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Who's behind the LTTE split?
By Sudha Ramachandran

BANGALORE - Speculation is rife in Sri Lanka over who might have engineered the recent split in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). While some are pointing to a foreign hand - India and/or the United States - others are insisting that Colombo might have had a part in fomenting the rebellion.

Early this month, the LTTE's eastern commander Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan, aka "Colonel" Karuna, raised the banner of revolt against the rebel organization's predominantly northern leadership. It appears that he turned down the LTTE northern wing's request for about 1,000 eastern fighters for deployment in the north and objected to the role of the intelligence wing in the areas under his command. Karuna not only defied LTTE leader Velupillai Prabakaran but also aired his defiance to the media.

The LTTE's response was swift. It "discharged" Karuna, accusing him of "acting traitorously to the Tamil people and the Tamil Eelam national leadership at the instigation of malicious elements".

Karuna's rebellion is unprecedented and could culminate in a vertical split of the LTTE. Few in the LTTE have dared to defy Prabakaran because the Tiger leader is intolerant of dissent. Those who have differed with him have been sidelined, others eliminated unless they opted to leave the organization and lead a low-profile life thereafter.

Mahathaya, a former deputy of Prabakaran, did defy Prabakaran's orders. He was seen to be a threat to the LTTE leader's authority and popularity. Before he could rebel and consolidate his support, Prabakaran had him quickly arrested, isolated, tried for treason and eventually executed.

It is unlikely that Karuna would not have thought about Mahathaya's fate when he decided to speak out against Prabakaran. He has done what even Mahathaya did not dare do - wash the LTTE's dirty linen in public. Besides, the magnitude of his rebellion and its implications for the LTTE and the Tamil nationalist movement - he has laid bare the deep rift between the LTTE's northern and eastern wings and openly challenged the LTTE's claims to be the sole representative of the Tamils or even of all Tigers - is immense. Karuna has taken a huge risk by challenging Prabakaran.

It is unlikely that Karuna would take such a risk without firm assurances of solid and sustained support from some powerful agency. Not only is his personal survival under threat but also he needs huge amounts of money to maintain his fighters and to arm and train them. The Tamil diaspora, which pours money into the Tigers' coffers, is unhappy with Karuna for splitting the LTTE. It is unlikely to finance his operations. Neither will Karuna have access to the LTTE's awesome international resource-raising network.

This has prompted speculation over who might have provided him with assurances of support in his battle against Prabakaran.

Some have suggested that it might be the Americans. After all, there is little love lost between the US and the LTTE. Washington has declared the LTTE a terrorist organization and has refused to remove this tag despite the Tigers engaging in negotiations with the Sri Lankan government. The US has in fact openly backed the government and has warned the LTTE of dire consequences if it walks out of the peace process. Less than a week before the rebellion, the US State Department issued a stern warning to the LTTE, blaming it for the assassination of Sinnathamby Sunderapillai, the United National Party's Batticaloa candidate, and the killing of P Yogeswaran, a member of the Eelam People's Democratic Party.

When it expelled Karuna, the LTTE blamed "malicious elements" for instigating Karuna's "traitorous act". It did not elaborate on the identity of these "malicious elements". In a subsequent interview to the Associated Press, Thamilselvan, the LTTE's leader of the political wing, accused "external forces" for the crisis. Although he did not identify the external force, he elaborated that it was one that "did not accept the LTTE's position of being the sole representative of the Tamil people and was jealous of the high regard and acceptance it was enjoying in the international community".

The description fits India somewhat.

If Thamilselvan was indeed referring to India, it would not be the first time the LTTE has blamed India for a rebellion in the organization. Mahthaya was accused of being an Indian Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) agent to discredit him in the eyes of the cadres, among whom he had a considerable following. Incidentally, Mahthaya is said to have established links with top RAW officials in Colombo after Prabakaran gave him the green light to do so.

As in the case of Mahthaya, the LTTE's hinting at a RAW link could be to discredit Karuna and to raise questions over his commitment to the cause of Tamil Eelam. However, it is just as possible that the present crisis in the LTTE might be an attempt by RAW to break the organization. After all, RAW has a two-decade history of involvement in the Sri Lankan conflict.

Sri Lankans have generally attributed the rise of the LTTE to RAW's backing of this outfit. Sri Lankan analysts have often argued that of the several militant groups that RAW armed and trained from 1983 to 1987, the LTTE was its favorite.

The relationship between the two was not that simple or straightforward. While RAW did indeed provide arms and training to the Sri Lankan militant groups, including the LTTE, with arms and training on Indian soil, it was not the LTTE but its rival, the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO), that RAW was most generous with. Top RAW officials involved in the Sri Lankan operation in the 1980s told this correspondent that RAW backed TELO because it (unlike the LTTE) was a rag-tag army of unruly fighters who would do as RAW told them to, providing RAW leverage in the militancy. At the same time, when the LTTE massacred TELO militants in the summer of 1986, RAW looked the other way and did little to help TELO. RAW's strategy of arming all the main militant groups was aimed at keeping the movement divided so that it would be in control.

Right from the start, the LTTE was suspicious of RAW's intentions and while it took what RAW had to offer and might have conducted some operations on RAW's orders, it did not allow RAW to infiltrate it as had other militant groups. The collapse of the 1987 India-Sri Lanka Accord and the subsequent outbreak of hostilities between the Tigers and the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) was attributed by the LTTE in part to RAW's continuing supply of arms to its rivals. The uneasy relationship between the two deteriorated thereafter.

Although India has maintained a hands-off approach to the Sri Lankan conflict after its unpleasant IPKF experience on the island, RAW has remained active in the Tamil areas. Its attempts to split the LTTE might have increased in the 1990s, especially after the assassination of prime minister Rajiv Gandhi by the LTTE, when the LTTE came to be seen as a serious threat to India's security interests.

Analysts have been arguing that the rift between the eastern and northern Tamils is the most serious fault line that the LTTE has had to deal with. Seeing opportunity in the growing rift along regional lines, RAW could have established links with Karuna and encouraged him to rebel.

Denying that RAW was backing Karuna, a RAW official told Asia Time Online that sections in Colombo might be backing Karuna in the hope that his rebellion would weaken the Tigers. He pointed out that while the Lankan army top brass was refraining from taking sides in the Karuna-Prabakaran faceoff, the middle-level officers would be in touch with Karuna. "Karuna's anger and ambition has provided the Lankan army or the intelligence with an opportunity to strike at the LTTE. They will grab at any opportunity that will undermine the LTTE, however minor the damage might be," he added.

Muddying the picture further are reports that Sri Lanka's main political parties might be fishing in troubled waters. Since the start of the peace talks, President Chandrika Kumaratunga has firmly opposed the bonhomie between her rival, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, and the LTTE. The possibility that the army, which is under her control, might be encouraging the split and backing Karuna cannot be ruled out.

Meanwhile a report in the Daily Mirror has claimed that one of the main political parties - the UNP or the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) - has apparently offered a cabinet portfolio to a candidate of the Tamil National Alliance (an alliance of Tamil parties that acknowledges the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamil people) who is said to have thrown in his lot with Karuna.

It is imperative for the LTTE to externalize the problem. This makes it seem that the LTTE is a monolithic organization with no internal differences or problems. By labeling Karuna as someone who acted on the orders of an external enemy, it is discrediting Karuna and showing him as someone who is sleeping with the enemy and who has loyalties to agencies that are opposed to the "Tamil cause". For Karuna, it is important that he is not labeled as a stooge for anyone. He is seeking to highlight his rebellion as driven by altruistic reasons - concern for eastern Tamil interests.

The LTTE and the breakaway group led by Karuna are fighting a bitter propaganda war to discredit each other. The many conspiracy theories pointing to powerful patrons backing Karuna that are doing the rounds in Sri Lanka today indicate that this round of the Prabakaran-Karuna war is going in favor of Prabakaran.

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Mar 26, 2004

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