By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, Feb. 10 -- Dressed in their Sri Lankan army fatigues and clutching automatic assault rifles, a half-dozen bodyguards fanned out over the lawn of a seaside hotel to form a ring of security for their client: Karuna Amman, formerly a top commander in this country's rebel army.
Colonel Karuna, his nom de guerre, was widely seen as the second most powerful figure in the now-beleaguered Tamil Tigers rebel group, also known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which has waged a 25-year uprising for a separate homeland for Sri Lanka's ethnic Tamil minority. He broke ranks five years ago and joined Sri Lanka's government, taking at least 6,000 troops with him, he says.
Known across this Indian Ocean island nation as the "Tiger Who Lost his Stripes," Karuna, 42, sees himself as one of the architects of the Tamil Tigers' expected demise. The Sri Lankan army has taken one rebel-held town after another and appears closer to winning the war than at almost any time since the insurgency began in 1983.
"All the world knows that without me, they couldn't win the war," said the stocky, mustached renegade, whose real name is Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan. He wore a yellow pinstriped shirt and gray slacks during a rare interview at a heavily guarded hotel on the outskirts of Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital. "I know all the hideouts and tactics," he said. "And without my manpower, the Tigers lost their grip. That's why I am world-famous."
Once a teenage bodyguard of the Tigers' elusive chief, Velupillai Prabhakaran, Karuna rose to become part of his inner circle, commanding forces in Sri Lanka's wild east, as its jungle terrain is known. Karuna later was credited with leading the Tigers' capture of the strategic Elephant Pass, an important military base in the Jaffna Peninsula, giving the rebels a firm grip on the island's northern tip.
Karuna, who was popular with the soldiers, said he showed his troops movies and documentaries of World War II battles, including the Stalingrad drama "Enemy at the Gates," which he had translated into Tamil, "for motivation." He studied the military tactics of Nazi Germany's Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, famous for his command of German troops in France and North Africa, he said.
During a two-hour interview this week, sitting among the banana palms on the hotel lawn, Karuna called Prabhakaran "a mad totalitarian who people think is an ironman, but he never even comes out to the battlefield." Karuna disapproved of Prabhakaran's use of suicide bombers, mainly because they often killed innocent bystanders.
"He turned our liberation movement into a terrorist movement," he said. "I grew to realize that a separate homeland was never going to happen. He just shouted at me and called me a traitor. I realized that peace and development were the only two important things."
Karuna said his conversion occurred while he was negotiating with the Sri Lankan government during several rounds of peace talks. Several Tamil Tiger news outlets, however, say that the real reason Karuna broke away was because of his alleged financial and personal misconduct. They called his defection a "temporary aberration."
Still, soon after breaking ranks, Karuna began fighting alongside government forces against the Tigers, helping the security forces recapture parts of the eastern region in 2007.
Sri Lankan army officials played down Karuna's role as a tactical adviser, but the country's military spokesman did say that they gained an important tactical advantage when Karuna split with Prabhakaran, dividing the rebel army.
"Karuna coming into the mainstream certainly showed the fighters under him that their leader could become part of the political process," said Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara, the military spokesman. "That did send a message."
Karuna was recently appointed a member of Parliament, supported by President Mahinda Rajapaksa's ruling United People's Freedom Alliance, and he hopes to soon be given a minister post for developing Sri Lanka's east, where his family hails from.
In this deeply divided nation, Karuna is held up as an example of a way forward for a more inclusive government, which has offered amnesty and job training to Tamil Tigers who surrender.
"We will, in part, use the example of the east as a blueprint for resolving tensions in the north," said Palitha Kohona, Sri Lanka's foreign secretary. "We will also integrate Tamil speakers into government offices and as policemen. It will take time for the Tamil and Sinhala communities to be able to forget the past. But once you give equal economic incentive, the country has so much potential and is bound to take off."
But some doubt that Karuna is much of a role model for a united Sri Lanka.
He served nine months in jail in Britain in 2007 on charges of traveling with a forged passport. Amnesty International has questioned Karuna's appointment to Parliament, accusing him of war crimes, including torture. UNICEF and Human Rights Watch also accuse him of recruiting child soldiers, although Karuna denies all of those allegations.
"He's yet to prove that he's more than a renegade," said Mano Ganesan, a Tamil member of Parliament. "We don't know if this is just a big show. He will have to really prove himself as a reformed leader who really is a part of the democratic process and is looking out for the Tamil people."
The Tamil Tigers are fighting for a separate state for the nation's ethnic Tamil Hindu and Christian minorities after what they see as decades of marginalization at the hands of governments controlled by the Sinhalese Buddhist majority.
The conflict's roots stretch back to when the British colonized Sri Lanka with the help of Tamil administrators, giving Tamils, then about 15 percent of the population, political power far beyond their numbers. After independence in 1948, the Sinhalese gained back power, often with a nationalist program that Tamils say excluded them from government posts.
During recent fighting, the government and human rights groups have accused the Tamil Tigers of holding hundreds of thousands of civilians hostage to use as human shields against the government's offensive. The rebels deny the allegation and accuse the government of shelling civilians.
Karuna watches from his ever-shifting number of hideouts, since he constantly fears he will be murdered. He predicts that the end for the Tamil Tigers is near.
"When we were in the east, the people helped us with foods and medicines. Now the people totally hate the [Tigers] for using them as human shields. Now they have no community support," he said, leaning back in his plastic chair. "That's why they won't bounce back."