“Col” Karuna’s Eastern Tiger Revolt

Against LTTE 20 years ago

by DBS Jeyaraj, Daily Mirror, Colombo, March 16, 2024

Karuna projected himself as the “Eastern national leader”, second only to Prabhakaran in the Tiger hierarchy

  • Karuna kept LTTE resistance alive during the days of the IPKF. He and his former deputy Reagan led the counter offensive against the ill-fated Tamil National Army after the withdrawal of the IPKF
  • Twenty years have passed and much water has flown under the bridge since the eastern tiger revolt. Nevertheless the episode that fragmented the LTTE, remains an important chapter in the history of the ethnic conflict

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE) organization fought the armed forces of Sri Lanka for 33 years in pursuance of its political goal of establishing a separate state  called Tamil Eelam in the Northern and Eastern provinces of the Island. 

The LTTE known generally as the Tigers had the reputation of monolithic unity. This image was seriously dented in 1993 when the LTTE’s former Deputy Leader Gopalswamy Mahendrarajah alias “Mahathaya” was arrested and executed on the orders of tiger supremo Veluppillai Prabhakaran for alleged treason. There was also a related purge of cadres suspected of being Mahathaya loyalists.

Despite this internal crisis in 1993, the LTTE continued to wax in the years that followed. Though the LTTE was basically a guerilla outfit, the tigers began to acquire the attributes of a conventional army and engaged in positional warfare by seizing and retaining territory. The dawn of the new millennium in 2000 saw the LTTE controlling the greater part of the Northern mainland known as the Wanni, the lower part of the Jaffna peninsula and swathes of territory in all three districts of the Eastern province.
In February 2002, the Government of Sri Lanka with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe at the helm, entered into a ceasefire and peace talks with the LTTE. The peace process was facilitated by Norway. A monitoring mission comprising representatives from Scandinavian countries was set up to  oversee and supervise the ceasefire. It was during this ceasefire period that the LTTE suffered a very serious debacle.
The Tiger unity image that was dented by the Mahathaya affair was shattered beyond repair by an internal split in the LTTE in 2004. The then Eastern commander of the LTTE Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan alias “Karuna Ammaan” and “Col”Karuna rebelled against the leadership of Veluppillai Prabhakaran. Karuna  framed the revolt as one of Eastern assertion of equality against Northern hegemony.

The Eastern LTTE revolt spearheaded by Karuna was militarily suppressed by the mainstream LTTE. Hundreds of tiger cadres died in the fratricidal conflict. Karuna himself fled to the South of Sri Lanka and ultimately sought the protection of the Sri Lankan State. The breakaway Eastern tiger group known as the “Karuna faction”formed a politico-military organization  called the “Thamil Makkal Viduthalip Puligal” (TMVP) meaning Tamil People Liberation Tigers. The TMVP aligned itself with  Sri Lankan intelligence authorities and played a crucial, decisive role in  militarily combating the LTTE.

Twenty years have passed and much water has flown under the bridge since the eastern tiger revolt. Nevertheless the episode that fragmented the LTTE, remains an important chapter in the history of the ethnic conflict. It is against this backdrop that this column re-visits the Eastern LTTE revolt led by Muraleetharan alias “Col? Karuna this week. I shall be drawing from some of my earlier writings for this article.

Karuna’s  background
Let me commence with a brief description of Karuna and his background. At the time of his revolt in  March 2004, Vinayagamoorthy Muraralitharan alias “Karuna Ammaan”  and “Col”Karuna  was the longest serving regional commander of the LTTE. He had been in charge of the Batticaloa and Amparai districts of the East for 17 years since 1987. Karuna was Muralitharan’s nom de guerre in the LTTE while the suffix Ammaan meaning uncle was a form of respect. He was also one of seven tiger commanders given “Colonel” rank in the LTTE.

Muralitharan alias Karuna is from Kiran in Batticaloa district. His father Vinayagamoorthy was an agriculturist. Kiran comes under the Kalkudah electoral district in Batticaloa. Karuna, born on 22 June 1966, is the fifth of seven children. The other siblings were  three elder sisters, an elder brother and two younger sisters, His male sibling “Reggie”was killed by the mainstream LTTE after Karuna’s split. Karuna’s sisters are schoolteachers or housewives. At least four of his nieces and nephews were members of the LTTE.

Young Muralitharan had his primary education at Kinniaddy Maha Vidyalayam and secondary education at Vantharumoolai Madhya Maha Vidyalayam and the Government College (now Mahajana) in Batticaloa. He was good at mechanical matters. Karuna is said to have repaired or upgraded a lot of  LTTE equipment.

He became a Tiger “helper” in 1982 as a GCE Advanced-Level student. After the July 1983 violence Karuna quit school and joined the LTTE formally.
He was enrolled in the third batch of recruits, and he received training in 1984 at a tiger camp in  Kolathoor  in Tamil Nadu under senior tiger leaders  Ponnammaan and Radha.

Thereafter he functioned as a member of the dreaded LTTE intelligence outfit TOSIS (Tiger Organisation Security Intelligence Service) in Chennai. Karuna was also a bodyguard of LTTE chief Velupillai Prabakaran for some time.

He returned to Sri Lanka in 1985 and began his fighting career under the then Batticaloa commander Basheer Kakka. Karuna continued serving in Batticaloa under Aruna and Kumarappa. He also worked under Pottu Amman when Pottu  was acting chief of Batticaloa in mid-1987.
All these four men were of Jaffna origin. In 1987, the LTTE began appointing members from a particular district as the respective district leaders.

Assumed command
Since the pioneering LTTE men from the East, Ramalingam Paramadeva alias Rajan and Ranjan Kanagaratnam alias Simon, had been killed earlier at Kaluwanchikudy and Kokkilaai respectively, Karuna was now the “son of the eastern soil” next in seniority. He assumed command of Batticaloa district shortly before the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of July 29, 1987. When fighting against the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) began, former LTTE military leader of Amparai (Digamadulla) district David was taken into custody. Thereafter, Karuna took over the adjacent Amparai district too and retained control of both districts until his revolt.

Karuna kept LTTE resistance alive during the days of the IPKF. He and his former deputy Reagan led the counter offensive against the ill-fated Tamil National Army after the withdrawal of the IPKF.

Karuna was instrumental in raising and training the LTTE’s second infantry division “Jeyanthan Padaippirivu”. This comprised cadre from the East alone as opposed to the North-based Charles Anthony division. Karuna’s crowning moment of glory came in the mid-1990s when the government forces, conducting “Operation Jayasikurui” (Certain Victory), were making rapid strides into Tiger-held territory in the Northern mainland of the Wanni.

On receiving an SOS from the high command, Karuna took his fighters to the North and helped resist the Army. Prabhakaran’s hideout in Kaeppaapulavu was on the verge of being encircled at the time.

Counter offensive
Karuna also planned and launched the third phase of the LTTE counter offensive. He became the joint commander of all LTTE fighters in the Wanni and executed several successful operations, reversing the military situation.

He was also the field commander-in-chief for the phases of Operation Oyatha Alaigal (Unceasing Waves), during which the LTTE wrested back control of the triangular swathe of territory within Oddusuddan in Mullaitivu, Vidathaltheevu in Mannar and Omanthai in Vavuniya.

Special  commander
Karuna returned home in triumph, having won the confidence and respect of Prabakaran. He was promoted as special commander of both Amparai and Batticaloa districts.

He was given virtual autonomy and allowed to set up parallel structures of power. Karuna set up, in addition to the Jeyanthan brigade, the Visaalagan and Vinothan brigades for men and the Anbarasi and Mathana brigades for women. He also formed the Johnson artillery unit and began the Balendra Officer Training College. He took over the Government agricultural farm and school in Karadiyanaaru and constructed the “Thenagam” base complex.

 “Eastern National Leader”,
When Great Heroes Day was observed on November 27, Karuna replicated the Wanni ceremony at Tharavai. At the same time that Prabhakaran lit the eternal flame in the Wanni, Karuna did the same in Tharavai. He also delivered a Great Heroes Day address like Prabakaran. Karuna projected himself as the “Eastern national leader”, second only to Prabhakaran in the Tiger hierarchy.

Though Karuna raised the flag of revolt against Prabhakaran, the eastern warlord was  regarded as the tiger supremo’s blue eyed boy for years. An immensely grateful Prabhakaran allowed “carte blanche” to Karuna due to the services he rendered in the Wanni.  Moreover there were transport and communication difficulties between the Wanni and the East.Thus Karuna ruled the tiger roost in Batticaloa and Amparai having virtual autonomy.

The advent of the Oslo-facilitated ceasefire changed this situation. LTTE leaders from the Wanni visited the East. What these Wanni-based tiger leaders perceived in the East was not complimentary to Karuna. Prabhakaran began to get negative reports about Karuna. Prabhakaran kept summoning Karuna to the Wanni for further inquiries but the latter disobeyed him and stayed put in the East. Karuna feared tiger intelligence Chief Pottu Amman who was to Prabhakaran what Beria was to Stalin.

The simmering tensions erupted into an open revolt on March 3, 2004. Technically the ceasefire facilitated by Norway was in force then between the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE. Prabhakaran arranged for a helicopter on 2 March 2004  to pick up Trincomalee LTTE Chief Paduman and Batticaloa-Amparai commander Karuna and bring them to the Vanni for “Consultations”. Paduman complied but Karuna smelling a “rat”(Pottu) did not. That was the flash point.

“Thenagam” conference
Karuna realised that he had crossed the  Rubicon by this defiant act. He acted fast. Karuna summoned an urgent conference for senior eastern cadres on March 3, 2004.  Around 125 to 150 senior stalwarts of the Batticaloa – Amparai LTTE  gathered at “Thenagam” conference hall at Karadiyanaaru in Batticaloa district. “Colonel” Karuna took the floor. He launched a verbal tirade against Prabhakaran and the Northern tigers.

Many of those present could not believe their ears. Karuna “Amman” related a litany of complaints against the LTTE hierarchy. His chief targets were Intelligence Head Pottu Amman, Financial Controller Thamilendhi and Police Chief Nadesan. What Karuna wanted was for the eastern LTTE component to have autonomous authority. He advocated that the eastern Tigers should be free of central control by the LTTE hierarchy. “We will throw off the northern yoke and create an eastern renaissance,” Karuna said.

Many were flabbergasted. Some who knew Karuna’s mindset were not surprised but did not expect such open defiance. Whatever their inner thoughts or misgivings almost everyone seemed to agree. Some kept silent, but many articulated their willingness to go along with Karuna openly. Ironically some of the wildly enthusiastic lieutenants later went over to Prabhakaran’s side and turned vehemently against Karuna.

There was only one open dissenter. This courageous lone wolf who dared to defy the eastern tiger chief was  the then LTTE Eastern political commissar
Eliyathamby Nagenthiran Lingarasa alias Kausalyan. He respectfully told Karuna that the destiny of the eastern and northern Tamil was inextricably intertwined. The Tamil people had to be united. Disunity meant the end of the armed struggle, he pointed out. All problems with the leadership should be resolved through discussion. Kausalyan urged Karuna to refrain from this course of action and go to the Wanni and meet leader Prabhakaran directly.
Karuna argued back and did his best to change Kausalyan’s stance. At one point he asked Kausalyan himself to write the amount of income earned by the LTTE in the east and remitted to Wanni. With trembling fingers, Kausalyan did so. “With all that money we can make our ‘Batticaloa motherland’ a golden Eastern Eelam,” said Karuna.

Kausalyan stood his ground. He could have been executed by the impulsive Karuna. Yet Kausalyan did not relent. Finally, Karuna lost his temper. He scolded Kausalyan in foul language and asked him to get out. “Go to Wanni immediately. Take your Manisi (woman) with you. I don’t want to set sight on you. If I see you again I will finish you.”

While a dumbstruck audience watched, Kausalyan left the place. Losing no time he went to Ambilanthurai and picked up his fiancee Pushpa then a final year undergraduate at the Eastern Campus. He made his way quickly to the Wanni even as news of Karuna’s  revolt reached Prabhakaran. There was no doubt that the LTTE leader was happy to see Kausalyan. They were immersed in discussions for a long time.

Subsequently people like Ramesh, Ramanan, Ram, Praba and Karikalan too deserted Karuna and came over. But the man who fearlessly defied Karuna’s divisive revolt was Kausalyan alone. The Tiger leader was greatly appreciative of Kausalyan’s loyalty and in a few weeks time witnessed his marriage to Pushpa.  However, nine months later, Kausalyan along with four others including former Amparai district MP Ariyanayagam Chandranehru was shot dead by TMVP assassins on 7th February 2005.

Scandinavian monitors
The open revolt by  “Col” Karuna  became known to the world on March 3, 2004. Since the  ceasefire facilitated by Norway was in force then, Karuna informed the Scandinavian ceasefire monitors that the Batticaloa and Ampara district component of the LTTE was chartering an independent course and wanted Oslo to arrange for a separate truce between Colombo and Batticaloa.

 Declared “Independence”
After communicating this to the Scandinavian peace monitors, Karuna held a news conference at the “Theanagam” secretariat in Karadiyanaaru  and declared “independence” for the Eastern Tigers from the Wanni-based LTTE. He charged that the LTTE hierarchy had discriminated against the Eastern wing despite the sacrifices and contribution made by the Batticaloa-Amparai sections.

Karuna alleged that of the 32 departments within the LTTE, none was headed by an Eastern Tamil. The 15-man central committee had only two Easterners (Col Paduman and Col Karuna ) who were there by virtue of being Trincomalee and Batticaloa-Amparai commanders respectively. Karuna compared this with the military situation where the Eastern Tigers had made proportionately higher sacrifices. At that point of time as many as 4,543 Eastern Tigers had lost their lives in the armed struggle. Of these 2,302 died in Northern battles. Operations on Eastern soil took only 2,241 lives. Despite these sacrifices, Eastern Tigers had not received a fair deal after peace, charged Karuna. With that exercise, news of the LTTE eastern revolt began spreading like wildfire.

Understanding with Colombo
From the time of his rebellion Karuna tried to forge a separate understanding with the powers that be in Colombo. He wanted Norway to facilitate a separate memorandum of understanding between himself and Colombo. Karuna claimed that the ceasefire signed by Prabhakaran would not bind him and yet was willing to abide by it until a new one was signed.

Karuna knew he could not fight Colombo and Kilinochchi at the same time. He seemed to prefer a deal with Colombo. The LTTE, however, acted fast and foreclosed Karuna’s option. The Tigers threatened to pull out of the ceasefire if Karuna was recognised. This put all moves in that direction on hold in Colombo.

The Eastern tiger revolt split the LTTE both horizontally and vertically. The military balance between  the Karuna  faction and the mainstream LTTE  was quite intricate  and precariously fluid. What happened thereafter would be narrated in detail in a forthcoming article.
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at

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