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Why Karuna's efforts fell flat

Karuna had experience, manpower and ammunition when he branched off, yet it fell short before Prabhakaran's tactics, reports PK Balachanddran.
PTI | By PK Balachanddran, Colombo
UPDATED ON APR 15, 2004 02:53 PM IST

When he raised the banner of revolt against the LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaan in early March, the breakaway Eastern Commander, Col Karuna, had 6,000 men under him. The array of weapons in his hands was impressive, with artillery and heavy mortars to give the punch.

The Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) between the Sri Lankan government and Prabhakaran prevented the latter from sending his forces to quell the rebellion because, under its clauses, there could be no transfer of arms and armed men across government-controlled territories. And persons of doubtful loyalty fled and joined Prabhakaran in far away Wanni. All this had left Karuna with total control over 1,700 sq km of territory in Batticaloa and Amparai districts.

Karuna himself was known as a very experienced Commander, whose exploits against the Sri Lankan Army's Operation "Victory Assured" and the LTTE's own operations code named "Unceasing Waves", had become legendary. It was his military prowess, which had made Prabhakaran appoint him Special Commander for Batticaloa and Amparai with unprecedented autonomy. Karuna had used the two years of peace to collect money, through fair means and foul, and recruit thousands of children for combat roles in military units under his command.

He had built a mini empire for himself. And yet, after a whole month, when Prabhakaran did send small bands of saboteurs and Special Forces numbering a few hundreds, Karuna's structure fell like a house of cards. Those who set much store by Karuna's "invincibility" were shocked. His units fled from the forward lines on the banks of the Verugal River and in the coastal villages and landing points at Kathiaveli and Vaharai. His units gave up without a fight. Karuna was under the impression that the Sri Lankan Navy would not allow Prabhakaran to send men and material through sea, but obviously, the navy had turned a blind eye to the movements.

Karuna pulled back the remnants of his forces to the six or seven bases in the Thoppigala jungles west of Batticalao, thinking that he would be safe there because Prabhakaran's forces would not be able to cross the government-controlled areas without violating the CFA. But to his consternation, Prabhakaran's men entered the Thoppigala area. Clearly, the Sri Lankan Army had winked at the crossings.

In the event, when he knew that the game was up, and it was time to flee the district itself, Karuna executed those he had held under custody, and asked others to leave. When they hesitated, he burst grenades to force them to flee. "He wanted to shed all excess baggage," observed a Batticaloa-based journalist. Abandoning all the arms and ammunition in the Beirut and other camps, Karuna fled with his close associates numbering less than twenty. He is believed to be somewhere in Sri Lanka in the safe custody of the Sri Lankan armed forces. It is learnt that efforts will be made to find him a safe haven abroad, on the condition that he does not indulge in any political activity.

Prabhakaran's offer to let him go abroad and lead a civilian life, still stands. No assured sources for long term supplies Asked why the 'mighty' Karuna could not hold on even for 72 hours, a military expert in Colombo said: "Karuna knew that he did not have the resources, whether military or financial, to carry on a long term conflict with Prabhakaran. To carry on a long-term campaign, there should be an assured supply armaments, ammunition and money. He might have realized that nobody had come forward to guarantee these."

The Sri Lankan Armed Forces, on which he was counting, did not help him. He might have thought that he would be able to get India on his side, when he condemned the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi and declared that he had Neelan, one of the plotters of the assassination, in his custody. But India did not fall for the bait, and kept aloof. Karuna tried to curry favour with the United States by giving news to an American agency in preference to others. But this did not cut ice with the US as the American Ambassador in Sri Lanka dubbed any talk US backing for Karuna as "baloney". The Sri Lankan political parties, which the LTTE said were behind Karuna, also did not come to his aid.

Even the anti-LTTE United Peoples' Freedom Alliance (UPFA), which won the April 2 parliamentary elections, did not support Karuna. "It's an internal matter of the LTTE," said UPFA spokesman Mangala Samaraweera said. Even the virulently anti-LTTE Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) did not utter a word on the Prabha-Karuna stand off. The United National Front (UNF), which was closely tied to the Prabhakaran faction, was understandably silent. No one wanted a confrontation with Prabhakaran Such reticence, across the political spectrum, was due to the fact that all the parties in Southern Sri Lanka wanted the peace process to resume. And the peace process meant resumption of talks between the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE led by Velupillai Prabhakaran.

The entry of a third party, like Karuna, was unwelcome. In fact, the pre-election caretaker government led by President Chandrika Kumaratunga had refused to conclude a separate CFA with Karuna. The UPFA government wanted to resume peace talks to get foreign aid, which was linked to the resumption and progress in the peace process. The pledged aid amounts to a whopping USD 4.5 billion. Though India is not an active participant in the peace process, in the same way as Norway, European Union, Japan or even the US are, it wants the peace process to continue so that it can promote India-Sri Lanka trade and investment and participate in the reconstruction work in the war-torn Tamil North East. It has no interest in creating divisions in the LTTE.

The Western countries have been dealing with Prabhakaran and would prefer to restrict their dealings to him rather than deal with a multiplicity of rebel groups. There is thus, an unmistakable global interest in restoring peace and stability to Sri Lanka. But Karuna did not grasp this. He was labouring under the mistaken notion that those who had a history of conflict with the LTTE led by Prabhakaran would automatically come to his aid. Homework not done Karuna had also not done his homework or the necessary groundwork before raising the banner of revolt. He imagined that he could re-kindle among the people of the Eastern districts of Batticaloa and Amparai, a feeling of being dominated by Northern or Jaffna Tamils. It took him a while to realize that the feeling of being discriminated against no longer existed.

In the past thirty years, the eastern districts had progressed, despite the war. And the northern districts had definitely slid in economic and social terms due to the war. The 20-year hot war against the Sri Lankan state, polity and the armed forces had also blunted or submerged intra-Tamil differences and created a single "Tamil identity" in its place. No wonder then that Karuna's appeal to revive the Northeast conflict found no takers.

Quite early in the rebellion, Karuna suffered some grievous losses in terms of leaders and military commanders, noted a senior journalist of Batticalao. Karuna's entire second line, both political and military, left him and joined Prabhakaran within the first few days of the revolt. Those he was left with, like Jim Kelly Thatha, Robert, Visu or Thurai, were no matches for the likes of Ramesh, Ram, Nagesh, Ramanan, Kausalyan or Karikalan, who were more experienced. Karuna was left with very young children (some 13 and 14 and mostly under 18) who he had forcibly recruited in the past two years. It is not certain if these were adequately trained for battle. When confronted by older men in battle these kids gave up, said an aid worker who saw this for himself in Vaharai.

Psychological operations rather than guns worked Prabhakaran's men also indulged in a lot of psychological operation in the month before the Good Friday assault on April 9. Infiltrators told the cadres that the revolt was pointless besides being anti-Tamil. Informed sources said that Prabhakaran's people had contacted even high level commanders like Robert, to impress upon him that the conflict was uncalled for and that if they crossed over they would be pardoned. In fact, for a whole month, it was dinned into the ears of the cadres that none of them except Karuna was a traitor, and that those who wanted to re-join the mainstream or leave the organization, were welcome to do so. They would not be hunted down and killed. This had an effect over time. "When the attacks came, the resistance just caved in. There was very little fighting.

When Prabhakaran's men landed in Vaharai, the LTTE's camps were empty. There was no will to fight. Even the commanders were demoralized," said a source. Obviously, Karuna had been in a frightful hurry to revolt. He had not done a study of the financial and military resource requirements of a long drawn out conflict with Prabhakaran. He had not taken into account the emerging national and geo-political situation. And if some outside forces had promised him help, these had clearly left him down. Prabhakaran proves he is the top dog and the conflict leaves Prabhakaran more powerful than he was before. He had successfully quelled a major revolt within his own organization.

The myth of his "invincibility" will gain strength as a result of this. He had correctly sized up the strengths and weakness of Karuna, and had taken the rights steps, at the right time to bring his downfall. He did this with minimum force and with very little bloodshed, as promised. This is bound to enhance his image among the Tamils as a person who not only executes a job efficiently but also keeps his word.

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