Monday, 13 August 2012

A lost opportunity: Karuna revolt

War on terror revisited: Part 7



By Shamindra Ferdinando

Having had Global Tamil Forum (GTF) spokesman, Surein Surendiran to discuss the role of the Diaspora in the post-war scenario in the previous chapter, it would be pertinent to examine one of the major failures on the part of the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government and the overseas Tamil community to exploit an unprecedented split caused by Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan aka Karuna Amman.

Had there been a swift and cohesive response to Karuna’s move, the LTTE would have been forced to re-think its strategy. Unfortunately, the then government, the military and the international community did not try to capitalise on the situation lest they should provoke the LTTE, which they thought could easily deal with the rebel faction and hence their decision against intervention. In fact, LTTE Political Wing Leader, S. P. Thamselvan warned the government of dire consequences if an attempt was made to take advantage of the situation. The warning was given at a meeting between Thamilselvan and the head of the five-nation Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) Major General, Trond Furuhovde in KIlinochchi on March 4, 2004. Among those present was Furuhovde’s Deputy, Hagrup Haukland.

The SLAF flew Furuhovde and Haukland to Kilinochchi, subsequent to the SLMM receiving an assurance from President Chandrika Kumaratunga and PM Wickremesinghe that the administration wouldn’t interfere in the dispute. Instead of compelling the LTTE to return to the negotiating table, which it quit in April 2003, President CBK, PM Wickremesinghe and the co-chairs of the peace process agreed that the LTTE should be allowed to deal with the situation. They allowed the situation to develop into a bloody confrontation. They failed to realise that Karuna’s rebellion had divided the LTTE fighting cadre on regional lines. The crisis denied the LTTE fertile recruitment in the Batticaloa and Ampara sectors, while its operations in the Trincomalee District, too, experienced difficulties due to the detention of ‘Colonel’ Paduman, the senior man in charge of the area. ‘Colonel’ Paduman, too, was perceived as a threat due to his close association with Karuna.

Karuna acted swiftly to ensure his protection. The battlefield strategist felt that his security as well as the safety of the Batticaloa fighting cadre depended on an understanding with the Sri Lankan military. He pushed for a separate agreement on the lines of the Norwegian arranged CFA between the GoSL and the LTTE in February 2002.

(The Island dealt with Karuna’s move in an exclusive captioned ‘Rebel Karuna wants separate deal with government’ in the March 5 issue, which was based on information provided by Varathan, an aide to Karuna, Army Chief, Lieutenant General Lionel Balagalle and DIG Nimal Lewke. Both Lt. Gen. Balagalle and DIG Lewke confirmed what Varathan had to say on behalf of Karuna.)

Karuna offered to negotiate a separate ceasefire in the Ampara-Batticaloa sector, though both the Norwegians and the government promptly rejected the move, while reiterating their commitment to the CFA. But, an influential section within the establishment supported Karuna’s move. Varathan alleged that a wave of killings in the Eastern Province in the wake of the CFA and a demand for 1,000 more cadres from the Batticaloa-Ampara sector for deployment in the Northern Province, too, had contributed to Karuna’s decision to break ranks.

Karuna’s plea turned down

Karuna also urged the army to prevent a group of senior cadres, who had been under his overall command from crossing the entry and exit point at Omanthai, north of Vavuniya. The rebel leader also urged the army to facilitate an operation to help his men deployed in the Northern Province to return through army lines on the night of March 3, 2004. The government forbade the army from supporting Karuna’s efforts, hence a group of senior cadres, including ‘Colonel" T. Ramesh and their families crossed the entry/exit point. Immediately after their arrival in Kilinochchi, ‘Colonel’ Ramesh was declared as Karuna’s successor.

Undaunted by the government’s refusal to back his revolt against what Karuna called the treacherous Kilinochchi leadership, he ordered public protests in Batticaloa. The first of a series of protests was held at Kiran, Karuna’s home town, where a crowd of over 2,000 people gathered in support of Karuna. Some of them set fire to effigies of Prabhakaran and Ramesh, while Karuna reiterated his demand for a separate CFA with the government. Much to the glee of the LTTE and the Norwegians, the government rejected Karuna’s call for cooperation out of hand.

In spite of the LTTE’ pull-out from negotiations in April 2003, the government reiterated its commitment to a non-existent peace process.

The LTTE ordered the Tamil media not to provide space for the rebel group. No one dared challenge the LTTE, though Karuna, too, exerted pressure on the media. Undergraduates from the Northern Province studying at the Eastern University at Vantharamoolai returned to their villages amidst rising tension.

Although the government ordered the military to keep its distance from the rebel faction, an influential section of those engaged in clandestine operations, regardless of the directive, threw their weight behind the former LTTE field commander.

The crisis created by Karuna quickly engulfed the entire CFA process. Those trying to save the CFA soon realised that they were fighting a losing battle. They understood Karuna’s action had caused irreparable damage and nothing could resurrect the Norwegian initiative.

Monitoring suspended

The SLMM suspended the monitoring process in areas under Karuna’s control. Overnight, the Northern and Eastern Provinces were divided into three sectors, under the control of the GoSL, the LTTE and the breakaway LTTE faction. The Norwegians and the SLMM rejected Karuna’s overtures to have a separate CFA negotiated between the breakaway faction and the GoSL. Karuna also emphasised that the LTTE should recognise that the Batticaloa-Ampara sector was outside its purview.

The UNICEF and the UNHCR, too, pulled out of Karuna’s territory.

The SLMM also turned down an SLA request to arrange for a meeting between the army and Karuna. In spite of the army chief, Lt. Gen. Balagalle, who held the post of the Chief of Defence Staff, personally pushing for a meeting, which he felt could help ease tensions, the SLMM refused to comply. The LTTE insisted that there shouldn’t be any interaction whatsoever between the SLMM and the breakaway faction. Erik Solheim ruled out a Norwegian intervention, thereby effectively ending any sort of mediation effort.

In a desperate bid to settle the crisis, the UK stepped in. The UK sent its top diplomat in Colombo, Steven Evans, along with its Defence Attaché, Lt. Col. Mark Weldon to find a way out.

In spite of a rigorous effort to isolate Karuna, the battlefield tactician quickly won over the confidence of Tamil speaking people in the region. He took advantage of the situation by offering to discuss long standing grievances of the public. Then General Officer Commanding (GoC) army’s 23 Division headquartered at Welikanda, Brigadier Vajira Wijegunawardene recalled how Karuna moved swiftly to consolidate his power in areas under his control. Karuna offered to discuss the forcible takeover of land by the LTTE in the east. Soon, the UNP and the TNA realised that the crisis was having a debilitating impact on their campaign for the April 2, 2004 parliamentary polls. In fact, Premier Wickremesinghe had to avoid Batticaloa during campaigning in the East as the Defence Ministry couldn’t guarantee his security.

LTTE prepares for battle

Under the very noses of the Norwegians, the LTTE moved cadres to beef up its strength in the Batticaloa District to take on Karuna. The SLMM and the government facilitated the transfer of LTTE cadres from the North to the East in the run-up to the parliamentary polls. The CFA permitted transfers, though there had been restrictions as regards the number of personnel. The LTTE overcame the problem by sending groups in small batches across army controlled entry and exit points at Omanthai and Uliyankulam. Although the army had managed to detect some of those entering the East illegally, it couldn’t thwart the LTTE plans. Then the LTTE humiliated the government by launching a series of sea landings on the night of April 9, 2004 to wipe out the breakaway group. The LTTE operation had got underway a few hours after the service commanders arrived at Trincomalee. In spite of the Defence portfolio being under her control, President Kumaratunga did nothing, while the Prime Minister and the Norwegians looked the other way. A confident LTTE leadership told the government that it intended to use sea routes to mount an operation targeting Karuna. The government was told to keep the navy out of the LTTE’s way. The government gave in to LTTE demands. Following urgent consultations in Colombo between the military and the President, the top brass summoned a meeting at Batticaloa Brigade Headquarters, where senior officers in charge of the region were told to keep out of fighting.

Karuna quickly realised that the sea borne assault was led by Batticaloa cadres, the majority of those who had fought under him. Had Karuna engaged them on the banks of the Verugal River, there would have been many casualties. Instead of fighting, Karuna ordered his men to leave the battlefield and return to their villages, while he fled Batticaloa with the help of UNP National List MP Ali Zaheer Moulana. Until Moulana acknowledged his role in Karuna’s escape, the UNP, a section of the media and even the Norwegians blamed the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) for helping Karuna escape. Once the UNP had established Moulana’s involvement, PM Wickremesinghe demanded his resignation. He swiftly complied. Moulana sought protection abroad. After years in the US, he returned to country to pledge his allegiance to President Rajapaksa.

Karuna loyalists killed five LTTE cadres, including ‘Lt. Colonel’ Neelan, the deputy head of the Batticaloa District Intelligence outfit before fleeing the area. A furious Kilinochchi leadership vowed to hit back wherever Karuna and his top men took refuge.

While Karuna took refuge in Colombo, the SLMM facilitated a meeting between the LTTE’s new Batticaloa commander, ‘Colonel’ T. Ramesh at the Vavunativu AGA’s office. It was preceded by a meeting between the SLMM and the LTTE.

The deployment of northern cadres in place of those from the region caused many rifts between the army and the LTTE. Brigadier Wijegoonewardene said that it was due to the newcomers being unaware of the ground situation. In the absence of Batticaloa-Ampara cadres, the LTTE deployed those who had never been deployed in the East, thereby causing problems.

The Norwegians and those Colombo-based NGOs, which supported the peace process failed to realise the danger. They felt the CFA could continue as long as they had the blessings of the incumbent government. In fact, the UPFA’s victory gave a false sense of hope to the Norwegians, who believed the peace process would benefit due to the President and the government being from the same party.

Resumption of hostilities

A spate of killings undermined SLMM efforts to restore normalcy in the Batticaloa-Ampara sector, where unidentified gunmen killed 10 LTTE personnel, in three separate incidents on April 24th, May 2 and May 6, 2004. The LTTE accused the DMI of carrying out the killings, a charge vehemently denied by the DMI. The LTTE hit back. An LTTE operative shot dead Lance Corporal Wasantha Liyanage. He was shot through the head inside a private bus approaching Batticaloa town on May 9, 2004. The bus was coming from Chankaladi. Another soldier travelling with Colombage escaped.

In a desperate bid to arrest the rapidly deteriorating situation in Batticaloa, the SLMM arranged for a meeting on May 11, 2004 between the military and the LTTE. On behalf of the government, Brig. Wijegunawardene assured the SLMM and the LTTE that the military wasn’t carrying out a clandestine war against the LTTE. He also reiterated their decision not to get involved with Karuna. The government delegation included then Batticaloa Brigade Commander, Colonel Laksiri Amaratunga, SSP, Mahesh Samarawickrema and SP Upali Ratnayake of the STF. The army said that the breakaway LTTE faction had received the army’s assistance only when they retreated after Karuna disbanded his cadres on May 9, 2004 on the banks of the Verugal River. The LTTE was also told that they had never complained of violence in the region before Karuna quit the organisation.

The LTTE struck again on May 19, 2004, outside the Batticaloa hospital. Reserve police constable, Dassanayake (32658) of police intelligence shot through his head in broad daylight. The gunman walked out of the nearby post office and shot the police man before walking away.

The Sri Lanka Police Inspectors’ Association urged IGP Ernest Perera to take up the Special Branch operative’s killing with the SLMM. Later, it transpired that the army had been escorting an LTTE group, including, Ramesh from Black Bridge, Batticaloa to Omanthai via Habarana, when the LTTE killed the intelligence operative.

A front-page exclusive captioned ‘Policeman shot as troops escort B’caloa LTTE leader’ in The Island of May 21, 2004, quoted an officer based at the Batticaloa Brigade headquarters as having said: "We are giving them VIP security across our areas. They are targeting our intelligence operatives." To the credit of the inspectorate, it fearlessly stood for the rights of those serving in operational areas as well as in Colombo, at the risk of lives, whereas the police top brass remained silent. In spite of a change of government in April, 2004, the UPFA’s response to the LTTE, too, remained the same.

But the military responded to the LTTE threat by stepping up clandestine action particularly in the East. A growing relationship, mutually beneficial to the military and the breakaway LTTE faction gradually undermined the LTTE in the Eastern Province.