He was the right-hand man for chief of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) – the armed separatist organisation that waged a bloody civil war against the Sri Lankan state for nearly 30 years. He was then known as “Col. Karuna” and as one of the most ruthless commanders among the Tigers. In 2004, Karuna and 15,000 LTTE cadres – all belonging to Sri Lanka’s “eastern board” (Mullaithivu to Batticaloa on Sri Lanka’s east coast) split from the LTTE and crossed over to the Sri Lankan Armed Forces (SLAF). There followed another bloody, three-way phase of civil war – the Tigers vs Karuna and his men, the latter along with the SLAF against the Tigers. The then president Mahinda Rajapaksa made Karuna the minister for ‘national integration’ and vice-president of Sri Lanka’s oldest Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). By the time the civil war ended with the defeat of the Tigers in May 2009, more than 120,000 people had been killed.
Earlier this week and after ten years in parliament, Karuna left the SLFP and announced his own political outfit, the “Tamil United Freedom Party” in Batticaloa, his home-town. What does the new constellation want to achieve? What does ‘’freedom” in its name stand for? What do Sri Lankan Tamils expect of India, which continues to insist on the Rajiv Gandhi-authored 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution to grant autonomy to the Tamils, a move that is being fiercely opposed by various Sinhalese nationalist groups?
PRS: Mr “Karuna”, your country has the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which won a democratic election and constitutes the government in Jaffna, Sri Lanka’s northern province. It represents a wide spectrum of Tamil groups, big and small. It supports the current national coalition government in Colombo. So why do the majority-Tamils of your Northern and Eastern Provinces need yet another Tamil political party?
KARUNA: The situation has totally changed. Tamil people now feel there is no good leadership. That is what I want to give them. Also, we have no solution (to the question of Tamil autonomy) so far. The Tamil parties united with the government and promised a lot of things to the Tamil people: that we are going to merge the North and East, we are going to evacuate army camps from peoples’ lands, etc. But nothing happened. We are going to give a voice and development to the Tamil people, but also to all islanders. The Tamil lands are our main motherlands and that is the main thing.
PRS: The word ‘’motherland’’ has been misused in the past, by the LTTE, to whom you belonged. Could you clarify what you mean by it now?
KARUNA: The North and the East are Tamil lands. This is historically so. Northern and Eastern people have been living there for more than 2,000 years. They were divided into two provinces but they are one, our motherland. Of course, united with Sri Lanka. But they have to give us our rights. We need land power and development and – according to the 13th Amendment – we have to merge the North and East. India’s 13th Amendment is a good solution for the Tamil people.
PRS: The 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution was co-authored by former Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi in 1987, i.e. 30 years ago. Surely outdated, since you say Sri Lankan Tamils have changed drastically and are a modern society today?
KARUNA: Yes, but the Amendment provides for that. We can address and correct all problems through that 13th Amendment. We can adapt the Amendment to modern times. But the main problem is that in the north and east, they will definitely have to give power to the Tamil people.
PRS: Are you seeking India’s help in implementing the 13th Amendment?
KARUNA: Most definitely. We are seeking only India’s help. Because whenever western countries come, they do so with an eye on benefits for themselves. Only our neighbour India is closest to us. New Delhi has the responsibility because it was also involved here. India sent its army against the LTTE. That is why Indian leaders have to pressure our government for a good solution for the Tamil people.
PRS: But you have been a member of the SLFP under former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and even its vice-president. Are you disappointed in both Rajapaksa and current President Maithripala Sirisena?
KARUNA: I am very friendly with both of them, there are no problems. But I have the right to offer good leadership to the Tamil people. I have certain strengths drawn from the thirty years I fought on behalf of the Tamil people. Even as an LTTE commander, I travelled all over the world for them. I am the only top ex-cadre still alive today. Then, I was a parliamentarian for ten years. All this undoubtedly gives me the experience to meet the needs of the Tamils. But we have to consult the entire leadership too. I can negotiate with them because I am on very friendly terms with all Sinhala leaders.
PRS: You place great expectations on India. But your country’s growing closeness to China under both ex-president Mahinda Rajapaksa and present incumbent Maithripala Sirisena is disrupting India’s relations with Sri Lanka. Given Sri Lanka’s debt crisis, that doesn’t seem likely to change overnight.
KARUNA: Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa handled the Chinese very carefully and used China only for the purpose of development. He gave them only 750 acres of land in Hambantota for the port. But the current government has given away 15,000 acres to the Chinese government. Sri Lankans don’t like this new deal. Rajapaksa used China, he got money from them and massively developed the war-savaged North and East with it. He built infrastructure rapidly. But the present government has to be very careful because without Indian support, there will be problems in future in Sri Lanka.
PRS: You seem to hold Mahinda Rajapaksa in high regard. His party is split across the benches. His colleagues in the opposition have launched a new party and hope he will lead it. He hasn’t said no. Have you told him of your new outfit? Will you support each other?
KARUNA : I definitely approve of Mahinda Rajapaksa because he is a good leader. At the same time, he stayed loyal to the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) – it is not he who split the party. There are a lot of internal battles going on within the SLFP. I have also told party cadres many times to sort them out as that would be best for the country. I appreciate Rajapaksa - no question.
PRS : Does Rajapaksa know about your party?
KARUNA : Yes. I have already negotiated with him. The Tamils are a little angry with Rajapaksa because he was president during the last phases of war. I told him that he could change that image by accepting my support. But I have also negotiated with the Sirisena faction of the SLFP. I have no problems with either.
PRS: There are more than 900,000 members of the Tamil diaspora around the world. How can they help their brethren in Sri Lanka?
KARUNA : Diaspora people have a responsibility to the North and East. They have to support development and other good causes here. They could represent us in the global community. But recreating the LTTE is not good for us. We fought 30 years. Nothing happened, we didn’t achieve anything. It is only through a political democracy, by collaborating with the government that we can get somewhere. My message to the diaspora is: don’t try to recreate unnecessary violence here again.
PRS: It’s all very well to announce a new political party. But there are cases pending against you, within and outside Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka, you were arrested for the alleged misuse of a bulletproof luxury government vehicle late last year. Won’t those charges hinder you from registering your party?
KARUNA: No, there is no problem there. The government was misled and they arrested me. After I left parliament, I handed over all correspondence, documentation and receipts pertaining to the vehicle along with it to the authorities. It is based on that evidence that the Colombo magistrate granted me bail. Now, there is no criminal case against me. I never misused government property. We can’t register any political parties in Sri Lanka right now because of some unrelated judicial issue. But the Election Commission has requested an application and we will submit one. It will be accepted later.
PRS: I have spoken to plenty of other former LTTE cadres like you. Chief LTTE financier and gunrunner, K Pathmanathan runs orphanages today. LTTE’s ”media officer” Daya Master, works as a journalist at a TV station. They all want peace. Will they join you?
KARUNA: Anyone can join. More than 12000 former LTTE cadres were rehabilitated. A lot of them have joined us. There are others too facing severe problems. They all have a right to be involved and some have even started a party of former LTTE cadres. Even that group was accepted by the government. We live in a democracy so whoever wants to come into the political fold, must be welcomed and rehabilitated. That’s a good thing.
PRS: In 2004 when you split from the LTTE, you had told me that it was because Eastern Tamils like you perceived a lot of discrimination by Northern Tamils like Prabhakaran. How are you so sure that those old animosities will not resurface again if North and East are merged?
KARUNA : No, I have never blamed the northern people, only the leadership. Even now, Tamil parties never give eastern Tamils any leading positions. That is one big issue. But not with people. People are innocent and decent and will want to join the party. Now we are trying to merge the North and East – that is what people want. I had a lot of experience with the northern people. Throughout the 30-year war, I was, after all, in the North, so I know these people well. There are no problems.
PRS :There’s another serious charge. As deputy commander of the LTTE, you, too, stand accused by the UNICEF, HRW and many other international organisations of recruiting child soldiers.
KARUNA: In the early stages of the LTTE, only those willing to fight joined the group. Later, there was a manpower shortage. That’s when the LTTE possibly recruited children. I, too, didn’t like that aspect and that is one of the main reasons why I broke away. Personally, I never agreed to those things and so far, nobody from Geneva has complained directly to me. But people still talk about this whenever I am mentioned. I left the LTTE and embraced the good, democratic path. I have never indulged in any violence.
PRS: Escaped LTTE cadres are said to have regrouped in Europe – after receiving asylum – and revived the Tamil Tigers in exile. Will they ever meet with success in Sri Lanka?
KARUNA: There are no chances of success at all. If they bring in that kind of ideology again, people will never appreciate it. Because Tamils have suffered a lot. Lives were lost, people wounded critically. The people’s mindset has totally changed -they don’t like those kinds of things. Again, I request the diaspora not to create unnecessary problems. They should support us in other ways. There are wounded soldiers, more than 3000 war widows in the North and East. They should support such people.
WION’s Senior International Correspondent Padma Rao Sundarji’s exclusive interview with former LTTE commander, “Col Karuna”, on his new political outfit, “The Tamil United Freedom Party” in Batticaloa, capital of Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province.