Karuna: From Tiger commander to non-cabinet minister
Karuna being congratulated by President Rajapakse
Whenever Mr. Velupillai Prabhakaran is referred to as a
"terrorist" his supporters retort by saying that freedom
fighters like messrs. Jomo Kenyatta, Fidel Castro,
Nelson Mandela and Yassir Arafat were also called
terrorists by their detractors at one time and that
subsequent events proved the critics wrong.
inference was that there could be a time when the
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam leader could also be
accepted and recognised as a respectable democrat
holding high political office.
utter chagrin of the Tigers and their fellow
travellers, the historic honour of a Tiger guerrilla
chief metamorphosing into a mainstream political leader,
has not been bestowed upon Mr. Prabhakaran but on an
erstwhile comrade-at-arms of his.
Vinayagamoorthy Muraleeth-aran alias "Col." Karuna
a.k.a. Karuna "Amman" who was appointed as a Member of Parliament on the
National List in 2008 created history on March 9 when he
was sworn in as Non-Cabinet Minister of National
Integration before President Mahinda Rajapakse.
was at one time the LTTE's senior eastern regional
commander by virtue of being in charge of the Batticaloa
and Amparai Districts. The eastern warlord who revolted
against the LTTE hierarchy on
March 3, 2004 and was formally expelled from the LTTE on
6, 2004, has received a ministerial portfolio five
years later on March 9.
separatist terrorist to minister in charge of national
integration the Tiger has indeed changed its stripes.
From secessionism to national integration, the leopard
government and many members of the majority community
the ex-Tiger is a modern hero who deserves all the
perks and privileges he is getting.
those of feline ilk, Karuna is a renegade and traitor.
The ministerial office and parliamentary post are in
their perception the spoils of treachery and reward for
Whatever these different perceptions there is no
denying that Mr. Muraleetharan is one of the most
colourful characters to loom large on
early life and the factors leading to his initial
break with the LTTE are intriguingly interesting and
worth very much a journey down memory lane.
his expulsion from the LTTE "Colonel" Karuna was the
longest-serving regional commander of the Tigers. He
had been in charge since 1987.
hails from Kiran in Batticaloa District. His father who
passed away a few years ago was an agriculturist. Kiran
comes under the Kalkudah electoral district, represented
in parliament from 1965 to 1989 by former Justice and
Home Affairs Minister K.W. Devanayagam of the United
National Party .
Karuna's father was a staunch supporter of Mr. K.W.
Devanayagam and frowned upon Tamil nationalism espoused
by the Tamil United Liberation Front. Ironically, his
son became an ardent advocate of Tamil nationalism and
went on to take up arms in support of it.
November 7, 1966,
is the fifth of seven children. He has three elder
sisters and two younger sisters. His sole male sibling,
Sivanesathurai was also a member of the LTTE and
commanded the Vaaharai region, known as "Andaankulam"
Kottam, under the nom de guerre Reggie.
sided with his brother after the revolt and fought
against the mainstream LTTE. He was the victim of covert
treachery when two of his deputies killed him at night
and crossed over to the parent body.
Karuna's sisters are school teachers or housewives. At
least three of his nieces and nephews were also members
of the LTTE at one time.
Muraleetharan had his primary education at Kinniaddy
Maha Vidyalayam and secondary education at
Vantharumoolai Madhya Maha Vidyalayam and the Government
College (now Mahajana) in Batticaloa.
was briefly enrolled at St. Michael's College. He was
good at mechanical matters. Karuna is said to have
repaired or upgraded LTTE equipment.
became a Tiger "helper" in 1982 as a GCE advanced-level
(maths) student. After the July 1983 violence Karuna
quit school and joined the LTTE formally.
enrolled in the third batch of recruits, and received
training in 1984 at a Tiger camp in Salem, Tamil Nadu,
under Ponnammaan and Radha.
Thereafter he functioned as a member of the dreaded LTTE
intelligence outfit TOSIS (Tiger Organisation Security
Intelligence Service) in Chennai. Karuna was also a
bodyguard of LTTE Chief Velupillai Prabhakaran for some
in 1985 and began his fighting career under the then
Batticaloa commander Basheer Kakka. Karuna continued
serving in Batticaloa under Aruna and Kumarappa. He also
worked under Pottu Amman when Pottu was acting LTTE
chief of Batticaloa in mid-1987.
these four men were of
origin. In 1987, the LTTE began appointing members from
a particular district as the respective district
the pioneering LTTE men from the east, Ramalingam
Paramadeva alias Rajan and Ranjan Kanagaratnam alias
Simon, had been killed earlier at Kaluwanchikudy and
Kokkilaai respectively, Karuna was now the "son of the
eastern soil" next in seniority.
assumed command of Batticaloa District shortly before
the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of
July 29, 1987. When fighting began against the Indian Peace
Keeping Force (IPKF), former LTTE military leader of
Amparai (Digamadulla) District David was taken into
custody. Thereafter, Karuna took over the adjacent
Amparai District too and retained control of both
kept LTTE resistance alive during the days of the IPKF.
He and his former deputy Reagan led the
counter-offensive against the ill-fated Tamil National
Army after the withdrawal of the IPKF.
was instrumental in raising and training the LTTE's
second infantry division "Jeyanthan Padaippirivu." This
comprised cadre from the east alone as opposed to the
north-based Charles Anthony division.
Karuna's crowning moment of glory came in the mid-1990s
when the government forces, conducting "Operation
Jayasikurui" (Certain Victory), were making rapid
strides into Tiger-held territory in the northern
mainland of the Wanni.
receiving an SOS from the high command, Karuna took his
fighters to the north and helped resist the army. Mr.
Prabhakaran's hideout in Puthukkudiyiruppu was on the
verge of being encircled at the time.
also planned and launched the third phase of the LTTE
counter offensive. He became the joint commander of all
LTTE fighters in the Wanni and executed several
successful operations, reversing the military situation.
also the field commander-in-chief for the phases of
Operation Oyatha Alaigal (Unceasing Waves), during which
the LTTE wrested back control of the triangular swathe
of territory within Oddusuddan in Mullaitheevu,
Vidathaltheevu in Mannar and Omanthai in Vavuniya.
returned home in triumph, having won the confidence and
respect of Mr.Prabhakaran. He was promoted as special
commander of both Amparai and Batticaloa Districts.
given virtual autonomy and allowed to set up parallel
structures of power. Karuna set up, in addition to the
Jeyanthan brigade, the Visaalagan and Vinothan brigades
for men and the Anbarasi and Mathana brigades for women.
He also formed the Johnson artillery unit and began the
Balendra Officer Training College. He took over the
government agricultural farm and school in Karadiyanaaru
and constructed the "Thenagam" base complex.
"Great Heroes Day" was observed on November 27, Karuna
replicated the Wanni ceremony at Tharavai. At the same
time that Mr.Prabhakaran lit the eternal flame in the
Wanni, Karuna did the same in Tharavai.
also delivered a 'Great Heroes Day' address like him.
Karuna projected himself as the "Eastern national
leader" second only to Mr.Prabakaran in the Tiger
was elevated to negotiator status in September 2002 when
the first round of direct talks between the Government
of Sri Lanka and the LTTE began. Karuna's selection was
an acknowledgment of the eastern equation and also the
rugged eastern commander had attained this position
owing to his prowess and military valour as opposed to
some others whose ascendancy was more due to other
Interestingly enough, Karuna's nomination to the
negotiating team then was not perceived only as a
recognition of his seniority and ability and the
regional factor. It was also viewed as a calculated move
to neutralise the eastern factor in a possible scuttling
of the peace process.
Historically the 'east' has been the Achilles heel of
previous peace attempts. While the underlying causes of
mutual incompatibility caused tension during peace
talks, the flashpoints contributing to the eruption of
war occurred in the east where Karuna ruled the roost.
Incorporating Karuna into the peace process in a
responsible position indicated a deliberate design to
prevent another breakdown of negotiations.
1987, Karuna protested strongly when easterners were not
included as Tiger nominees in the interim
administration. He also insisted that the poet Mr. Kasi
Anandhan be nominated though India was not in favour of
such a move.
his former leader Kumarappa consumed cyanide on October
6, 1987, Karuna led an orgy of violence in the east,
cold-bloodedly killing Sinhalese in large numbers which
ultimately destroyed the prevailing peace.
Back to war
1990, war broke out when Eastern Tigers surrounded the
police stations in the region at Karuna's command. The
pretext was the assault of a Muslim tailor by a Sinhala
policeman. Over 600 surrendered policemen were
massacred in the Rufuskulam jungles of Thirukkovil.
1994, Karuna refused to accept a ceasefire unless
eastern cadre were given the right to carry arms in
government-controlled areas. Even during the 2002 peace
process, Karuna walked out of the subcommittee
overseeing the de-escalation of military activity, when
he felt it was shamming seriousness.
Karuna's human rights record is not good, and he has
been implicated in several acts such as massacring
Muslims, conscripting minors and gunning down political
rivals. The same man who broke the 1990 ceasefire
because of an assault on a Muslim civilian by the
police, was to order brutal massacres of Muslim
civilians in many places including mosques.
past deeds or misdeeds of Karuna came back later to
haunt him after entering the political mainstream , but
the former eastern warlord passed the buck on to his
former leader and Pottu Amman, the Tiger intelligence
Karuna was in full regional command earlier, he excused
himself for the past saying he was only carrying out
orders from the northern hierarchy.
Colombo establishment was only too happy to accept this
explanation, absolve and elevate him to high office
without any semblance of meting out retributive justice.
On par with north
while in the LTTE also strove to create a situation
where the eastern region would be considered on par with
the north. He formed several structures similar in
nature but of a lesser scale to those in the north. He
also insisted during peace talks that the Norwegian
facilitators, monitors, diplomats in
and other dignitaries visit him in Batticaloa too.
was the LTTE supremo's blue-eyed boy after his
military exploits in the northern mainland. The LTTE
chief elevated Karuna to the position of Special
Commander of Batticaloa-Amparai Districts and gave him
virtual autonomy to run the region's affairs.
Karuna was happy initially, the advent of peace brought
about a new set of problems. With the cessation of major
contradictions between the armed forces and the Tamil
people, the contradictions within the Tamil people
these was the conflict between the central and regional
institutions of the LTTE. Another was the northern-Tamil
eastern-Tamil differences. Yet another area of conflict
was the LTTE's new strategy of delinking administration
from the control of the military.
the ceasefire of February 23, 2002, the LTTE's high
command began expanding its activities into the regions,
notably the east. Earlier, this was not possible owing
to the war. In times of conflict, the regional chiefs
practically had a free hand in running the affairs of
their territories. This was so particularly in the case
of Karuna, whose seniority and military ability were
However, there was an anomaly. The central divisions
were not answerable to the regional command and reported
back to their heads, who in turn reported to
Mr.Prabhakaran. Thus several acts were carried out in
the east in the name of the LTTE, over which Karuna had
no control. In many instances he had no knowledge of
LTTE's courts, police stations, income tax offices and,
more importantly, the dreaded intelligence wing TOSIS
(Tiger Organisation Security Intelligence Service), all
functioned in the east without being subject to any
was particularly galling to a man of Karuna's calibre.
He felt that he deserved special treatment because of
his seniority and the services rendered by the eastern
cadre. He found the special position to which he had
been elevated being undermined systematically. This was
nothing but humiliation in front of his cadres.
autonomy Mr.Prabhakaran had given him with the right
hand was being plucked away by the left hand. Karuna's
complaints to the LTTE chief about Pottu Amman, Nadesan
and Thamilendhi were not heeded.
Complicating matters further was the regional factor.
Batticaloa Tamils in general nurse a feeling of being
discriminated against or dominated by Jaffna Tamils.
This feeling had to be handled with care and
sensitivity, which seemed absent in the LTTE.
make matters worse, power structures at the centre were
all led and to a great extent manned by Northern Tamils.
Karuna and his loyalists resented this northern hegemony
as they perceived it and commenced a campaign of
non-cooperation, even resistance. This cold war was
largely unknown outside the Tiger realm.
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, who were there by
virtue of being Trincomalee and Batticaloa-Amparai
compared this with the military situation where the
Eastern Tigers have made proportionately higher
sacrifices. As many as 4,543 Eastern Tigers had lost
their lives up to March 2004 in the struggle. Of these
2,302 died in northern battles. Operations on eastern
soil took only 2,241 lives. Despite these sacrifices,
Eastern Tigers have not received a fair deal after
peace, charged Karuna.
Aggravating matters further was the long duel between
the two "Ammans" (uncles). There has been rivalry
between Pottu Amman and Karuna Amman since 1987 when
they served together in Batticaloa. In recent times,
both had competed to be in Mr.Prabhakaran's good books
and possibly occupy the de facto number two position.
Resenting the activities of Pottu Amman's outfit on his
native soil, Karuna started a separate wing known as
"Intelligence BA." This agency began monitoring the
activities of Pottu Amman's operatives.
is the most feared man within the LTTE. He has brought
down many people, including former deputy leader
Mr.Mahendrarajah alias Mahathaiya. The clash of the
Ammans in the east saw the TOSIS launch an intensive
probe into Karuna himself.
by operatives of the Thamilendhi-led finance section and
Nadesan-led police divisions, Pottu Amman's men began
compiling a dossier against Karuna. When Batticaloa
business people were interrogated about Karuna's
dealings, an enraged Karuna asked traders not to
cooperate with the inquiry.
charges were misappropriation of funds amounting to
Rs.160 million, building a house for himself,
encouraging anti-Muslim activities, masterminding the
conscription of minors and so on. There was also an
accusation about an amorous relationship with a senior
leader of the Tiger women's brigade.
Prabhakaran "requested" Karuna to come to the Wanni and
answer the charges. It may be recalled that Mahathaiya
too was given a charge-sheet to be answered before being
taken into custody. He was later tortured and forced to
sensed a trap and refused to comply by going to the
Wanni, despite several directives. This led to a
straining of relations between him and the Tiger supremo.
next twist was when more than 100 TOSIS operatives were
deployed in Batticaloa by Pottu Amman. It was suspected
that Pottu was planning to abduct Karuna clandestinely
to the Wanni or even to assassinate him.
Karuna's popularity in Batticaloa, an open confrontation
seemed impossible. Karuna feared that Pottu would
commence a campaign to discredit him and then strike.
according to sources close to Karuna, made him panic. He
thought that Pottu was getting ready to strike first in
typical Tiger fashion. So Karuna struck first and
LTTE formally declared war on Karuna on March 25 after
issuing a harsh statement against him. It was
anticipated that a military campaign would be inevitable
after parliamentary polls of April 2, 2004.
had concentrated the bulk of his forces in the
Koralaipattru division of
He expected an invasion across the Verugal river, which
demarcates the border between Batticaloa and Trincomalee
Districts. Karuna set up lines of defence to the south
of the river.
LTTE's operation was multi-pronged and began around 1.30
a.m. on April 9, 2004. Karuna had placed 600 cadres 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
cadres 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").
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.
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.
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.
became clear to Karuna that a long drawn out struggle
would cause serious logistical difficulties. So Karuna
decided to throw in the towel. The media publicity
generated by the Tiger victory made out that Karuna was
defeated militarily and, therefore, gave up. This was
only part of the truth.
Subsequently Karuna teamed up with Sri Lankan
intelligence and obtained protection and patronage. The
advent of the Rajapakse regime was a godsend. He
assisted fully in the war efforts of the government and
played a constructive yet covert role .
also travelled to
under a diplomatic passport with a false identity to be
with his family. He had married a woman Tiger,
Ms.Vithyavathy alias Nira from Kallady in Batticaloa.
an inter-caste marriage: Karuna is a Vellala and Nira is
from the Karaiyaar caste. They have three children (two
girls and a boy). The family is presently living in
Britain, Karuna was arrested, detained, tried in court,
convicted and jailed for entering illegally on a false
New York based Human Rights Watch, Legal and Policy Director James
Ross said, "We would like the
government to see whether there's a valid basis under
the principle of universal jurisdiction to prosecute
Col. Karuna for possible war crimes or human rights
abuses such as torture."
Advocacy Director of Children's Rights Division, Jo
Becker said, "Vinayagamoorthy Muraleetharan, also known
as Col. Karuna, has committed very serious crimes in Sri
Lanka while eastern commander for the LTTE, and also
while operating in cooperation with government security
forces as the leader of the Karuna group. He should be
held accountable for these crimes. HRW strongly urges
the UK government to conduct a thorough investigation
and pursue prosecution under UK law."
after completing his British jail term, Karuna was back
in Colombo safe and sound.
he has extracted sweet revenge. While his former leader
and colleagues are besieged in Mullaitheevu, Karuna
enjoys "Medamulana munificience" as a Parliamentarian