Regionalism: Fact or Fiction with reference to Karuna saga


" To all who are calling me traitor, I am saying I am proud; I am proud and happy to do what I did "
Mr. M. Vanunu, Whistleblower on the Israeli Nuclear Program, said on his release from Israeli prison after 18 years of imprisonment.

Is regionalism fact or fiction? It has been long said in Sri Lanka that there is distinction between the Udaratta Sinhalese and the Patharatta Sinhalese in terms of their geographical existence, cast and race. This difference has had no significant impact on life of the people of the two regions; Kandyan Ratwatta family had married into the Bandaranakyes in the South two generation ago. However the difference between the Northern and Eastern Tamils are explained as a kind of discrimination in terms of their unbalanced educational achievement and economical (development) growth. Above all, it is a sentiment of Northern dominance in every sphere of life style of the Eastern Tamils. Here a section of Eastern Tamils may have seen Karuna give vent to their innermost feeling of aversion to Northern dominance. This difference has been internally embedded in the social fabric of the Eastern Tamils for decades but Karuna has attempted to cast light on the issue with all his military credentials. This sentiment reflected long before in several anecdotes among the North and East Tamils. One of the modern Eastern Poets, the late Mr. V.Ananthan's verses reflected this sentiment some decades ago.

" Vantharai Val vaithu
Sontha Mannil Pirantharai
Sagadikkum Singaramana
Mattakkalappu Cheemayan
Vera Enna Siraippan"

The verse conveys the poet's loathing for the people of Batticaloa for being too generous to the "migrants" whilst "killing" the people who are born in their own soil. He is meant to have implicated the Northern Tamil migrants, especially the educated. Even during the time of armed struggle in 1995, Cho Ramasamy, the editor of "Thuklak" wrote in his 1-14 December Issue that "The Tamils living in the East do not accept Liberation Tigers". Nonetheless, this division has never surfaced or overshadowed the Tamil armed struggle although it intermittently reared its head in the political arena prior to the armed struggle.

Karuna's craving for regionalism was evident when he made a comment on the leadership of Mr. Hakeem. He told a foreign media after the LTTE's Paris meeting in 2003 that the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leader Rauf Hakeem was an outsider to the Muslims of the Eastern Province. He also suggested "The Muslim of the East want one of their people to be the leader". This attitude became quite clear when he wanted the East under his leadership rather than the single Wanni leadership.

Karuna and Muslims

Karuna, when questioned about the Muslims, after the Paris meeting, said, "that the LTTE would represent the Muslims too at the Talks with the government. Thereafter the LTTE would talk to the Muslims on their concerns". Karuna's comment asserted the overall view that the LTTE holds for decades with respect to the Muslims. When the writer happened to meet Col. Karuna in his LTTE office (Ironically, the house of former Batticaloa M P the late Mr. Rajan Selvanayagam, who was known to be an anti-North politician) in Battocaloa in July/August 1987; soon after the arrival of the IPKF, he told the writer, among other things, that "The LTTE would talk to the Muslims about their concerns". It was a brief meeting facilitated by the writer's friend, Mr. Venudas, Attorney-at-law. Mr. Venudas had discussed with the writer about the inclusion of the Muslims in the interim council administration in the North and East proposed to be set up in the end of 1987. As a man from Batticaloa, having had appreciation for M.A.C.A.Rahman (Former Chairman of Eravur Town Council), Y.L.M.A. Cader (Former Principal and a social worker) both of Eravur and Mr.Ahamed Lebbe, the former Chairman of Town Council of kattankudy, for their activities towards Tamil Muslims unity, Mr. Venudas endeavored to identify the political issues relating to Muslims and talked to the writer about engaging Muslim-Tamil community leaders in that process. He recognized the Muslim factor better than the other members of the LTTE political wing in Batticaloa. He also disclosed that he was to be nominated for the NE Interim Council in 1987. It was never materialized as the war broke out in October 1987 between the Tigers and the IPKF. He was later killed by the Sri Lankan army. We all know how the LTTE's guns and machetes "talked" to the Muslims in the East and the North, especially after the departure of the IPKF. Karuna has not changed his perception for over a decade even after the ethnic divide became more acute, nor has the LTTE's supremo V.Pirabaharan. In an interview to BBC (2 March 1993), when questioned about the LTTE's stand on Muslims, Mr. Pirabaharan said "We have to approach their problems on the basis that the Muslim people are an ethnic group possessing their cultural identity. We are of the view, that, while the identity and land rights to the Muslim people are preserved it is by living together with the Tamil people that their social, political and economic life will be enhanced. Sinhala and selfish Muslim politicians are attempting to promote differences between the Tamil and Muslim people". It is evident that the Tigers have not changed their strips.

Karuna's former junior Commander Ramesh re-confirmed the view of Karuna a few months before Karuna challenged the Wanni by stating that Muslims and Tamils are one. Sinhala politicians and some external forces are manipulating certain Muslim leaders to divide and weaken our struggle." The same Karuna later could not agree with the Northern Tamil leadership and disclaimed that they are "one" and interestingly leveled the same charge against the Wanni Leadership. This is what Karuna himself was accused of by the Wanni Leadership. Tit for tat!

Hakeem's leadership and regional politics

Hakeem has always reposed his confidence in Ranil Wickramsinghe and Pirabakaran whenever there were promises. Soon after the second round of Talks in Thailand Mr.Hakeem said that "Karuna has a lot of respect for Pirabaharan and Pirabaharan knows that Karuna's contribution on behalf of the Tigers, can not be ignored". It was the leader of the SLMC who jumps the gun by giving assurances to the Muslims and later justifies the events. As far as the Muslims of the East are concerned they always implicate Karuna and Karikalan in the massacres of Muslims in the East. According to Sri Lankan military intelligence sources Karuna was not in the East but in the Wanni during the time of the attacks on Kattankudy and Eravur Muslims. He was intercepted giving orders to his cadres in the East in relation to various "activities". The ex-intelligence officer, who talked to the writer, could not confirm whether Karuna made any explicit orders to carry out the Kattankudy and Eravur massacres but commented on his harsh orders and strong language. Karuna was code named "Kilo November" and his messages were monitored. Newton received orders from Karuna and Newton and Karikalan were in virtual control of the East.

The Muslims of the East have shown that they always welcome candidates from the south to represent them. Ferrial Ashroff and Rauff Hakeem have been elected in Digamadulla to represent the people of the regions although they come from Kandy. Ironically it is not possible for any Eastern Muslim to win elections in the South to represent the people of the South. There may be exemptions to this theory in the cosmopolitan capital, Colombo. In the past, Sir Markan Markar, Sir Razik Fareed and Dr Badiudeen Mahmud chose the East for their place of easy contest; thus depriving of the chances of local candidates being elected and creating rabbles among the locals. The writer remembers how money was distributed in the Batticaloa District by Marcan Markar's agents in the Batticaloa District to buy votes from the poor Batticaloa Muslims some forty years ago. Unlike most of the other southern candidates, Mr. Hakeem, has been the leader of the so-called national party of the Muslims since the death of Mr. Ashroff. He asserted that it was his discretion to choose his place of contest without consulting the constituents. This clearly indicated that he was arrogant and ignored the will of the people. But his victory in the 2004 elections proved that he could take the people of the East for granted.

Political Power Vs Political obedience

"One can not have political power without political obedience: one can not have strong government without a sense of national identification " An inquiry into the Human Prospect (Robert Heilbroner -1980)

This is the case for Karuna and Pirabaharan. If Karuna has represented the perception of the disgruntled and disobedient Tamil Easterners, what about the Muslims? Muslims will not be obedient to Pirabaharan or Karuna and will never agree to have a Tamil national identification. It is quite clear now that if the regional sentiment is ignored and not dealt with prudently it will re-emerge and strike again. Karuna's factor is a lesson for the Tigers to review their stand on Muslims who are in every aspect a distinctive ethnic group and nationality. The TNA's inclusion of three Muslim Parliamentary candidates for the 2004 general election was a "showbiz" strategy in which they attempted to portray positive Tamil-Muslim relations but they were not prepared to appoint a single Muslim as their national list MP.

Muslims should realize that hard bargaining and complete diplomacy is essential to deal with the LITE and the government. Through the prism of the Tamil media locally and abroad the Karuna issue has become a sheer factor of traitorous claim of regionalism and embezzlement. Although Karuna is said to have retreated and gone into hiding, Karuna's saga has opened up the Pandora's box; exposing the child soldiers, stock piling of arms, political killings and the biased Tamil media mongers, let alone justifying the claim to ethno-regionalism by Muslims. For the Eastern Tamils the question is whether Karuna is a Zombie. Whereas for the Muslims, the question is whether Karuna is only another species of the Tigers.

"You came at me with anything, we came back with the truth"
Michael Moore - Director of the anti- war film Fahrenheit 9/11

Lines August 2004

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