) could send his wife and children abroad if he so preferred, until some convenient local arrangement for the children's education could be made. The LTTE leader was extending a special privilege to his eastern commander - again in view of what he had done for the organisation. (Contrary to some stories in the Tamil press, Karuna did not secretly send his family to Malaysia with the connivance of former Batticaloa MP Chellaiah Rajadurai)

Nevertheless the whole episode of Mrs. Moulana's International School remained somewhat of an embarrassment to the renegade commander.

The close links between Karuna, Moualana and thereby the UNP, came to light further in the days after the date for the 2004 general elections was announced. On February 10, Karuna met me and three Batticaloa journalists who were known to him personally (including Nadesan who was murdered on May 31) following a meeting he had with the head of the SLMM.

The discussion was about the elections.

"It is the wish of the Batticaloa LTTE to have a Muslim candidate on the TNA list. Our leadership is also of the view that there should be Muslim TNA candidates in all the districts of Thamileelam", he said and asked us whether we had any suggestions. The names of various Muslim notables in Batticaloa were mentioned.

Finally Karuna asked what we thought of Moulana. It was obvious that he preferred the man. However, Jeyanandamoorthy (now MP) pointed out that Moulana was a die-hard UNPer who had in the past split Tamil votes to bolster the Muslim political strength in the east.

Later, Varathan told us that Karuna had come to an arrangement with Moulana so that the UNP could field a list of candidates and that there wouldn't be any Muslim on the TNA list. This was contrary to Karuna's oft-reiterated position earlier that he would not allow any Sinhala party to contest elections in Batticaloa. Apparently the UNP had prevailed on him through Moulana. Kilinochchi was not happy. But did not object to Karuna. There was also some friction over his personally nominating Rajan Sathiyamoorthy as the LTTE's preferred TNA candidate in Batticaloa. Karuna told local journalists known to him that LTTE intelligence was objecting to Sathiyamoorthy on the ground that he was a UNP mole and had close links with the military intelligence. In this too, Kilinochchi accepted Karuna's word and accepted Sathiyamoorthy�s nomination. LTTE headquarters was certain that there was no conspiracy behind Karuna's preference for the UNPers. Kilinochchi knew he was doing it to spite the intelligence.

During the latter phase of Karuna's rebellion it was further confirmed that there was no grand political design behind his decision to operate separately in the east. His link with the UNP was dropped for a possible deal with the UPFA. Sathiyamoorthy informed the TNA candidates in Batticaloa that President Kumaratunga's emissaries had promised a ministry for the 'Karuna faction of the Federal Party'. In fact, the day after the results were announced, SLBC news reported that the 'Karuna faction of the Federal Party' had expressed support to the UPFA!

Eventually, on the day when his military edifice fell apart and he was getting ready to decamp, one of his close associates who was secretly in touch with Kilinochchi informed that Moulana would be meeting Karuna at Naalam Muchchanthi near Vakaneri on the Valaichenai-Polannaruwa road.

The information was confirmed by one of Karuna's men who was accidentally left behind that day near the junction. The Tigers got in touch with Moulana the next day and told him that they had confirmation that Karuna was with him. Moulana denied the allegation.

The rest is now an embarrassing episode in the UNP's dealing with the LTTE. Here, one should note another aspect of Karuna's failure. As a senior commander of the LTTE, he knew fully well that motivation and loyalty in the organisation are ultimately derived from one's commitment to the cause. This is clearly embodied in Pirapaharan's statement - "kill me if I betray the cause". Karuna could count on the loyalty of his more effective colleagues only as long as he could convince them he was rebelling against injustice in the LTTE.

He could not convince Robert, Thaatha, Thurai and Visu to stay on with him when they discovered his link with the Army intelligence, according to Nilavini and her colleagues who left him. And above all, his close confidante and spokesman Varathan fell out with him over the long-term political implications of being identified with the Army. The man is now abroad and is in touch with the LTTE.

That this is creating further confusion in Karuna is evident from the Black Tigers' Day message posted Sunday June 4th on his website 'neruppu.com' hosted allegedly by the EPDP and some anti-LTTE groups abroad. The statement by Karuna's new spokesman 'Maran' says: "Our leader Karuna would not be alive today if not for the great sacrifices made by the Black Tigers at sea. He honours and commemorates their immortal memory".

From beginning to end it is obvious that the renegade commander just drifted along with the ebb and flow of events. It is in this context that we should examine whether the Sri Lankan military can actually weaken the LTTE by destabilising the east through Karuna.



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