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A day of national grief

It was a day of national mourning. In a moment of shared grief, Tamils across the world gathered on Wednesday Dec 20 to pay their respects to Anton Balasingham, the Tamil Tigers’ theoretician and chief negotiator.

At his funeral in London an estimated 50,000 Tamils from Britain, across Europe and other Diaspora centres, queued patiently to place wreaths and flowers alongside Mr. Balasingham’s body lying in state at Alexandra Palace.

At a funeral ceremony conducted simultaneously in Kilinochchi and another in Mullaitivu in Vanni, tens of thousands of Tamils thronged to pay their respects also.

Footage from Vanni was broadcast live to London. The ceremony in London was relayed live across the world – North America, India, Australasia and Vanni.

Tens of thousands attended the funeral in London.

Thousands attended another ceremony in Canada that day. But hundreds flew to London for the funeral there, including one large group which chartered its own jet.

Tamils from across Europe travelled to London in coaches for the funeral. Planes were chartered by some Tamils from Norway.

Some who had attended earlier memorial events in Sydney and Melbourne also flew to London.

Mr. Balasingham’s casket, topped by a large wreath of white lilies, was placed at the front of the Palace’s Great Hall at 8:00 a.m. on Wednesday.

It was escorted in by an honour guard of youth, white gloved and dressed in black suits.
Mr. Balasingham’s body was dressed in the traditional white verti, his preferred garment.

A brief initial ceremony was held attended by hundreds of Tamil activists, dressed in black suits and black sarees. Some had flown from other Diaspora centres around the world.

The Tamil activists then filed past the casket, placing flower petals on Mr. Balasingham’s body.

The doors to the Great Hall were then opened and the activists were followed by a long line of people who also placed flower petals at Mr. Balasingham’s feet.

Families with children, youth and older Tamils were among those paying respects.

Many wept openly, others prayed. Some lifted young children so they could place petals also.

Dozens of wreaths and bouquets were placed alongside the casket by mourners as they passed. Community organizations from across the world sent representatives with wreaths.

‘Voice of the Nation’ said one wreath, the title bestowed on the LTTE theoretician by the Tigers. ‘Bala Uncle’ said another, the title by which many LTTE cadres addressed him.

Thousands of people waited outside the venue on a freezing cold day as the queue snaked back from the Palace’s Great Hall, where thousands more were waiting. Hundreds of activists urged mourners to keep moving in an effort to give those waiting an opportunity to pay their respects.

Thousands waited patiently in the freezing weather to pay their respect.

In Vanni, senior LTTE commanders, led by LTTE leader Vellupillai Pirapaharan, gathered to garland a lifesize image of Mr. Balasingham.

Several gave speeches saluting Mr. Balasingham’s myriad of contributions to the Tamil freedom struggle. Some spoke of their personal connections with ‘Bala Uncle’ and their individual grief.

The day of shared grief was also a moment of united national pride. All sections of Tamil society came together in common appreciation of the freedom struggle and Mr. Balasingham’s role in taking it forward.

Expatriates and their brethren in the homeland, stood together in line, as did young and old, white and blue collars, rich and poor.

Second and third generation youth conversed in halting Tamil with recent migrants about what ‘Bala Anna’ meant to them, of his role in the evolution of ‘our struggle.’

Conservative elders, familiar with Mr. Balasingham’s efforts since the early eighties waited in line with teenagers, the latter’s self-assured swaggers tempered by the solemnity of the occasion.

At 3 p.m. Mr. Balasingham’s casket was carried out of the packed hall in a procession led by the honour guard, followed by a large wreath of ‘Eelam’ in the national colours of red and yellow.

In Tamil Nadu, large numbers paid their respects as the major political parties there praised the LTTE’s veteran negotiator.

In a message to Adele, Balasingham's wife, DMK president and Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi said the LTTE theoretician had “won the hearts and minds of Tamils the world over.”

Karunanidhi recalled that Mr. Balasingham had worked tirelessly “to uphold the spirit of Eelam.”

MDMK general secretary Y. Gopalasamy (Vaiko), said Mr. Balasingham had made “a Himalayan contribution to the welfare of Sri Lanka Tamils.”

“The Tamils in Sri Lanka have lost a treasure and a brave son,” he said.

Dravida Kazhagam leader K. Veeramani said: “That his life should have come to an end when the Eelam issue has reached a critical phase only doubles the agony of his passing away.”

A four-person Norwegian delegation attended Mr. Balasingham’s funeral in London.

International Development Minister Erik Solheim, who had worked with Mr. Balasingham since 1999 in Oslo’s peace efforts in Sri Lanka, and with whom he had become firm friends, gave a short speech.

Saying he had come to make a personal comment as a friend, not a political speech, Mr. Solheim said Mr. Balasingham had passed away when he was most needed.

He said Mr. Balasingham had shown his strength and dignity to the very end. Despite his illness, the LTTE theoretician’s concern was for the suffering of his people in Sri Lanka.

“He was a sincere person. He was on the very few people [in the peace process] who never lied to me amongst many people from all communities,” Mr. Solheim said, a former Norwegian Special Envoy to Sri Lanka said.

At a memorial event in Oslo earlier in the week, Mr. Solheim’s successor, Mr. Jon Hansen-Bauer praised Mr. Balasingam for his invaluable contribution to the peace efforts, and said Norway will miss a much valued friend.

“He has many friends, and I have not met a person, both among Tamils and Singhalese, who did not respect him for his steadfastness,” he said.

“Anton Balasingham was a theoretician. I had great pleasure discussing with him the key thinkers in Europe and relate their philosophy and approach to the peace process in Sri Lanka,” Mr. Hansen-Bauer, a senior academic, said.

“With the demise of Mr. Balasingham, the LTTE has lost its Chief negotiator; the Tamil people have lost one of their most important spokesman; an unbeatable power standing for the Tamil people, forcefully articulating their rights.

“And, Norway will miss a trusted friend. A central wall in the building of ‘Peace’ constructed painstakingly block-by-block, has fallen.”