Ten years have passed since the once dreaded Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) experienced an internal politico-military revolt spearheaded by its erstwhile Eastern regional commander Vinayagamoorthy Muralidharan alias “Col” Karuna. The revolt lasting six weeks from March 3rd to April 11th 2004 was ruthlessly suppressed through military means by the mainstream LTTE led by tiger supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran.Hundreds of eastern cadres were killed in the internecine warfare that debilitated the LTTE considerably.
Karuna himself fled to the “Sinhala” south in search of safety. Several of Karuna’s loyal cadres and supporters including his own brother were hunted down by the LTTE. The cocky tigers by conducting a prolonged witch hunt against Karuna left him no choice other than to seek security from the Sri Lankan state security apparatus itself. This was granted and with the war escalating, Karuna and the eastern faction led by him known as the “Tamil Makkal Viduthalap Puligal” (TMVP) found themselves contributing positively in many ways to the military campaign waged against the mainstream LTTE.
As time progressed, the pendulum began swinging heavily against the LTTE. The LTTE was driven away from the areas it held in the Eastern province. With the east being cleared of tigers elections to the Eastern provincial council were held in 2008.In an ironic twist of fate the TMVP contested as part of the United Peoples Freedom Alliance(UPFA)leading to Karuna’s former deputy Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan becoming the first Chief minister of the Eastern province .
With the East recaptured fully and reintegrated into the national body politic, the armed forces kept advancing in the North while the LTTE started retreating. Ultimately the tigers were cornered in the Karaithuraipattru AGA division of the Mullaitheevu district. Finally the LTTE was decisively defeated militarily in the Mullivaaikkaal region. Prabhakaran was killed on the shores of Nanthikkadal lagoon. Karuna himself was brought to the spot to identify his former leader. In what was a striking instance of poignant irony, Photographs showed Karuna gazing down pensively on the lifeless Prabhakaran.
Today Karuna is a deputy minister in the Rajapaksa Government.He is also a vice president of the Sri Lanka freedom Party(SLFP).These are the fruits of his confrontation with the LTTE and cooperation with the Govt. The eastern revolt led by Karuna was one of the turning points in the long war against the LTTE. Although Karuna lost out in the actual fighting ,consequential developments saw him taking the upper hand. This column intends to focus on this intra-LTTE conflict in the east in a bid to commemorate the tenth anniversary of this significant event. This article will delve into the tiger vs tiger eastern battle and its background.
The simmering tensions within the LTTE between the tiger hierarchy based in the Wanni and its Batticaloa-Amparai regional commander Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan alias “Col”Karuna resulted in an open revolt by the eastern warlord that became known to the world on March 3rd 2004.
Technically a ceasefire facilitated by Norway was in force then between the Sri Lankan Govt and the LTTE. Karuna informed the Scandinavian ceasefire monitors that the Batticaloa and Amparai district component of the LTTE was chartering an independent course and wanted Oslo to arrange for a separate truce between Colombo and Batticaloa.
After communicating this to the Norwegians Karuna held a press conference at the “Theanagam” secretariat in Karadiyanaaru on March 3rd 2004 and declared “independence” for the eastern tigers from the Wanni based LTTE . He charged that the LTTE hierarchy had discriminated against the eastern wing despite the sacrifices and contribution made by the Batticaloa. Amparai sections.
Karuna alleged that of the 32 departments within the LTTE, none was headed by an Eastern Tamil. The 15-man central committee had only two Easterners (Col Paduman and Col Karuna ), who were there by virtue of being Trincomalee and Batticaloa-Amparai commanders respectively . Karuna compared this with the military situation where the Eastern Tigers have made proportionately higher sacrifices.
At that point of time as many as 4,543 Eastern Tigers had lost their lives in the armed struggle. Of these 2,302 died in Northern battles. Operations on Eastern soil took only 2,241 lives. Despite these sacrifices, Eastern Tigers had not received a fair deal after peace, charged Karuna. With that exercise ,news of the the LTTE eastern revolt began spreading like wildfire.
From the time of his rebellion Karuna tried to forge a separate understanding with the powers that be in Colombo. He wanted Norway to facilitate a separate memorandum of understanding between himself and Colombo.
Karuna claimed that the ceasefire signed by Prabakaran would not bind him, and yet he was willing to abide by it until a new one was signed. Karuna knew he could not fight Colombo and Kilinochchi at the same time. He seemed to prefer even then a deal with Colombo. The LTTE, however, acted fast and foreclosed Karuna’s option. The Tigers threatened to pull out of the ceasefire if Karuna was recognised. This put all moves in that direction on hold in Colombo.
In such a situation where the LTTE had prevented Karuna from strengthening himself by aligning with the Sri Lankan Government, it seemed inevitable that the tigers would launch a savage onslaught in the east to dislodge Karuna. What acted as a deterrent in March was the fact that Parliamentary elections had been fixed for April 2nd.
The LTTE backing the Tamil National Alliance(TNA)had a vested interest in ensuring a comparatively smooth election in order to facilitate a sweeping TNA victory. The TNA aided and abetted by the LTTE won a record breaking 22 seats in that poll.
Even as an uneasy stand-off prevailed between the main LTTE and the eastern tigers both sides began preparing for the soon to be confrontation. The military balance between Karuna and the mainstream LTTE at that juncture was quite interesting and precariously fluid. The cadre strength of the actual LTTE without auxiliaries was about 25,000 then. Of these, around 7,000 were either seniors whose fighting days were over, or injured and maimed fighters who could not engage in active fighting This left about 18,000 fighters, including men and women.
About 7,500 of them were from Batticaloa and Amparai districts.Not all of the 7,500 cadre from the East were in their native region. An estimated 1,800 of the Eastern cadre were in the North when the crisis erupted. After the split another 200 Eastern cadre left Karuna and crossed over to the Wanni. Of the 1,800 Eastern cadre, 600 were maintained as a distinct entity. They were the first division of the Jeyanthan brigade, commanded by Jegathaan. These men were deployed on the Northern border along the Kilaly-Eluthumadduvaal-Nagar Kovil axis in the Jaffna peninsula. They manned the security lines and sentry posts to the south of Muhamaalai in the Jaffna peninsula.
After the Karuna rebellion the Eastern brigade became suspect initially. Its members were relieved of their duties, deprived of arms and kept under mass house arrest. They were screened and debriefed by Pottu Amman and other Eastern Tiger leaders loyal to Prabakaran, such as Ramesh, Ram, Praba and Ramanan. In addition to this, there were 400 Eastern cadre serving as bodyguards to important Tiger leaders. Prabakaran himself had 75 Easterners in his trusted bodyguard unit of 200.
Another 800 Easterners were serving in various departments and sections of the LTTE in the North. The Sea Tigers, the intelligence wing, the economic unit, the revenue unit, the medical corps, the artillery unit, the political sections of both men and women, the communications corps, the leopard commando unit and even the administrative bodies in the North were manned by Easterners in sizable numbers. The majority of Sea Tigers and members of the Black Tiger suicide squad were from the East.
There were 32 departments-cum-fighting formations in the LTTE at that time. Of these none was headed by Easterners, but all relied heavily on recruits from the region. Three key figures from the East who were serving in the North then were Puthiyavan of the LTTE administrative secretariat, Nalan of the medical corps and Roshan of the communications wing. Except for a select few, most of these men were debriefed and screened. Easterners whose loyalties were not suspect and who were willing to fight Karuna were forged into special units to combat him.
The LTTE Karuna split was thus both horizontal and vertical. With 1,800 of the 7,500 Eastern cadre deployed in key positions in the North, the repercussions of a regional split could have been severe if mishandled. Various LTTE sections in the North could become dysfunctional if totally cleansed of Eastern cadre.
At the same time, continuing to keep them in active service in the North could have posed potential security risks. These cadres could not have been quarantined forever. So the viable option available for Prabakaran at that time was to throw them into battle and ask them to prove their loyalty by fighting their regional brethren.
Militarily and politically, Prabakaran was unable and unwilling to deploy northern cadre to fight Karuna in the East. He preferred to send in Eastern cadre for the job because they knew the terrain and the political fallout would have been less risky. The phenomenon of Northern fighters battling and killing Eastern cadre would alienate the entire East from the North. So it was important for Prabhakaran to create an east versus east confrontation.
Senior Batticaloa leaders who defected to Kilinochchi after Karuna’s rebellion were appointed “legitimate” Eastern Tiger leaders by Prabakaran. Ramesh was the special commander for both Amparai and Batticaloa. While Ram was the military commander, Praba was deputy military commander. Ramanan was military intelligence chief and Kausalyan the political commissar.
After these defections, Karuna too reshuffled his senior officials. While Rabat was the senior military commander, Jim Kelly Thatha and Visu were appointed deputy military chief and political commissar respectively. Thurai was the new administrative head and Nilavini the women’s brigade commander. Premini was appointed the women’s political wing head and Bawa the new Amparai district head. Later Bawa defected to the other side.
Of the 7,500 Eastern cadre, 5,700 were in Batticaloa and Amparai at the time of the split. Karuna has two divisions of the Jeyanthan brigade under his command. He also had the Visalagan and Vinothan men’s brigades, the Anbarasi and Mathana women’s brigades, and the Johnson artillery unit under his command. Eastern officer cadre had passed out from the Balendra officers training college. Almost all middle and junior level officers in the east were beholden to Karuna. He also had an impressive arsenal of heavy artillery. Initially these big guns were moved into the East to pound the Batticaloa town camp, the Veechukalmunai-Pudoor complex, and the Vavunatheevu and Kallady camps if and when war broke out with the Sri Lankan Govt. Now they were mounted to the south of Trincomalee district on the banks of Verugal river in anticipation of a mainstream Tiger strike.
Prabakaran mainly relied on Sornam, the senior commander from Trincomalee, to lead the invasion into Batticaloa when the time was ripe. Sornam began camping along the northern banks of the Verugal river in Trincomalee district. The crocodile-infested river demarcates Batticaloa and Trincomalee districts. Karuna deployed about 800 cadre in the Maavadichenai sector to prevent an invasion across Verugal. The defenders were commanded by Karuna’s brother Reggie.
In addition, Karuna’s cadre also started patrolling the shores along Vaaharai, Kaluwankerny, Panichankerny and other areas in northern Batticaloa anticipating a sea-borne invasion. The three Eastern Tiger coastal camps of Vaaharai, Paalchenai and Challaitheevu were also under Karuna’s control.
Key highways and trunk roads coming into the district were also patrolled and suspect vehicles and passengers checked. Key roads in the interior were also patrolled and checked regularly. Karuna feared infiltration by LTTE intelligence chief Pottu Amman’s men. Large-scale invasion through clandestine routes were also suspected. All three routes of the famous “Beirut trail” linking the North and the East via jungles were also watched. Karuna hoped then to keep Batticaloa “sealed” as long as possible.
In a bid to safeguard himself further, Karuna has expelled from Batticaloa several people closely connected to the mainstream LTTE. He closed down LTTE courts, police stations, tax offices, intelligence offices and administrative units. The Northern Tamils manning them were sent away. In the process, several Jaffna academics and students in the Batticaloa Eastern University were also sent away from the east.
Several Jaffna traders and a few professionals were also intimidated and chased away. Others left out of fear. Karuna justified this as a “pressure tactic” to influence the LTTE in the Wanni. However, such moves created a rift between the Northern and Eastern Tamils in Batticaloa.
Meanwhile, Karuna had several troubles facing him on the military front. Of the 5,700 cadre in the East, around 2,000 were young and inexperienced. The greater part of them were recruited or conscripted after the ceasefire and had not seen battle. About 1,000 of Karuna’s cadre reportedly said they want to be neutral in this internal struggle and “temporarily” left the LTTE.
Karuna knowing that people cannot be forced to fight well opted to let them go rather than confine them through force. About 200 of the cadre fled the East to the North. Karuna also sent home about 500 of the new and young women recruits. They were asked to remain in reserve. They could be called up for fighting duty if the need arose they were told. For the time being, sending them home eased the financial burden of feeding and maintaining them. The male-female ratio among the Eastern tiger cadres then was three is to two.
Despite Prabakaran’s earlier assertion that the Karuna problem would be resolved without bloodshed, most eastern Tamils were concerned that a bloodbath was on the cards. This too was to Prabakaran’s advantage as a lot of internal pressure was exerted on Karuna to avoid a fratricidal fight.
After rebelling, Karuna, in many interviews to the media, ridiculed LTTE leader Velupillai Prabakaran and boasted that he (Karuna) was the military genius behind earlier Tiger victories. But when the actual eastern fighting occurred the course of the confrontation demonstrated that Prabakaran was indeed a shrewder military strategist of the two.
After the split, Karuna had concentrated the bulk of his forces in the Koralaipattru division of north Batticaloa. As stated earlier he expected an invasion across the Verugal river, which demarcated the border between Batticaloa and Trincomalee districts. Karuna set up lines of defence to the south of the river.
Initially, Karuna apatrolled most major highways coming into Batticaloa-Amparai districts and also the coast. Later, he relaxed his guard along the seaboard and roads because a large-scale movement of Tiger cadre and weapons would have been considered a violation of the ceasefire. Besides, such movement had to be through government-controlled zones. He also left the sprawling Amparai district virtually unguarded. As for Batticaloa, Karuna mainly focussed on fortifying the areas north of Chenkalladdy, some areas on the western shore of the lagoon and the Tharavai-Kudumbimalai region. This left many gaping holes in his defence.
The LTTE exploited these skilfully by infiltrating the region in twos and threes. Many members of the intelligence wing moved in clandestinely as well. Some trained LTTE “Leopard” commandos also did so. Thus a powerful fifth column was created.
On March 25th 2004 the LTTE declared war on Karuna by issuing a statement. It stated in Tamil that to “safeguard our nation and people it has been decided to get rid of Karuna from our soil.Anybody who opposes disciplinary action against Karuna will be considered to be a traitor to our cause”.The ultimatum was followed by selective terror in typical LTTE fashion.
On March 26th a Tiger pistol squad on motor cycles shot and wounded an eastern university professor Theivanayagam Thiruchelvam at his residence on Mariamman street,Kalladdy.The 41 year old Acting dean of the agriculture faculty was a strong supporter of Karuna.
The 63 year old Batticaloa Government Agent Rathinam Maunagurusamy was shot at by pistol shooting gunmen at Pillaiarady on march 27th when returning from an inspection at Vaharai a tiger controlled region then. Maungurusamy a Batticaloa Tamil himself was regarded as being close to Karuna.
A 48 year old tea- stall owner at the Batticaloa bus stand named Velupillai Ganesh , was brutally hacked to death on March 29th. He was from Karuna’s village Kiran and had displayed a large picture of Karuna behind the counter.
A Karuna-supported Tamil National Alliance (TNA) candidate 61 year old Perinbarajah Sathiyamoorthy and his 47 year old brother-in-law Kandiah Kanagasabai were shot dead on March 31st as they were coming out from the shrine room after morning puja. The TNA candidate known generally as Rajan Sathiyamoorthy was regarded as a close associate and political adviser of Karuna. The tigers entered his home at Thandavanveli and shot both
Karuna conducted a grand funeral for Sathiyamoorthy and buried him at the LTTE great hero cemetery in Thaandiady. In the night the mainstream LTTE went to the spot and dug up the body and burnt it on the lagoon shore. The tigers had defiled the corpse. The following morning Karuna recovered the half-burnt body and buried it with honours elsewhere. Rajan Sathiyamoorthy’s daughter Sivageetha Prabhakaran later became Batticaloa’s first woman mayor.
The LTTE’s targeting of these people was to drive home the message that anybody partial to Karuna was in danger. Thus it gave out a stern signal to the people not to support Karuna. Karuna retaliated by conducting a pre-dawn raid on some homes and arresting suspected LTTE intelligence operatives. A campaign was also started to drive away people of Jaffna origin from Batticaloa. Karuna with his strong regional mindset felt that all Jaffna Tamils were potential enemies.
Elections were held on April 2nd 2004 and a new Parliament including 22 TNA members were elected. It was now obvious that the long awaited tiger vs tiger confrontation in the East would occur soon. When would D-day dawn on the eastern horizon? was the multi-crore question.
It came exactly a week after elections on April 9th.Few people would have thought that the LTTE would pick April 9 2004 to commence the attack, as it was Good Friday. The possibility of the LTTE launching an attack on Good Friday and hurting Christian sentiments seemed improbable. The LTTE obviously ignored this.
The LTTE’s operation was multi-pronged and began around 1.30 a.m. on April 9. Karuna had placed 600 cadre in batches of 30 at various points south of the Verugal river. A Tiger contingent came by sea and landed south of Verugal estuary and proceeded inwards.
Simultaneously, a group of Tigers came across saying they wanted to surrender. These included some senior cadre who had defected from Karuna earlier. Some of Karuna’s cadre had been trained by these men and they welcomed their former “gurus” and “Annans” (“masters” and “elder brothers”).
But the LTTE men suddenly opened fire on the unsuspecting Karuna cadre and took control of the ferry point. More Tigers started coming over. The Tigers from the beach, too, proceeded inwards.
Thereafter, fighting commenced. The eastern cadre, mostly in their teens, were no match for the LTTE. At t least eight 120 mm guns in the hands of Karuna along Verugal river were seized through commando type operations. The LTTE then trained the guns on Karuna’s fortifications and maintained a steady artillery barrage.
Karuna’s command control system too went haywire. An LTTE flotilla of 50 boats landed near a place called Paalchenai situated on the coast between Kathiraveli and Vaaharai. The men were led by Karuna’s former deputy Ramesh. They took control of Paalchenai and proceeded north and south in two batches.
One contingent took Kathiraveli and the other the Kandalady base near Vaaharai. This was the operational headquarters of Karuna with his own brother Sivanesathurai alias Reggie in charge. Apparently Reggie was taken by surprise and fled after sustaining injuries.
The LTTE had also infiltrated the area in small boats and bullock carts, carrying arms. Unarmed infiltrators now joined up and struck after collecting arms. This enabled Prabakaran’s men to commence an attack in the rear too. Thus Karuna’s cadres were trapped on three sides.
The infiltrators also functioned as classic fifth columnists and set up landmines along interior roads to hamper the movement of Karuna’s cadre. Several civilians too were killed and injured in landmine blasts.
The fighting at Verugal was savage initially. Though the LTTE claimed a bloodless victory and made no mention of casualties, many many lives were lost. Several Karuna faction groups fighting at Verugal had begun surrendering after receiving no instructions from their superiors. Many of them were shot for offering resistance. This frightened others , which led to their surrender without resistance. Some were rounded up and massacred. Such massacres of Karuna’s cadres took place in Vaaharai too.
By the evening of April 9 the LTTE had taken control of the Verugal-Kathiraveli-Vaaharai region, including eight small and big camps. Apart from those killed, at least 500 of Karuna’s cadre had surrendered. Of these 269 child soldiers were returned at that time to the United Nations Children’s Fund.
On the night of April 9, two counter-attacks were launched by Karuna against the main base under LTTE control in Kandaladdy, Vaaharai. They were led by Robert and Jim Kelly Thatha respectively. The Tigers, with a battery of heavy guns, beat the attackers back.
Karuna changed tactics and asked his cadre to fall back from the area. They were asked to go to camps in the interior. These consisted of the Tharavai-Vadamunai-Kudumbimalai region and the Kokkatticholai-Karadiyanaaru areas on the west coast.
The LTTE, however, began following and had, by Saturday 10th , entered several spots on the west coast of the lagoon known as “Paduvaankarai” (shore of the setting sun). It is also reported that at least two incursions were made into the Tharavai-Vadamunai-Kudumbimalai region known also as Thoppikkal.
Meanwhile, another batch of cadre landed off the Thirukkovil coast in Amparai district. They first took control of the famous Kanchikudicharu base in the jungles. With more than 350 Karuna cadres fleeing from Amparai to Batticaloa without a fight, the LTTE men established control easily.
Many remaining cadres simply switched sides. Soon the LTTE had taken control of most Tamil areas in the multi-ethnic Amparai and also began moving from the south into the western hinterland.
Karuna’s political headquarters “Thenagam” was at Karadiyanaaru and military headquarters “Meenagam” at Tharavai. His own jungle hideout “Marutham” was at Kudumbimalai. Karuna, therefore, was expected to entrench himself in this region and hold out.
It became clear to Karuna that a long drawn out struggle would cause serious logistical difficulties. It also appeared that the Sri Lankan armed forces and the Norwegian facilitators would not prevent further violence against him. Continuous supply of food and ammunition was going to be a problem with the LTTE slowly creeping in.
There was also strong dissension within Karuna’s ranks about continuing a fratricidal fight. The enemy was not the Sinhala army or even northern Tigers but their own kith and kin. There was strong pressure from parents of cadres to end the fighting.
So Karuna decided to throw in the towel. Concerned persons in Sri Lanka and abroad acted as mediators. The LTTE too was willing to end fighting because it knew the dangers of protracted warfare.An agreement was made possible by the collective efforts of several people in Sri Lanka and abroad who tried to end the crisis in the best interests of the eastern people and the LTTE itself. The lives of LTTE cadres on both sides, the safe return of child conscripts to their homes, safety and peaceful life of civilians and the overall impact on the East were the issues at stake.
According to the arrangement worked out, Karuna was required to provide and deliver on certain undertakings. They were:
1. to cease fighting permanently;
2. to disband and disperse his forces and send them home;
3. to facilitate arrangements for the smooth handing over of military assets including arms, armaments and ammunition to the LTTE;
4. to release all Tigers and supporters in Karuna’s custody safely;
5. to vacate “the soil of Tamil Eelam” (Northeastern Province) immediately and never return to it again;
6. to refrain from any direct or indirect military or political activity in future;
7. to maintain silence about all matters concerning the LTTE and avoid all related media publicity; and 8. to seek a new life outside Sri Lanka as early as possible.
In return the LTTE provided the following assurances to Karuna:
1. will not deter Karuna from leaving the East or Sri Lanka;
2. will not try to eliminate him while in Sri Lanka or abroad;
3. will not demand return of any money or things of value taken away by Karuna.
4. will not harm all cadre under Karuna’s control and allow them to return to a normal life.
5. to reabsorb only those cadres willing to rejoin the movement;
6. to refrain from punishing all senior cadre who stood by Karuna against the LTTE leadership;
7. to permit them wherever possible to leave the East and/or Sri Lanka;
8. to refrain from taking revenge on Eastern civilians who supported Karuna and engaged in acts like burning effigies, destroying LTTE offices and so on.
Verbal assurances were given on both sides. Karuna faxed a letter to Kilinochchi promising to disband and leave. After the deal was struck, Karuna dissolved his units and dispersed around 3,500 to 4,000 cadre, asking them to go home and resume normal lives. The weapons, uniforms, cyanide capsules, identity tags and so on were confiscated.
So Sunday 11th and Monday 12th saw more than 3,500 cadre leaving the camps. The last to leave were about 400 girls at Meenaham. When Karuna assembled them and asked them to go home they refused thinking Karuna was testing their loyalty. To demonstrate his seriousness Karuna had to explode a few grenades and scatter his cadres.
Thereafter Karuna, along with more than 20 trusted associates and some of their family members travelled by road in six vehicles to a Colombo suburb. He was accompanied by former UNP Batticaloa district MP Ali Zaheer Moulana, a family friend.
Despite the arrangement that ended the intra-tiger fighting the so called agreement was to be violated by the LTTE which began targeting Karuna loyalists in the East and in other parts of the country including Colombo and suburbs. Some of Karuna’s senior associates who had surrendered to the LTTE upon receiving guarantees of safety and clemency were ruthlessly exterminated in the Wanni.At one point Karuna’s only brother Sivanesathurai alias Reggie was also killed in the east. Some of Karuna’s top aides were killed at a safe house in Kottawa.
The LTTE betrayal and consequential developments led to Karuna and many of his remaining cadres seeking refuge with the state security apparatus. This act of self- preservation helped them to safeguard their lives. As time progressed the LTTE Karuna faction re-grouped as the TMVP and collaborated actively with the security forces. Ultimately the LTTE was defeated. The TMVP is now part and parcel of the ruling regime. Karuna himself is no longer with the TMVP but is now a Deputy minister and SLFP vice president.
This then is the tale of the tiger vs tiger battle that took place ten years ago!
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org