Karuna and the killing of 2,000-3,000 soldiers in one night at Elephant Pass

Wednesday, 24 June 2020 00:05 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The crux of the matter is that, whatever his LTTE past, the subsequent contribution made by Karuna in the annihilation of the Tigers is far greater than those of his critics in politics. Even if what he boasted about was true, what he did then as a Tiger is far outweighed by his role in fighting the Tigers


Vinayagamoorthi Muraleetharan alias “Karuna Amman” a.k.a. “Col” Karuna is currently very much in the news. 

The former Eastern Regional Leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) who broke away from the LTTE in 2004 and collaborated with the Sri Lankan armed forces in combatting the Veluppillai Prabhakaran-led Tigers appears to be in trouble today due to shooting his mouth off at an election meeting. 

The LTTE’s eastern warlord’s defection along with thousands of cadres weakened the Tigers considerably then. Furthermore, the information and assistance provided by Karuna and his band of erstwhile Eastern Tigers was of immense value to the Sri Lankan armed forces in their fight against the LTTE at that time. 

Yet, all that seems forgotten today as many voices bay for Karuna’s blood over a provocative statement he allegedly made where he reportedly claimed to have killed 2,000-3,000 soldiers in one night at Elephant Pass.

SLFP denounces Karuna

Several Opposition politicians condemned the statement purportedly made by Karuna. Much of the indignation and condemnation emanating from Opposition party circles over Karuna’s statement was actually aimed at the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) Government. It is widely believed that Karuna is aligned politically to the Rajapaksas and would most likely join the SLPP Government after elections if elected. 

Both President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa have constantly proclaimed that the SLPP Government will give pride of place to the ‘Ranaviru’ or ‘War Heroes’. Now one of their political allies was boasting about killing thousands of soldiers. What was the SLPP response going to be? In the face of a combined onslaught by Opposition politicians against Karuna, the SLPP denounced him and distanced the party from his reported statement. 

With criticism mounting on multiple fronts and even the SLPP disowning Karuna, the authorities were compelled to respond in some manner. Acting Inspector General of Police Chandana Wickramaratne ordered the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) to launch an investigation into the incident where Karuna had reportedly made a statement claiming to have killed thousands of soldiers at Elephant Pass. 

Police Spokesman Jaliya Senaratne told the media that the CID had summoned Vinayagamoorthi Muraleetharan to record a statement from him on 23 June. What happens thereafter would very much depend on the statement to be recorded from Karuna. 

What then happened? What did Karuna Amman really say and why did he say it? In order to understand what has happened, it is very necessary to comprehend the political context in which Muraleetharan known as Karuna Amman (Karuna was Muraleetharan’s nom de guerre in the LTTE while the suffix Amman meaning uncle is a form of respect) made his controversial utterance. 

Karuna and politics

After splitting from the LTTE in 2004, Karuna formed his own political party called ‘Thamizh Makkal Viduthalaipp Puligal’ (TMVP) which aligned itself with the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa at that time. Subsequently Karuna was ousted by his Chief Deputy Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan alias Pillaiyan who went on to become Eastern Province Chief Minister.

Karuna who went to Britain – to join his wife and three children – using a diplomatic passport obtained under another name, was arrested, detained, convicted and deported back to Sri Lanka. Thereafter the Rajapaksa regime prevailing at that time embraced Karuna warmly and rewarded him in many ways. 

Karuna was first appointed UPFA National List MP in October 2008. Thereafter in March 2009 Karuna was sworn in as Minister of National Integration in the Mahinda Government. In April 2009 he joined the SLFP with 1,750 people and was made a Vice-President of the SLFP then headed by Mahinda Rajapaksa. After the 2010 Parliamentary Poll, Karuna was appointed National List MP again and made Deputy Minister of Rehabilitation.

Karuna did not contest polls in 2015. His sister contested on the UPFA ticket in Batticaloa and lost. Karuna himself resigned from the SLFP after the party came under the sway of Maithripala Sirisena. He formed the ‘Thamizhar Aikkiya Suthanthira Munnani’ (Tamil United Freedom Front) in 2017 that was aligned to the Rajapaksas. Karuna’s TUFF canvassed for Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the 2019 Presidential Election. 

When the 2020 Parliamentary Elections were announced, former TNA Batticaloa District MP Viyalendran who defected to the short-lived Mahinda Rajapaksa-Maithripala Sirisena Government of 2018 was made chief candidate of the SLPP list for Batticaloa. Unwilling to play second fiddle to Viyalendran, Karuna tried to accommodate his wife on the ‘Pohottuwa’ list for Batticaloa. This was agreed upon first and later refused.

An aggrieved Karuna then fielded an independent group headed by his wife Vithiyavathi Muraleetharan for Batticaloa District which has a 72% Tamil population. Karuna himself moved to adjoining Amparai District that has a 19% Tamil population. He is the chief candidate on the Amparai District list of the ‘Ahila Ilankai Thamizh Maha Sabha’ (All Ceylon Greater Tamil Council).

Given the demographics of the district only one Tamil candidate has a chance of being elected. That too if Tamil votes are not fragmented too much. 

The TNA contesting under the House symbol of the Ilankai Thamil Arasuk Katchi (ITAK) has been elected from Amparai in several past elections. The TNA chief candidate in Amparai is Kaveendran Kodeeswaran who was MP from 2015 to 2020. It soon became apparent that the fight for a solitary Tamil seat in Amparai district was between the TNA and the ACTMS. 

The ‘corona’ statement

It is against this backdrop that Karuna’s recent statement has to be viewed. As is well known the COVID-19 pandemic is the biggest danger facing the world in general and Sri Lanka in particular. The pandemic is generally referred to as ‘corona’ among the people. The names Karuna and Corona rhyme in a way. So it was but natural for TNA activists to pun on the words. What irked Karuna in this instance was a statement by Krishnapillai Jeyacyril, the TNA Chairman of the Karaitheevu Pradeshiya Sabha. Jeyacyril had said in Tamil “Karuna was more ‘kodiya’ (deadly, dangerous, cruel, nefarious) than corona”.

Karuna responded to this at a meeting held in Naavithanveli on 19 June. The audio clip that I heard of Karuna’s statement was on the ‘Colombo Gazette’ website. Karuna who appeared to be in high spirits addressed the audience in his customary Batticaloa Tamil dialect. What Karuna said was that Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa had offered to nominate him as a National List MP but he had declined it saying he was grateful for having been nominated National list MP twice before. However he wanted to enter Parliament with a people’s mandate this time. After winning he would join the Rajapaksa Government.

Speaking further Karuna referred to the statement by the Karaitheevu Pradeshiya Sabha Chairman who had said he was more deadly than corona. Karuna replied in lighter vein that what the Chairman had said was correct because he (Karuna) was indeed more dangerous than corona. “The corona had killed only nine persons in Sri Lanka so far, but we killed 2,000 to 3,000 Army in one night alone at ‘Anai Iravu’ (Elephant Pass). So what he (Jeyacyril) said was correct,” chuckled Karuna.

It is obvious therefore that Karuna was only responding to a comparison made between him and the corona pandemic and was trying in a puerile manner to score brownie points in the “debate”. What is interestingly relevant in this is that Karuna’s response about killing thousands of soldiers in one night at Elephant Pass was factually incorrect. I say this because I had extensively reported on the war in those days for publications in Sri Lanka and India.

The Elephant Pass battle

The decisive Aanai Iravu battle where the LTTE overran the military camp in Elephant Pass was in April 2000. At that time Karuna was in the LTTE. When he says “we” killed, the “we” he means is the LTTE. He was the LTTE Military Commander for the Batticaloa and Amparai Districts then. It is true that Karuna and the Jeyanthan infantry brigade raised in the east were deployed in the Wanni during the ‘Operation Jayasikurui’ (Certain Victory) offensive by the armed forces in the 1997-’98 period. 

In fact it was Karuna’s military acumen and the sacrifices of the eastern youths which turned the tide in the Jayasikurui phase. After thwarting the offensive, Karuna and his cadres played a significant role in the LTTE counter-offensive codenamed ‘Oyatha Alaigal’ or ‘Unceasing Waves’. The LTTE regained the territory from Oddusuddan to Omanthai that was captured by the Army through Operation Jayasikurui.

Karuna then returned to the east triumphantly and set about consolidating and expanding LTTE control in the hinterland regions of the east. Though several eastern cadres remained in the Wanni and participated in the Elephant Pass fighting. There is no record of Karuna playing a prominent part in the three-phased military campaign conducted by the LTE to capture Elephant Pass.

The first stage of the LTTE Elephant Pass campaign was launched on 11 December 1999. The camps at Vettilaikerny and Kattaikadu on the east coast and Pullaveli to the north of Elephant Pass were taken in a land-sea joint campaign. An unsuccessful assault was conducted on the western flanks of Iyakachchi, but no direct attack was launched on the main base at Elephant Pass. With the fall of Vettilaikerny, Kattaikadu and Pullaveli, the land-sea supply routes to Elephant Pass were cut off, and the only way through was along the A-9 Highway from Chavakachcheri. 

The second stage of the LTTE campaign, a multi-pronged assault, unfolded on 26 March 2000. A joint operation led by Vasanthan of the Charles Anthony Infantry Division and Veerendran of the Sea Tigers took control of the Chembiyanpattru-Maruthankerny-Thalaiady complex that housed the 3rd Operational Headquarters on the Vadamaratchy east coast. The Army then vacated the camps at Maamunai and Amban; the soldiers relocated to positions to the west of the lagoon. 

A contingent led by the LTTE’s Deputy Military Chief Balraj then took a swathe of the Jaffna-Kandy Road between Pallai and Eluthumattuvaal. These included the areas around Arasakerni, Ithavil, Indrapuram, Muhamaalai and Kovil Kadu. With this, the LTTE effectively cut off the main road link between the Elephant Pass/Iyakachchi camps and Jaffna. On 10 April the armed forces recaptured a major portion of the road but failed to dislodge the Tigers completely.

The third and decisive stage of the LTTE campaign was played out around noon on Tuesday, 18 April. A ‘Leopard’ Commando raid saw the LTTE take control of the Maruthankerny causeway, which enabled it to proceed westwards on the Maruthankerny-Puthukadu Junction road, which links the east coast and the A-9 highway. The Puthukadu Junction is between Iyakachchi and Pallai. The LTTE proceeded along the southern areas of Muhavil, Soranpattru and Maasaar, after demolishing a 40-foot bund put up by the army as a defence measure. 

The Tigers headed south on the A-9 Highway and reached the northern sector of the Iyakachchi camp. In effect, Elephant Pass and Iyakachchi were marooned. Thereafter, the LTTE mounted a fierce attack on the Iyakachchi camp from Kovil Vayal and Sangathaar Vayal. As the fighting intensified, the Tiger cadres to the southeast of Elephant Pass broke through and began assailing the camp. The Victor armoured and Kittu artillery units led by Bhanu pounded the base and inched forward. The telecommunication tower in the Elephant Pass base was damaged; all telephone lines to the north were severed.

At a critical juncture the bulk of LTTE cadres led by Balraj abandoned the A-9 Highway and joined the fighting around Iyakachchi after setting up two ‘cut out’ posts to the north of Pallai and south of Eluthumattuvaal to prevent an army advancement. Heavy fighting in and around Iyakachchi began on 20 April. The Tigers positioned themselves to the south of the camp and cut it off from Elephant Pass.

Iyakachchi fell on 21 April. The LTTE entered the camp and destroyed ammunition dumps and buildings. Thereafter, the theatre of war shifted to Elephant Pass. 

The LTTE advanced on Elephant Pass from the north, northeast and southeast. There was heavy exchange of fire. Faced with an acute shortage of drinking water, the Army began to move out. By 11:30 a.m. on April 22, the large garrison at Elephant Pass ‘vacated’ it. The LTTE marched in at 2:30 p.m. the same day. The Tiger flag was hoisted on 23 April.

Defence Ministry sources then estimated that over 1,000 LTTE cadres were killed in the three phases of fighting from 11 December 1999. The LTTE claimed that only 303 of its cadres were killed, including 35 casualties in the final battle for Elephant Pass. The Tigers further claimed that over 1,000 soldiers were killed; the Army, however, said that only 80 of its men were killed and over 100 were missing in action. Subsequently the Tigers returned through the Red Cross the bodies of 126 soldiers, of which 28 were identified. Thereafter the Defence Ministry revised its casualty toll gradually but at no stage did the number of deaths exceed 1,000. 

The above details of the Elephant Pass battles are related here to emphasise that Karuna was not being truthful when he boasted of killing 2,000 to 3,000 soldiers in one night at Elephant Pass. Firstly, the Elephant Pass battle was not a one-night affair. It was a protracted campaign phased out in three stages for over five months. Secondly, the death toll of the Army, though high, did not reach four digits. Thirdly, and most importantly, there is no record of Karuna being involved in the final days of fighting at Elephant Pass. In fact it was not Karuna but Bhanu who ceremoniously raised the Tiger flag in Elephant Pass after the battle was over.

So Karuna has made a boastful assertion that he was more dangerous than corona because he had killed 2,000-3,000 soldiers in one night at Elephant Pass. This was part of his electioneering. However, this claim is factually wrong. To put it politely, Karuna is guilty of terminological inexactitudes. What is the action that can be taken against a Parliamentary Election candidate who boasts dishonestly while speaking at a political meeting?

Services to the State

There is however an important point that needs to be mentioned in this regard. It was well-known that Karuna while being in the LTTE killed many policemen, security force personnel and civilians. However, all that was ‘forgotten’ when he defected from the LTTE and collaborated with the armed forces. It was the service he rendered to the Sri Lankan State in defeating the Tigers which made the Rajapaksa regime reward him with MP and minister posts. It even provided a diplomatic passport under another name for him to go to Britain to see his family. 

Many of the politicians shouting out now kept mum all these days about such matters. Even now nobody wants Karuna to be investigated for the civilian massacres he was allegedly responsible for. The UNP that was in power from 2015 to 2019 never bothered to take action against him for his past offences.

What this means is that despite Karuna’s LTTE past and dirty track record, the services he rendered to the Sri Lankan State and armed forces after his defection are immeasurable in value. It was the information he provided that helped to identify and eliminate the Tiger intelligence operatives and sleeper cells in Colombo and other southern areas. More importantly it was the insight he provided into the psychology of Tiger leaders including Prabhakaran and his revelations about the LTTE war-planning strategies and battlefield tactics that helped the armed forces immensely in devising effective battle plans of their own. Karuna and his cadres also engaged in many alleged human rights violations when collaborating with the Sri Lankan armed forces against the LTTE, particularly in the final stages of the war.

The crux of the matter is that, whatever his LTTE past, the subsequent contribution made by Karuna in the annihilation of the Tigers is far greater than those of his critics in politics. Even if what he boasted about was true, what he did then as a Tiger is far outweighed by his role in fighting the Tigers.

Moreover, these are times when there is an international outcry that alleged war crimes committed during the war should be investigated. These have been resisted by the past Rajapaksa Government as well as the present one. In that context, an investigation into the alleged war crimes of Karuna nationally may very well lead to a situation where a veritable Pandora’s Box could be opened internationally. 

(D.B.S. Jeyaraj can be reached at [email protected])

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