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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.