The nasty,brutish and lengthy ethnic conflict has resulted in a large number of deaths and disappearances. Among these victims were several Catholic priests. Clergymen like Fr. Mary Bastian. Fr. Wenceslaus, Fr. Chandra Fernando , Fr. Nicholaspillai Packiyaranjith and Fr. Xavier Karunairatnam have been killed. Others like Fr. Herbiet, Fr. Selvarajah and Fr. Jim Brown have been made to disappear. These deaths and disappearances were in the years before the final phase of the war in 2009. The exact number and details of casualties in the Wanni during this phase are yet to be accurately estimated.
As mentioned earlier one of the Catholic priests killed in the conflict was Fr,Xavier Karunairatnam known popularly as “FatherKili” or “KiliFather”. Kili meaning parrot in Tamil was Fr.Karunairatnam’s pet name.
Rev.Fr Mariampillai Xavier Karunaratnam was killed in a claymore mine explosion on April 20th 2008. His 15th death anniversary was commemorated by those dear and near to him last week. This column with the aid of earlier writings revisits the killing of Kilifather this week.
“Kilifather” Karunairatnam at the time of his death was attached to the “Our Lady of Good Health ” (Aarokkiyamaathaa) Church at the agrarian village of Vavunikulam in the Northern mainland known as the Wanni. He also ran a meditation and counselling center in the Vavunikulam area.This center provided counselling and psychological care to numerous Tamil civilians affected by the war.
On Sunday April 20th 2008 the 57 year old Catholic clergyman had gone to Maankulam to help conduct the morning mass. Thereafter he proceeded to Mallaavi to attend a special memorial meeting .The meeting was to commemorate former Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP Kittinan Sivanesan on the 45th day after his death.Sivanesan was killed in a claymore mine explosion in the Mannankulam area .
The specialist assassination unit of the armed forces known as Long range reconnaissance patrol (LRRP) was allegedly responsible for Sivanesan’s killing.Officially the army denied both the killing and existence of the LRRP then. It was however an “open secret” that the LRRP was indeed responsible.
While returning from Mallavi, Fr. Karunaratnam ’s white double – cab had developed engine trouble and broken down at Vannivilaankulam. It was then tied to another vehicle with a thick rope and towed along.Fr. Karunaratnam sat in the driving seat of the double cab with his hands on the steering vehicle to help keep the towed vehicle steady.
Another Catholic layman helper was also in the vehicle proceeding along the Mallaavi – Vavunikulam road. Apparently Fr. Karunaratnam was keen on returning to Vavunikulam for lunch.
The two vehicles were at a point near the “Kulanthai Yesu” (child Jesus) chapel at Ambaikulam when the claymore explosion occurred at about 12. 20 – 25 pm.The incident happened between Vavunikulam and Vannivilaankulam at Ambaikulam.
It was the towed vehicle at the rear and not the towing vehicle at front that was the target. The assassins who triggered off the claymore were very clear in their objective.Both the clergyman and layman in the white double – cab were injured. Both were taken to Kilinochchi hospital but Fr. Karunaratnam was pronounced dead upon admission.The layman helper who sustained serious injuries received intensive care at Kilinochchi.
The remains of Fr. Karunaratnam were taken to St. Theresa’s Church in Kilinochchi. Thousands of people both Christian and Hindu paid their respects.Posters and black flags have also come up in some parts of Jaffna in respect of “Kilifather” and also in protest over the assassination. The funeral was held on 22 April 2008. The LTTE chief Prabhakaran bestowed the ”Maamanithan”(Great Man) posthumous honour upon Fr.Karunairatnam.
Fr. Karunaratnam in recent times had become well-known as a human rights activist. He was one of the founders of an organization known as the North-East secretariat on Human Rights (NESOHR) and was its chairperson at the time of his death.The NESOHR focussed on the human rights violations perpetrated on Tamil civilians by members of the armed forces, Police, para-military outfits and state sanctioned assassination squads.
The NESOHR also recorded incidents of artillery shelling and aerial bombardment by the security forces and documented the quantum of injuries,deaths, destruction and displacement caused. It was widely known that Kilifather was the livewire of the NESOHR.
Mariampillai Xavier Karunaratnam was killed just eight days after his 57th birthday.He was born on April 12th 1951.
Kilifather hailed from Karaveddy in the Vadamaratchy region of Jaffna peninsula.His parents were teachers. He was one of seven children (four boys and three girls). Their house was near Vigneswara College,Karaveddy. One of his younger brothers Fr. Gnanaratnam is also a Catholic priest.
Karunaratnam’s pet name in childhood was “kili” or parrot.The name stuck to him as an adult too.He obtained his primary and secondary education at Vigneswara – Karaveddy, Sacred Heart – Nelliaddy and St. Patrick’s in Jaffna.Karunaratnam entered priesthood later in life. He was a teacher and bank officer before that.
Xavier Karunaratnam was an ardent Tamil nationalist from his student days. He was involved with the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) youth wing “Ilaingar Peravai” and student wing “Maanavar Peravai”.In the 1977 general elections Karunaratnam was actively involved with the TULF addressing many election meetings in the Udupiddy electorate.His native place Karaveddy was in the Udupiddy electorate.
The 1977 elections was a watershed in Tamil politics as the TULF contested on a platform of secession and claimed that electoral success would be a mandate for Tamil Eelam.The TULF won 18 of 19 Tamil electorates in the North-East.
The TULF victory in Udupiddy was historic.It was the first time that a member of the so-called depressed castes contested and won a seat anywhere in the North-East. There had been Senators and appointed MP’s but no elected Parliamentarian from these oppressed castes until then.Thambuoillai . Rasalingam a senior education dept official contested Udupiddy and won.
TULF supporters like Karunaratnam immeresd themselves in the campaign.Karunaratnam was then teaching English at the Newton Tutorial College in Nelliaddy. He was a popular teacher and affectionately referred to as “Kilivaathi” then. “Vaathi” is short for “Vaathiyaar” meaning teacher.
Bank of Ceylon
After elections in 1977 some Tamil youths got employment in the Bank of Ceylon and People’s Bank. Karunaratnam also became a clerk at Bank of Ceylon and later went up to officer grade as asst. manager.He continued teaching while being a bank officer. He used to ride a C-90 motor cycle then.Karunaratnam also maintained his interest in politics though he refrained from going public as he was now a bank employee.
The late-seventies and early-eighties of the 20th century was a time when Tamil youth supporters of the TULF were becoming increasingly estranged from the TULF because of its perceived reluctance to push ahead with the Tamil Eelam mandate.There were many incidents of friction between TULF seniors and youths then.
One such instance was in the late seventies. A meeting was held at the premises of Velupillai timber depot in Saamiyanarasady in Karaveddy. Both Udupiddy MP Rasalingam and TULF president M. Sivasithamparam participated.
Sivasithamparam , a former MP of Udupiddy was called the Udupiddy Singam” (lion) . He had given up the electorate for Rasalingam and contested at Nallur in 1977.Sivasithamparam triumphed with the largest majority in the Country.
There was a heated argument between radical youths and TULF elders at the Saamiyanarasady meeting. At one point the friction turned into fisticuffs. TULF activist Anandavinayagam alias “Vannai Aanandan” was singled out for attack by the youths.
It was Karunaratnam who saved Vannai Anandan then. With the beleagured Vannai Anandam on the pillion, Karunaratnam took a cross-country route across fields and bylanes to Sonappu from where Vannai Anandan was dispatched safely to Jaffna town.“kilivaathi”’s exploit in saving Vannai was spoken about widely then.
Ordained as Priest
Karunaratnam had a spiritual streak in him. He was always concerned about serving the people.It was in the mid eighties that Xavier Karunaratnam began feeling that he was being “called” by God. He responded to the call and abandoned his banking career.He was ordained as a priest at the age of 38 in 1989. Kilivaathi now became known as Kilifather.
Fr. Karunaratnam’s Tamil nationalism remained with him.Despite donning the cassock the clergyman fervently believed that Tamil Eelam was the only solution for the salvation of the Tamil nation.Many Tamil nationalists of his calibre who believed in Tamil Eelam took the step of supporting an armed struggle to achieve it. The next step was that of supporting the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).To those of this mindset and mood the tigers were the only ones continuing with the armed struggle to achieve Tamil Eelam.
This was Fr. Karunaratnam’s position also. However his political belief was tempered by his priestly duties.
Close to LTTE
The LTTE ran a “de- facto” administration in Jaffna from 1990 to 1995-96. Many persons including some Catholic priests identified themselves openly with the tigers then.Fr. Karunaratnam was one of these. In “kilifather”s case there was another reason for his closeness to the LTTE
The LTTE ideologue and political strategist Anton Stanislaus Balasingham was well – known to Karunaratnam.They were both from Karaveddy In fact some of Balasingham’s nephews were Kili’s close friends.This Balasingham link enhanced his closeness to the LTTE further.
When the armed forces took Jaffna through “Operation Riviresa” in 1995-6 , many people with perceived links to the LTTE were compelled to flee. This included some Catholic priests also.While some went abroad others like “kilifather” re-located to the Wanni. He remained there till the 2002 ceasefire.
During his stay in the Wanni Fr. Karunaratnam remained close to the LTTE hierarchy through Balasingham.Fr. Karunaratnam was made the head of the NGO consortium in the Wanni. He also functioned as a correspondent of the Catholic Church Radio service “Veritas” based in Manila.
After the ceasefire of 2002 Fr. Karunaratnam along with some others founded the North-East secretariat on Human Rights called NESOHR.Among founding members were former TNA parliamentarians Joseph Pararajasingham. Chandranehru Ariaratnam, current Tamil Congress MP Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam, Lawyer K. Sivapalan, Ceylon teachers union officials K. Mahasivam, S. Atchuthan Ms Sri Arulananthan,and Drs N. Malathy, S.Sriskandarajah and . Sivapalan.The NESOHR was associated with the LTTE peace secretariat in the beginning.
Fr. Karunaratnam returned to Jaffna in 2002 after the LTTE moved in under the guise of doing politics. He moved to Pallai with tiger political commissar for Jaffna district, Ilamparithy when suspected tiger supporters were becoming targets.In 2006 he re-located to the Wanni again.
The NESOHR compiled records about human rights violations and atrocities against Tamil civilians by the armed forces. It did not concern itself with human rights violations perpetrated by the LTTE.Fr. Karunaratnam in his capacity as a human rights activist travelled to Europe and North America. Apart from attending Human Rights Council meetings in Geneva he also engaged in full scale lobbying.
Fr.Karunairatnam also met with many diplomats, human rights activists, NGO personnel and media representatives.In spite of these efforts and documentation the credibility of NESOHR and Fr. Karunaratnam in Human Rights circles was quite low.Since the NESOHR opted to see only one side of the situation, it was not perceived as trustworthy or reliable.
There was a time when the NESOHR openly stated that they were willing to co-operate with reputed Human Rights Organizations. But there was very little response to that invitation.
Partiality Towards LTTE
Diplomats, media representatives and HR organizations were in touch with Fr. Karunaratnam and the NESOHR to get details of incidents.However this was only used as one of many avenues to procure information. Neither Fr. Karunaratnam nor the NESOHR were regarded as reliable. They were not quoted or cited in any credible international report.This was due to their perceived partiality towards the LTTE.
Attempts by well-wishers to make Fr. Karunaratnam recognize this harsh reality were unsuccessful.Nevertheless it must be emphasised that Fr. Karunaratnam and the NESOHR deserve commended for chronicling the human rights violations perpetrated by the state and state agencies against innocent Tamil civilians. These were largely unreported in the mainstream media and by reputed Human rights organizations.
An organization like the LTTE and its brainwashed acolytes were incapable of understanding the need for a free, credible media or independent human rights orgabizations.
In Fr. Karunaratnam’s case he was a firm believer in the cause for Tamil Eelam and a loyal supporter of the LTTE. Thus he was emotionally and intellectually prepared to toe the LTTE line.There were many instances of him attempting to whitewash the LTTE of its human rights violations and even go ing to unexpected lengths in covering up for the tigers.
However it must be ackowledged that Fr. Karunaratnam was one of those trying to persuade the LTTE to refrain from human rights violations.He played an important role in getting the LTTE to return some conscripts. The LTTE announcement of not recruiting those under 17 years was also influenced to some extent by Fr. Karunaratnam. When the war escalated the LTTE went back on this assurance and engaged in full scale conscription including minors.
The circumstances of Fr. Karunaratnam’s killing demonstrates clearly that he was deliberately targeted.The LTTE then accused the LRRP.It was predictably denied. Very few believed this denial that the LRRP was not responsible mainly because of its lethal track record and reputation.
Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol
Sri Lanka’s Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP) was known in Sinhala as the “Digu Dura Vihidum Balakaya” and in Tamil as the “Aazha Ooduruvi thaakkum Padaiyani”. It was also called the Deep Penetration Unit (DPU) and “Mahasonon” Brigade of the Army.
The LRRP was basically a specialized military intelligence unit utilized for black ops. A black operation or black op is a covert or clandestine operation by a government agency, a military unit or a paramilitary organization. Key features of a black operation are that it is secret and is not attributable to the organization carrying it out. The usage of specialized military intelligence units to assassinate the enemy has been practised by different states and different armies in different situations.
The Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP) became an instrument of war of the Sri Lankan armed forces at the turn of this century.
Fundamentally, the LRRP teams were a combination of disgruntled ex-Tigers, members of anti-Tiger Tamil militant groups, Muslim home guard/para-military operatives and carefully selected Sinhala personnel from the Special Forces. They were given highly specialized ‘Commando’ type training here and abroad. It is believed that the US was involved in this training exercise.
Basic modus operandi of the LRRP was for small groups to clandestinely infiltrate territory controlled by the LTTE and target senior Tiger leaders and key operatives. This was done in two ways.
One was to creep into Tiger territory through jungle routes, conduct an operation and return. Sometimes the operatives stay in safe houses within LTTE-controlled areas for days to do this. On other occasions, they camp in the jungles and lie in wait for several hours to take on their target. The usual method was to explode claymore mines with remote devices. In some instances timers were used.
Pressure mines too have been used on a few occasions. It is presumed that these attacks were planned and executed on the strength of precise intelligence.
The other method was to co-opt civilians living in the Wanni to ‘plant’ mines and target Tiger leaders. This was done through financial carrots and the sticks of coercion. In some instances, LTTE oppressed civilians nursing a grudge against the Tigers became willing tools.
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at email@example.com
This Article appears in the “political Pulse”Column of “Daily FT”dated 26 April 2023.It can be accessed here –