Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Is That All You Got, Karuna?

by Sachi Sri Kantha, October 11, 2007

A slick life from propaganda ain’t permanent
Less the oil, a lamp fails to be a shining beacon
Blinded by empty prestige – and mindlessly posing as heroes …

George Foreman in his prime ( 1973)

The recent newsreports that the erstwhile LTTE Colonel named Karuna had fled to a faraway land prompted me with the title, ‘Is That All You Got, Karuna?’. It is a borrowing from boxing champ Muhammad Ali’s 1974 quip [‘Is That All You Got, George’?] to his rival George Foreman in the ring, when they squared in the then Zaire for the boxing heavyweight title.

It is opportune to read again Foreman’s specific recollection of that moment in October 30, 1974, which prompted Ali’s quip. To quote him,

“I was fighting Muhammad Ali in Zaire in 1974. I was thinking that the $5 million I was making was the easiest money in the world. I was going to whip the guy; he was old and over the hill. And after three or four rounds I was beating him. But by the seventh round, I was tired. I hit him in the stomach and he said, ‘Is that all you got, George?’ And I’m thinking ‘Yup’. Then I got knocked down and heard the referee count…” [ – accessed Oct 12, 2007]

In 2004 and 2005, Karuna produced an avalanche of news on this side of the Atlantic (especially in the Indian and Sri Lankan media and the Asian Tribune web-zine then presented from Bankgok), simulating Ali’s celebrated “I’m the Greatest” boast in the 1960s. Many journalist scribes in Colombo, Chennai, New Delhi and Toronto even swallowed Karuna’s bombast. But, make no mistake, Karuna was no Ali. Ali was the real thing, but Karuna was a fake. Whereas inside and beyond the boxing ring, Ali lived up to his boast, Karuna’s act bombed, bombed, bombed – despite the voluble cheerleading from a number of anti-Tamil, anti-LTTE quarters. Literally and figuratively, Karuna couldn’t stand on his feet, neither on his home ground of East Eelam nor anywhere in blessed Lanka. That’s why he had to flee.

A Hindustan Times report on Karuna’s Fate

P.K.Balachandran, reporting for the Hindustan Times (Oct. 8, 2007) filed this report, under the caption ‘Split in LTTE dissident camp: Karuna sacked by second in command’:

‘Karuna, who broke away from the LTTE and formed the pro-government Tamileela Makkal Viduthlai Puligal (TMVP) in 2004, has now been sacked from the TMVP's Working Committee by a rival faction led by Chandrakanthan alias Pillaiyaan.

A statement issued by the Pillaiyaan group said on Monday, that Karuna had been sacked for financial irregularities. However, efforts were still on to effect a patch up between Pillaiyaan and Karuna. "Some members of the Working Committee support Karuna, while some others support Pillaiyaan. Discussions on a compromise are going on," TMVP spokesman Asad Mowlana told Hindustan Times.

Reports said that Pillaiyaan's group had been complaining that Karuna was keeping 70% of the money collected from the people for his private use, and giving only 30% to the TMVP.

Karuna is currently abroad, presumably in the UK, at the request of the Sri Lankan government. His presence in Sri Lanka had become an embarrassment for the government which was accused by the international community of being "complicit" in the crimes committed by him, crimes like abduction of children and extortion of money from civilians.

Utilising Karuna's absence from the East and now from the country itself, Pillaiyaan became the de facto head of the TMVP. By an earlier arrangement, he was to keep his activities confined to Trincomalee district, but recently, he had broken out of the confines of Trincomalee and started setting up offices in Batticaloa district, the TMVP's heartland. Journalists who had visited Batticaloa recently, said that Karuna's lieutenants had disappeared and only Pillayaan's men were around.”

Is that all you got, Karuna? In 2004, P.K. Balachandran was one of the dozen or so Indian scribes who initially contributed a number of reports with a ‘Hail Karuna’ slant. Balachandran’s latest write-up on Karuna’s fate neatly sums up the tragedy of a hero turned snitch. But still, Balachandran hasn’t told the complete story.

For pragmatic reasons, Balachandran evaded an answer for the the vital question of ‘Why Karuna’s fate turned to the worse?’ since he chose to cross the line of decency in March 2004. A simple answer can be gleaned from George Foreman’s 1974 quip, “I was thinking that the $5 million I was making was the easiest money in the world.” Balachandran’s report mentions that “Pillaiyaan's group had been complaining that Karuna was keeping 70% of the money collected from the people for his private use, and giving only 30% to the TMVP.”

Nothing is stated, however, about how much money passed into Karuna’s pockets from the “executive HUMINT agents of underground diplomacy” representing nations that have a continuing interest in the LTTE’s infrastructure. Karuna may not have been promised the $5 million which George Foreman was dreaming about in 1974. But, certainly, Karuna betrayed the trust Eelam Tamils had in him for shekels of hard cash and turned into a snitch. It was Karuna’s personal choice to become rich moneywise. And Tamils, who are richer than Karuna (not in money, but in sense) will now hardly waste teardrops on the current plight of this snitch.

Poet Kannadasan’s Anticipation

How poetic it is to note now that the current plight and fate of snitches like Karuna, had been anticipated by King poet Kannadasan (1927-1981) 45 years ago, in one of his satirical songs. As a tribute to Kannadasan, whose 26th death anniversary falls on Oct.17th, here are his thoughts in my crude English translation:

O’ Ho! Ho! Ho! human folks – Where have you been fleeing?
Care to buy truth – sell your lies – and care to turn clean?
Would rotten vegetables – be of any use for cooking?
Would a fool’s life and mind – be of worth to the community?
Onion peeled and peeled turns out to be – empty nothing.
Words of a gossip equally – ain’t worth a thing.
Neither Time returns for mercy – Nor is this life - saved by money
Less a foundation, a palace won’t withstand the wind
Beautiful kaanjiram fruits can’t sell in a market
A slick life from propaganda ain’t permanent
Less the oil, a lamp fails to be a shining beacon
Blinded by empty prestige – and mindlessly posing as heroes …

As one of would easily note, the cadence of these lines in Tamil is far superior than the above unsophisticated English translation. The original lyrics in Tamil, written by Kannadasan for the 78th movie of Sivaji Ganesan, Padiththaal Maddum Poothuma? [‘Is Learning Itself Enough?’, 1962], read as follows:

O’ Ho! Ho! Ho! ManitharkaLe – Ooduvathenge SollungaL
Unmaiyai vaanki – PoikaLai vittru Uruppada VaarunkaL
Azhuhi ppona kaai kaRi kooda samaiyalukku aahaathu
Arivillaathavan uyirum manamum Oorukku uthavaathu
Uriththu paarthaal venkaayaththil onrum irukkaathu
ULari thiripavan vaarthaiyile oru uruppadi theraathu
Kaalam pponaal thirumbuvathillai – KaasukaL uyirai kaappathum illai
Adippadai inri kaddiya maaLikai kaathukku nikkaathu
ALagaai irukkum kaanjiram pazhankal santhaiyil vikkaathu
ViLLambaraththaale uyarnthavan vaazhkai nirantharam aahaathu
ViLLakkirunthaalum eNNai illaamal veLLichcham kidaikaathu
Kannai moodum perumaikaLLale – thammai maranthu veerarkal ppole -

Almost every line of this Kannadasan pearl, with its homely metaphors (such as onion for dolt, and kaanjiram fruit for a poison), fit perfectly to dolts like Karuna and his ilk.

An Old Commentary in Time Magazine on Informers

I have in my files, an anonymous 35-year-old commentary on informers that appeared under the Law column, in Time magazine. Though the specific details of cases mentioned in it may not be of vital interest now, this commentary provides a historical context on how responsible agencies like the FBI in America use snitches like Karuna for information gathering. It is also a primer on the types and motives of informers. Since the FBI arrested eight Tamils in Aug. 2006 [on the charge of ‘conspiring to provide material support and resources to a foreign terrorist organization and related offenses’] via an undercover sting operation based on the information obtained from informers (purportedly Tamils), the pros and cons of the role of informers to the FBI may deserve some notice. As such, the complete text of this Time commentary is presented below. For a proper perspective, just keep in mind that when this commentary appeared, Richard Nixon was the American President and the Vietnam War was the prime focus of American politicians, law enforcement agents and public citizens. As far as Eelam Tamils are concerned, I consider that the warning in the last sentence of the commentary (“Informers are not going to disappear”) is a neat capsulation of the rise and demise of careers showcased by the Tiruchelvams, Mahattayas, Perumals, Hooles and Karunas among Eelam Tamils during the past two decades.

Informers Under Fire

[courtesy: Time, April 17, 1972, pp. 51-52]

Even law-and-order advocates sometimes find their sensibilities offended by that most unstable adjunct of police work, the informer. Trained from childhood to disparage tattletales, Americans have hardly a decent word for those who give information to authorities. The glossary runs to such pejorative nouns as fink, stoolie, rat, canary, squealer. In some police argot they are snitches. Yet no major police force can operate without some of the shady types who will go where cops seldom can, perhaps to a meeting of conspirators, or do what cops won’t, for example shoot heroin before a cautious pusher will make a sale. Informers have long been found in every area of life, but since the McCarthy era there has not been so much public concern about them in the US as there is now.

The chief cause has been the recent spate of celebrated cases in which police agents played a role – from the trials of Chicago Seven and the Seattle Eight to virtually all of those involving Black Panthers. Currently, civil libertarians are questioning the propriety of the prosecution’s use of Boyd Douglas, the FBI informant central to the just-concluded Harrisburg Seven trial. Still more questions have been raised by the ongoing trial of 28 people accused of destroying draft files in Camden, NJ. Four weeks ago, Robert Hardy, a paid FBI informer, suddenly announced that Government money had been supplied for gas, trucks, tools and other items necessary to the raid. He contends that he acted in effect as an agent provocateur, rekindling interest in the project when the others seemed to have dropped it.

Variations: The word informer actually covers a variety of types. They range from the fellow who turns in a friend for tax fraud (and collects up to 10% of whatever the Federal Government recovers) to a full-fledged undercover Government agent like Herbert Philbrick (I Led Three Lives). As Philbrick’s case suggests, the usually unsavory reputation of informers often vanishes if the cause seems especially just – or at least popular. The FBI’s hired hand who fingered the Ku Klux Klan killers of Viola Liuzzo generated considerably less controversy than Boyd Douglas.

For many, informing is a onetime thing. On the other hand, the champion informant in the San Francisco area is responsible for an estimated 2,000 arrests a year, mostly in narcotic cases; a retired burglar, he now earns $700 a month from the police. Not surprisingly, money is a common motive for informers. In 1775, somewhat the worse for his fabled years of womanizing, Casanova replenished his purse by hiring out to the Venetian Inquisitors; he provided them with political tidbits as well as a list of the major works of pornography and blasphemy to be found in the city’s private libraries. The fictional Irish betrayer Gypo Nolan, in the movie The Informer, turned in his best friend to the British for 20 pounds. A whore-house madam collected $5,000 for leading the FBI to John Dillinger.

But by far the most frequent impetus is the save-your-own-skin syndrome. In return for having the charge against him dropped or reduced, a suspect can often be induced to testify against his confederates. An already convicted man like Joe Valachi may get special privileges and protection. Less often, an informer is a well-intentioned citizen driven by personal zeal, as was former Communist Whittaker Chambers in his accusations against Alger Hiss and others. Now, sociologist David Bordua points out, ‘there is a whole new type developing in the area of anti-pollution law. If you like it, it’s civic participation. If not, it’s police informants.’

Danger: Like it or not, most experts regard the typical informer as an indispensable evil in much police work. ‘A very scurvy bunch’, observes Stanford Law Professor John Kaplan, a former prosecutor, but ‘there are certain kinds of crimes in which you have to have them – consensual crimes like narcotics.’ The reason: in such cases there are rarely complaints from the victims. Last year informants on the FBI payroll accounted for 14,233 arrests and the recovery of $51,646,289 in money and merchandise. For all their importance in gathering information, though, they present considerable technical and tactical problems in the courtroom.

Their anonymity is frequently vital. Thus courts allow a tip from a reliable informant to be used to obtain a search warrant – without revealing the informant’s identity. But if failure to disclose his name would unfairly hamper the defendant on trial, then the informer may no longer remain anonymous. Two years ago, Denver Police Lieut. Duane Bordon found that the danger to informers is no Hollywood myth. He was forced to give an informer’s name at a trial, and a few months later the man was found beaten and shot to death.

Pop’s Pot: The use of informers raises a variety of constitutional problems. Under the Miranda decision, police cannot question an arrested suspect without warning him of his right to silence and counsel, but an informer is free to pump an unwary suspect for all he is worth. That was how Jimmy Hoffa was convicted of jury tampering and the Supreme Court upheld the conviction. Moreover, the informer can legally be fitted out with a tape recorder or transmitter: ‘The theory is that you’ve trusted the wrong person.’ explains Professor Kaplan.

The informant planted in a suspect’s cell after his arrest does suggest Miranda problems still unresolved by the Supreme Court. On the other hand, a regular cellmate, not working for the police, may testify about anything he is told. This is because the private citizen is generally permitted a range of freedom denied to an agent of the Government, whose investigative power the Bill of Rights sought to limit.

But when does a citizen informer become a Government agent? The question was sharply if unusually presented in Sacramento, Calif., recently when a twelve year-old boy discovered that his father had some pot and turned him into the police. The resulting conviction might have been upheld if the youth had simply grabbed Dad’s stash on his own; instead, he returned to his house on police instructions to get the evidence. Thus he became a police agent, and as such, he conducted a warrantless search in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Judicial Control: The issue is particularly critical to a special rule of the game. A policeman or police agent is forbidden to entrap – that is, he may not put the idea of the crime into a person’s head and induce him to act on it. A mere citizen, however, can suggest a criminal idea and later, if he decides to become an informer, give evidence against his co-conspirators. Clearly, the moment when he came under police control is crucial.

All of these difficulties make prosecutors loath to use informants as witnesses. Moreover, they are a generally unpredictable lot, and juries frequently discount their evidence on the theory that they may have embroidered their testimony to gain police favor. But the result – the fact that only a minority of informers ever appear in court – helps to reduce the amount of control that judges have over their use. Many who worry about informers and police power would like to see more, not less, of such judicial control. Aryeh Neier, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, thinks that the use of police informants should be permitted only after a judge issues a warrant. Others, like Illinois attorney Joseph R. Lundy writing in The Nation, focus their objection narrowly on political investigations. They would require a warrant authorizing the use of informers when First Amendment free speech rights are involved.

Basically, the issue is so emotion laden and complex because it leads to a direct conflict between a citizen’s right to privacy and society’s right to protect itself against crime. That tension has existed since the framing of the Constitution, and resolving it is one of the burdens of a free society. Meanwhile, informers are not going to disappear and neither can the search for safeguards against their improper use.



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