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Balasingham, a foil for Prabhakaran

He has been with the LTTE chief right from 1979, when the group was in its infancy, writes PK Balachandran.

india Updated: Jul 03, 2006 16:00 IST

Recently, when the chief negotiator of the LTTE, Anton Balasingham, supposedly apologised for the assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, one of the questions raised in the highest Indian circles was whether he represented the voice of supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran.

It was felt that Balasingham could be voicing his personal opinion, and the interview he gave to the Indian TV channel might well be a desperate individual initiative to reach out to India at a critical time in the history of the LTTE when it was facing international isolation.

A related assumption was that in the LTTE, divergent opinions, views, and proposals could be publicly expressed.

But keen observers of the LTTE say that these assumptions and theories are erroneous.

The truth, according to them, is that no one in the LTTE ever publicly airs his personal views, and that on the question of Rajiv Gandhi's assassination, Balasingham had only aired Prabhakaran's view, the one and only view in the LTTE.

Prabhakaran had said in his epoch making press conference in Kilinochchi on April 10, 2002, that he considered Rajiv Gandhi's assassination a "tragic event" and sought a rapprochement with India saying that the past should be forgotten.

The Tiger chieftain had cleverly dodged the question, which was, whether he would apologise to India for assassinating its leader.

What Balasingham said in the TV interview four years down the line, was pretty much the same. Neither Balasingham nor Prabhakaran had admitted to the crime or apologised for it.

The way the April 10, 2002 press conference was conducted showed how close the two were, and how identical their views were.

When journalists bombarded Prabhakaran with questions, Balasingham, the supposed translator, interjected and brazenly declared that he would take the questions. And when a foreign journalist protested, he declared: "My views and Prabhakaran's views are the same!"

Very significantly, there was not a whimper of protest from the chieftain.  

Different but complementary

This, of course, does not mean that Balasingham and Prabhakaran have no differences or have had no serious differences. But they have always made up, never bringing the differences out into the open.

Balasingham and Prabhakaran are completely different from each other, but they complement each other. Balasingham does what Prabhakaran cannot, and Prabhakaran does what Balasingham cannot.

Both are wedded to the core values, goals and techniques of the LTTE, though allowances are made for differences on peripheral matters.

And there has been a remarkable consistency. Others may have come and gone, but Balasingham has been with Prabhakaran, and that, in the inner circle, right from 1979, when the LTTE was still in its infancy.

Balasingham has the unique distinction of being the leader of the LTTE's negotiating team on every occasion barring the talks with the JR Jayewardene government in Thimpu in Bhutan in 1985; and the meeting with the Nordic monitors in Oslo on June 8 and 9, this year.

He could not go for the Oslo talks this time because of ill-health. And during the Thimpu talks, he was on the hotline acting as a link between Prabhakaran and the LTTE delegation. 

Writing about the Balasingham-Prabhakaran relationship in her book The Will to Freedom (Fairmax Publishing Ltd Mitcham, England, 2001) his wife Adele Balasingham 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."

While Balasingham is the philosopher and the theoretician of the movement, Prabhakaran is the quintessential activist, and also the final decision maker.

Balasingham is the negotiator, with a preference for peaceful methods of conflict resolution based on compromise and step-by-step movement. But Prabhakaran, the warrior, pitches for the extreme and is uncompromising.

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

"Bala" as Adele refers to him her book, is the political interpreter or translator of the LTTE's actions to the outside world, a tough task now, given the global hostility towards violent non-state actors and terrorists.

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

He is adept at handling political leaders, heads of governments, officials and journalists from across the globe.

In arguments, Balasingham can be reasonable and persuasive as well as intimidating, carping, and sarcastic when the occasion demands. 

Prabhakaran, on the other hand, is shy and retiring. He speaks only Tamil. He also has strong views. But he determines the basic goals of the organisation, its basic strategies and tactics and is entirely in-charge of the military aspect of it.

Despite his privileged and unique place in the set up, Balasingham has never overstepped his limits and has always worked within the unwritten parameters of his relationship with the supremo.

"Bala has always viewed his role with the LTTE and the struggle as the advisor and theoretician to Pirabakaran and the organisation," writes Adele.

In line with the Tamil way, Adele spells the Supremo's name as "Pirabakaran" and not "Prabhakaran" as it is spelled generally in line with the Sanskrit original.

Balasingham has scrupulously avoided military matters because these are sensitive. In such matters, he will wait for Prabhakaran to brief him. And according to Adele, Prabhakaran would unfailingly brief him so that the required press releases could be written and the concerns of the outside world addressed.

Role of trust

"Trust" has been the basis of the relationship between the two.

Though holed up in a jungle hideout in the Wanni in north Sri Lanka, with little or no interaction with the world outside, Prabhakaran has never felt insecure vis-à-vis Balasingham, who, living in the UK for years, has the skills to interact with outsiders and has been in close touch with them.

Prabhakaran has never feared that Balasingham may 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 Bala the most reliable and trustworthy advisor to Pirabakaran," writes Adele.

Balasingham's willingness to speak the truth as he sees it, is appreciated by Prabhakaran. He will not utter a falsehood, simply to please Prabhakaran.

On this Adele writes: " One quality that 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 Pirabakaran and the struggle."

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

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