After ‘rogue’ leader breaks ranks

Feizal Samath

Almost 10 years after Velupillai Prabhakaran’s, elusive leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), guerrillas executed a renegade rebel leader in his midst for allegedly trying to overthrow him, another “rogue” leader is challenging Prabhakaran’s might.

Vinayagamoorthy Muraleetharan alias Colonel Karuna, the LTTE Special commander in Sri Lanka’s eastern region, broke ranks last week and said he was forming his own unit independent of the Prabhakaran-led LTTE, triggering the first major split in the group since its formation in the 1970s.

However, unlike Gopalaswamy Mahendrarajah alias Mahattaya, deputy leader of the LTTE, who was assassinated by Tiger rebels in December 1994, Karuna claims to have a 6,000-strong army of eastern rebel cadres loyal to him and is ready to face battle with Prabhakaran troops.

Mahattaya was taken into custody and later killed for defying Prabhakaran and allegedly conniving with India’s Research & Analysis Wing (RAW) Intelligence to oust the rebel chieftain.

Prabhakaran, rarely seen in public, brooks no nonsense from his cadres or even senior commanders. Many who have fallen foul of Prabhakaran or the group have either been killed or sacked. S P Tamilselvan – political head of the Tigers – on Saturday told reporters that Karuna had been sacked by the organisation.

Karuna, who ruled the eastern districts of Batticaloa and Amparai, is considered Prabhakaran’s best and most successful field commander. He has refused to yield to the threats of his leader and says he will operate as an independent militant group in the east.

Sri Lankan politicians are worried that it could jeopardise the two-year old ceasefire and adversely impact on next month’s parliamentary polls.

The split in the LTTE puts a lot of pressure on the rebel group and Prabhakaran. For the first time the LTTE has openly embraced the electoral process and is virtually contesting the polls through the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), widely believed to be a rebel front and taking orders from Prabhakaran.

The crisis has triggered uncertainties about conducting the elections in the Batticaloa-Amparai districts. Karuna’s anger is not aimed at Prabhakaran but his deputies like Pottu Amman and Tamilselvan whom he says has undermined his (Karuna’s) position in the organisation. The renegade leader is careful not to blame Prabhakaran and insists that he would follow orders from the LTTE leader and him alone – not anyone else.

The last time Prabhakaran eliminated a “traitor” in his organisation (Mahattaya) was at a time when there was little international focus on the group unlike today. The rebels are now riding on a wave of international support and sympathy. Rebel negotiators (Karuna was also on the negotiating team) have been frequently travelling abroad for peace talks with government representatives or on special trips to brief foreign governments.

The role of the LTTE has taken a new dimension as against the time when Mahattaya was killed and his assassination only known a few months later – such is the secrecy in which the organisation operates. However today, given the positive attention that the LTTE gets internationally, it would be difficult to exterminate Karuna and justify his killing internationally.

These are questions that would pursue Prabhakaran as he acts against his ‘rogue” deputy.

Samath, a freelancer, writes for THT from Colombo