The sudden and unexpected split in the LTTE in the first week of March appears poised to take a dangerous turn. The LTTE leadership relieved its former eastern commander, Colonel Karuna Amman of his post describing him a traitor to the cause of Tamil people and the Tamil Eelam national leadership. Meanwhile, the LTTE has appointed a new commander, Ramesh, for the east. Karuna´s reaction has been equally confrontational, setting up a new Eastern Tamil party and ordering members of the Tamil Eelam administration in the area to leave. It is also reported that Jaffna Tamil university staff and businessmen in the Batticaloa and Ampara districts have also been asked to leave. But the split is not yet an accomplished fact as it goes against the strong ideological unity of the LTTE organisation and of the larger Tamil nationalist movement.
At present, Karuna´s position in the east appears secure, even though his top ranking deputies have left him for the LTTE. The cadres he trained and for whom he was the leader continue to be loyal to him. But they would also be deeply troubled by their leader´s rebellion against all they stood for in the past two decades. When Karuna decided to renounce his allegiance to the LTTE leader Prabhakaran, he took on an enormous challenge with regard to his own cadres. What would continue to keep his cadres loyal to him would be the continuing support of the civilian population. Although the breakaway leadership led by Karuna appears confident, there is the constant risk of political assassination at which the LTTE has specialist skills. Also, there is the risk of alienating the eastern people who thus far appear to be supportive of the breakaway leadership. But the question is for how long.
In explaining his decision to break away from the LTTE, Karuna has given two important reasons for rejecting the LTTE leadership based in the north. The first is the unequal treatment meted out to the eastern cadre. He has complained about the recent appointment of 30 northern cadres to supervisory positions in the organisation without a single easterner being given a senior appointment. On the other hand, eastern cadres are taken to the north to man front line sentry points and sacrifice their lives for the sake of the northern people.
The second reason given by Karuna is the lack of consultation regarding drastic actions taken in the east, in particular the political assassinations carried out in the east at the behest of the northern command. Recently when two members of political parties not affiliated to the LTTE were assassinated in the east, it was the eastern command that had to bear the anger and anguish of the families and communities as the victims were eastern Tamils.
Going back in time, it would be clear that from its inception in the middle of the last century, Tamil nationalism has been dominated by its northern component. Jaffna is regarded as the capital of Tamil civilisation on the island with its intellectual elite being the opinion-formers who most forcefully represent the Tamil position on various national issues. By way of contrast, the east has been a more agrarian and less populated part of the country, with correspondingly less intellectual and financial resources. In the past two decades, especially after the LTTE obtained its ascendancy in the Tamil nationalist movement, the eastern position on issues was seen as no different from that of the northern one.
Karuna’s claims of inequitable treatment of the east have struck a sympathetic chord with the Tamil people of the east. However, in more recent days, Karuna appears to be broadening the line of his ideological attack on his former organisation. Initially, he paid deference to LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, likening him to a god to whom he remained obedient. However, he is now speaking harshly about the leader himself, and casting doubts on the achievements of the entire Tamil militant struggle.
It is one thing to articulate eastern grievances on the ground. It is quite another to question the rationale of the Tamil militancy, in which he himself has played an important part. From a Tamil nationalist perspective it makes more sense for the Tamil people to be united under a single leadership rather than to be divided. In fact, all those Tamil nationalists who do not have to bear the brunt of living under the LTTE´s direct rule, whether in Colombo or abroad, would wish the LTTE to be strong and undivided. It is the Tamil people of the east alone, who bore the brunt of the LTTE´s north-centric rule, who would wish to take up a different position.
Thus, Karuna´s act of rebellion not only weakens the LTTE´s military machine but also calls into question the whole notion of a monolithic Tamil nation of which the LTTE is the sole representative. The social and economic difference between the northern (Jaffna) Tamils and eastern (Batticaloa) Tamils, in particular, was always known and scientifically so through anthropological studies of earlier times. But, the ethnic conflict that pitted the Tamils against the Sinhalese seemed to have subordinated this difference, especially within the monolithic structures of the LTTE. The war that devastated the north and east alike served also to foster a common Tamil identity that finally appeared to reach its zenith in the notion of the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamil people.
The LTTE´s reaction to Karuna´s act of rebellion was in keeping with its past practices of dealing with dissent in its own ranks and also within the larger Tamil community. Such persons were either physically eliminated or severely demoted. Perhaps, the LTTE calculated that a strong initial reaction would cause Karuna´s support to evaporate. But so far this has not been the case. The LTTE´s confrontational attitude has been supplemented by the disappointment of the larger Tamil community at the sudden turn of events when the Tamil nationalist cause seemed to be going from strength to strength along with the peace process. Sections of the Tamil mainstream media and Tamil expatriates have made common cause with the LTTE against Karuna and the breakaway group. They see a possible fatal weakening of the Tamil nationalist cause occurring as a result of the present rift. This raises the temptation for that perennial quick fix solution of Sinhalese nationalists, and even of the state apparatus, which is the military solution.
But if two decades of ethnic war are to teach any lessons to the people living in Sri Lanka, it is that military force and propaganda do not suffice to guarantee victory over groups that champion an ethnic or nationalist cause. The LTTE itself was once a very small group. Karuna controls a very large group, numbering as many as 6000 fighters. The LTTE could not be suppressed by either military force or by propaganda. Neither is it likely that Karuna can be suppressed, so long as he has the support of the eastern Tamil people. In the event of his being able to maintain his support base, the main threat to him would be the possibility of assassination.
Although the LTTE has been described as one of the most deadly and powerful militant organisations in the world, this has been in terms of its opposition to the Sri Lankan state. On the other hand, if the LTTE were to seek to use its military strength against the breakaway group in the east, it is likely to get bogged down in the quagmire of protracted war. The absence of contiguous Tamil territory that joins the north and east, will make the LTTE´s task of keeping its supply lines intact formidable.
The manner in which the LTTE and Karuna attempt to resolve their problem will have repercussions on the ceasefire, the peace process and the entire country. Consequently the attention of the national and international community needs to be focused on the conflict resolution process in the north-east. There is a temptation to see a hidden hand, possibly emanating from India, as being behind the breakaway group. While there may have been external support extended to the Karuna group, the reality of eastern grievances cannot be glossed over.
The best option for the LTTE at this time is to act in the spirit of the present peace process, which demands that they take on the characteristics of a political organisation that copes peacefully with pluralism. An acknowledgement of the genuine grievances of the eastern LTTE cadre and the eastern Tamil population would be a constructive first step. Some of the grievances that have been very well articulated by Karuna have their origins in the pre-LTTE period. There needs to be a dialogue on these matters, rather than a cover up, by both the LTTE and Tamil opinion formers.
Those who are concerned with the Tamil nationalist cause would wish to repair the split in the LTTE. But it is important that the rift be healed through dialogue and compromise that recognises the genuine grievances of the eastern people, and seeks a just solution to them. If violence is used, for whatever purpose, it can cause irreparable damage to the peace process. An LTTE that seeks to resort to a military solution to re-unite itself will send the wrong message to its own cadres about their sincerity to take the peace process forward with the government. It will also frighten the rest of the country about the LTTE´s lack of sincerity in solving problems through negotiations and the compromise that negotiations necessarily entail.
During the past two decades civil society groups engaged in a great deal of educational work on the pluralism in Sri Lankan society as a whole, and the need for political restructuring on the lines of a federal solution. In times to come civil society groups will have an important role to play in promoting a greater dialogue in the wider society on the pluralism within the North-East that needs to find expression in appropriate political structures. They should increase their level of engagement with the actors in Tamil society, including the LTTE and the Karuna group.
Obtaining consensus in plural societies is a rare occurrence and requires wise and patient leadership, such as demonstrated by Nelson Mandela in South Africa. The most appropriate feature of political life in a plural and multi ethnic society is dialogue and compromise. This feature will become more pronounced in Sri Lankan society after the April general elections. The most likely result would be a hung Parliament, in which neither of the two main parties obtains a clear majority by itself. The post election scenario is one of multiple parties, including the LTTE and the breakaway Karuna group, needing to work with each other to take forward the peace process.