Tiger vs Tiger: How Prabhakaran’s Mainstream LTTE and Karuna’s Eastern Tigers Prepared for Fratricidal Conflict.


D.B.S. Jeyaraj

This week’s Column is the second of a series of articles denoting the 20th anniversary of the revolt headed by former eastern tiger commander Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan alias “Karuna Ammaan” against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE) hierarchy. Although the rebellion was crushed, its impact and consequences helped greatly to determine the course of war in favour of the Sri Lankan armed forces.

In the first article published last w eek(16 March 2024 Daily Mirror (“Col” Karuna’s Eastern Tiger revolt against LTTE 20 years ago) the background and reasons for the Eastern tiger revott were discussed in detail. In this second article the course of events leading to the eruption of the intra-tiger fratricidal conflict in the aftermath of “Col”Karuna’s rebellion would be recounted, relying on some of my earlier writings.

All hell was expected to break loose after “Col”Karuna the eastern regional commander of the LTTE raised the banner of revolt against the Wanni based tiger hierarchy on 3 March 2004. However the LTTE leadership displayed restraint in the initial period .Instead of launching a powerful military offensive against the renegade Tiger chieftain, the LTTE began overtly soft-pedalling the issue while engaging covertly in activities aimed at undermining Karuna.

LTTE political wing head Suppiah Paramu Tamilchelvan announced on 6 March 2004 at a press conference in Kilinochchi that tiger supremo Veluppillai Prabhakaran had explicitly instructed his cadre to refrain from any military action to resolve the situation. Assuring the world at large that the Tigers would diffuse the crisis very quickly, Tamilchelvan also stated that there would be no bloodshed.

Interestingly, Tamilchelvan had earlier dismissed the Karuna affair as a minor matter and ridiculed Karuna as a single individual without any support.The glib pronouncements of Tamilchelvan, or for that matter any Tiger leader, were viewed sceptically, given the LTTE’s track record of deception and acting in bad faith.

Complex Factors

A complex set of factors contributed to the circumscribing of the LTTE and the maintenance of an uneasy peace in March 2004. As stated earlier there was a Norway facilitated peace process on. A ceasefire was in progress with a Scandinavian monitoring mission supervising it. After breaking away, Karuna had indicated that he would abide by the ceasefire and wanted a separate memorandum of understanding. This was vehemently opposed by the mainstream LTTE. Thus the LTTE was wary of upsetting the fragile situation by engaging in violence prematurely and incurring blame.

Another factor was the uneasy political co-habitation that prevailed between the Sri Lanka Freedom Party( SLFP) President Chandrika Kumaratunga and the Govt of United National Party(UNP) Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. It was under great strain at the time of the Karuna revolt. President Kumaratunga unilaterally dissolved Parliament on 7 February 2004 and scheduled elections for April 2nd. As such prudence decreed that the LTTE should be cautious until elections were held.

Moreover the LTTE had invested politically in the grouping of Tamil parties known as the Tamil National Alliance(TNA), The Eelam Peoples Democratic Party(EPDP)leader Douglas Devananda used to mock the TNA as an acronym for “Tiger nominated agents”. The LTTE was banking on the TNA getting over 20 seats in the poll. Of these around 4 to 6 MPs would be from the Eastern districts of Amparai and Batticaloa. Hence the LTTE did not want to unleash full scale violence in the east until elections were over.

A further reason for the LTTE’s initial reticence was the need to assess the military situation. The LTTE hierarchy needed time to take stock of the situation. How many tiger cadres could be estimated as Karuna loyalists and how many would remain faithful to Prabhakaran? In which parts of the East was Karuna strong or weak? What were the military fortifications and preparations being done by Karuna and the rebel tigers to safeguard territory in the face of a military onslaught by the LTTE? What kind of strategy should be adopted to prevent the inevitable confrontation deteriorating into a clash on regional lines of north versus east? The LTTE commanded by Prabhakaran delayed making decisive moves until a proper military assessment was made.

Military Balance

When the eastern tiger revolt was proclaimed the prevalent military balance between Karuna’s rebels and the mainstream LTTE was delicately intricate and precariously fluid. In recent times, the Eastern component comprising Batticaloa and Amparai had become almost indispensable to the LTTE. The cadre strength of the LTTE was about 25,000 then. Of these, around 7,000 were either seniors whose fighting days were over, or injured and maimed fighters who could not engage in active combat. This left about 18,000 fighters, both men and women.

About 7,500 of the fighters were from Batticaloa and Amparai districts. The region had become the provider of the largest segment of Tiger cadre in recent years. More than 2,000 cadre were recruited or conscripted from the Eastern region after the 2002 ceasefire came into force. The rest of the North-East could swell their numbers by only 500 to 600 after the ceasefire.

Easterners in North

Moreover, not all of the 7,500 cadre from the East were in their native region. An estimated 1,800 of the Eastern cadre were in the North before the crisis erupted. Of the 1,800 Eastern cadre, 600 were being maintained as a distinct entity. They comprised the first division of the Jeyanthan brigade, commanded then by Jeyathaan. These men were deployed on the Northern border along the Kilaly-Eluthumadduvaal-Nagar Lovil axis in the Jaffna peninsula. They manned the security lines and sentry posts to the south of Muhamaalai in the Jaffna peninsula.

After the Karuna rebellion the Eastern brigade became suspect. Its members were relieved of their duties, deprived of arms and kept under mass house arrest. They were screened and debriefed by Intelligence chief Pottu Amman and other Eastern Tiger leaders loyal to Prabhakaran, such as Ramesh, Ram, Praba and Ramanan.

In addition to these tigers, there were 400 Eastern cadre serving as bodyguards to important Tiger leaders. Prabhakaran himself had 75 Easterners in his trusted bodyguard unit of 200. Another 800 Easterners were serving in various departments and sections of the LTTE in the North. The Sea Tigers, the intelligence wing, the economic unit, the revenue unit, the medical corps, the artillery unit, the political sections of both men and women, the communications corps, the leopard commando unit and even the administrative bodies in the North were manned by Easterners in sizable numbers. The majority of Sea Tigers and members of the Black Tiger suicide squad were also from the East.

There were 32 departments-cum-fighting formations in the LTTE then. Of these none was headed by Easterners, but all relied heavily on recruits from the region. Three key figures from the East serving in positions of authority in the North then were Puthiyavan of the LTTE administrative secretariat, Nalan of the medical corps and Roshan of the communications wing. Except for a select few, most of these men were initially suspect . After being debriefed and screened. Easterners whose loyalty was proven and who were willing to fight Karuna were mobilised into special units to combat the eastern warlord.

Prabhakaran Unwilling

It could be seen therefore that the Karuna engineered LTTE split was both horizontal and vertical. Militarily and politically, Prabhakaran was unwilling to deploy northern cadre to fight Karuna in the East. He preferred to send in Eastern cadre for the job because they knew the terrain and the political fallout would have been less risky. The phenomenon of Northern fighters battling and killing Eastern cadre could alienate the entire East from the North.

Thus Senior Batticaloa leaders who defected to Kilinochchi after Karuna’s rebellion were appointed “legitimate” Eastern Tiger leaders by Prabhakaran. Ramesh replaced Karuna and was made the special commander for both Amparai and Batticaloa. Ram was made the military commander and Praba the deputy military commander. Ramanan was appointed military intelligence chief and Kausalyan appointed as the political commissar.

Karuna’s Re-shuffle

With the defections of some of his senior deputies, Karuna too re-shuffled his senior officials. Rabat was appointed the senior military commander. Jim Kelly Thatha and Visu were appointed deputy military chief and political commissar respectively. Thurai became the new administrative head and Nilavini the women’s brigade commander. Premini was appointed the women’s political wing head .Bawa was the new Amparai district head.

Of the 7,500 Eastern cadre, 5,700 were in Batticaloa and Amparai at the time of the split while 1800 were in the Wanni. Karuna had two divisions of the Jeyanthan brigade under his command. He also had the Visalagan and Vinothan men’s brigades, the Anbarasi and Mathana women’s brigades, and the Johnson artillery unit under his command. Eastern officer cadre who passed out from the Balendra officers training college were beholden to Karuna.

“Col” Karuna also had an impressive arsenal of heavy artillery. Initially these big guns were moved into the East to pound the Batticaloa town camp, the Veechukalmunai-Pudoor complex, and the Vavunatheevu and Kallady camps if war broke out. Now they wee mounted to the south of Trincomalee in anticipation of a Tiger strike.

Verugal River

It was well-known that LTTE supremo Prabhakaran was depending on Sornam, the senior commander from Trincomalee, to lead the invasion into Batticaloa when the time was ripe. Sornam was camped along the northern banks of the Verugal river in Trincomalee district. The crocodile-infested river demarcates Batticaloa and Trincomalee districts. Karuna deployed about 800 cadre in the Maavadichenai sector to prevent an invasion across Verugal. The defenders were commanded by Karuna’s brother Sivanesathurai alias Reggie. The 120 mm and 122 mm long-range artillery was also placed south of Verugal rivers as a deterrent.

In addition, Karuna’s cadre also patrolled the shores along Vaaharai, Kaluwankerny, Panichankerny and other coastal areas anticipating a sea-borne invasion. The three Eastern Tiger coastal camps of Vaaharai, Paalchenai and Challaitheevu were also under Karuna’s control. Key highways and trunk roads coming into the district were also monitored and suspect vehicles and passengers checked. Key roads in the interior were also patrolled and checked regularly.

Karuna feaed infiltration by Intelligence chief Pottu Amman’s men. Large-scale invasion through clandestine routes were also anticipated. All three routes of the famous “Beirut trail” linking the North and the East via jungles were also watched. Apparently, Karuna hoped then to keep Batticaloa “sealed” as long as possible.

“Pressure Tactic”

Karuna also expelled several people closely connected to the LTTE. He closed down LTTE run courts, police stations, tax offices, intelligence offices and administrative units. The Northern Tamils manning them were sent away. In the process, several Jaffna academics and students in the Batticaloa Eastern University also had to go away. Several Jaffna traders and a few professionals were also intimidated and chased away. Many others left Batticaloa out of fear. Karuna justified this forced exit as a “pressure tactic” to influence the LTTE in the Wanni. However, such moves created a rift between the Northern and Eastern Tamils in the east then


Meanwhile the mainstream LTTE used every counter-propaganda tactic to vilify and discredit Karuna. Among the charges levelled against him were corruption, misappropriation of funds, illicit sexual liaisons with senior women Tiger leaders, internal killings and torture, sending wife and children safely to Malaysia, involvement with an external force, conspiring with the Colombo government, selling out Tamil nationalism, being a cat’s paw of those seeking to break up North-East unity and so on.

The LTTE game plan seemed to be that of waiting and undermining Karuna through this type of propaganda. If more and more Eastern cadre believed this propaganda and got alienated from Karuna, his position would be weakened. The Eastern people too would turn against him. Under such circumstances, it would be easier to destroy Karuna and also contain a regional backlash.

Realising the dangers of the LTTE campaign against him, Karuna began acting accordingly to counter it. Although Karuna had received the sympathy of the international, Sinhala and English media, the Tamil press in Colombo and Jaffna was hostile. Tamil newspapers were generally supportive of the mainstream LTTE and published the anti-Karuna propaganda dished out by the LTTE.

Information Embargo

Enraged Karuna supporters burnt copies of the Virakesari, Thinakkural and Sudar Oli and “banned” these newspapers in Batticaloa. Karuna used the four-page Tamil daily “Thamil Alai” to propagate his point of view in Batticaloa and Amparai. Karuna’s idea was to prevent information unfavourable to him from being provided to the people of Batticaloa and promote his own line. This was not an easy task given the reach of radio, television and electronic mail. Yet Karuna persisted in trying to embargo information then

General elections were held on April 2, 2004 and a new Parliament including 22 TNA members was elected. It was now obvious that the long awaited Tiger vs. Tiger confrontation in the East would occur soon. When would D-day dawn on the eastern horizon was the multi-million-rupee question.

It came exactly a week after elections on April 9. Few people would have thought that the LTTE would pick April 9, 2004 to begin the attack, as it was Good Friday. The possibility of the LTTE launching an attack on Good Friday and hurting Christian sentiments seemed improbable. But the LTTE obviously ignored this and used the element of surprise to its advantage

“Good Friday” Attack

The LTTE’s “Good Friday” attack resulted in much bloodshed and great loss of life. Hundreds of Eastern Tamil youths were brutally massacred in the fratricidal war. Karuna’s eastern rebellion was crushed. These matters will be related in detail in a forthcoming article.(ENDS)

D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at dbsjeyaraj@yahoo.com

This Article appears under a different heading in the “DBS Jeyaraj Column” of the “Daily Mirror”dated 23 March 2024.It can be accessed here –