The changing balance of power in the North-East crisis
after Karuna rebellion
Chief of Defence Staff and Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle,
the country's top most military officer, was busy with routine chores
that Tuesday afternoon of March 3, when his phone rang. He was at
his desk at Army Headquarters.
staffer told him it was a Mr. Varathan in Batticaloa who says it
was very urgent. "Put him through," he said. The caller
turned out to be Banu Avaliyan. His nom de guerre was Varathan.
He was Secretary to Kannan Muralitharan Vinayagamoorthy, better
known as "Colonel Karuna," the Military Wing leader of
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) for Batticaloa district.
He told Lt. Gen. Balagalle there was an important message for him
from "Col. Karuna."
was a fervent appeal to the Security Forces to prevent a formidable
group of guerrilla leaders from Batticaloa who were to cross over
to the Wanni that day. They were to travel past SF controlled areas.
The group was led by Political Wing leader of the district, Kaushalyan
and his family. Other names made available included political, intelligence
and military wing cadres.
plea was followed by a disclosure. "Col. Karuna" had decided
to break ranks with his leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran. Varathan
said his leader wanted to enter into a separate ceasefire agreement
with the Government. That bombshell was followed by another. "Col.
Karuna" had wanted it known that LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran,
wants to go to war if the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA)
won the upcoming parliamentary elections on April 2. But it was
not his intention to join in such a war effort.
Sunday Times learned that "Col Karuna" stood by Varathan's
side as he made the call to Lt. Gen. Balagalle from a secret location
outside Batticaloa. A stunned Army Chief had a brief exchange of
words with "Col. Karuna" to be sure what he was hearing
was real. Later, he told Varathan it would be difficult to stop
the cadres who were to leave the area. He asked him to put down
his request for a separate ceasefire agreement in writing.
sooner he finished the phone call, Lt. Gen. Balagalle reached out
for the hot line and phoned Defence Secretary Cyril Herath to break
the news. He in turn was to inform President Chandrika Bandaranaike
an hour a written request for a separate ceasefire agreement had
arrived. Signed by Karikalan, once ousted by Mr. Prabhakaran as
Political Wing leader for Batticaloa, the document had been faxed
to Lt. Gen. Balagalle. It turned out "Col. Karuna" had
named Karikalan as the new Political Wing leader. This was even
before confirmation reached him that Kaushalyan, who fled, had arrived
Gen. Balagalle was to remind Varathan that the request should be
faxed to the Ministry of Defence. But hours after a copy of the
fax had arrived there, news reached Colombo that even Karikalan
had fled to Wanni.
minutes and hours ticked by, more senior political, military and
intelligence wing cadres began to flee Batticaloa. There were also
many others - doctors, photographers, video cameramen, auditors
among the lot. Varathan remained busy on the telephone as "Col.
Karuna," now heavily guarded by loyal guerrillas stood close.
He made contact with the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Colombo. He
was to inform them that "Col. Karuna" was now in control
of the East.
loyal to the duo were also busy making contact with military and
Police Special Task Force (STF) personnel in the area. They told
them that a spate of political assassinations during the polls campaign
was directed by LTTE's intelligence boss Pottu Amman (Shivasankaran).
There were assurances there would be no more such killings and soundings
were made for an informal "mutual defence co-operation"
arrangement between the two sides. Quite clearly, "Col. Karuna's"
faction wanted both the blessings and backing of the Security Forces
in their stand off against Mr. Prabhakaran and his men in the Wanni.
At the field level, they seemed to have it.
next day, "Col. Karuna" cut off all high frequency radio
links from Batticaloa with the LTTE command in Wanni. STF communications
monitors in the area said there was hardly any radio traffic between
the two sides. "Col. Karuna" summoned his senior political,
military and intelligence wing loyalists for an emergency meeting
at Thennaham in Karadiy-anaru where an LTTE VIP meeting facility
is located. He named Rabat as the new military leader for the districts
of Batticaloa and Amparai.
making plans to bring back over 500 eastern cadres now deployed
in the Wanni, "Col. Karuna" ordered a crackdown on all
cadres of northern origin. Businessmen from the North were ordered
to leave Batticaloa. Loyal cadres were asked to seal off all entry/exit
points in this eastern sea board district. He set in motion a process
to consolidate his military power and prepare for the worst.
was how what was perceived to be the impossible, a rift in the LTTE,
occurred, shocking Sri Lankans and the international community alike.
If such a rift came splitting a festering Tamil cultural divide
between the North and East, worse enough was the timing. For more
than two years after the ceasefire, it was a divided Sinhala polity
in the south that was accused of becoming an impediment to the peace
process. Now, it was the LTTE that was cracked in the middle plunging
the fragile peace process into complete uncertainty.
exodus of LTTE political, military and intelligence cadres from
the east with a host of others beginning March 3 was preceded only
days earlier by one man - Kamson, who handled all guerrilla finances
for the Batticaloa and Amparai districts. It was his deliberations
with LTTE leadership in the Wanni that had triggered off a recall
of senior cadres.
Karuna" who had a deep-rooted resentment against LTTE's intelligence
boss Pottu Amman was receiving feedbacks through his own intelligence
channels from the Wanni. He told his confidantes Pottu had succeeded
in a plot to fix him. He was now being summoned to Wanni for an
inquiry over misconduct and misappropriation of funds. He felt he
was sure to be placed under detention if he heeded a call from his
leader, Mr. Prabhakaran to return to Wanni. Hence, he chose to go
his own way.
was unequal distribution of resources (assistance from NGOs, international
community and Tamil diaspora. There was unjust appointment of Tamil
Eelam divisional heads. There was none from the east," Col.
Karuna told The Sunday Times.
source said the top 30 of the Tiger hierarchy were all from the
North. The fact that relations between Pottu Amman and "Col.
Karuna" had strained beyond redemption after the ceasefire
was clear not only to the senior hierarchy of the LTTE. Even Sri
Lanka Government negotiators who met "Col. Karuna" during
peace talks in Thailand were aware. None other than the Batticaloa
military leader confided in them that "Pottu should not be
Karuna" had earlierwon the admiration of his leader, Mr. Prabhakaran
for many reasons. If he was a front line guerrilla who fought many
a battle against Security Forces in the North after mustering a
large strength of eastern cadres, he had made an outstanding contribution
after the ceasefire. He had raised the guerrilla strength from a
paltry 3,000 in the district to well over 7500 - a figure that exceeded
Security Forces presence in the area.
had also generated his own funds from the district by imposing "taxes."
With little or no objection from the ruling United National Front
(UNF), it was "Col. Karuna" who, during the period of
the ceasefire, set up an LTTE-backed civil administration in the
east with courts, police stations and other units. This was whilst
some UNF leaders, who were acutely embarrassed, denied the existence
of such structures and berated the media that exposed their presence.
were not all. "Col. Karuna's" armoury at that time was
limited. But the ceasefire had brought about a drastic change. With
increased mobility of the Sea Tigers, the sea going arm of the LTTE,
vast quantities of military hardware was brought into the district.
Artillery and mortar positions directed at Security Forces installations
were established at almost every location. Advanced training was
provided to the cadres. Sophisticated and encrypted communication
sets were issued to them.
Karuna" was still angry that despite the powerful military
machine he had built in the east, he was being ignored by the leadership
in the Wanni. There was no money being released for urgent humanitarian
relief or for development activity. During his foreign visits with
colleagues from the Wanni, he spoke to many hosts among the Tamil
diaspora for financial assistance to develop the east. He made no
secret of the fact that the LTTE leadership in the North was ignoring
the east. But Pottu saw a different picture. "Col. Karuna,"
now a powerful man in the East, was showing signs of becoming too
independent and too powerful. That was a threat to his leader.
Tiger guerrilla leadership that met in Kilinochchi on March 4 named
"Col. Karuna's" deputy, Ramesh (Thambirasa Thuraisingham
alias Ramesh) as the new overall Military/Political Leader for Batticaloa.
Praba was named as military leader for Batticaloa. Both of them,
who were among those who crossed to the Wanni, are still held up.
The LTTE leadership decided to impose the death penalty on "Col.
Karuna" and "the other traitors" for defying the
leader, Mr. Prabhakaran.
are also being framed against "Col. Karuna" for allegedly
misappropriating millions of rupees and for reported misconduct
with female cadres - accusations, which he dismisses as baseless.
killer squads headed for Batticaloa from Wanni, a confrontation
between cadres loyal to Mr. Prabhakaran and "Col. Karuna"
is becoming increasingly inevitable. This is despite assertions
by LTTE Political Wing leader S.P. Thamilselvan that the current
dispute would be resolved without recourse to bloodshed. Already
a guerrilla cadre who was arrested by the "Col. Karuna"
faction is said to have confessed he came on a mission to kill the
Batticaloa military wing leader. "Col. Karuna" has since
moved to a secure location.
delegation of businessmen from Batticaloa and Eastern University
academics led by the Bishop of Batticaloa, Kingsley Swamipillai,
travelled to Wanni for a meeting with Mr. Thamilselvan. The latter
conveyed a message - full amnesty for "Col. Karuna" including
what was called "an international guarantee" to seek refuge
in any part of the world if he gave up. But "Col. Karuna"
had his own response. He offered to work with his leader, Mr. Prabhakaran
if he sacked Pottu Amman, Thamilselvan and "guerrilla Police
Chief" Nadesan. That put paid to peace moves.
the Batticaloa district, guerrillas loyal to "Col. Karuna"
burnt down the houses of Ramesh and Kaushalyan. They also arranged
public protests against Mr. Prabhakaran in Tirukovil, Chenkalady,
Kalmunai, Kiran, Valachenai, Palukamam and Poratuvu.
flashpoint for a possible confrontation appears to be the border
between the districts of Trincomalee and Batticaloa. In Trincomalee
south, more than 1500 cadres loyal to Mr. Prabhakaran are said to
have amassed themselves. This is said to include over 90 cadres
from the Wanni led by "Brigadier Sornam" and a further
60 cadres from the "Charles Anthony Regiment" led by Sivaram.
a counter measure, "Col. Karuna" has tasked Jim Kelly,
named as the new deputy military leader for Batticaloa, to move
to Vakarai (Batticaloa north) with more than 300 fighting cadres.
This is to supplement the strength already present there. In this
general area, guerrillas loyal to "Col. Karuna" have set
up "check-points" and are checking the identities of those
moving in the area. Bunkers are being built in the south bank of
Verugal Aru in Batticaloa north. Across this river, the northern
side of the bank is defended by cadres loyal to Mr. Prabhakaran.
the seas off Verugal, there were reports last Tuesday that a boat
carrying guerrilla cadres from the Wanni was attacked by those loyal
to "Col. Karuna." However, sources close to the latter
say no such incident occurred.
tense situation in the area also gave rise to wild rumours. One
spoke of reports that the LTTE military leader for Trincomalee,
Pathuman (Sivasubramaniam Varadan), a close confidant of "Col.
Karuna," who had been recalled to Wanni, was shot dead. Another
spoke of fierce gun battles between the two factions in which large
groups were killed. All these reports turned out to be false.
special envoy Erik Solheim and Norwegian Ambassador Hans Brattskar
who were in Kilinochchi on Thursday had a lengthy meeting with Pathuman.
He was said to be in good health. The latter told them he planned
to return to Trincomalee (as military wing leader) in the next couple
of days. The Norwegian team also learnt that contrary to reports
in Colombo that "Brigadier Sornam" was the new Trincomalee
military wing leader, he was in the north eastern port city on "a
Karuna" who gave a telephone interview told The Sunday Times
there had been no confrontations between the two rival factions.
He said such reports were untrue. (See box story for his answers).
Solheim arrived in Colombo on a previously arranged trip and has
been busy with several engagements. When he met UNF leaders, appeals
were made to him to use the Norwegian good offices to patch up the
rivalry between the two factions of the LTTE. Whilst pointing out
that they would remain neutral, UNF leaders said the Norwegian facilitators
should talk to both sides. This was much the same way they did soon
after there was factional in fighting in the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress
The Sunday Times learnt the UNF leadership did make overtures to
establish a link with "Col. Karuna's" faction. A one time
parliamentarian who made the approach failed to make direct contact
with "Col. Karuna" and was asked to meet members of the
their meeting with Mr. Solheim and Ambassador Brattaskar, the LTTE
Political Wing leader, Mr Thamilselvan said the ongoing crisis was
an internal problem. Hence, the LTTE leadership would resolve it
internally and did not see a role in it for the Norwegian facilitators.
Mr Solheim is learnt to have explained that as facilitators Norway
would steer clear of internal disputes.
was like the position they took up when there was a political crisis
between President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Prime Minister
Ranil Wickremesinghe. This was soon after she took over the defence,
interior and mass communication portfolios.
Solheim and his entourage flew from Kilinochchi to Trincomalee on
Friday for meetings with representatives of the Muslim community
and for a briefing by Maj. Gen. Sunil Tennekoon, General Officer
Commanding the Army’s 22 Division. The Norwegian special envoy
was full of praise over the account he received from Maj. Gen. Tennekoon.
Later, the team met with Scandinavian truce monitors in the east.
Although the monitors will not observe the ceasefire in areas dominated
by "Col. Karuna's" men, they are to continue with all
other responsibilities tasked to them.
their return to Colombo on Friday afternoon, the Norwegian team
met with Defence Secretary Cyril Herath. They will meet President
Kumaratunga tomorrow. If the UNF has chosen to remain neutral in
the ongoing crisis within the LTTE, at least officially, the position
of the United People's Freedom Alliance seems the same. However,
with a greater responsibility in their hands since the subject of
defence now vests in them, there appear to be a great deal of confusion.
Kumaratunga who took over the subject of defence on November 4,
last year, has not named either a Minister or a Deputy Minister.
With her being fully preoccupied with the ongoing UPFA election
campaign, the task of running the nation's defence establishment
has fallen on one person - a retired Police chief Cyril Herath who
has had little or no experience on matters military or defence.
Contributing to this sad and disturbing state of affairs is the
disarray in the nation's intelligence agencies due to serious internecine
power struggles and the consequent inability to project a cohesive
picture of the ground realities that exist.
a result, rightly or wrongly, in the LTTE held Wanni, the Security
Forces in the east are being perceived as staunch backers of "Col.
Karuna's" faction. With little or no directions to those at
the ground level, despite some short lived sessions of the National
Security Council, the consequences that may follow as a result of
the lack of a cohesive approach can be disastrous. Yet, five months
after the take over of the defence portfolio, national security
interests seem to have been relegated to low priority. That too
is when the UPFA has declared in its manifesto that it wants to
talk peace with the LTTE when it is voted to power.
Karuna" admitted to The Sunday Times he refused a request from
his leader Velupillai Prabhakaran for 1,000 cadres from the east.
"It directly means a war preparation. I don't like war. I don't
like my soldiers to be killed in Wanni soil," he said. What
of preparations by the Security Forces? The UNF Government ignored
them whilst the guerrillas built a powerful military machine and
consolidated themselves to unprecedented levels in the east. The
People's Alliance, precursors to the UPFA, took over defence on
the grounds that national security was threatened.
months after that take over; there has been no change in the preparedness
of the Security Forces. Nor have they received the bulk of their
urgently needed equipment. Whilst a nation is deeply absorbed in
political campaigns, national security interests have been left
in the hands of a few incompetent men with little or no political
leadership. Like during a war, the Security Forces (and even the
Police) can be made the scapegoats when things go wrong during a
peace time. That seems to be the tragedy of the Sri Lankan nation.
I am ready to take Prabhakaran on: Karuna
He was a man most trusted by the LTTE leader, Velupillai
Prabhakaran. So much so, he was just one of a few who were allowed
to see him with his fully loaded automatic pistol in his holster
strapped around his waist.
old Kannan Muralitharan Vinayagamoorthy, better known as "Col.
Karuna" is now the most hated. Mr Prabhakaran has despatched
death squads from Wanni to Batticaloa to eliminate him.
student of St. Michael's College, Batticaloa where he studied up
to GCE (Advanced Level), "Col. Karuna" joined the LTTE
(third batch) in 1981 and was trained in a camp in Salem, South
India. Then he was a member of the elite TOSIS - Tiger Organisation
Security Intelligence Service in the southern Indian state of Tamil
military leader for Batticaloa and Amparai districts in 1987, "Col.
Karuna" was in charge of all LTTE training camps in the district.
From a secret location in Batticaloa, "Col. Karuna" answered
questions put to him by The Sunday Times on the telephone. He was
assisted by an interpreter. Here are excerpts:
FOR BREAKING AWAY FROM THE LTTE:
There is unequal distribution of resources (assistance from NGOs,
international community and Tamil diaspora). There are unjust appointments
of Tamil Eelam divisional heads. There are none from the east. There
are unacceptable demands made to me to send soldiers from the East
to the North. Eastern soldiers are used as cannon fodder. Already
we find it difficult to maintain our organisation in the east and
to carry out development activities for the benefit of our people.
We cannot understand what is happening to the money in the Wanni.
They earn about Rs 500 million a month through "taxation"
alone. What is the meaning of authority if I don't use it for the
benefit of my people.
HIS REFUSAL TO RELEASE 1000 CADRES TO WANNI:
It clearly means a war prepraration. I don't like war. I don't like
my soldiers to be killed on Wanni soil at all.
ALLEGATIONS THAT FOREIGN INTELLIGENCE AGENCIES
ARE INVOLVED IN THE CURRENT CRISIS:
No such external forces are involved at all. The only force behind
me is the expectations of my people and my soldiers.
ON REPORTS OF FIGHTING:
incident reported until now.
ON MOVES TO PATCH UP DIFFERENCES:
The present moves in the Wanni are not positive or favourable.
ON MOVES BY THE UNF TO ESTABLISH A LINK:
are not opposed to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe.
ON MR PRABHAKARAN'S DECISION TO PASS DOWN DEATH SENTENCE. ARE YOUR
PREPARED TO TAKE HIM ON?: Unquestionably yes.
ON THE LOYALTY OF LTTE CADRES IN BATTICALOA:
Yes, definitely they are loyal to me. It is their problems that
I am fighting for.
UPCOMING PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS:
We are not against the elections. The people support us.
ON WHY HE RESENTS POTTU AMMAN:
There are two basic reasons: He has been the sole cause for the
split within the LTTE. He is the man responsible for all the violations
in the east.
ASSASSINATION SQUADS ARRIVING IN BATTICALOA:
Wanni is trying to make the situation complicated.
SUPPORT OR PROTECTION FROM SECURITY FORCES:
We are not seeking any fresh contacts. From the very date of the
CFA (Ceasefire Agreement) we have established a very close understanding.
It is very important, if we are to maintain a good ceasefire. It
is practical. That is not something peculiar to the east.
is happening in all parts of the North and East.
ABOUT NOT BEING INCLUDED IN THE PEACE PROCESS:
I can ask a question from the parties concerned. What is the ultimate
aim of this peace process? What about the bargaining power of Mr.
FOR A SETTLEMENT WITH MR. PRABHAKARAN:
Equal and friendly partnership. No attempt towards war.