Originally Published 2004-03-10 11:43:52 Published on Mar 10, 2004
By rebelling against supremo Prabhakaran in an unprecedented way, ¿Col¿ Karuna, LTTE¿s sacked commander for Sri Lanka¿s Eastern Province, has put the clock back in more ways than one. In a way, it has also put the LTTE at the crossroad all over again as never before, coming as it does after the historic Ceasefire Agreement with the Sri Lankan Government, but how far is too early to determine.
LTTE: Karuna puts the clock back in more ways than one
By rebelling against supremo Prabhakaran in an unprecedented way, 'Col' Karuna, LTTE's sacked commander for Sri Lanka's Eastern Province, has put the clock back in more ways than one. In a way, it has also put the LTTE at the crossroad all over again as never before, coming as it does after the historic Ceasefire Agreement with the Sri Lankan Government, but how far is too early to determine.

That a rebellion could occur in a monolith militant organization like the LTTE, which has never allowed a murmur of protest to go unpunished, is making news by itself. On earlier occasions, critics of the LTTE's ways, be it from inside the organization or outside, had faced sure-death. Rarely had anyone on Prabhakaran's 'hit-list' survived a murderous attack planned with great meticulousness. In the 'Batticaloa attack' on Tamil candidate from the UNP, which is the immediate provocation for Karuna, the hit-squad struck again at the hospital after the first attempt became 'less effective'.

The rebellion by Karuna, whose maiden name is Muralitharan, naturally brings to mind the 'execution' of Mahendrarajah alias 'Mahathaiah', the only one to be ordained deputy leader of the LTTE. Mahathaiah was dubbed a stooge of the Indian intelligence, but Karuna, at least for now, has escaped the odium of being branded as the hired-gun of a 'foreign hand'.

The comparison does not end there. Mahathaiah was literally caught in the Big Tiger's den, and did not much chance of escape, or fight-back. Against this, Karuna is well-entrenched, and seems to be well-protected, too, in the East, which he has been running as his own near-fiefdom. It is unclear again if all 6000 LTTE cadres in the East would take orders from Karuna, that too against Prabhakaran. Yet, it is the challenge to this fiefdom status, by or through Pottu Amman, which seems to have caused the rancour.

Karuna having spurned the formal amnesty offer from the LTTE leadership, it now remains to be seen if Prabhakaran is ready to trigger the first possible internecine battle any magnitude within the LTTE ranks. It is otherwise clear that Prabhakaran wants to take the multi-ethnic population in the East into confidence before starting a gun-battle, this time against a brother Tiger. Such a course, apart from side-tracking the 'Tamil ethnic issue', could lead to refugee flow to other parts of Sri Lanka, and even to India.

Obviously, Prabhakaran does not want to be blamed for the trouble and inconvenience caused to the local population, which like the rest of the nation, has got used to two years of peace and tranquility during the ceasefire period. The fact that the LTTE did not go back to war, or resort again to terrorism, despite walking out of the peace talks with the Sri Lankan Government has lent it credibility as never before.

What more, the LTTE has maintained the status quo even at the height of the 'southern political confusion', in turn leading to the advanced parliamentary elections, now due on April 2. On earlier occasions, the LTTE had caused such confusion, to create a power vacuum in the South, and used it to consolidate its hold over the Tamil provinces in the North and the East. The 'Premadasa killing' involving the incumbent Sri Lankan President, was a case in point.

Cross-checking with traditionally-tested theories of politics and political administration, the 'LTTE rebellion' now pre-supposes, or implies, near-permanent quietude on the Sinhala-Tamil front, allowing for inherent internal differences to surface from the scratch. In a way, it is acceptance of Karuna's claim that the Tamil East is different from the Tamil North, and the two had co-existed and co-operated thus far only under a common 'external threat'.

In a way, the internal politics of every nation, and the internal chemistry of every political or militant coalition have gone through the process. In the absence of a credible political alternative, for which the LTTE has none else to blame, a counter-force would have to come only from within. The deep divisions within the LTTE have surfaced in the militant wing, in this case.

Differences within the military and political wings have also surfaced in various insurgency movements, whenever a peace process had been launched. The military wing, which had all along suffered casualties and gloated over its heroism and valour, suddenly feels hapless and marginalised in a process, of which it understands even less. That has been true at least of most other insurgent movements.

In turn, the perceived marginalisation of the leadership seeps down to the cadre, which feel dejected and indifferent. It then becomes necessary for the militant leadership to infuse morale into the system, and also prove to them who is the boss. It was among the reasons for the 'Rajiv Gandhi assassination'. In that case, Prabhakaran had to undo the credibility gap in the LTTE cadre-mind after he had been held under 'near house-arrest' in Delhi, before he agreed to the Rajiv-Jayawardene Accord of 1987.

This is the first time that the world is getting to know of a rebellion in the LTTE, and possibly in any insurgency organization, in real-time. In a way, the Norwegian facilitators to the Sri Lankan peace process may have facilitated this too, but not out of choice. To the extent Karuna alerted the Sri Lankan troops too, for re-negotiating the Ceasefire Accord with him in the Eastern Province, he put the world on notice to the 'LTTE rebellion'.

It should be said to the credit of Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga and lameduck Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe that they have left it to the LTTE to sort out its internal problems. During the run-up to a crucial parliamentary election, it is difficult to resist the temptation of not taking sides, or using the 'LTTE rebellion' as campaign fodder of some kind. Whether they will stay the course in the coming weeks remains to be seen, though a lot will depend on where and how far Karuna goes from here.

Yet, the impact of the 'Karuna factor' on the Sri Lankan poll scene cannot be gainsaid. Apart from the overall interest it may have generated across the island-nation, it could change the electoral calculations of the LTTE leadership. With 31 of the 225 parliamentary seats spread over the 'Tamil areas', including the dominant North, and moderate to marginal East, the Prabhakaran leadership had hoped for the LTTE-sponsored Tamil Nationalist Alliance (TNA) to play a 'decisive role' in a 'hoped-for' hung Parliament.

Karuna may have already upset this calculation to some extent, but in what form remains unclear. For one thing, by taking offence to the LTTE's Intelligence Wing chief Pottu Amman dispatching killer-squads to eliminate non-TNA Tamil candidates and their supporters in the East, he has struck at the root of the organisation's very modus for success over the past decades. With this he also seems wanting to present a 'more acceptable' LTTE leader to the non-LTTE Tamil groups, Sinhalas and the Muslims in the region. Whether it would work with the voters is a different issue.

LTTE-watchers say that Karuna's demand for sacking Pottu Amman, and also two other senior LTTE 'administrators' in charge of the 'LTTE Police' and 'Finance' may even otherwise reflect the prevailing cadre-mood. This has nothing to do with any perception of cadre-demoralisation. Instead, it may have everything to do with Prabhakaran having become the 'prisoner of his own circumstances', thanks mainly to the unavoidable threats to his life.

That way, no secessionist organization, not certainly the LTTE, could afford to have its top leader exposed to wind and weather, as the cadres may desire. But that also comes with a price, and the LTTE may be paying for it, now. It may be too difficult for Prabhakaran to concede Karuna's demand, given the LTTE's structure and infrastructure. Under the existing hierarchy, it has an intelligence machinery which is an envy of many established nation-States, and a 'civil administration' that is well in place.

By rebelling as he has done, Karuna has revived the subterranean schism in the Tamil community in Sri Lanka. Time was when observers had wondered how a Karayar fisherman like Prabhakaran could dominate 'Tamil politics' in Sri Lanka, where the Vellala community in the North had held sway over decades and centuries in the past. The 'Vellala arrogance' was also among the reasons for the Sinhala revulsion of the past, and it was felt even in Tamil Nadu when the Sri Lankan Tamils came in as refugees in the Eighties.

There is truth in Karuna's charge that the LTTE hierarchy is dominated by the North, and that the Eastern cadres may have become the LTTE's canon fodder. Such a course is inevitable, given the socio-economic past of the two communities. What is true is that these differences are coming out in the open within and under the LTTE monolith, too.

The fact is that Tamil youth from the North have either died in the early years of the ethnic war, or have migrated to other nations. From there, they continue to fund the LTTE's war-efforts now, and are expected to fund future economic prosperity when permanent peace returned. The less-educated, and less-connected Easterners are thus left behind to fight the battle in their turn.

It is another matter that years of war and 'unbridled migration' may have already affected the birth-rate of Tamils inside Sri Lanka. Thus, the 'Karuna rebellion' may have also underlined a 'human resource problem' that may be staring the LTTE on its face. For, repeated charges of 'child conscription' in recent years, preceded by more heroic recruitment of women cadres, had only underlined the limits and limitations of the LTTE in inducting youthful male cadres -- thus possibly contributing to the leadership's more recent desire for permanent peace.

Ironically, the 'Karuna call', if it could be called so, for a 'southern Tamil Eelam', may have set the clock back even more sharply than any other. Whether he is in complete control of the LTTE apparatus in the multi-ethnic Eastern Province, which alone he has euphemistically called 'southern Eelam' is anybody's guess. In doing so, however, he has wily-nily revived the 'Chandrika package' of 1995, which had offered - and insisted on -- two separate Tamil provinces.

The LTTE's opposition to two separate Tamil provinces at the time was among the causes for the rejection of the 'Chandrika package', which in turn was the first meaningful effort at peaceful resolution of the ethnic crisis. In contrast, the suspended peace efforts since the Ceasefire Accord is believed to have taken a unified 'Tamil North-Eastern Province' under a 'united Sri Lanka', as a fait accompli of sorts.

The 'Karuna rebellion' has thus opened the doors for re-negotiating not only the powers of a 'Tamil province' from where the LTTE's proposals for an 'Interim Self-Governing Authority' (ISGA) had left it. It has also reopened the very basis for such negotiations. By asking the Norwegian negotiators to treat him separately, Karuna has also reopened the question of 'Tamil representation'. Thus far, the LTTE had claimed, and has been accorded, the status of the 'sole representatives of the Tamils' in the peace talks. So much so, even the Muslims, who otherwise are Tamil-speaking, find their demands for parallel representation falling on deaf ears.

The alternative would be for the world, starting with the Norwegian facilitators, to watch helplessly, as the Prabhakaran leadership goes about forcefully and forcibly re-asserting its unilateral dominance in Tamil affairs of the island-nation. The non-event otherwise would involve Prabhakaran accommodating either Karuna outside the LTTE, or Karuna's concerns, inside - and the LTTE yielding similar political and negotiating space to other Tamil groups in the Sri Lankan peace process, when revived.

To the extent Karuna has raised the banner of revolt, the LTTE leadership is under pressure to quicken the peace process before other independent Tamil elements start asserting themselves. A delayed process towards peace, instead, could divert the LTTE's energies into internecine wars, which the leadership, it looks at the moment, is disinterested and uncomfortable, joining. While the ceasefire accord was not drafted with a possible battle within the Tamils in mind even while not ruling out such differences with the Muslims, any battle for supremacy within the LTTE could leave the Sinhala regions in comparative peace and prosperity - the 'peace dividend' that may become unavailable to the war-ravaged Tamil areas, which need it even more badly and urgently.

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