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Whither Karuna, three years on?

 Paramilitary leader Karuna (c) pictured visiting one of his camps in the east. File photo TMVP.

When Karuna (Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan), then one of the Tamil Tigers’ top commanders, broke away from the LTTE, exactly three years ago, his rebel yell was ‘freeing the east from the domination of the north.’

At the time, the expectation amongst many - not just his fellow rebels - was that Karuna, as leader of a new Tamil outfit in the east, was going to play a role comparable to LTTE leader Veluppillai Pirapaharan.

Karuna attempted to gain recognition as another party, alongside the LTTE and the Sri Lankan state, to the protracted conflict. He asked Colombo, foreign governments, including peace-broker Norway, and other international actors to treat his breakaway faction accordingly.

Meanwhile, Karuna’s fellow rebels and supporters addressed him as 'thalaivar' (leader). A new oath of allegiance was drawn up for them. Their new goal was to liberate the Tamil people of the east from the oppressive Sinhala state and northern Tamil domination.

Karuna named his new movement ‘Tamil Eela Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal’ (TMVP) - Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam People.

But Karuna’s fiefdom collapsed after just six weeks. However, even after fleeing the east with a handful of loyalists and going underground, he did not abandon efforts to (re)establish a bastion in the east.

Karuna knew only solid control over a piece of territory, no matter how small, could ensure him a respectable position in any future bargaining for his ambitions.

Vowing to ‘liberate the eastern Tamils from Vanni domination’ Karuna and his cadres began launching raids against the LTTE.

The Sri Lankan military is accused of forcibly recruiting boys for the Karuna Group. File photo TMVP

The TMVP projected these attacks in which a few Tiger cadres were killed from time to time as significant military achievements.

He projected his group as a parallel to the LTTE, asserting that it was essentially a liberating force of the eastern Tamils.

Copying Pirapaharan, Karuna even issued a policy statement on Nov 27, ‘Heroes Day’ – the day on which the Tigers remember fellow fighters killed in three decades of struggle and the LTTE leader makes his much-anticipated annual speech.

With a measure of territorial control his primary goal, Karuna based his strategy on his own military experience and his group’s armed capability.

Aware of the TMVP's limitations, he exchanged his inside knowledge about the LTTE and the services of his menfor the protection, weapons and other assistance that Sri Lankan Military Intelligence (MI) was eager to provide him with.

Since then the Karuna Group, as the TMVP has come to be known, has engaged in a murderous dirty war against the LTTE with the increasing support of MI.

But last year the Sri Lankan government launched direct military offensives against the Tigers.

And with the fall of Vahari in January, Karuna’s position regarding his political goals and bargaining power has changed drastically.

This was starkly apparent when Karuna appeared on Derana TV, a Colombo based private channel in early February. In an interview, Karuna was now advocating ‘peace.’ His agenda for the east was, notably, ‘development and education.’

Amid the very difficult socio-economic conditions of the east, such pledges have long been the mainstay of political campaigns there.

What was curious in this instance was a liberation war veteran promising to court the state's largess.

His ‘liberation force’ would, he said, solicit governmental assistance to ‘satisfy’ the people of the east.

The Tamils of the east, he argued, would quit their freedom struggle once the government commenced social development and educational programmes. They would not even ask for federalism or devolution, he asserted.

Meanwhile, his group’s name had became ‘Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal’ with ‘Eelam’ notably being dropped.

Karuna went on to praise President Mahinda Rajapakse and his policies as outlined in the hardline Sinhala-nationalist election manifesto, ‘Mahinda Chinthana.’

Karuna even denounced former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe for bretraying ‘Mother Lanka’ during the Norwegian-brokered peace talks.

Questioning Ranil’s loyalty to the nation, the born-again Sri Lankan patriot also cast aspersions on the credibility of the Norwegian facilitators.

Karuna then thanked the Sri Lankan Army for ‘liberating’ the Tamils of Vaharai from the LTTE and said the Sinhalese should be assured of his determination to engage in peaceful politics.

Last weekend Karuna came out in public and visited some of his camps in the east. Wearing a pistol belt and accompanied by heavily armed guards, he addressed hundreds of unarmed conscripts.

“We believe today in the rule of law, democracy and pluralism,” he declared.

“Sri Lanka is our Motherland. We consider that it is our duty to respect the country’s Constitution and also the President and the Government of Sri Lanka,” the liberation fighter said.

“The liberation of the Tamils of the east was possible because of the correct political leadership of President Mahinda Rajapakse and his Army commander Lt-Gen, Sarath Fonseka.”

“The Tamils should remember the few hundred soldiers who sacrificed their lives to liberate Vaharai from the ruthless Vanni Tigers.”

This drastic about turn in Karuna’s policies can be illuminated by an examination of the recent and drastic changes in his circumstances.

Unfulfilled military promise

When Karuna decided to split from the LTTE, he invited the media to his stronghold in Batticaloa. Protected by grim-faced guards, he gave interviews with hundreds of well-trained fighters and 120mm heavy mortars lined up in the background.

The message was clear: whoever (the government, the LTTE or the Norwegian facilitators) considering negotiations should bear in mind his military assets and 6000 strong military force.

The Karuna Group's conscripts and recruits pictured awaiting Vinayagamoorthi's speech during his visit to the paramilitary camps in the east. File photo TMVP.

To his then numerous admirers' dismay, the only negotiation Karuna was to have turn out to be with the Jeyanthan Regiment - and that was not conducted around a table.

Prior to his rebellion, Karuna had been the Commanding Officer of the Jeyanthan Regiment. At the time of the split, this elite force was deployed at Nagerkovil in northern Vanni.

Six weeks later a sizeable contingent of the Jeyanthan Regiment advanced past Karuna's defence lines in Verugal and bore down on his main camp, Meenakam, warning strong action against those who opposed its intent to bring the east under the control of the LTTE’s central command.

Ahead of the offensive, the LTTE had appealed through the media for eastern community leaders to encourage Karuna’s cadres to desert.

Shortly after the collapse of Karuna's frontlines at Verugal, a large crowd of local people forced their way into Meenakam, where for many weeks newspapers had been barred and radios confiscated.

Upon hearing of the LTTE offensive from the civilians, the fighters vacated the Meenakam camp, leaving their weaponry behind. (According to Karuna, he disbanded and released them to avoid a battle).

Karuna, with a handful his loyalists, fled to Colombo. He was now without any independent military capacity.

Nevertheless, he continued to believe that he could rebuild this capability and eventually claim equal status to the LTTE.

Sri Lankan military intelligence, believing Karuna could pose a challenge to the LTTE whilst being kept under their control, began to assist him.

Camps were established for Karuna’s cadres in the jungle on the border between Batticaloa and Pollannaruwa districts. MI assisted Karuna overtly (for example to forcibly recruit Tamil youths – including minors) and covertly assisted him to attack LTTE border positions.

Though Karuna was able to kill a number of LTTE officials and fighters, it was at a heavy price to the TMVP. He lost most of his key loyalists including his brother, Reggie (Vinayagamoorthi Sivanesathurai) in a series of clashes.

Meanwhile LTTE intelligence infiltrated into Karuna's hideouts, as deep as Koddawa in Colombo and Vannathurai in Welikkanda, and inflicted severe losses.

These developments alarmed MI’s commanders. Concerned the TMVP could be a conduit for LTTE penetration of their own structures, they limited contact with the Karuna Group to specific operatives and started to keep it at arm’s length.

Rather than allow Karuna free rein against the LTTE, when MI thought his recruits were sufficiently trained, they took them along on attacks and ambushes against the LTTE.

In late 2006, as the Sri Lankan military stepped up direct offensives against the LTTE in different parts of the east, Karuna Group cadres were incorporated into the attacks.

On Sep 6, 2006, Karuna Group sub-commanders Jeyam and Pillaiyan jointly lead Karuna men in an operation to capture an LTTE base in Kanchikudicharu area. (Before the split, Jeyam was an LTTE company leader and Pillaiyan was in the finance section.)

They were given a temporary operational base in the Kanchirankuda Special Task Force (STF) camp. From there, they gave orders to their 150-strong unit.

But the Tigers had mined their own base and set up an ambush with mortars and snipers. As Karuna’s men began torching the unprotected huts, claymores went off followed by a barrage of 60mm mortars.

In their hasty retreat, the Karuna Group team ran straight through an STF unit functioning as a rear guard and forward control post for artillery in Kanchirankuda and Thandiyadi STF bases.

Caught in LTTE heavy weapons fire being directed at the Karuna Group, the STF took heavy casualties.

Subsequently, when the STF launched a final push to capture the LTTE bases as Kanchikudicharu and Vinayagapuram LTTE bases, they avoided using Karuna Group cadres.

In neighbouring Batticaloa, an infantry unit of Sri Lankan Army (SLA) had a similar experience.

Though a Karuna Group team and a rearguard unit of SLA soldiers managed to infiltrate as far as Aliyavodai in Thoppikkal jungle, they triggered an LTTE response and staged a chaotic retreat.

They barely escaped a cordon and search operation reportedly led by Colonel Jeyam, the LTTE's special commander for Battiacaloa in the Vadamunai bush. Supporting SLA artillery killed four LTTE cadres, but yet a Karuna Group cadre was captured and the body of another left behind.

In the early phases of the Vaharai offensive, SLA units operating under the instructions of Major General Pannipttiya, Commanding Officer, Security Force (East), deployed Karuna Group men differently.

They were given specific tasks such as neutralizing an LTTE position or establishing one of their own at a location within LTTE-controlled area.

Karuna Group cadres, given their knowledge of the territory and the Tamil language, scored a success in an initial mission on Oct 6, 2006. Masquerading as LTTE fighters, Karuna Group cadres approached an unsuspecting group of Tigers and shot them all at point-blank range. The Tigers lost eleven fighters in that incident.

But the element of surprise was now lost.

In the subsequent phases, in a series of fire-fights with LTTE cadres, the Karuna Group sustained heavy losses. Over forty cadres were killed, seriously wounded or captured in different attempts to infiltrate Vaharai.

The losses lead to friction with the SLA amid the Karuna Group’s complaints that the extent of artillery and air support being extended to them was much less than that received by SLA units.

Just as the STF had in Amparai, in the final stages of the Vaharai battle, the SLA removed Karuna Group cadres from the area of operations.

Limited options

However, despite the dismal performance of his fighting cadres, Karuna maintained a high profile in the media. The TMVP’s media reports about operations jointly carried out with the SLA against the LTTE, often contradicted the military’s versions.

Each claimed the anti-LTTE operations were carried out without the other's assistance. The contradictions came to a head when four Tiger dead bodies were recovered along with some weapons near Miyankulam on the A11 highway on December 13, 2006.

The Karuna Group's claims were creating disquiet in the south and undisguised irritation within the military. The issue went up the chain of command to President Rajapakse himself.

The instructions from the top were clear and final. In contrast to the early days of the ‘shadow war’, Karuna was instructed not to make any claims on recent successes against the Tigers. Further publicity for the Karuna Group in the south would be unhelpful, he was told.

Indeed, in his interview in early February on Derana TV, Karuna disclaimed his fighters' involvement in the Vaharai battles.

“The SLA is now capable of handling these matters,” he said. “They did not ask. … We did not go.”

On Oct. 8, 2006, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) collected the bodies of eleven SLA soldiers from the LTTE in Vaharai. However, they were not permitted to collect another six bodies of Karuna Group cadres killed alongside the soldiers.

Meanwhile, amid increasing complaints of criminal activity, Karuna was asked to discipline his cadres, whose conduct was embarrassing the security forces in the Muslim area of Kattankudi.

In general, the TMVP was told, it should concentrate on its political agenda for the time being.

Karuna is thus in a bind. Unlike Douglas Devananda, who heads the paramilitary EPDP or the militant turned politicians in the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), he is not used to parliamentary politics.

Without no credible and sustainable military capability, Karuna desperately needs a political support base for his survival. But that produces another problem: what political slogan can woo the eastern Tamil constituency?

The Tamils in the east have too many stakeholders for a newcomer, especially one with a track record of cooperation with the Sri Lankan military which has a particularly brutal history in the eastern province.

Even in last year’s local government elections in Ampara and Trincomalee, the Tamils demonstrated they were not prepared to vote for the parties backed by military. Instead, the LTTE-backed TNA did well.

As the results show, the majority of the Tamil community are likely continue to take this stance. The remaining votes will be equally contested by anti LTTE groups - PLOT, EPRLF (Varathar) and EPDP – other than the Karuna Group.

Even if, as has been unsuccessfully tried before, Karuna unites the ant-LTTE Tamil groups in the east behind him and with the help of the military gets a sizeable electoral backing, this alone cannot give him control of the east.

Over the years the demography of the Eastern Province has been deliberately and (often) violently manipulated to create equal representation of all three communities: Muslim, Tamil and Sinhalese.

Karuna therefore cannot afford to make political statements that could undermine his possible future alliance with other communities’ representatives. Such an alliance would be unavoidable to secure even a provincial portfolio for the TMVP.

Which is why, addressing his recruits this weekend, Karuna asserted: “We want to live equally with the majority Sinhalese and minority Muslims.”

There is one other, time proven, way for Karuna to establish himself in the east: to strike a bargain with Sri Lanka’s most powerful office, the executive presidency.

Which is why Karuna is unabashedly singing hosannas for Mahinda Rajapakse. The oddity of the former Tamil liberation fighter praising ‘Mahinda Chinthana’ is not entirely inexplicable.

His overt praise of his former foes, the Sri Lanka Army and its commander, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka, is a strategy of exaggerated subservience to defuse rising Sinhala doubts that one day this Tamil terrorist will ‘revert to type’ – or perhaps, by his actions, invite unwanted external interventions.

As he told his cadres last weekend in comments reported in the south: "When we left the LTTE on 03 March 2004 we decided to enter into the main stream politics of Sri Lanka.

“When we left the LTTE, we also gave up the policy of Separate state or Tamil Eelam. We do not believe in such a utopian politics any more.”

Three years after launching his rebellion against the LTTE, Karuna is very far from where he was on March 2, 2004.

For Rajapakse, he is a fortuitous dual-purpose (military and political) tool. Though Wickremesinghe’s party claimed credit for creating the split in the LTTE, Karuna belongs exclusively to the President.

For the TMVP’s sub-commanders, his personal political ambitions are the only means by which financial security and legal immunity (an increasing necessity amid rising accusations of murder and gang-rape) are possible.

For the Sri Lankan military he is an initially welcome but now problematic counterinsurgency asset that needs to be handled with care: on a tight leash, but at arm’s length.

For the Sinhala polity, he is another element to undermine the Tamils’ unity against the discrimination of the Sri Lankan state.

For the other anti-LTTE Tamil groups, he is an unwelcome – and dangerous - player in their limited political pool.

For the Tamils of the east, he is the latest in a long line of Army-backed militants whose extortion, conscription and unrestrained violence they must endure.

For the LTTE he is one more informant to eliminate.

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