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A moderating influence in the LTTE

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ANTON Balasingham, the LTTE's chief negotiator and ideologue who died of bile duct cancer in London on Thursday at the age of 68, was a moderating influence on the militant group's supremo, Velupillai Pirapaharan.

"He knew the importance of flexibility in political negotiations when flexibility was called for. Even though he fully endorsed the hard line of the LTTE and ultimately, always bowed to the wishes of Pirapaharan, he never failed to argue for accommodation when he thought that prudence demanded it," said a Tamil journalist who was close to him.

Towards the end of his life, when he was almost totally bedridden, Balasingham was telling his confidantes that the LTTE should go for a settlement with the Sri Lankan government while he was alive, because he feared that the extremists in the organization would get the upper hand in his absence and further put off a solution to the Tamil question festering for 60 years now.

Balasingham and Pirapaharan were completely different from each other, but they complemented each other. Balasingham was academic, analytical and convivial, a completely non-military man. Pirapaharan, on the other hand, was a man of action, a man of few words who believed in intuitive understanding rather than ponderous analysis.

Balasingham was a quintessential negotiator, with a preference for peaceful methods of conflict resolution based on compromise and a step by step movement towards the goal of an independent Tamil Eelam. But Pirapaharan, the warrior, would pitch for the extreme and was uncompromising.

But there had been a fruitful division of labour between the two, by mutual and tacit consent.

In fact, Balasingham did what Pirapaharan could not, and Pirapaharan did what Balasingham could not.

Balasingham was the political interpreter or translator of the LTTE's actions to the outside world, a tough task, given the global hostility towards terrorists.

He was the interface with the genteel world, given his felicity with the English language, the gift of the gab, his wide reading, and his academic and journalistic background.

He was adept at handling political leaders, heads of governments, officials and journalists from across the globe. In arguments, Balasingham could be reasonable and persuasive as well as intimidating, carping, and sarcastic when the occasion demanded.

Writing about the relations between the two in her book The Will to Freedom Balasingham's Australian-born wife Adele says: "The relationship between these two single-minded individuals has been unique. It is one of those relationships where two different personalities come together at a specific conjuncture and play significant roles in the movement of history."

Although stormy at times, the relationship was remarkably consistent over decades. While others came and went, Balasingham had been with Pirapaharan right through, and that too, in the inner circle, right from 1979, when the LTTE was still in its infancy.

Balasingham had the unique distinction of being the leader of the LTTE's negotiating team on most occasions since the 1980s. Despite his privileged and unique place in the set up, Balasingham had never overstepped his limits and had always worked within the unwritten parameters of his relationship with the supremo.

Balasingham had scrupulously avoided military matters because these were sensitive. In such matters, he would wait for Pirapaharan to brief him.

And according to Adele, Pirapaharan would unfailingly brief him so that the required press releases could be written and the concerns of the outside world addressed.

"Trust" had been the basis of the relationship between the two. Pirapaharan had never felt insecure vis-à-vis Balasingham, who, living in the UK for years, had been interacting with the outside world.

Pirapaharan had never feared that Balasingham might be weaned away from the fundamentals of the LTTE by "pernicious" outside influences.

"Bala's lack of concern for power, his preparedness to restrain his role to writing, teaching and advising, and his obvious commitment to the struggle, eventually made him the most reliable and trustworthy advisor to Mr Pirabakaran," Adele wrote, spelling Pirapaharan in the Tamil way.

Balasingham's penchant for speaking the truth, as he saw it, was appreciated by Pirapaharan, she said.

"One quality that Mr Pirabakaran has admired and valued in Bala all these years, is his commitment to truth. Bala has always acted on the principle that he should convey accurate and truthful advise in the best interests of both Mr Pirabakaran and the struggle."  

"Whether Mr Pirabakaran has always heeded the advice or was displeased by what he frankly conveyed, was not Bala's concern."

"As the advisor to Mr Pirabakaran, Bala has many times told me, it was his duty to tell the truth, regardless of how unpalatable it may be," Adele wrote.

Balasingham had flirted with a wide variety of ideologies before he became an extreme Tamil nationalist. Though born into a Christian family, he took to the Hindu Vedantic philosophy in the early days. Later, he was strongly attracted to the rationalism of Buddhism and had gone about giving lectures on it.

While in the UK, he read widely on Western philosophy and Marxism and enrolled for a doctorate on a comparison of Marx and Freud. But he could not complete the thesis because of his involvement with exiles from the Third World who were fighting for liberation.

According to Adele, he soon realized that a pure Marxist analysis would not be able to explain the core concerns of Jaffna Tamil society, steeped as it was in Hinduism, Tamil culture and history, and the caste system.

Balasingham lectured to young Tamil arm chair revolutionaries and wrote tracts on the guerilla campaigns of Che Guevara and Mao. He wrote pamphlets on the Sri Lankan Tamil issue also, putting it in a conceptual framework.

Before long, these works attracted the attention of Pirapaharan who was then living in exile in Chennai, India. Pirapaharan expressed a wish to see him and Balasingham and Adele journeyed to Chennai in 1979. Pirapaharan had by then seen the need to impart to his cadres a knowledge of larger social, economic and political issues.

These were necessary for developing a commitment to the Tamil cause, which was larger than just setting up an independent Tamil Eelam by force of arms, he felt. Balasingham was assigned the task of giving orientation lectures.

Within a few years of interaction, Balasingham had become a close personal confidante of Pirapaharan's, Adele says in her book.

When Pirapaharan fell in love with Madhivadhani, a young recruit from Jaffna, and wanted to marry her, but was constrained by the norm that cadres should not marry, Balasingham argued for a change, and Pirapaharan changed the rule.

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