Karuna’s Split with Pirapãharan in 2004 - in his own words

In Q and A with Jeremy Liyanage


 Jeremy Liyanage is a Sri Lankan of mixed Sinhala-Burgher ancestry whose family moved to Australia when he was seven years old. He has been deeply involved in a social service project called BRIDGING LANKA in Mannar Island since the years 2009/10. As a spin-off from this work, he and several colleagues were in Sri Lanka in July 2010 in a venture supported by International Alert when they received an invitation to join Karuna Amman, in his capacity as Minister for Resettlement, on a work visit to the fields of IDP settlement in the Kilinochchi-Mullaitivu areas.  The local International Alert officials were aghast and warned them against venturing on this trip on the grounds that IA could not guarantee their safety. They decided against going, but went to the initial meeting that had been set up as a matter of courtesy. At that gathering Karuna’s Media Officer Justin assuaged their fears and persuaded them to participate in the trip. This turned out to be a helter-skelter journey involving their vehicle as one element in a convoy bearing Karuna and his personnel and several vehicles with  STF (police commando) personnel. 


Let Jeremy present the rest of the story in his own words- Michael Roberts, with highlights in red being my imposition to mark important statements.


It was a hectic journey involving a sojourn initially at Nelli Star Hotel in Vavuniya, field visits to areas of fresh IDP re-settlement in the Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu Districts watching Karuna and his officials as they listened to the complaints and requests of the returning Tamil people and proceeded to deal with them in efficient and courteous style. The procedure was for a tarpaulin to be placed on the ground for Karuna to sit and for him to listen to the Tamil returnees and then give instructions to an aide with mobile phone who promptly pursued the instructions, while Karuna proceeded to listen to the next request.

This trip included a tour of the war zone in and around Nandikadal Lagoon. There was a hairy moment when they reached Kilinochchi town and were ordered to move en masse to the SL Army base in the area because their arrival was unannounced. Their concerns abated when the Commander and Karuna shook hands.

It was at some point afterward that Jeremy Liyanage discarded the warnings by International Alert not to ask questions and  tentatively ventured on what turned out to be fruitful Q and A Session with Karuna, an exchange at which the Army General was also present and occasionally participated. The outcome is highly revealing. It happens to be in line with grapevine tales about the manner in which Pirapãharan reacted to the political deal worked out by Anton B?lasingham and the GSL representatives at Oslo – an event that saw Bãlasingham being shifted to the sidelines.

"I remembered that the International Alert staff had cautioned against us raising any questions. However, it was not every day that one had the opportunity to explore the mind of a dreaded ‘terrorist’. I decided to raise a few questions although I felt certain that Karuna would dismiss them, and me. To my surprise Karuna answered. The Commander also joined in with this process.


JL: Why did you join the LTTE and how old were you at the time?

He said that while he was studying at (Batticaloa) Central College there were many refugees also at the school. He talked to them and heard their stories of struggle and powerlessness. This was an initial influence. He was 19 at the time when he joined the LTTE.

The Commander said, "You sure you weren’t 16?"


JL: How did you develop such a strategic mind?

"I read a lot of books. I had to ask people to translate the books for me because I didn’t know English. I read books about great leaders and studied their strategies."


The Commander asked: "Did you see Prabhakaran’s body?" Karuna replied, "A lot of things people know but I know two things about Prabhakaran. When Prabhakaran was shot, the Government asked me to testify if the body was actually Prabhakaran’s. I and Daya Master[1] went to where the body was lying. I looked for and found Prabakaran’s pistol and verified that it was his. I also looked for the scar on his leg he got from a shell blast accident some time before. And I saw it. Apart from all the other familiar things, those two things made it very clear that this was Prabhakaran’s body.


JL: Why did you break away from Prabhakaran?

"I was in Norway for the fifth round of peace talks. Anton Balasingham was leader of the delegation. There was Tamil Chelvan, in charge of the Political Wing of LTTE. G.L. Peiris, the Government’s representative and Visvanathan Rudrakumaran, a lawyer from America[2]  were also with me. And a Minister of Norway ran the peace talks.

Somewhere in the discussion Minister Peiris said, "This is the fifth round of talks. We meet and talk and nothing progresses. First thing is you have to give up the Tamil Eelam dream. The world won’t accept it, including India. The Sri Lankan government said it will offer a federal system with autonomy for the North-east."

Karuna continued that in response to Minister Peiris’ statement the LTTE contingent asked to break to discuss this further. Karuna said to Balasingham, "It is really a good offer. They are right because the world has changed a lot after September 11 (World Trade Center bombing). All western countries are against terrorists and we are on the terrorist list, even India has done that. The federal system is good for our people. If we continue to come for peace talks yet nothing moves forward, the world will get tired of us."


Balasingham replied, "We have to talk to Prabhakaran about this matter." Karuna responded, "We have not signed up to the final deal. We will only consider a federal solution. I will discuss this with Prabhakaran when I return." Balasingham said, "I won’t be coming to Kilinochchi. I will be returning to the UK so you’ll have to speak to Prabhakaran alone." The outcome was that the modest deal was signed and Karuna returned to Kilinochchi.

Prabhakaran summoned Karuna who took the signed document with him. "Prabhakaran already knew what I had done. From the time I walked into the office he started yelling, very angry. He shouted, "You deceiver, you betrayer (thuroki)!"  Karuna explained, "We signed up but it’s not to anything final." He showed Prabhakaran the decision, "We are only going to consider a federal solution. We signed up to consider only." Again, Prabhakaran exploded with, "You are like Maathayaa! [Mahaththaya!]"**

"That afternoon, there was a meeting of high level LTTE people including Tamil Chelvan[3], Pottu Amman[4], Nadesan[5], me and Pulidevan[6]. Again, Praba expressed his rage toward me. In front of them Praba said I was a ‘k???ikko?havan’[7].  The word is very powerful and I was very hurt."

"I went back home in the evening and was very worried. The last 30 years I was so dedicated to the LTTE so why would Prabhakaran use those words on me? He compared me with Mahaththaya!![8] I know Prabhakaran. If he is that angry and uses the word, ‘Mahaththaya’, I needed to escape from Kilinochchi fast; otherwise something bad will happen to me."

"I was the one who used to arrange SLMM[9] to provide transport to LTTE for talks. I asked for a helicopter to go to Batticaloa. They asked me for a pickup point and time. I said early morning at a school ground in Kilinochchi close to my house." At which point, the Commander, listening intently to Karuna, laughed and said, "Ah, it’s just over there!"

Before dawn Karuna was whisked off to Batticaloa. "Prabakaran stayed in an underground bunker so he wouldn’t know I had gone."

Karuna said that soon after the escape, that Prabhakaran had contacted him and asked to send 4,000[10] cadres to Kilinochchi from the East. Karuna refused. The soldiers didn’t like going to Kilinochchi and also a majority were young[11]. Karuna argued, "The ranks of the LTTE are swelling because of youngsters from the East, and what for? We are never going to get a better deal than this. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. We are not going to send soldiers."

The next day, Batticaloa-based Karuna convened a meeting of all the educated people including university lecturers and doctors and explained to them the current situation and what had transpired in the recent past.  He told them that the agreement on the table had been the best opportunity they had been offered. He reiterated that it was recruits from the East that bore the brunt of the war but were never given any high positions in the LTTE.[12] All the LTTE heads were drawn from the North with no one from the East. Karuna was the leader of the East and his talents were known to Prabhakaran.

Karuna explained, "Most of those who came supported my views. Some were not in favour because this would mean giving up the dream of Tamil Eelam." Following the meeting, Karuna summoned all the LTTE commanders in Batticaloa district and explained the situation. He said he had made a decision and that was to separate from the North. He said, "If you agree with this, stay with the LTTE East, otherwise you can leave for the Vanni." He continued, "If Prabhakaran was in my position, he would have killed any dissenters but I gave them free choice to join the Vanni LTTE[13].


A number joined the Vanni LTTE including Sivagnanam Karikalan, the head of the political wing from the East.[14] Later the Vanni LTTE came to Batticaloa to fight and capture Karuna[15]. Karuna ordered the LTTE East commanders and leaders to throw away their weapons and go home. In the past the LTTE had killed thousands of Tamils from groups like TELO and EPRLF, so he didn’t want this to happen again, that brother kills brother[16].

In the aftermath of Karuna’s decision, a deep despondency settled on his followers. Weapons were on the street everywhere. Groups of people were wandering around. Young people were crying because they didn’t know where to go or what they would do with their lives. It was a heart-rending time. No hope. Some of those who were intelligent and could have gone to university but had joined the LTTE. What were they to do now? Where would they go? What sense would they make of their struggle for Eelam? It especially affected the young women cadres as it would be difficult to find marriage partners. When part of the LTTE they were treated with respect but there was a stigma associated with marrying one.[17]

The Commander asked Karuna: "How did you escape?" Karuna laughed, trying to evade the question, he said, "I escaped to Colombo."

The Commander with a softening regard for Karuna said to him, "It was you who were our enemy, not Prabhakaran. We feared you the most. If you were in Jaffna we knew something was going to happen there. If you were in Batticaloa, we know something would happen there. We were always tracking you because you were the mastermind behind all the battles and attacks against our men. You were the real enemy to us but also a real hero because without you we would not have won the war. For a long time I have wanted to meet you.

Justin piped up and said, "Not only you but in the south all the people want to meet you too, especially the women."[18]

JL: Before you were the mastermind behind many of the battles and was involved in killing thousands. Now you have changed your position. How can you bring this strategic approach to bear on reconciliation?

Unfortunately, the Commander interrupted and the conversation went elsewhere. It was close to 3:30am. Things had gone smoothly but the Commander and Karuna kept drinking. Before things went awry, I decided to excuse myself, feign tiredness and ask to be taken to where I would be sleeping that night. I ended sharing the Commander’s room - the only air conditioned room at the base.



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