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Karuna: The Tragedy of a Rebel (Last Part)

(February 29, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Karuna the rebel has failed but we can still hope for the success of the ideas and values which formed the banner of his rebellion. For an all too brief moment he embodied, however nebulously, the idea that Tamil struggle against Sinhala supremacism must remain democratic and humane, that it must eschew extremist and maximalist habits and veer towards moderation, that it must abandon nihilism and place the real interests of the real people above the glorification of the self-appointed liberators.
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Read Part IV

by Tisaranee Gunasekara

“We all carry within us our places of exile, our crimes, our ravages. But the task is not to unleash them on the world; it is to fight them in ourselves and in others.”
Camus (The Rebel)

V – Epilogue

Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan belonged to the generation which came of age with the Black July. His is not just the story of one man; it is symbolic of the tragedy of an entire generation compelled by circumstances beyond their control to make choices which enmeshed them (their community and the country) in a cycle of vicious and deadly errors. It was a generation which came of age witnessing the spectacle of innocent Tamil men, women and children being brutally murdered by Sinhalese rioters while a majority of Southern society watched in silence (there were Sinhalese who risked themselves to save the lives of friends, neighbours and even strangers but proportionately this was a small number). The most courageous and idealistic amongst that generation, (together with the ones consumed by blood lust and power hunger) joined the militant movements only to have their dreams shattered or characters degenerated by an unforgiving reality. In a few short years they were either killing fellow Tamil militants or being killed by fellow Tamil militants – supposedly brothers in arms against a common oppressor. Some died, some left, others stayed and died or prospered. Karuna stayed and prospered.

When Karuna rebelled against Vellupillai Pirapaharan the BBC correspondent Frances Harrison called him ‘the rebels’ rebel”. Albert Camus reminds us that “rebellion cannot exist without the feeling that somewhere, in some way you are justified” (The Rebel). The LTTE had long passed the point of feeling the need for any justification; as far as the Tigers were concerned they – and their leader – embody both justice and virtue. Rebelling against the LTTE had thus become a necessary – though not sufficient - condition for Tamils to lay claim to the banner of justice again.
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“Why did Karuna rebel? The real story remains to be told and the man who holds all the threads of that tale is currently languishing in a British jail. Until that story is written we can only speculate. According to available evidence, Karuna was not planning to rebel; he was compelled to do so to avoid being destroyed by his leader. Circumstances seemed to have forced him to make a choice: victim, renegade or rebel. He chose correctly to rebel and raised the flag of Eastern liberation from Tiger dominance as his justification.”
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Karuna launched his rebellion on a just cause; his refusal to continue with an internecine war too was just. In the first phase of his reincarnation post-Good Friday offensive he was careful not to act in a manner that was completely at variance with the issues he had raised in the moment of his rebellion. Though he and his men could not have survived without some backing from segments of the Lankan state, right until 2006 Karuna was more rebel than paramilitary who did not set himself up against the interests of the people he claimed to represent and therefore managed to retain their support.

According to the latest report of the UTHR the change took place in May-June 2006 as a result of an agreement Karuna and Douglas Devananda, the leader of the EPDP, reached with President Mahinda Rajapakse. This agreement supposedly committed Karuna and Devananda to the de-merging of the North-East and to help in defeating Tigers in the East. In return the President agreed to set up two interim councils, in the North for Devananda and in the East for Karuna. As a consequence of the pact, Karuna was to provide units to ‘fight for the liberation of the East’. “There were not many more than 200 cadres under Karuna. The lack of numbers was solved by the government forces helping him to conscript boys for his army. This emerged on a conspicuous scale within three weeks of the Kool Party Pact” (The Second Fascist Front in Sri Lanka: Towards Crushing the Minorities and Disenfranchising the Sinhalese - Special Report No. 29 – 21.2.2008). By the time that fateful year ended Karuna had become as much of an oppressor of his own people as Pirapaharan ever was. The rebellion had defeated itself, by metamorphosing into its antithesis.

Why did Karuna rebel? The real story remains to be told and the man who holds all the threads of that tale is currently languishing in a British jail. Until that story is written we can only speculate. According to available evidence, Karuna was not planning to rebel; he was compelled to do so to avoid being destroyed by his leader. Circumstances seemed to have forced him to make a choice: victim, renegade or rebel. He chose correctly to rebel and raised the flag of Eastern liberation from Tiger dominance as his justification. Helped by Karuna’s undoubted talents Pirapaharan had raised him high. But he was essentially an outsider in that Northern dominated outfit. The LTTE’s charge of financial corruption against him may be correct; but if he was not an ‘outsider’, and therefore structurally unreliable, that in itself may not have been sufficient for his competitors build a strong enough case against him.

The rebellion was a serious debunking of the LTTE’s sole representative myth which is an insurmountable obstacle to the growth (or even mere survival) of Tamil democracy. In that sense and irrespective of Col. Karuna’s subjective aims (he may have wanted to be the Eastern Sun God) the rebellion contained a significant democratising potential. The rebels in their moment of rebellion needed the help of Sri Lanka and the world and this need could have been used to realise (at least partially) the democratic potential of the rebellion. Moreover the fact of the rebellion could have been used to democratise the peace process through multi-lateralisation via a separate peace deal with Col. Karuna. None of these were done. Instead of trying to maximise their positive potential for mutual advantage, the Lankan state nudged the rebels towards perdition.

If handled correctly Karuna could have provided a positive role model to other disgruntled elements within the LTTE; his example could have been used to ferment dissent and perhaps even other rebellions against the Tiger chieftain. Karuna, languishing in a British jail, still constitutes an example – of the non-viability of rebellion against the LTTE, so long as Colombo is under the dominance of appeasers or Sinhala supremacists. For Tamils, especially easterners, the fate of Karuna and the actions of his successor Pilliyan are reminders that they are caught between a murderous LTTE and a duplicitous and oppressive Lankan state. Right now there does not seem to be any in-between spaces, a place where Tamil could practice democratic dissent both against the LTTE and the Sinhala supremacist regime. By mishandling the Karuna rebellion not just once but twice the state lost an ideal opportunity to weaken the Tiger from within. Appeasement made such a goal undesirable in the first instance; Sinhala supremacism made it unnecessary in the second.

In a retrospective moment Karuna, the rebel, recalled how 1983 turned him from a possible university entrant into an armed militant: “When I was in my teenage, I witnessed the 1983 Holocaust, where hundreds of Tamils were brutally killed, and thousand of them were chased out from the South to the East and North. People who were affected in the South Sri Lanka came back and told us their harrowing experiences which made our blood to boil. As a young man, that had a telling effect on me. The violence and the bloodshed caused by the State orchestrated genocide and violence disturbed me a lot. Events leading to the ethnic violence made me to realize the stark reality - the vulnerability of my people. I began to rake my head to find out ways and means of safeguarding them from such nightmarish acts. Subsequently it dawned on me, that I have a duty by my people, to take care of them, safeguard them and provide security to them, therefore I gave up my studies. I also decided that I should try my best to put an end to this State orchestrated violence, and I concluded that this could be achieved only by joining a Tamil liberation organization” (Asian Tribune -11.8.2004).

When Karuna made that choice, a choice shared by the best and the worst amongst his generation, Tamil militant groups occupied the moral high ground and the Lankan state was clearly the oppressor. Life is not that black and white anymore. The Tigers have proven themselves to be infinitely worse than the Sinhala enemy towards fellow Tamils while, post-Accord the Lankan state has transformed itself in to a more liberal and inclusivist entity. This process of progressive evolution has been stymied and turned back under the Rajapakse Presidency. The state is becoming more and more in thrall to Sinhala supremacists. It is conniving with child conscription, with abductions and extra-judicial killings of civilian Tamils. It is unapologetic about the damages caused to civilian Tamils as a result of the war against the LTTE, as the regime’s reaction to the death of eight civilians in an air raid on Kiranchi, Poonakari demonstrates, yet again. Therefore many young Tamils will, willingly or unwillingly, take the same path that Karuna took more than two and half decades ago. The increasingly Sinhala supremacist bent of the Lankan state and the unenviable fate of Karuna will help alleviate the Tigers’ manpower crisis, undermine Tamil democracy and de-legitimise the Lankan state.
The fate of the Karuna rebellion highlights a critical absence in Southern polity and society – a space characterised by unequivocal opposition to the LTTE and unambiguous support for a political solution to the ethnic problem based on generous and democratic devolution. If such a space existed Karuna would not have found himself in the bind he did – caught between the Sinhala supremacists, who were ready to befriend him because they wanted to use him against not just Pirapaharan but also Tamils in general, and the leftists and liberals, who opposed him because they believed that a deal with Pirapaharan can bring about a peaceful and united Sri Lanka. Unless that critical absence is made good, the Southern response to any future dissent/rebellion within the LTTE will be as suicidally destructive as the response to the Karuna rebellion was.

The manner in which the Pilliyan card was used by the JHU and the MEP, obviously in consonance with the President, to sabotage the APRC demonstrates that for Sinhala supremacists Tamil dissent is nothing but a cat’s paw to be abused at will. Little wonder, then, that the state having used Karuna abandoned him in favour of the completely pliant Pilliyan (he too will be abandoned in his turn). Karuna could have avoided this fate only if he resisted the pressure and the opportunities to transform himself from rebel to incipient war lord. He could have done a better deal for his people before the East was cleared, since the state needed him for that operation. He may not have had great strategic choices; but he did have tactical ones, in matters practical and behavioural, as we all do. Tragically he was unable to resist the lure the state held out to him, to be the Eastern Sun God. In the fateful moment of choice, Karuna thought and acted like a Tiger rather than a rebel. In losing himself he became in truth what his enemies claimed he was - a paramilitary. A bane to his own people, he was abandoned by his patrons once he had outlived his uses.

The great 18th Century German dramatist Friedrich von Schiller wrote a three part play based on the tragedy of Albrecht Wenzel von Wallenstein. Commenting on the fate of the historical Wallenstein, Schiller said, “If finally necessity and despair drive him really to deserve the judgment that was pronounced on him when innocent, this is not adequate to justify judgment itself…. A misfortune in life that he made an enemy of the victorious party – a misfortune in death that that enemy survived him and wrote his history” (Philosophical Letters). There is another, far more hopeful, reading of the Wallenstein story. The Thirty Years War, which formed the context for Wallenstein’s triumph and tragedy, ended with the Peace of Westphalia; and that treaty was founded on some of the ideas taken up by Wallenstein in his moment of rebellion, such as religious tolerance. Wallenstein, the rebel, failed never to be redeemed, even by history. But the ideas which formed the just cause of his rebellion ensured for Europe a long period of relative peace and became, with the triumph of Enlightenment, the new orthodoxy.
Karuna the rebel has failed but we can still hope for the success of the ideas and values which formed the banner of his rebellion. For an all too brief moment he embodied, however nebulously, the idea that Tamil struggle against Sinhala supremacism must remain democratic and humane, that it must eschew extremist and maximalist habits and veer towards moderation, that it must abandon nihilism and place the real interests of the real people above the glorification of the self-appointed liberators. These ideas, these mindsets are necessary, if the Tamils are to escape from the suicidal path of Vellupillai Pirapaharan.

(Concluded.....)

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