The Saga of Colonel Karuna

Vinayagamoorthy Muralidharan is Sri Lanka's Minister of National Integration and Reconciliation. It is an unlikely post for a man who many, including the Sri Lankan government, considered a terrorist not too long ago; a man human rights groups have accused of recruiting child soldiers; and a man who used to be considered a hard-liner of one of the world's most notorious armed groups.

Muralitharan was a high-profile commander of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a rebel group that fought for an independent state for Sri Lanka's Tamil minority for more than two decades. He was considered the right-hand-man and a likely successor to the group's former leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran.

Today, however, Muralitharan has a very different story to tell. He works for the very government that he once fought. In recent months, he gained prominence for playing a strategic role in helping the Sri Lankan government defeat the LTTE. In a Washington Post interview in February this year, Muralitharan said, "All the world knows that without me, they couldn't win the war. I know all the hideouts and tactics. And without my manpower, the Tigers lost their grip. That's why I am world-famous."

The Beginning

As an LTTE fighter, Muralitharan was known by his alias, Karuna Amman. From serving as Prabhakaran's bodyguard in his youth, the young fighter quickly climbed up the ranks to become the powerful military commander of the eastern regions of Batticaloa and Amparai. As Colonel Karuna, he maintained an iron first in the volatile east. With a mixed population of Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese, the eastern regions have seen some of the worst massacres in the history of the conflict -- many orchestrated masterfully by Karuna.

But despite his successes on the battlefield and his close association with Prabhakaran, Karuna faced a continuous struggle within the LTTE. Unlike the majority of LTTE fighters, including Prabhakaran, who hailed from the North, Karuna's ancestral roots were in the district of Batticaloa in eastern Sri Lanka. And since the LTTE elite comprised mainly of northern Tamils, Karuna often complained that his eastern fighters were not receiving equal treatment and were being sacrificed unreasonably on the battlefields.

Acknowledgment of Karuna's place in the organization, and hence the recognition of the role that the East would play in any political solution, came when Prabhakaran chose Karuna to represent the military arm of the LTTE at the 2002 peace talks. Karuna joined the team of LTTE heavyweights that included Anton Balasingham and S.P Thamilselvan -- the political minds of the rebel group. Two theories circulated about why Prabhakarn decided to include Karuna in the high-level talks. Pessimists believed Prabhakaran made a shrewd decision. By offering a seat at the table, and thus an opportunity to directly address issues of the east, Prabhakaran eliminated Karuna's ability to protest against the LTTE leadership for neglecting the eastern population. Optimists took it as a sign of the LTTE's commitment to peace. Rauff Hakeem who was then a cabinet minister and the leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress talked about the importance of Karuna in the talks in an interview with the Inter Press Service (IPS).

''Karuna's presence here is symbolic, for it provides some idea about the LTTE fighting cadres' willingness to embrace peace,'' Mr. Hakeem said in the IPS interview. ''Giving him such exposure is good for the general push for peace.''

He went on to say "(Karuna) has a lot of respect for Prabakharan. And Prabakharan knows that Karuna's contribution (during the talks) on behalf of the Tigers cannot be ignored.''

But Prabhakaran's decision to include Karuna in the talks was perhaps the fatal blow that would result in the fall of the LTTE seven years later. In the Washington Post interview, Karuna stated that it was during those negotiations that he realized the conflict can only end through political means.

The Transition

Karuna officially broke ranks with the LTTE in March 2004. He cited two reasons for his departure. In addition to the North vs. East struggle, he accused Prabhakaran of not being serious about peace negotiations. But the LTTE had a different take. They accused Karuna of straying from LTTE principles. On March 6, 2004, the LTTE issued a statement, officially removing Karuna from the organization:

Mr. Karuna who was commander of Batticaloa-Amparai, instigated by some malicious elements opposed to the Tamil Eelam liberation struggle, acting traitorously to the Tamil people and the Tamil Eelam national leadership, has planned to secede himself from the Liberation organisation.

The commanders, divisional heads and cadres under him unable to acquiesce with this traitorous act have refused to comply with his orders and met with the national leadership, explained the ground reality prevailing there.

In accordance with this, Karuna has been discharged from the Liberation Tigers organization and relieved from official responsibilities.

There was little doubt that Karuna's departure from the LTTE would change the dynamics of the conflict. But the end result of that change remained a topic of speculation. Many expected Prabhakaran to quickly eliminate his former loyalist as he had many of his other confidants who challenged his beliefs and methods. But Karuna's transition from a feared fighter to a peace-loving politician seems to have unfolded in an unpredictable manner.

Defying the Odds

After leaving the LTTE, Karuna established the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP). Commonly known as the "Karuna Faction," it initially functioned as a paramilitary group and aligned with the Sri Lankan government, helping the military recapture LTTE-controlled areas. The effects were immediate.

During 2007, a string of military operations resulted in government forces accomplishing what no previous regime since the conflict began had achieved. The military captured the town of Vakarai in the Batticaloa district in January. Six months later, it captured Thoppigala, a rebel stronghold, with which it regained controlled of the entire eastern province from the LTTE for the first time in 14 years. In November, air raids resulted in the death of Thamilselvan, the LTTE's leader of the political wing.

That year consisted of a seemingly unstoppable chain reaction, and it was apparent that the government had in its artillery a new weapon. Many pointed to Karuna. While the government attempted to downplay the role that Karuna played in its victories, humanitarian organizations criticized the government for collaborating with a former rebel alleged to have committed war crimes. Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International accused the government of turning a blind to the use of child soldiers, torture and extrajudicial killings.

The government's relationship with Karuna came into the international spotlight when Karuna was arrested in London for traveling with a forged passport (ironically on the same day of Thamilselvan's death). According to the BBC, Karuna told British authorities that the Sri Lankan Defense Secretary had arranged for him to obtain a diplomatic passport under a different name. The government has denied any involvement. Karuna was sentenced to nine months in prison and deported back to Sri Lanka. The failure of the British government to take more stringent action against Karuna angered human rights groups who felt the British government should have tried Karuna for war crimes. But no such action was taken by either Britain or Sri Lanka.

Karuna's first opportunity to enter politics came when the government announced elections in the eastern province. Karuna and the Rajapakse government appeared to have carefully and strategically engineered the former rebel's entrance into mainstream Sri Lankan politics -- one that no one saw coming even a few years ago. In the elections, held in March 2008, Karuna's party won in a landslide victory. Then in October, President Rajapakse's United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) decided to appoint Karuna as a member of parliament. It was a calculated but risky move for the government.

The ruling UPFA's partnership with Karuna jeopardized its other relationships, particularly with the Sinhala nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). The JVP went to court over the decision. The parliamentary seat that the UPFA assigned to Karuna was that of JVP parliamentarian Wasantha Samarasinghe who resigned to contest provincial council elections. The JVP said, according to the memorandum of understanding between it and the UPFA, the parliamentary seat must be filled by another JVP member. President Rajapakse, whose party formed an alliance with the JVP during the parliamentary election in 2004, would not have won a majority without JVP support. The opposition United National Party (UNP) and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) also protested Karuna's appointment by walking out of Parliament when he was sworn in. It was a strategic move by the President who saw Karuna's support as more important than that of the JVP in eliminating the LTTE.

Despite the controversy, Karuna, now Minister Vinayagamoorthy Muralidharan, continues to be the only former LTTE member to have successfully transitioned into mainstream Sri Lankan politics. His role in the political process is likely to play a significant role in how the government addresses issues of the Tamil minority.