Human Security, Peace and Conflict, Trincomalee

A requiem by Karuna: The death of sub-regionalism?

By Shanthi Sachithanandam

Vakarai division, largely jungle tracts crisscrossed with 14 or so villages and little hamlets, situated along the northern border of Batticaloa District. The people of Vakarai are engaged in subsistence farming and fishing, with a small element of those who are traditionally hunter-gatherers.

It was somewhere in December 1995; I was in the middle of conducting a meeting at a village called Paalchenai, in Vakarai, when suddenly a visibly distraught man from the same area burst into our meeting with a tiny transistor in his hand. “Amma, the army has entered Jaffna town,” he blurted out.

All of us, the Paalchenai villagers and I, exclaimed in horror. We quickly gathered round him to listen to the news of the conclusion of the first leg of the Riviresa operations that captured Jaffna town.

Whenever I recollect this incident, I cannot help but marvel at the power of the idea of nationalism that is able to mobilise such a diverse group of communities. There are no perceptible common links between the people of Jaffna and Vakarai in terms of class, caste, kinship, education, traditions or any of the generally referred to classifications based on primarily economic and cultural interests.

Both people would most probably have never visited each others’ localities. Yet, there in Vakarai, we saw them join on the basis of a nationality that was under threat of extinction.
But then, mobilising as a nation does not preclude the function of other smaller contradictions within. Take village-based loyalties for instance. This is extremely strong in Batticaloa District, so much so that they invariably change in to hostilities between contending villages.

Village-based loyalties
The continuing animosities between the adjacent villages of Vantharumoolai and Sittandy, Santhiveli and Kiran, and, Karuwakkerni and Sungankerni, Kinnaiyadi are cases in point.
Conflicts often erupt during temple festivals between inhabitants of the two villages in question over issues of protocols provided for the various clans and other matters. This polarisation is apparent even within organisations and armed groups such as the LTTE. These parochial differences are emphasised and dug up when needed to mobilise support for one-self, win positions of power or compete for resources.

Similarly, regional sentiments against Jaffna were triggered amongst the Batticaloa middle class, which was reacting to the preponderance of Jaffna Tamils in government positions and also within the bigger trading establishments in the district.

It was ironic that almost everyone who led the anti-Jaffna agitation at that time was from the second generation of Jaffna Tamils settled in Batticaloa. Whatever the social forces at play at its origins, today this situation has been equalised to a great extent.

Jaffna bogey
Almost all the government officers in the district are locals, and the Jaffna trading establishments have dwindled to only a handful. However, the Jaffna bogey is resuscitated every time the need arises for restricting competition, such as filling vacancies within the Eastern University or gaining recognition as community leaders.

In these situations the antecedents of possible competitors are aired, debated and used effectively to cancel them out in the first round itself.

That is what Karuna did when he felt the need to consolidate unbridled power for himself within the LTTE. He wanted all supervision and control from the north off his back, for which purpose he conveniently used the Jaffna bogey. His claim was that Batticaloa cadres were sacrificing their lives to protect Jaffna.

It is not my intention here to undermine in any way the contribution of Batticaloa cadres within the LTTE. But if at all a study could be conducted to ascertain the percentage of cadres within the LTTE in proportion to the populations of Jaffna, Batticaloa and the Wanni, other interesting facts may emerge.

One guess is that the plantation community that settled in the Wanni during the late 1970s and early 1980s in the aftermath of the communal violence in the South might easily score highest.

End of Karuna
Be that as it may, Karuna’s emotive claim prompted the hierarchy to dispatch him as supreme commander of the Batticaloa-Ampara region with autonomous political, military and financial powers, back in 1999.

The principle underlying this strategy was that Jaffna and Batticaloa each would manage and advance its own army in its own area. Perhaps this move may be termed as the beginning of the end of Karuna, for it was to lead to his ruin.

He amassed huge personal fortune through indiscriminate taxation on farmers, fishermen, traders and liquor dealers; and ensured a percentage cut off every village infrastructure development project in the district.

While the northern command was still engaged in merely exhorting potential recruits and trying to impose regulations for their compulsory services to the LTTE, he introduced the method of blatantly forced abductions.

Mysterious deaths occurred of a few of his insiders who had been identified by the people as being fair minded. Tactics of public relations changed whereby the people were intimidated and suffered extreme humiliation at the hands of his boys. They were so cocky in their boast that there was no appeal beyond Karuna Amman.

Benefiting Kiran
Although he styled himself as the undisputed leader of the Batticaloa Tamils, it looked like he was concerned only about his own village, Kiran. As they say in Tamil, “A full sized donkey wasting down to become a tiny red ant.”

Any government or NGO programme had to benefit Kiran first, no questions asked. A 100 housing project approved for a village called Settiyaar Kudiyiruppu was ordered by Karuna to be transferred to beneficiaries in Kiran.

The education community from Santhiveli had lobbied hard to obtain a much-needed additional building for their school. Karuna arbitrarily decided that this had to be built for Kiran School instead, despite the lack of a real need.

In addition to all this, a ‘modernising’ Kiran project was also underway. He wanted to bring down houses and temples in an attempt to re-route the Batticaloa Colombo main road through Kiran.

Drunk with power
It is said that when a president of the board of trustees of one of the temples objected to this plan citing that he as the head of the temple had a responsibility to protect it, Karuna had curtly replied through the mobile phone of one of his assistants, “He may be head of the temple but I am the head of Tamil Eelam.” He was so drunk with power.

Due to lack of contacts with rural Batticaloa, the professionals and intellectuals living within Batticaloa town were to a large extent ignorant of the highhanded approaches employed by Karuna, and the gradual ‘Kiranification’ of his original Batticaloa vision.

Therefore, when he declared his independence from the mainstream LTTE in March 2004, there was an initial jubilation amongst them, which began to taper only when the reality of his necessary collaboration with the army sank in.

Naturally, Batticaloa is not a terrain which can be held on its own. The battle for real estate was in the north, and it transpired that even to secure Batticaloa District, the cadres of Batticaloa had to fight in the north after all.

If we say that the Military Intelligence tripped a falling Karuna into a coffin, the Sri Lanka Army drove the final nail. As soon as areas of east were captured, they mowed down hundreds of tombs of LTTE cadres both in Vakarai and in Tharavai. These graves were of the sons and daughters of Batticaloa who had fought along with Karuna, for the liberation of their people.
Even as he was instrumental in helping the army to capture the district, Karuna appeared powerless to prevent this desecration. All his tough talk (remember his Derana interview?) and his boast of being able to bring development to Batticaloa ended right there. He was finished. Karuna sang his own requiem.

Therefore, the purported expelling of Karuna from his party, Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Puligal (TMVP) in early October is a mere ritual of a fact that had concluded some time ago.

The only Leader
Pillaiyan, his deputy who has replaced him, is now busy calling traders, NGOs and others in the districts of Batticaloa and Trincomalee for meetings to explain the present status quo.

“Karuna embezzled money within TMVP. That is the reason for which Thalaivar (Leader) also had to sack him before,” he is reported to have said.

Thalaivar? But is that not the term LTTE cadres and other supporters use for Prabhakaran? On being asked for clarifications, he is supposed to have stated, “Then and now and always he is the only Leader (Ore Thalaivar).”

I have always marvelled at the power of the idea of nationalism.

This article written for Montage, published by Counterpoint. To get in touch with or to subscribe to Montage, please email montagesrilanka [at]