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The aftermath

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War on terror revisited: The Batticaloa revolt

In the wake of Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan’s defection in March 2004, people living in the Batticaloa District gradually turned against the LTTE, with the majority throwing their weight behind the dissidents.

Those supportive of Karuna’s move portrayed the situation caused by the split as a battle between the LTTE’s Kilinochchi leadership and the group’s fighting formations which hailed from the Batticaloa and Ampara districts. The loss of Batticaloa, too, contributed to the ultimate downfall of the LTTE as a conventional fighting force.

Batticaloa’s hostility towards the LTTE increased after an LTTE operative shot dead eight Karuna loyalists, including Kuheneshan, widely believed to be a high ranker among the renegade group, at Crystal Terrace housing scheme, Kottawa on July 25, 2004. They were slain in their sleep.

Batticaloa Tamils defied an LTTE directive prohibiting public participation at the funerals of the three Karuna loyalists killed at Kottawa. Several hundred people paid their last respects to Pakyam Amarasevan alias Tehvan of main street, Kommathurai, Chennkalady, Ponnathurai Thurainadan alias Ruban of the same address and Kandiah Annandakumar of Kattankudy. The LTTE distributed leaflets warning the public of dire consequences if they attended what they called traitors’ funeral. The LTTE made an attempt to prevent public participation, having failed to dissuade families of the victims from bringing the bodies to Batticaloa. Families living in military held areas accepted the bodies, whereas those living in the LTTE-controlled region had no option but to accept the directive.

The LTTE struck several hours before then Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister, Vidar Helgessen arrived in Colombo to make a fresh bid to persuade the LTTE to return to the negotiating table. He was scheduled to meet both President Chandrika Kumaratunga in Colombo and LTTE political Wing leader, S. P. Thamilelvan in Kilinochchi.   

The LTTE timed the massacre to exert maximum pressure on President Kumaratunga’s government, peace facilitator Norway and the Karuna faction. The Kottawa killings underscored the LTTE’s determination to consolidate its power in the Batticaloa-Ampara region, whatever the consequences.

Kottawa massacre

It would be important to examine the circumstances under which the LTTE hunted down those taking refuge at the Crystal Terrace housing scheme. They had moved in on July 13, 2004 and were in the process of trying to obtain passports to leave the country. The police quoted a neighbour as having said he heard gun shots around 3.30 a.m. As people used to light crackers to scare monkeys away, he had not taken much notice, he said.

In fact, the first indication of the LTTE operation, the biggest directed against the Karuna faction in Colombo, since the March 2004 split, came to light after the military intercepted a conversation between two LTTE personnel.  Although they discussed a successful hit in Colombo, there was no clue as regards the location. The conversation revealed that those involved in the operation had reached Karuna’s successor, ‘Colonel’ Thambirajah Ramesh based in the Batticaloa district. The Colombo police took about four hours to locate the scene of the massacre.

Among the dead were three Karuna loyalists arrested by the Hingurakkgoda police on July 5, 2004, while they were breaking journey at the Bubule temple. They were among 14 Karuna loyalists taken in by the police along with three T 56 Chinese assault rifles with six magazines, one T-84 rifle with three magazines, one T 81 with one magazine, one 9 mm pistol with magazine, 633 rounds of 7.62 ammunition, five rounds of general purpose machine gun ammunition, 52 cartridges for T 84s and five hand grenades. Produced before Polonnaruwa District Magistrate, Mrs. Sivapakyasundaram, they were released on Rs. 25,000 personal bail each.

In spite of an influential section of the military pursuing a controversial strategy to exploit the split caused by Karuna, the UPFA played it safe. The political leadership didn’t want to antagonise the LTTE or interfere in the Norwegian initiative.

Helgessen was visiting Colombo in the wake of Norwegian peace envoy, Erik Solheim meeting Thamilselvan on June 30, 2004 in Kilinochchi, where the LTTE demanded an assurance from the CBK government that it wouldn’t use Karuna to undermine the LTTE or face the consequences. Then Norwegian ambassador in Colombo, Hans Brattskar, too, had been present, when Thamilselvan made that demand.

Soon after the Kilinochchi meet, the TamilNet quoted Thamilselvan as having said that UNP leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe had reassured the LTTE through the Norwegians that the UNP leadership wasn’t in anyway involved in UNP National List MP, Ali Zarheer Moulana helping Karuna to flee Batticaloa. In spite of Moulana admitting his complicity in the operation, the LTTE accused the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) of using Karuna.

The LTTE as well as the Norwegians failed to realise that Karuna wouldn’t have to depend on Moulana if he had the backing of the DMI at that time. Had Karuna been protected by the DMI at that time, the military could have easily arranged for him to be evacuated by air. Having disbanded fighting units under his command on April 9, Karuna fled Batticaloa. His destination was Colombo.

Moulana accepted responsibility and quit his parliamentary seat. The former MP emphasised that the LTTE had been aware of the move to get Karuna out of Batticaloa. Moulana claimed that ‘Colonel’ Thambirajah Ramesh, who had been Karuna’s deputy at the time of the unprecedented split had sought his help to get the one-time Batticaloa leader out of the district. Moulana asserted that as Ramesh had got in touch with him from Kilinochchi, he felt that the move had the blessings of the top leadership. Perhaps the LTTE believed that the Batticaloa fighting cadre would disintegrate following Karuna’s departure.

The LTTE obviously underestimated Karuna’s resolve to hit back and the readiness of the military to manipulate the crisis to its advantage. Interestingly, Batticaloa had been the centre of gravity in the destabilisation project directed at the LTTE.