He symbolised hope

Print edition : January 12, 2007

Anton Balasingham's death comes at a time when the situation appears ominous and the East is all set for a bloody battle.

B. MURALIDHAR REDDY in Colombo

ANTON BALASINGHAM, who was the negotiator and political strategist of the LTTE.-DOMINIC FAVRE/FILES/REUTERS

THE demise of Anton S. Balasingham, the best-known international face of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), in London on December 14 has generated much debate. By virtue of his close association with LTTE chief Velupillai Prabakaran for nearly three decades and his dogged pursuit of the LTTE cause, Balasingham had created a niche for himself in the monolithic outfit.

It is no mean achievement for a `non-fighter' to emerge as one of the influential voices of the Tigers, for whom violence is the ideology to achieve their ends. There was nothing unexpected about Balasingham's death; the inevitable was known two months ago when he was diagnosed with a rare form of incurable cancer. Yet, political and diplomatic commentators have not stopped speculating on the repercussions of his absence on the Sri Lanka conflict in general and the conduct of the LTTE in particular.

Described variously as the `chief negotiator', the `ideologue', `the most credible voice' and the `moderate among the hardliners' of the Tigers, Balasingham, or Bala, symbolised hope for the international community and the moderate sections of Sri Lankan society - hope that engagement with the LTTE is a productive exercise and some day it will see that there is no reason or logic in the pipedream called Eelam and reconcile itself to a settlement within a united Sri Lanka.

Balasingham reinforced the hope with the judicious use of his moderating influence on Prabakaran from time to time. This was best evident in what came to be known as the Oslo Communiqu of 2002. Ostensibly at the behest of Balasingham, the Tigers for the first time committed themselves to exploring the possibility of a solution within a united Sri Lanka. Of course, it is another story that the LTTE went back to its original position on Eelam in June 2006.

In Oslo, on December 5, 2002, Balasingham and his government counterpart G.L. Peiris agreed that the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government would explore solutions within a federal model. An official statement issued by the Norwegian government said: "Responding to a proposal by the leadership of the LTTE, the parties agreed to explore a solution founded on the principle of internal self-determination in areas of historical habitation of the Tamil-speaking peoples, based on a federal structure within a united Sri Lanka."

By all accounts, the credit for the U-turn by the LTTE on its article of faith goes entirely to Balasingham. Even assuming that Prabakaran agreed to the shift for tactical reasons, it was an extraordinary development and none other than Balasingham could have prevailed upon the LTTE supremo on a subject so dear to his heart.

A stellar quality of Bala, despite all the spin he gave to the various twists and turns of the LTTE's campaign, was his own straightforwardness and honesty. The best compliment on this trait of his came from Eric Solheim, the International Development Minister of Norway who has been in the thick of the Sri Lanka peace process for nearly six years now. "I met so many other people in the peace process in Sri Lanka, of all communities. But I have to say that Bala is one of the very very few people who never lied to me in this peace process," said Solheim, addressing the crowd assembled in Alexandra Palace in London to pay respects to Anton Balasingham.

"He is one of the very very few people with such an understanding of the world, knowing a lot about Sri Lanka and the Tamils' struggle there, but also with a profound understanding of how the rest of the world is working, which is of great importance. For a long period of time, I came to London every week, speaking with Bala, having his point of view about how the peace process could be moved forward; having his analysis of the situation in Sri Lanka; also exchanging my view and also what we have heard from the Government of Sri Lanka about their positions," Solheim told the gathering.

The rebel commander of the Tigers, Karuna, in local press interviews echoed the sentiments expressed by Solheim, though his statements have to be taken with a pinch of salt.

"Balasingham really believed the problem could be solved through negotiations, but it was all in vain because Prabakaran had other ideas. Both of them had several arguments and Balasingham often ended up cutting short his trips to the Vanni because of the arguments he had with Prabakaran," Karuna was quoted as saying in a local daily on December 4.

There is enough evidence to suggest that the Oslo Communiqu did not go down well with the hardliners in the LTTE and led to the sidelining of Balasingham by the leadership since the Tigers pulled out of the negotiations with the Ranil Wickremesinghe government in 2003. The charge against Bala was that he had made the organisation give up the Eelam demand.

Prabakaran awarded the title `Voice of Nation' to Balasingham posthumously, but the Tiger supremo had more often than not made it a point to make sure that Balasingham's voice was contradicted. This was best illustrated in the series of LTTE rebuffs on Balasingham's statements made this year on the Rajiv Gandhi assassination during an interview to New Delhi Television (NDTV).

"We call upon the Government of India and people of India to be magnanimous to put the past behind and to approach the ethnic question in a different perspective," he said in the interview. The assassination was "a great tragedy, a monumental historical tragedy", he said.

It was an effort to reach out to India at a juncture when the Tigers were facing increased international isolation and the Sri Lankan government was turning on the heat through its rigorous military campaign. However, the very next day LTTE spokesman Daya Master told The Hindu that the Tigers neither owned responsibility nor apologised for the assassination.

In the post-Balasingham phase, the LTTE will find it more difficult to sell its postulates to the international community. This will also mean that the international facilitators and the Sri Lankan government will have to negotiate directly with the decision-makers in the Vanni on how to move out of entrenched positions. The task appears more difficult given the volatile cocktail of unending militarism and hardened political talk.

Balasingham's death has occurred at a time when the situation appears ominous. With the virtual declaration of war by Prabakaran, the belligerent mood in Colombo and the marginalisation of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) and Norway, the East is all set for a bloody battle in the coming days and weeks with disastrous consequences to civilians caught in the crossfire.

The taste of things to come was evident in the second week of December in the killings of civilians in villages close to the border between government- and LTTE-controlled areas. Estimates suggest that about 50,000 civilians are caught in the conflict. The Mahinda Rajapaksa government, on its part, appears to be tying itself into knots. The sequence of events leading from the `Heroes' Day' declaration of Prabakaran on November 27 - that Sinhala duplicity has left Tamils with little option but to pursue the goal of Eelam - best illustrates the point.

The government's immediate response was to dismiss the speech as of no consequence. However, the daring daylight attempt on the life of Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa, a retired military officer of the Sri Lanka Army and the President's brother, in the heart of Colombo on December 1 by an LTTE suicide bomber changed everything.

LTTE SUPREMO VELUPILLAI PRABAKARAN, his wife Mathi Wathani and senior LTTE leaders pay their respects to Balasingham on December 21 at an undisclosed location in northern Sri Lanka.-LTTE HANDOUT/AFP

The President presided over a Cabinet meeting to consider a possible ban on the Tigers. In the face of sharp differences within the Cabinet, the meeting was postponed until December 4 to reconsider the issue. The regime did not stop there. The visiting Norwegian Special Envoy Jon Hanssen-Bauer was told his proposed visit to the LTTE headquarters would not have the government's approval. The reason professed was that the government was reviewing its `relations' with the LTTE. Implied in the directive was the suggestion of a drastic change in the government policy of engagement with the Tigers through the Norwegians and the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement.

The damage was compounded by the clumsy manner in which the government sought to articulate the Cabinet's response to the Tiger challenge. To a question at the briefing to explain the Cabinet decisions on whether the LTTE qualified to be a terrorist outfit under the revised definition on terrorism, the immediate response of Nimal Siripala de Silva, the Chief Negotiator of the government and Minister of Health Care and Nutrition, was, "Yes, by all means."

Much to the disbelief of journalists, De Silva's answer was met with a resounding "no" from a group of over a dozen Ministers, including Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, on the dais. It was left to Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera (who reportedly argued vehemently in the Cabinet meeting against a ban on the LTTE) to point out that Sri Lanka had been down that road in 1998. The term `terrorism' was re-defined by borrowing from some of the provisions of the dreaded Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), suspended after the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement, but for obvious reasons the government did not want to advertise it as it would be in violation of the agreement.

However, the same night, in his address to the nation, Rajapaksa referred to the PTA and said in so many words that it was being re-introduced to deal with the Tiger menace. The subsequent visit of Hanssen-Bauer to Kilinochchi was a waste of time. According to diplomatic sources, the Norwegian envoy left Colombo a disappointed man and reportedly told those who matter that Oslo would keep a low profile for the next few weeks before considering any steps towards another round of mediation.

For all the pretensions, relations between the Rajapaksa government and Norway have hit a new low. The government considers Norway to be "pro-LTTE" despite the overwhelming backing it has in its mediation efforts from the whole international community. A vicious campaign is on in the government-run media against Eric Solheim.

Even as the confusion on the government vs the LTTE was being played out, another bizarre drama was on in the corridors of power in Colombo. It came in the form of the `majority report' of the multi-ethnic experts' panel (excerpts of which appeared in The Hindu on December 5). The 17-member committee and the All Parties Representative Conference (APRC) are the creation of the President to aid in finding a solution to the ethnic conflict. Eleven of the 17 members agreed on a common report and the others gave three separate reports. Ironically, the `majority report' has caused a storm and the government cannot escape responsibility for the unnecessary controversy.

There is nothing extraordinary about the recommendations in the report, which has called for maximum devolution of power. Four days after the media published contents of the `majority report', Information Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, in a statement, took exception to the "leakage" of the report and maintained that it could be an attempt to "belittle" the steps taken by the government to deal effectively with the "fascist designs" of the LTTE.

Why cannot the government look at the brighter side of the picture as nearly two-thirds of the panel have agreed on one report? The charge that the leakage of the report is aimed at undermining the government's measures against terrorism does not make sense. The real reason for the government's outburst on the media reports about the panel's work came to the fore on December 12 when the ultra-nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) walked out of the APRC. The ostensible reason for the walkout was the `majority report'. But political observers believe that the JVP, which is unhappy over the recent memorandum of understanding between the ruling party and the United National Party (UNP), used the multi-ethnic experts' panel report as an excuse to put pressure on the government.

The political pact between the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the UNP, the principal Opposition, to work towards a resolution of the ethnic conflict was considered a watershed in the history of Sri Lanka's partisan politics. The pact was believed to have provided the government an opportunity to distance itself from the JVP and the controversy over the `majority report' at the opportune moment. For whatever reasons, the Rajapaksa regime has done exactly the opposite.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor