Can the renegade Karuna deliver his Big Magic?
14 July 2004
Life goes on as usual in Batticaloa town and in its interior. The
Army has stepped up patrols and occasional checks on the main roads
of the town. But no one appears to be too hassled by this. But
whenever I run into friends, acquaintances or relatives, they
invariably tell me that I am foolish to be back. "You would be shot
dead like Nadesan. Leave now", they say. But Batticaloa is my home.
This is where I was born and grew up. This is the only place in this
wide world where the evening air is sweetly suffused with memories
of the girls whom I once loved and the bars where I made merry in my
first heady forays into manhood. This has been my home despite years
of a deadly internecine war between the LTTE and another Tamil
militant organisation to which I belonged, despite years of threats
posed by the (formerly) much-feared 'Razeek Group', despite the dire
uncertainties of life in the east during Eelam War III. (I am a
reluctant sojourner of Colombo)
Therefore I won't let the 'Karuna Affair' dislodge me from the only
place I wish to settle down at the end of my travels, I tell my
friends. "The fox that lives in the Palmyra grove won't be startled
by the rustling of fronds," says the Tamil adage. But no one appears
to be convinced. "Leave before they kill you", they insist. All
these people, regardless of their political persuasions, are
convinced that Karuna and his men do not like the Tamil journalists
of Batticaloa. They say that his men murdered Nadesan and threatened
others with death because he wants no Tamil journalist around.
This is not a good start for Karuna. Bad press is bad for the kind
of business he intends to do in Batticaloa with the aid of his new
found ally, Douglas Devananda.
The renegade's dislike of the Tamil press was obvious as soon as he
decided to quit the LTTE. Not a single Tamil journalist was informed
of his decision. The independent Tamil press was completely ignored
by Karuna during his short-lived rebellion despite repeated appeals
by them seeking interviews to present his side of the story. Tamil
journalists in Batticaloa were not even allowed to visit the
LTTE-controlled areas during the rebellion. Those who reported the
exodus of Jaffna families were threatened. Karuna's men burnt
thousands of copies of the Tamil daily 'Thinakkural' and threatened
its local correspondent Shan Thavarajah with death. Several
lesser-known local journalists such as Venugopal were kept under
Instead, Karuna was seen welcoming with open arms the Sinhala press,
including irrationally anti-Tamil Sinhala nationalists, and
international media at the Meenaham Base.
Needless to say, this did not go down well with Tamil journalists.
Karuna had rubbed them on the wrong side. Also the majority of the
newspaper reading public in Batticaloa did not like the way in which
the Sinhala nationalist press in Colombo was gleefully promoting the
renegade to proclaim the end of the Tamil cause. All this
embarrassed Karuna's supporters.
In fact, 'Siva', an undergraduate of the Eastern University from
Koddaikallar who was close to him during the 'rebellion', took up
the matter with the renegade commander and strongly advised him
against giving interviews to Sinhala nationalist media
indiscriminately. "Ultimately we will have to rely on the Tamil
press to reach out to the people of Batticaloa. Hence, it is not
prudent to alienate Tamil journalists", the undergraduate had told
him. Karuna had said he would consider the matter. Period.
The murder of Nadesan and the continuing threats to local
journalists shows that his attitude hasn't changed.
Bad press is not a good start for Karuna.
But in Batticaloa, his association with the Sri Lanka Army and the
EPDP is turning out to be worse than bad press.
"My brother was shot dead on Karuna's orders for buying some
provisions for the Morokkoddanchenai Army camp. Now he had joined
the military. What is he going to tell hundreds of people like me
now?" asked a man who had come to see Batticaloa MP Jeyanandamoorthy
three days ago.
As more details of the renegade commander's close association with
the Army and its intelligence emerge, even his covert supporters in
Kiran and Valaichenai are beginning to have second thoughts.
It has been well recorded by two Presidential Commissions of Inquiry
into Disappearances and by independent human rights groups that the
Tamils of Batticaloa have had very bitter and bloody experiences
with the Sri Lankan armed forces in the past. The deep psychological
wounds are yet to heal. Memorials, widows and orphans are constant
reminders of the massacres, mass arrests, rape, torture,
interrogations, assassinations etc., by the military in Batticaloa.
One cannot erase these bitter memories etched deeply in the
collective psyche of Batticaloa with a single wave of the 'Karuna
Talking of magic, let us look at the manner in which people in
Batticaloa are reacting to more information that is coming out
regarding the renegade commander's financial dealings.
On March 8, 2004, four days after Karuna went public that he was
quitting the LTTE, the registrar of companies issued a certificate
of registration to a new company called 'Mahajala Export and Import
Company (Private) Limited' under his hand and seal. The registration
number of the company is N (PVS) 36846. The memorandum and articles
of association of the company were prepared and witnessed by S.
Thurairajah, Attorney-at-Law, Notary Public and Commissioner of
The chairman of 'Mahajala Export and Import Company (Private)
Limited' is Mrs. Vithyapathy Muralitharan. The managing director is
her father, Kanthaiya Santhirasekeram of Kallady, Batticaloa.
Vithyapathy is the real name of Karuna's wife 'Nira'. The company
appears to have been a front for funneling money embezzled from the
LTTE's coffers in the east.
Twenty five million rupees were deposited in her name in a private
bank in Wellawatte when the company was registered.
'Mahajala' means big magic. Interestingly, Karuna's personal aide
and spokesman Varathan who abandoned him recently says that he found
it difficult to cope with Nira's "avarice" and dictatorial manner
when they were staying in the safe-house in Mount Lavinia, which,
according to Varathan was allegedly provided and looked after by the
Nira joined the LTTE in 1989. She was trained in intelligence work
in Jaffna. She was sent back to Batticaloa after the Indian Army
left and was soon promoted as the head of the women's wing of the
LTTE's intelligence unit in the district. She was married to Karuna
in Jaffna on the day President Premadasa was killed by a suicide
bomber in Colombo - May 1, 1993. 'Kuhanesan' the person who was (and
still is) in charge of Karuna's secret personal financial and
business transactions was Nira's driver when she lived in the Wanni.
(Kuhanesan was one of the Tamil men who were arrested with arms in
the Hingurakgoda temple).
Speaking about an argument that he had had with her in the alleged
military intelligence safe house whether Karuna had any popular
support in Batticaloa, Varathan accuses her of goading the renegade
with false visions of a business and political empire in the east.
Karuna had also registered two companies with Kuhanesan as chairman.
In sorting out the state of financial ruin in which the renegade
commander had left the district, the LTTE's auditors and accountants
have found that he has borrowed more than thirty million rupees from
local societies and businessmen. Karuna had obtained the monies
directly through Kuhanesan. There are no records of the borrowings
or of how they were spent. However, the LTTE has promised to repay
the loans over a period of time it has negotiated with the
Revelations about Karuna's financial misdemeanour have not endeared
him to the hundreds who paid heavy taxes to the Tigers under his
command. The renegade eastern commander was so strict about
extracting 'tax' that even scores of die-hard LTTE supporters were
clamped behind bars for months until they paid up the amount
demanded of them. Some rich farmers and businessmen fell into
permanent ruin, unable to withstand the haphazard but harsh tax
regime imposed by Karuna and his men in Batticaloa. This eased
greatly only after the LTTE headquarters started sending more than
ten million rupees a month to the erstwhile eastern commander.
"We put up with all their demands and paid our hard earned money
because they sacrifice their lives for us, for the sake of our
future well being. I cannot forgive anyone who takes that money for
his personal use", said a friend in Kaluwanchikudy, talking about
Kuhanesan's transactions with him. He had to stop building his house
after Kuhanesan had demanded an amount almost equal to the cost of
One hears hundreds of stories like this in the towns and larger
villages of Batticaloa. And none of the victims in these stories are
going to laud Karuna for starting 'Mahajala Export and Import
Company in his wife's name.
Meanwhile, I checked on a claim by an NGO in Colombo that Karuna has
started collecting 'tax' in Batticaloa. This is baseless. Some of
Kuhanesan's private transactions have been confused for tax.
The supporters of Karuna in the corridors of power in Colombo
overlook many obvious common sense facts about the situation in
Batticaloa in their over enthusiastic vision of Karuna as one who is
going to wrest the east from the Tigers - at least politically.
The renegade's "Big Magic' (Mahajala) dazzles them yet. They hear
only what they like to hear because the march of folly has already