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   Paper no. 1165            13. 11. 2004

Guest Column-Col R Hariharan (retd.)

(This may be read in continuation of the earlier SAAG paper No 1148 published on 19.10.2004)

Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan, alias Col. Karuna, the Tamil militant leader from Batticaloa-Amparai, after severing his links with LTTE in March 2004 has taken hesitant steps into Sri Lanka politics with the announcement of forming the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Padai (TamilEelam Peoples Liberation Tigers). For reasons of electoral recognition as a political party, he is likely to affiliate his organization with the Eelam National Democratic Liberation Front (ENDLF).

 Even before Karuna’s break from LTTE had begun systematic elimination the intelligence assets and supporters of Sri Lankan Army as well as those of Eelam Peoples Democratic Party (EPDP) in all the Tamil areas.  Of course, these were meticulously reported in Tamil media euphemistically as ‘death of Tamil paramilitary cadre or agents of Sri Lankan intelligence’ without attributing the responsibility for their deaths. LTTE launched a war against Karuna loyalists in Batticaloa-Amparai region to gain control of the cadres and the organization. This changed the approach of LTTE to selective killings; they started openly claiming some of the killings as death sentence carried out on pro-Karuna traitors. Close associates of Karuna including his brother Reggie were targeted and killed. In Karuna’s retaliatory attacks LTTE also lost important local leaders. Of course there were other prominent personalities who became victims to the militant violence including TNA MP Kingsley Rasanayagam who was gunned down on Oct 14, 2004 in Batticaloa. EPDP has attributed to LTTE a total of 146 murders in Sri Lanka from the time ceasefire was announced (23 Feb 2002) to end Oct 2004. Of these 68 killings were in Batticaloa-Amparai region.  LTTE and Karuna’s followers are the only armed groups operating in the region and so it would appear logical to attribute the killings to them. Even the Norwegian mediators, who had been turning a blind eye to the killings, have drawn LTTE’s attention to the killings and asked them to end such acts.

 LTTE has established physical control of the coastal strip of the district right down to Kalmunai in the South. Karuna loyalists numbering about 500 are believed to be using jungle hideouts in Thoppigala area, northeast of Batticaloa, and in the Aralaganwilla-Maha Oya area, east of Batticaloa, to attack on LTTE cadres in the coastal belt,

 Karuna had released about 500 LTTE cadres and as many as 2000 child recruits from the LTTE fold by April 2004. So LTTE had to boost up its strength and has resorted to forcible recruitment of child soldiers in large numbers. [Of course, LTTE never stopped this practice even after the ceasefire announcement; according to a UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) LTTE had recruited at least 3,516 children since Feb 2002.] Both the killings and recruitment of children has drawn a lot of adverse publicity and international criticism for LTTE.

 So it would appear that having survived the LTTE wrath so far, Karuna is well set for a successful entry into politics. But it may not be as simple as that. Can Karuna build a viable political base in the East, to become a factor to be reckoned with when the peace parleys resume? 

 Negative factors

 Karuna needs to overcome some of the negative factors in the way of his progress in emerging as a political leader; these are:

  • Lack of an ideology: At present Karuna appears to have only two items on his political plank for appealing to the people for support – denouncing the larger than life image of Prabhakaran, and LTTE’s discrimination against Easterners. Both are negative concepts.  He has in fact denounced the struggle of LTTE all these years by saying, “what happened all these years cannot be termed as the struggle for liberation”.  While one may denounce LTTE’s methods, undeniably it is LTTE that had managed to build up the Tamil struggle for Eelam as a global movement. To trivialize it in the eyes of Tamils does not appear to be good strategy.  Similarly, Karuna will have to do much more than denouncing Prabhakaran or proclaiming his intention “to relieve the liberation struggle of the Tamils from the cruel clutches of Prabhakaran” to bring down Prabhakaran’s following among the public. Till he left LTTE Karuna himself was a dreaded insurgent leader of the East, more feared than loved. So it will be difficult for him to distance himself from the cruel killings LTTE had carried out in the past. The complaint of discrimination of Easterners by Jaffnaites is an age-old one. Whether it will cut ice with the younger generation Tamils who have been indoctrinated for the last 20 years by LTTE’s psywar and propaganda machine is a mute point. Karuna will have to work on his vision of a free Eelam as a part of federal state of Sri Lanka, where Easterners will have as much say as the Northerners to convince the politically astute Tamil population of his political credentials. That would be creating a positive ideology as well.
  • Winning popular Tamil support: Karuna’s image in the East as well as across Sri Lanka is that of an effective militant leader rather than a politically savvy intellectual. He will need to build his political image afresh among a population where Prabhakaran is either revered or dreaded for fear of retribution. As a political leader without the coercive power of armed cadres, can Karuna do this? It appears doubtful. His image building exercise will have to target the Tamils in the East where they stand divided between Karuna loyalists and LTTE. As long as LTTE is there in Batticaloa-Amparai he will have to retain arms to defend himself and his followers. So it becomes doubly difficult to shed the image of a ruthless militant.  Public support to Karuna can also draw retribution from LTTE. Over all at present winning popular support on a wide base appears to be a difficult exercise for Karuna.
  • Political leadership: It is not easy for militant leaders like Prabhakaran and Karuna to transform themselves into political leaders; this is a major reason why peace is eluding in Sri Lanka. Running a political party needs a political vision just as conducting a military operation requires military strategy and a physical goal. Political leadership needs situational leadership skills such as flexibility in approach, ability to mould themselves to people and places, accepting diversity, and excellent communication skills that appeal to both the common man and the intellectual. So it is not always true that military leaders make good political leaders. Prabhakaran has the frontline support of political leaders like Anton Balasingham and Tamilselvan who can interface with not only other national leaders but also with international personalities. Karuna has to establish his credibility in this regard if he has to make headway and find acceptance as a political leader, not only with the Tamil people of the East but also with other political leaders of Sri Lanka, particularly in the UNP and SLFP alliance and its partners. As of now he appears to be lacking in this ability.
  • Political support from the non-Tamil parties: To make a meaningful foray into Sri Lankan politics which is divided between the alliances of the UNP and SLFP – the two major parties, Karuna will have to find at least tacit acceptance with one of them. Any overt or covert support or association with Karuna by either of the two parties will provide an excellent excuse for LTTE to walk away from the peace parleys. With the future of the resumption of talks with LTTE delicately balanced, it will be totally inappropriate for either the parties to be seen in Karuna’s company. Already the UNP leader Mr. Ranil Wickremasinghe has shown his tacit support to LTTE by criticizing the alleged role of SLA in the Karuna episode. President Chandrika Kumaratunga has also expressed her reluctance to get involved in the Prabhakaran-Karuna clashes. She had declared "Karuna is as much a terrorist as Prabhakaran, and supporting one terrorist against another will only lead us into a vicious cycle." Thus as of now, Karuna is on a limb as far as political support is concerned. ENDLF has limited influence with the Tamils and even less with non-Tamil parties.  His association with ENDLF may not mean much in actual terms.
  • Winning over the Muslims: With the Tamils in the East divided over their support to Karuna, Muslim support becomes important for both Karuna and LTTE.  LTTE has not endeared itself to Muslims in the past with its periodic blood letting of Muslims. Karuna as its leader had spearheaded these acts, however much he may try to distance himself from such actions of the past.  So in their eyes, there is no special reason why they should lend political support to Karuna, particularly when neither UNP nor SLFP is lending him support. Moreover Muslim leaders need to work out a favourable scheme of things for Muslims when the final package is worked out between LTTE and Government of Sri Lanka for ensuring a fair deal for Muslims. So it would be meaningless for them to close their options by openly supporting Karuna at this stage. At best they could use him to protect themselves from domination of Muslim areas by LTTE’s armed elements.
  • Organisational structure and financial support: Political party needs an organizational structure to maintain contact with people and influence their thinking on an ongoing basis. These activities need financial resources also. LTTE has enormous resources both at home and abroad. It has an excellent propaganda machine, a viable administrative set up in the areas of its control. Pitted against LTTE, Karuna will need enormous resources. These may not come through even if he indulges in LTTE style ‘tax collection’, as LTTE is there to cramp his style. So who is going to bankroll Karuna’s activity? Answer to this question will ultimately decide Karuna’s sustainability.

 Considering the above, politically Karuna appears to be in a No-win situation. With so many issues loaded against him, can Karuna emerge victorious?  Politics is the art of the possible; so the story may not end here. Buckminster Fuller once said, “The end move in politics is always to pick up a gun.”  In Karuna’s case he has started with the end move; he has to leave the gun to take to the political rostrum. But he cannot do that as long as LTTE’s threat to his person exists. So we have a classical chicken and egg situation; and LTTE may put an end to all this with its classical ‘final solution’ as it had done in the past with its ‘traitors’ (e.g. Mahathiya). But it would not be easy to do a ‘Mahathiya’ with Karuna, however much LTTE might want to, because at present he is a lion in its den

(Col R Hariharan, an MI specialist in counter-insurgency intelligence, served with the IPKF as Head of Intelligence in Sri Lanka. E-mail: