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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.

The 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.

To the 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.

Mr. 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.


Karuna 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 March 6, 2004, has  received a ministerial portfolio five years later on March 9.

From separatist terrorist to minister in charge of national integration the Tiger has indeed changed its stripes. From secessionism to national integration, the leopard  its spots!

To the 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.

To 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 betrayal.

Whatever these  different perceptions there is no denying that Mr. Muraleetharan is one of the most colourful characters to loom large on Sri Lanka's politico-military panorama.

His 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.

Longest serving

Until his expulsion from the LTTE  "Colonel" Karuna was the longest-serving regional commander of the Tigers. He  had been in charge   since 1987.

Karuna 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.

Karuna, born on 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.

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.


Young 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.

 He was briefly enrolled at St. Michael's College. He was good at mechanical matters. Karuna is said to have repaired or upgraded LTTE equipment.

He 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.

He was 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 time.

He returned to Sri Lanka 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.

From Jaffna

All these four men were of Jaffna origin. In 1987, the LTTE began appointing members from a particular district as the respective district leaders.

Since 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.

He 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 districts .

Karuna 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.

Karuna 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.

Crowning glory

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.

On 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.

Karuna 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.

He was 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.

Karuna 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.

Parallel structures

He was 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.

When "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.

 He 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 hierarchy.

Karuna 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 military factor.

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 reasons.

Calculated move

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.

In 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.

 When 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

In 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.

In 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.

The 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 chief.

Though Karuna was in full regional command earlier, he excused himself for the past  saying he was only carrying out orders from the northern hierarchy.

The 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

Karuna  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 Colombo and other dignitaries visit him in Batticaloa too.

Karuna 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.

Though 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 started emerging.

One of 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.

After 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 appreciated greatly.


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 them too.

The 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 regional control.

This 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.

The 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.

Regional factor

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.

To 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.

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, who were there by virtue of being Trincomalee and Batticaloa-Amparai commanders.

Karuna 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.

Long duel

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.

Pottu 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.

Aided 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.

The 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.


 Mr. 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 "confess."

Karuna 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. 

The 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.

Given Karuna's popularity in Batticaloa, an open confrontation seemed impossible. Karuna feared that Pottu would commence a campaign to discredit him and then strike.

 This, 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 revolted.

The  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.


 Karuna had concentrated the bulk of his forces in the Koralaipattru division of North Batticaloa. 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.

The 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").

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.

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.

Counter attacks

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.

It 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 .

Karuna also travelled to London 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.

It was 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 London, Britain.

In Britain, Karuna  was arrested, detained, tried in court, convicted and jailed for entering illegally on a false passport.

HRW stance

At that time New York based Human Rights Watch, Legal and Policy Director James Ross said, "We would like the UK 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."

HRW  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."

But after completing his British jail term, Karuna was back in Colombo safe and sound.

Today, he has extracted sweet revenge. While his former leader and colleagues  are besieged in Mullaitheevu, Karuna enjoys  "Medamulana munificience" as a Parliamentarian and Minister.









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