The wooing game

Print edition : December 11, 1999

In a changed perception of India, the LTTE leadership feels that whatever the past hostilities, there is no denying that India is the greatest friend of Sri Lankan Tamils, and by extension, of the LTTE.

ANTON STANISLAU BALASINGHAM, the 63-year-old political adviser of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), relocated clandestinely from the Northern mainland Wanni in Sri Lanka to Britain in the last week of May 1999. The Hindu was the first n ewspaper to report the move on June 9.

That report stated that the shift had two objectives. The first was to restructure the LTTE's international secretariat in London and spearhead a propaganda drive on a global scale. The second was to start initiatives seeking third-party mediation to rev ive negotiations between the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE. Balasingham's health had been deteriorating, and it was expected that he would avail himself of the medical facilities available in Britain.

The past six months have seen Balasingham living quietly in London. While the Sinhala extremist fringe in Sri Lanka was demanding aloud that he be deported to Colombo, Balasingham adopted a low profile in London. He never appeared in public but engaged i n quite a lot of political activity of the behind-the-scenes variety. It was, however, common knowledge among Tamil expatriates in London that Balasingham was in town. On November 27, Balasingham deviated from his low-key lifestyle and went public with a splash.

The occasion was Maaveerar Naal or "Great Heroes' Day". It has been the practice of the LTTE to observe November 27 each year as a day to remember and honour those Tigers who had fallen in battle. The first LTTE cadre to be killed was Sathiyanathan alias Shankar of Kambarmalai in Jaffna district. He died on November 27, 1982. After that more than 15,000 Tiger cadres have died in combat. The LTTE has observed the day since 1989 both in Sri Lanka and abroad. It is the most looked-forward-to event in the T iger almanac.

A highlight of the day is an oration by LTTE leader Velupillai Prabakaran, described in LTTE jargon as an "address to the nation". As Prabakaran is an elusive personality and is not accessible to the media, his annual speech is seen as a barometer of the political mood of the Tigers. The speech receives wide publicity nationally and internationally. It is treated more or less as a policy statement of the LTTE. Aspects of the speech, such as brevity and ambiguity, gives rise to wide-ranging interpretatio ns with regard to the current LTTE policy as enunciated by the numero uno.

THIS year, however, there was a difference. Anton Balasingham, referred to occasionally as an "LTTE ideologue" and "theoretician", was in London. He and his Australia-born wife Adele were the guests of honour at the Great Heroes Day ceremony held at the London Arena. A crowd of nearly 7,000 people participated. Balasingham addressed the meeting for nearly an hour. What he did was to amplify and clarify the policy of the LTTE as outlined already by the Tiger supremo. Owing to the difference in the time z ones, Prabakaran's speech, relayed over the LTTE radio in the Wanni "Voice of Tigers", had been broadcast in the West before Balasingham spoke. The LTTE political adviser also made it clear that he had spoken with his leader before attending the meeting and had been briefed on what he had to say.

Thus Balasingham's speech was in a sense an elaborated version of what Prabakaran had said earlier. It was more explicit on fundamentals and devoid of the deliberate ambiguity that characterises Prabakaran's speeches. There were also significant departur es, with Balasingham touching on areas where Prabakaran was silent.

One such issue was the LTTE's relationship with India. The LTTE, which used to indulge in rhetoric about its having defeated the world's fourth largest army, has been conspicuously silent on that in the recent past. Moreover, it has been consciously wooi ng India of late and has been trying for a rapprochement with the Bharatiya Janatha Party-led Government. (Frontline, July 30)

Balasingham's London speech outlined clearly the LTTE perception regarding India. The past decade has seen Tamil ultra-nationalists on both sides of the Palk Straits indulge in vitriolic outbursts against New Delhi on its alleged bias against Sri Lankan Tamils. The difficult situation had been aggravated by challenges to Indian "hegemonism". But in contrast, Balasingham's speech was markedly restrained and a complete departure from the usual anti-Indianism uttered by others in the past.

Balasingham's comments on India were stated within the context of assessing the possibility of any foreign intervention. Sections of the media in India have reported that Balasingham was referring to India as a potential mediator.

But actually nothing of that kind was mentioned. Instead, what Balasingham stressed was that there was no chance of India intervening on behalf of the "Sinhala" government in Colombo as had happened in the past.

The LTTE political adviser pooh-poohed the anxiety on the part of some sections of Lankan Tamils that there would be foreign intervention in Sri Lanka against the LTTE. After dismissing such a possibility, Balasingham went on to say that the only country that mattered to the Sri Lankan Tamils was India. Their only concern was about Indian involvement. Whatever the past hostilities, there was no denying that India was the greatest friend of Sri Lankan Tamils, and by extension, of the LTTE. India engal nesa sakthi (India is our friendly or allied force), Balasingham said amidst thundering applause.

Referring briefly to the sorry history of conflict with the Indian Peace Keeping Force, Balasingham said that the LTTE actually had no intention of confronting India militarily then. Indiavode motha engalukku enna paithiyamaa? (Are we so insane as to confront India?) he asked. But owing to wrong advice given to Rajiv Gandhi, the fighting was necessitated. The Sri Lankan Tamil people, who regarded India as "god", were subjected to much hardship as a result of that conflict. Now India herself has r ealised the deficiencies and mistakes of the earlier policy towards Sri Lanka, he said.

There was now a new dispensation led by the BJP. Balasingham was of the opinion that this regime was favourably disposed towards the LTTE. Political parties and leaders who were concerned about the Tamil cause in Sri Lanka were part of this BJP Governmen t. As such Balasingham ruled out the possibility of the present Indian government intervening militarily on behalf of the "Sinhala" government in Colombo. "That will not happen," he said.

At the same time, there were some doubts and misgivings on the part of India that were preventing it from supporting openly the aspirations of Sri Lankan Tamils. This had to do with erroneous perceptions regarding the LTTE. One was that the LTTE would in terfere in Indian domestic politics and foment dissension within the Indian Union. Balasingham categorically stated that the LTTE would never ever try to interfere in the domestic sphere of India. All that it was concerned about was the liberation of its people from oppression.

Another fear related to the demonstration effect that the formation of a Tamil Eelam would have on Tamil Nadu and the consequent possibility of secession there. This fear was baseless, said Balasingham. The objective conditions were different. In Sri Lan ka, the Tamils were compelled to fight for separation because of the oppression. They were killed, bombed, and shelled by the government. That is not the case in Tamil Nadu. There is a State government of its own there. There are political parties. There is Kalaingar (a reference to Tamil Nadu Chief Minister). The State is prospering. Why should Tamil Nadu separate from India? There is no need to do so," said Balasingham.

After describing India as a friendly force, Balasingham went on to say that when Tamil Eelam becomes a reality, the fledgling state would be India's staunchest ally in the region. It would revolve within India's orbit. "I have been authorised by thala ivar (leader) to make this pronouncement. I hereby guarantee openly that we will not cause any problem to India and that we will remain the staunchest ally of India in this region," announced Balasingham to a wildly cheering audience.

Anton Balasingham, the LTTE leader who relocated to London in May 1999, with his wife Adele.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

APART from the "India factor" much of what Balasingham articulated was by way of amplifying what Prabakaran had said. There were, however, four areas where Balasingham, through his amplifications and clarifications, improved on what his leader had state d in his address. These related to the aborted attempts to conduct negotiations, the presidential election, the military aims of the LTTE and the potential for peace talks.

Prabakaran, possibly by design, was reticent and ambiguous on these matters, thereby causing contradictory interpretations of the LTTE position. But Balasingham, being more explicit in his speech, placed the LTTE position on these matters in a better and more enlightening perspective.

First, Balasingham revealed that contrary to Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga's stated position that there would be no talks with the LTTE at this juncture, there had been three covert moves by her in this direction. Three channels had been mad e use of. "Bishops (he did not elaborate), Norway and the British Commonwealth Secretariat" were the emissaries, said Balasingham. The unacceptable aspect of these overtures was their clandestine nature, he said.

"Chandrika wanted secret talks in a foreign country within a short time-frame without anyone knowing. She did not want the Army, Cabinet Ministers and the people to know about these talks. Also, these were to be conducted without a ceasefire while the fi ghting was on. We declined because we did not want to do anything behind the backs of our people. Ours is a people's war. Whatever we do, it must be in the open and the people must be informed. Besides, while the war continues and our people get killed a nd maimed, how can we go to a foreign country, stay in plush hotels and talk pleasantly as if there was no war?" asked the LTTE ideologue.

Secondly, Balasingham spoke about the presidential election. (While Kumaratunga adopts a public position of being lukewarm towards the possibility of resumption of talks with the Tigers, the rival United National Party candidate, Ranil Wickremasinghe, ha s promised talks with the LTTE. This has led to the Kumaratunga camp accusing Wickremasinghe of striking a secret deal with the Tigers. There was also the expectation that the LTTE would indicate what Tamils are to do in terms of voting.) Balasingham dis missed specifically all talk about an understanding with the UNP. But he implied that Tamils should vote against Kumaratunga. What he said in essence was this:

"The past 50 years have seen the major Sinhala parties alternately discriminating against and deceiving the Tamil people. But as our leader said the last five years of Chandrika's rule have been the most terrible for Tamils. War, hunger, starvation, disp lacement, death, agony, and sorrow were everywhere. It had been a blood-stained, dark period. (Prabakaran was more severe in his speech calling it a curse on the Tamil people.) As far as elections are concerned they are to elect a new President for Sri L anka.There is no practical benefit for the Tamil people. We are not concerned about this poll. It has not been our tradition to participate in such elections. We have no faith in them. In areas under our control there won't be any elections. But in other areas like Jaffna and Batticaloa, the election will take place. The Tamil people there can do what they want.... They can vote for Chandrika or they can vote for Ranil. But there is one important thing that I must state here. If Chandrika comes to power again, it can only mean that the problems and hardships will continue. The tragic situation will prevail... We take no sides but the Tamil people know what to do."

Thirdly, on the military aims of the LTTE, Balasingham was boastful. He said that prior to the ongoing 'Unceasing Waves' campaign, there had been much pessimism about the military prowess of the Tigers. "Many Western nations thought the LTTE was a spent force. They thought Kumaratunga's 'war for peace' was succeeding."

"Even our own people were dejected. Jaffna was taken and the Army was advancing in the Wanni. 'What is the LTTE doing' was their question," said Balasingham. But Prabakaran was patient, he added. Preparations for the current operation had taken a year. T here was intense training with live ammunition, resulting in several injuries during practice. Finally, the operation was launched. The martial ability of the LTTE was proved to the world. The ground situation has been transformed. Now there was a lull. But this was only to provide a brief respite to the cadres. The operation is 'Unceasing Waves'. Waves do not cease. They continue. We are yet to give marunthu (medicine) to amma (mother). The LTTE, according to Balasingham, was simply liber ating the land from military aggression. The Wanni had been liberated but there were areas like Jaffna and Batticaloa. "We will go there also soon," said Balasingham amidst applause.

Fourthly, if liberation through armed struggle was the course of action, then what was the point in calling for talks? According to Balasingham, there are two reasons for doing so. Given the history, the LTTE does not trust any Sinhala government. The Ti gers believe that the only durable solution would be a separate Tamil state - Tamil Eelam. It also does not believe that any government in Colombo could arrive at an equitable negotiated settlement. So the LTTE wants talks to expose the ulterior motives of the Sri Lankan government and prove to the world that no Sinhala government would grant Tamil rights.

There is also the need to avoid bloodshed and destruction. The LTTE, according to Balasingham, possesses the ability to drive the Army out of the Tamil areas. But it is offering an opportunity to the Army to withdraw peacefully. Before negotiations begin , a conducive climate must be created. For that the food embargo and restrictions on sending medical supplies to the Wanni and other areas must be removed. The Army of "aggression" must withdraw from the Eelam soil. Only then could meaningful discussions occur, Otherwise the war will continue and the Tigers will drive the Army away. Another important prerequisite for talks is that there must be third-party mediation. It could be a country or an international organisation.

GIVEN these "controversial" preconditions, there is scepticism over whether the LTTE is really keen on a negotiated settlement. But some analysts are optimistic. They feel that the Tigers are being maximalist in their stated pre-negotiation positions but could mellow if and when talks progress satisfactorily. In any case, given the obvious failure of Kumaratunga's war-for-peace strategy there is really no choice but to explore the possibility of talking to the Tigers, these sections feel. The presence o f a third-party mediator could make a bindingly crucial difference this time, they say.

Others have their doubts, in view of the LTTE's track record. It would be another instance of the Tigers "talking" but not genuinely "negotiating", they say. Subjective and objective factors negate all chances of the LTTE ever coming into the mainstream of a "united" Sri Lanka, they say. Prabakaran's ideological commitment is firm and unwavering. Whatever Balasingham's semantics, in the final analysis that is the ground reality, they say.

That the LTTE wants to engage in talks with Colombo at the earliest has been made clear by another related development too. The Tamil United Liberation Front secretary-general and Member of Parliament from Trincomalee district, R. Sambanda, met Balasingh am in London recently. The meeting was arranged through the efforts of the British authorities. It was held at the House of Commons building in the presence of a Labour Party MP. At that the meeting Sambanda called for a resumption of talks with the gove rnment. Balasingham shot it down saying that there was no point in talking just before presidential election. "Let the Sinhala people elect a new President and if that person genuinely desires a dialogue we can consider it with the aid of a third-party m ediator," he said. So all indications at present are that talks will begin after the elections.

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