The surrender to the Liberation Tigers this week of four former confidantes of the renegade LTTE commander, Karuna, has provided further proof of the Sri Lankan military’s campaign of destabilisation in the island’s volatile east. The accounts by the four senior cadres, who fled the Batticaloa district in mid April as their rebellion collapsed amid an LTTE offensive, reveal the extent of support being extended to Karuna and his loyalists by President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s government. That Karuna was under the protection of the Sri Lankan military has never been in doubt, despite Colombo’s stubborn denials. What those who returned to the LTTE this week confirmed is the close collaboration between Karuna and Sri Lankan intelligence, particularly in the context of the violence that has plagued the eastern province in the past few weeks.
Prominent Tamil civilians sympathetic to the LTTE - and opposed to Karuna’s rebellion - have been murdered, as have LTTE political cadres. There have been attacks on LTTE cadres in their controlled areas – usually on ‘soft targets,’ including a home for disabled fighters and, more recently, an LTTE-run farm. The LTTE has, in the meantime, repeatedly protested to international cease-fire monitors that Sri Lanka’s military was orchestrating the violence. The Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) recently organised a meeting between the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) and the LTTE, but tensions have not eased. The SLA has, for its part, denied backing a ‘war by proxy’ and blamed Karuna’s group for the ‘internecine’ violence. But this week it has become clear that not only was military intelligence protecting Karuna, it was also working closely with him in conducting its covert operations in the eastern districts.
But it is the implication of Sri Lankan government’s wider strategy involving Karuna that cast the most serious doubts on its bona fides and undermines the peace process. Sri Lankan state media – having inflated the significance of Karuna’s rebellion during its short life – has in the past few weeks spread false reports of heavy fighting between Karuna’s group and the LTTE in Batticaloa, inflating the latter’s profile. Leaflets have been distributed in the east warning of an imminent comeback by the group. Clearly, the Sri Lankan objective was to build a new counter-insurgency structure around Karuna, just as had been effected with Douglas Devananda (and, before him, Varatharaja Perumal). Indeed, Devananda and Karuna, it now appears, are in frequent contact. Karuna told his loyalists last week he was going ‘abroad’ but would return to set up a ‘political party.’ It remains to be seen what becomes of Karuna and his project. But trust between President Kumaratunga’s government and the LTTE has evaporated.
Infamous for her political duplicity, President Kumaratunga has never also bothered to conceal her militarist tendencies when it comes to the Tamil question. Senior diplomats in Colombo have long been well aware Karuna was under her protection – not least because Colombo was seeking a foreign safe haven for him. In their pointed call earlier this month for "both parties to do their utmost to continue to respect and implement the ceasefire" the co-chairs of Sri Lanka’s aid donors made clear the military’s feigned innocence in the violence is not being readily accepted. To little effect, however. As such, this week’s revelations casts further doubt on the long term viability of the peace process. In short, whilst adopting an intransigent position on the agenda for future talks, the Sri Lankan government is stoking friction between the LTTE and its armed forces, albeit from behind a cloak of plausible deniability. As we argued last week, a renewed ethnic conflict could potentially help President Kumaratunga unite the fractured Sinhala polity behind her. This then should be point of concern to those seeking a peaceful resolution to the island’s protracted ethnic conflict. Whilst it takes two willing partners to talk, it only needs one to start a war.
Posted June 25, 2004