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Karuna: The Tragedy of a Rebel(Part IV)

(February 23, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The Rajapakse administration was willing to work closely with the Tamil opponents of the LTTE. If they cooperated they would be granted the security they needed to escape from the Tiger killers, a paramount consideration for any dissenting Tamil; they would also be assisted in their work against the LTTE, with money and weapons. These were definite, and important, advantages. On the other hand the government’s obvious commitment to a Sinhala supremacist agenda posed a serious problem; open association with such an administration would make the task of winning over the Tamil people to the anti-Tiger cause that much more difficult.
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  • 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)
IV- Losing the Way

The Tigers expropriated the Tamil dream of liberation and tuned it into a nightmare for the Tamil people. If the Karuna rebellion was not to take the same route, it needed to make a conscious effort to be different from the LTTE. Karuna’s ability to gain and retain the backing of his people depended on his willingness to respect their basic rights. Popular support would have strengthened his hand not only vis-à-vis the LTTE but also the Lankan state. A virtuous cycle would thus have been created, enabling the realisation of the democratising and humanising potential inherent in the rebellion.

History may well deem the Presidential election of 2005 as much of a watershed as the parliamentary election of 1956. It was a contestation between two extremist candidates; Ranil Wickremesinghe was pro-LTTE while Mahinda Rajapakse was a Sinhala supremacist. Neither candidate gave much thought to the anti-Tiger Tamils; neither was concerned about the lives and living conditions of the Tamil citizens of Sri Lanka. For the anti-Tiger Tamils both candidates presented problems.

Wickremesinghe would allow the LTTE to destroy them in the name of peace while Rajapakse seemed to think that anti-separatism is coterminous with anti-devolution. Wickremesinghe in any case did not want the support of anti-Tiger Tamils. They were thus left with the choice of remaining on the sidelines or extending conditional support for Rajapakse. A few days before the Presidential election Karuna’s TMVP announced its backing for Rajapakse.

Contrary to public perceptions President Rajapakse was not intent on war from the inception. In fact he did try to come to an understanding with the LTTE, even at the cost of the anti-Tiger Tamils who backed him during the Presidential election. At the Geneva talks with the Tigers in early 2006, his team agreed to disarm the Karuna rebels: "The GOSL is committed to taking all necessary measures in accordance with the Ceasefire Agreement to ensure that no armed group or person other than Government security forces will carry arms or conduct armed operations" (emphasis mine). But the Tigers were not really interested in a continuation of the peace process. They enabled a Rajapakse victory via their election boycott because they wanted a Sinhala hardline government in Colombo which could be provoked into declaring the Fourth Eelam War. The LTTE stepped up its attacks on the Lankan forces inclusive of an attempt to murder the Army Commander; the armed forces often reacted with punitive measures against civilian Tamils. The Trinco mini-riot was symbolic of the retrogressive direction the country was taking under the auspices of the LTTE and the Rajapakses. Finally with the Mavil Aru issue, the unofficial Fourth Eelam War commenced in earnest.

At what point the Rajapakse regime established a working relationship with the TMVP is unclear. With the commencement of the unofficial Fourth Eelam war, it was the logical, the sensible thing to do. Politically and militarily, the Lankan state needs anti-Tiger Tamils as much as anti-Tiger Tamils need the Lankan state – for sheer survival. Therefore it is in their mutual interests to structure this relationship in a way that helps rather than hinders broad Lankan unity via democratic devolution and Tamil democracy.

The LTTE’s unchanging nature has forced the anti-Tiger Tamils into a dependent relationship with the Lankan state. Without the security provided by the Lankan state these Tamil leaders will have to go into self-exile. Their dependency makes these leaders vulnerable to the conjunctural needs and ideological predispositions of the powers that be. This presented no major problems during the Premadasa administration and that of the PA (1994-2001) since neither was Sinhala supremacist and both were committed to taking the devolutionary process forward even as they pursued the war against the Tigers. With appeasement oriented regimes (à la Ranil Wickremesinghe and post-2003 Chandrika Bandaranaike) the anti-Tiger Tamils faced the possibility of betrayal.

The Rajapakse administration was willing to work closely with the Tamil opponents of the LTTE. If they cooperated they would be granted the security they needed to escape from the Tiger killers, a paramount consideration for any dissenting Tamil; they would also be assisted in their work against the LTTE, with money and weapons. These were definite, and important, advantages. On the other hand the government’s obvious commitment to a Sinhala supremacist agenda posed a serious problem; open association with such an administration would make the task of winning over the Tamil people to the anti-Tiger cause that much more difficult. In fact too close an identification with such an administration could discredit the anti-Tiger Tamil cause.
Perhaps this dilemma was more acute for Karuna than for the other anti-Tiger Tamil leaders.
His capacity to resist the Tigers politically and militarily depended on the compliance of the Lankan state. However too close an association would have lent credence to the pejorative and counterproductive ‘paramilitary’ label. Karuna also needed to win and retain the support of the Eastern people in general and Eastern Tamils in particular. These multiple and at times mutually contradictory requirements necessitated a very fine balancing act. Perhaps this was beyond the capacities of a man who had spent all his adult life as a loyal Tiger. Perhaps he did not try hard enough. He also did not get the backing he needed from the Lankan state and Southern society.

As the UTHR prophetically stated a couple of months after the Karuna rebellion, "The rebellion in the East presented an opportunity to take Karuna and his followers out of a culture of murder and give them, and the people, a better life. Instead the Sinhalese polity is repeatedly giving Tamils who oppose the LTTE the message that they only have utility value as hand grenades, bait (prawns to catch sharks) and killers. They matter as little as the military intelligence men regularly killed by the LTTE, who go into oblivion unnoticed and unmourned. Karuna too has been thrown back to survive on the very resources he acquired from his mentor and present arch-foe, Prabhakaran" (Information Bulletin No. 36 – 29.5. 2004 – emphasis mine).

Karuna, as a Tiger leader, was one of the worst child conscriptors, if not the worst. He began his rebellion by releasing the child soldiers under him. It was a positive development, albeit one which went unappreciated by both the Lankan state and the international community. In the initial period of his resistance to the Tigers, Karuna eschewed the practice of child recruitment and emphasised the importance of education. But as the unofficial Fourth Eelam War gained momentum, his men began to be accused of child conscription, initially by the pro-Tiger media and later by organisations with such impeccable credentials as the UTHR and the Human Rights Watch. The HRW’s Report ‘Complicit in Crime: State Collusion in Abductions and Child Recruitment by the Karuna Group’ criticised the TMVP for abducting children for military purposes and provided instances of the Lankan government assisting/enabling these criminal practices of the TMVP. These charges were confirmed by the UTHR in its January 2007 report ‘The Human Rights and Humanitarian Fallout from the Sri Lankan Government’s Eastern Agenda and the LTTE’s Obduracy’. The TMVP was also implicated in other criminal acts including the abduction of the Vice Chancellor of the Eastern University and the kidnapping of Tamil civilians in Colombo.

The Tigers never tolerated a Tamil nationalism that was not of the LTTE, still less critical of the LTTE. Under the Rajapakse regime a similar development was in the making. Like the Tigers, the Rajapakse regime too began demanding unconditional and unquestioning support as a patriotic right. Consequently any criticism of the regime or its allies of the moment would, by definition, become an act of treachery. The UTHR and the HRW, which had done more to expose Tiger crimes than any other organisation here or abroad, especially during the peace process, began to be hounded as Tiger supporters. It would have been in the interests of both the regime and the TMVP to heed the warnings of these impartial critics. Instead both denied any wrong doing and accused the accusers of being Tiger agents. The TMVP also intermittently released ‘non-existent’ child soldiers – a practice the Tigers used to excel at - and gave solemn undertakings not to recruit any more children. These promises were regularly broken, under the permissive eye of the Lankan state and in the very areas under state control. The regime did not care what the TMVP did to Tamils and even Muslims so long as it did not make political demands which clashed with the Sinhala supremacist agenda of Rajapakse and his allies.

The more the anti-Tiger Tamils engage in violating human rights and national/international laws, the more dependent they become on the Lankan state for survival – as such practices will make them unpopular among North-Eastern Tamils. A vicious cycle consisting of anti-popular acts and dependence is thus created, effacing the differences between the Tigers and the anti-Tiger Tamils in terms of observing democratic norms and respecting human rights. With this degeneration the anti-Tiger Tamils would loose the capacity to question let alone challenge the Sinhala supremacist agenda of the administration. This was to become the fate of the TMVP.

In his opening statement at the Geneva talks of 2006 Anton Balasingham paid the TMVP a back handed compliment: "Our political cadres can only function in government controlled areas if the paramilitaries are disarmed and normalcy returns to Tamil areas." The seeds of the LTTE’s failure in the East were sown by the Karuna rebellion. The schism not only weakened the Tigers militarily; it debilitated their political strength in the East, once their main recruiting ground. Without that precondition the government’s offensive against the Tigers in the East would not have succeeded. The TMVP also assisted the offensive by providing information that the regime would not have had access to otherwise and engaging in surgical attacks deep within the Tiger territory. Yet when the East was liberated no credit was accorded to Karuna or his cadres. Official spokesmen tried to downplay if not deny the role played by the TMVP.

The regime’s plans for the East do not include greater devolution. Instead there is credible evidence that the Rajapakses want to change the ethnic composition of the East thereby turning it into a Sinhala majority province. Weakening the Tamil and Muslim leaders in the East is a sine qua non for this. By the time the Eastern offensive ended Karuna was a shadow of what he once was. Still even in that weakened and degenerated state he may have tried to impede the Sinhala supremacist agenda of the regime by demanding certain basic rights for Eastern Tamils, including their right to return to their traditional lands. Karuna’s removal from the leadership of the TMVP and the advent of Pilliyan to that position took care of this problem. Pilliyan, lacking Karuna’s fame and charisma as well as a popular support base, is completely dependent on the Lankan state for survival. He is thus the perfect tool, in a way Karuna could never have been. With the replacement of Karuna with Pilliyan the rebellion which caused the biggest threat to Vellupillai Pirapaharan was over, annihilated not by the murderous assaults of the Tiger but by the suicidal errors of its own.

To be continued.

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