Sri Lanka

Karikalan Grasps the Olive Branch

Peace demonstration Sri Lanka
Demonstrators in Colombo march in support of the Sri Lankan peace initiative, Sept. 9, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

Some say he is the next in line after Velupillai Pirapaharan, the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a group that has been waging a separatist war in Sri Lanka for the past two decades. But if looks are deceiving, Karikalan, the Tigers’ special leader for the eastern region, is a prime example. As I met him for the second time in the volatile eastern town of Batticaloa, the stocky round-faced man flashed an innocent smile offering me a cordial welcome. Nothing in his appearance suggested that he was a cold-blooded killer, as many believe.

When I first met him in May at his headquarters in the LTTE-controlled town of Kokkadicholai, he had a pistol holstered at his waist. This time, on government-held territory, Karikalan was unarmed, in accordance with the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed between the government and the LTTE in February. Dressed in a plain white shirt and trousers, Karikalan was strictly obeying the MOU. He had no choice. In its sixth month now, the MOU has survived numerous violations, many of them serious; it is the longest cease-fire in the history of the conflict.

Speaking on behalf of the LTTE, Karikalan said: “Even though all the clauses signed in the understanding are not taking place in its stipulated time, there is hope because it is slowly being implemented at its own pace.”

Karikalan has himself suffered numerous blows since the signing of the MOU. Until recently, he was the leader of the LTTE’s political wing for the eastern areas of Batticaloa and Ampara. But after he gave an interview in April in which he reportedly expressed the desire of young Tamils to reclaim land taken by Muslims, Pirapaharan stripped him of his title and gave him the ambiguous designation of “Special Leader of the East.”

Like many LTTE supporters from the east, Karikalan is generally regarded as a hard-liner. Tamils from eastern Sri Lanka usually come from more deprived backgrounds than do their counterparts in the north. He explains his reasons for giving up a public-service job and joining the LTTE in 1985: “In the ’83 riots [that touched off the current conflict], Tamils were hacked to death in a train one day. Tamils were searched. I was involved many times in situations like this. So I decided that we had to overcome this situation for a permanent solution through a struggle.”

The Sri Lankan conflict has been played out in different ways in the north and in the east. While the north is home almost exclusively to Tamils, the east has a mixed population of Muslims, Tamils, and some Sinhalese. Clashes among Tamils and Muslims have resulted in some of the worst massacres, but both groups continue to live in superficial harmony simply because their lives are intertwined.

After clashes between the two groups broke out in June, Rauf Hakeem, leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, called for amendments to the MOU. Karikalan said that the LTTE could not support Hakeem’s request because both Pirapaharan and Hakeem had agreed to a statement on how the two communities should implement the MOU. And, according to the MOU, the LTTE and the government must consent to any amendment.

Speaking of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), whose job it is to monitor the cease-fire, Karikalan said, “There are certain controversies, as the monitoring mission is pointing out issues not mentioned in the MOU. We point out this to them through discussion and try to find solutions.” The LTTE’s track record, however, is far from perfect. The Tigers have committed more violations of the MOU than has the government. The most serious of these incidents occurred in July, when two members of the SLMM were forcibly held on an LTTE boat off the coast of Jaffna.

Cases of abductions, extortions, and child recruitment, although denied by the LTTE, are still widespread. For its part, the government has been late in fulfilling its obligations under the agreement, which required troops under its control to vacate the schools and religious sites that they were occupying.

Sri Lankans remain skeptical about the prospects for peace, given the history of the conflict and reports that the LTTE remains engaged in arms smuggling and recruitment of fighters. “The military wing will remain as it is but to expand our political wing, we are recruiting new warriors,” said Karikalan. “So we are opening offices in all parts [of the northern and eastern sections of the country] and are mingling with the people.” But what will happen to armed LTTE cadres when peace comes? “When we are planning for an interim government, there will be a police force to maintain law and order, so the trained cadres would do that work.”

Some extremist nationalist groups frown upon the idea of an interim government, claiming it to be the first step in establishing an independent Tamil state. But “there is a lot of opposition to the Sinhalese extremist groups who oppose the process,” Karikalan said, and he is right. “The majority of the Sinhalese-speaking people want a peaceful environment and believe that this should last.” Karikalan offers assurances that the different communities would not have to undergo the same oppression they experienced. “Since we were oppressed, we won’t dare to oppress another minority, whatever may come.”

The plans for an interim government will be high on the agenda of the upcoming peace talks. The talks were to take place in July but were postponed until August. They are now set for September. “It’s in the hands of the government to usher in a peaceful environment,” said Karikalan. “If we are called for peace talks tomorrow, we are ready to go, provided the ban is lifted and all the terms and conditions in the MOU are implemented. Since the terms in the MOU are delayed, the peace talks are also delayed.”

Karikalan said he didn’t know who would attend the peace talks on behalf of the LTTE, but he ruled out the LTTE’s acceptance of a temporary lifting of the ban on the Tigers, which Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe hinted at earlier.

“We have not asked for temporary lifting of the ban,” he said. “We have asked for complete lifting of the ban on the LTTE.” Laughing, he added, “If the talks are aimed at a permanent solution, then the government has to lift the ban permanently.”

A permanent “de-proscription” of the LTTE would be a big step for the government, because international relations are crucial to both parties for resolving the conflict. The LTTE is banned in India, the United States, and elsewhere.

Y. Gopalasamy, commonly known as Vaiko, the secretary-general of Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, a political party in Tamil Nadu, India, was arrested under India’s Prevention of Terrorism Act in early August for making statements in support of the LTTE. The LTTE has been implicated in the 1991 assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, India’s former prime minister.

“Vaiko is a lover of Tamil Eelam [the Tamil name of the Tamil homeland],” said Karikalan. “He goes around the world and justifies our struggle. His arrest is a big injustice for the Tamils in Sri Lanka.”

Whatever barriers may have arisen, the two sides are cooperating to keep the peace. Whether it was a tactical move by the parties to the peace process or a real sign of amity, there was a rare public display of good will in mid-July: Karikalan and Maj. Gen. Sunil Tennekoon, the eastern commander of the army, previously bitter enemies, rode side-by-side on a bus at a road opening. For the public, it was a humbling sight of a man who many fear.

Why did he do it? “We want to prove that we (the LTTE and the army) like and want peace. When we move around like this and people see it, they also will start to accept each other,” said Karikalan.