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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2645

Anton Balasingham – voice or vice of "Thamby" in the Vanni?

H. L. D. Mahindapala

Though to some Tamils, particularly those in the diaspora, Velupillai Prabhakaran, the internationally banned terrorist leader, is a cult figure the Tamils in the east, a sizeable segment of the Tamils in the north and in the diaspora consider him as the man who denigrated the image of the Tamils and reduced the Tamils to almost a vanishing tribe in Sri Lanka. Faced with a backlash that was de-legitimizing his politics of violence Prabhakaran was in need of a spin doctor to polish his image and to justify his ruthless violence, targeting in particular the Tamils.

Anton Balasingham won the admiration and favor of his master in the Vanni by fulfilling this role. He was well read, articulate and had the verbal skills and conceptual ability to draw from left-wing theoretical sources arguments to put a gloss on the darkening image of Prabhakaran. He was also well versed in the fashionable political clichés and being a journalist (he was sub-editor in a Tamil newspaper) he knew the power of words which could be used as effectively as bullets.

Quite appropriately, Prabhakaran honored him with the title of the "Voice of the nation" for his services to cover-up his vices. Cynics might even say that there was an extra vowel – namely, "o" – in the first word of the title! That apart, Balasingham’s life-long battle was two fold: 1) to polish the image of Prabhakaran even though he knew that his master was a "pathological killer" (Prof. James Jupp of Australian National University) and 2) to make the Tamils believe in the political illusions of an elusive Eelam that was nowhere in sight. The tragedy is that he knew Eelam was unattainable given the international opposition to it. He knew the truth but his "Voice" (or is it "Vice"?) never told it to the Tamils.

Eric Solheim told an Indian news agency, IANS: "He was one of the persons in the peace process who never lied to me. He always spoke the truth as he saw it." Solheim added that he was for a federation. "He saw the formula in Oslo in 2002 (agreement between LTTE and Colombo), exploring a federal solution, as the only way out in Sri Lanka," said Solheim. That is the face he presented to Solheim, perhaps with a genuine belief in what he said. But to his "Thamby" (younger brother) Bala Annan (elder brother) told a different story: it was Eelam or nothing! Anything less than that would have probably sent him to a grave earlier than his cancer.

Bala’s political skill was in straddling both Prabhakaran and Solheim simultaneously. He kept both horses running, as long as they carried him. His was a neat balancing act which kept both horses running happily on their separate tracks. His success was in making Solheim and Prabhakaran believe in him. He was the acclaimed political brother of both Solheim and Prabhakaran. To achieve this he had to diddle one or the other. It could be said with unmistakable certainty that he never intended to take Prabhakaran for a ride and make him look like an idiot. This leaves Solheim out in the cold looking like an …………… (readers are allowed to fill in the blank).

In fairness to Balasingham, it could be argued that he knew he could not fill the huge credibility gap between the illusion of Eelam and the reality of a negotiated settlement. The leader of the TULF, Appapillai Amirthalingam, touring the world as the Leader of the Opposition under J. R. Jayewardene’s regime, returned home and told the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) that the world was not willing to give them a separate state. This was revealed by M. Sivasithamparam, his successor, in an interview with The Sunday Observer, after his leader was gunned down by Prabhakaran’s assassins.

But this was stated almost sotto voce and as an aside. Despite this hard reality, the Tamil leaders had not pursued politics on a platform lesser than Eelam since the passing of the Vaddukoddai Resolution in 1976. Practically every other Tamil political party dangles this illusory carrot to the Tamils in one form or other. They market their mono-ethnic extremism either under the label of an "Eelam party" or a "liberation front." Balasingham fell into this trap of propagating both: "liberation Tigers" and a "Tamil Eelam."

This was also Balasingham’s dilemma: he believed in his rhetoric which had no substance. His repetitive defence was that the Tigers constituted a "liberation front"— a label borrowed from Marxist slogans that went out of date long before the fall of Berlin Wall. Of course, it was designed to sound like an anti-colonial struggle of an oppressed people. But no one was buying it except his fellow-travellers and henchmen who were dependent on the hierarchy of the one-man regime in the Vanni. Besides, with the dissident Tamils abandoning the political illusions sustaining the authoritarian Vanniarachchis Balasingham’s task of selling his "liberation" spiel was not made easy.

His theory ran into further difficulties when the break-away group led by Karuna of the east accused the Vanniarachchis of oppressing, persecuting, discriminating, torturing and executing Tamils who refuse to the toe the line. Going by Balasingham’s theory the Karuna group too had a right to be named as a "liberation front." They were the eastern Tamils seeking "liberation" from the oppressive Tamil hegemonists of the north. But Balasingham wouldn’t concede that. To him and his "sole representatives of the Tamils" in the Vanni Karuna’s group consisted of only "traitors."

The fundamental flaw in Balasingham’s theory was that everybody who felt oppressed had a right to pin the label of a "liberationist" and spray bullets indiscriminately at any one who was perceived to be their enemy. It was a crude justification of Tiger violence based on perceptions of oppression and not the reality. To this day the Jaffna Tamils who cry discrimination find it difficult to provide an example of discrimination that had not been experienced by the Sinhalese. In fact, history records that it was the Sinhala youth of the JVP who took up the gun on this issue discrimination (1971) long before the Tamil youth took up the same cry.

Peninsular politics began with the loose term of "discrimination" long before Bandaranaike passed the Sinhala Only Act in 1956. It began in the twenties and its stridency grew in the forties with G. G. Ponnambalam going before the Soulbury Commission complaining about "discrimination" in the public service – the only growth industry during colonial times. Having examined this complaint minutely the Soulbury Commission dismissed it as stuff and nonsense.

Latest research too has proved that there has been no economic discrimination against the Tamils of the north, said Radhika Coomaraswamy on a recent BBC programme. But the Jaffna Tamils entrenched in government jobs never abandoned the myth of discrimination. This slogan has been the central theme of the northern Tamil political class to win Tamil votes. Whipping up anti-Sinhala-Buddhist phobia was the sole political platform that sustained their politics of hate. Prabhakaran came out of this hate politics. In time, "discrimination" escalated into "grievances" and "grievances" leapt into "aspirations" – all of which were based on hate politics.

By the time Balasingham aligned himself irrevocably to Prabhakaran, academics and NGO pundits were wrapping the hate politics of the north that refused to co-exist with a multi-cultural society as "sub-nationalism," "nationalism"– terms that were not there in the vocabulary of the Tamil political class from colonial times. Balasingham borrowed extensively from the theoretical fictions manufactured by the anti-Sinhala-Buddhist school fathered mainly by S. J. Tambiah and his mercenary careerists in academia and NGOs.
He loaded these anti-Sinhala-Buddhist phrases in his speeches written for his "Thamby" in the Vanni. He became the best theoretician and the ideologue of the Tamil Tigers by dove-tailing these borrowed concepts and phrases to justify Prabhakaran’s violence. Demonising the Sinhala-Buddhists was his favourite political tactic – a convenient methodology needed to deflect attention from the mono-ethnic extremism of northern peninsular politics that never provided space for multi-cultural co-existence.

Balasingham will be laid to rest with the title of the "Voice of the nation." This title alone is symptomatic of the myths that wrap the fictions of Tamil politics. If Balasingham, as stated by Erick Solheim, believed in a federal solution then he could not have subscribed to the concept of a "nation." He was basically the "voice" of the myth of a "nation" that never exists or ever will be.

Balasingham efforts were devoted to make these myths sound real. He was also the devotee of the other myth of LTTE being "the sole representative of the Tamils." He turned his wishes into phrases that would glorify his elusive Eelam. He wished that the Tigers would be received by the world as the "the sole representative of the Tamils." It was a phrase turned out to grab and concentrate all power in the hands of the Vanniarachchis. But if he was a truthful, as stated by Solheim, he would have known that it was another fiction.

Balasingham’s rhetoric appealed to the Tamil diaspora more than to any other political group. He kept their hopes alive by recycling and repeating the divisive Tamil terminology like "Eelam," "the sole representative of the Tamils," "liberation struggle," "freedom fighters," "oppression," "discrimination," "self-determination" (equated with "Eelam") etc. These were exaggerated and over-used words and phrases thrown in repetitively from his armoury as he went into battle at the negotiating table. He used them with a flourish of his own. His theoretical base, words, phrases and justifications collapsed outside the fictional framework of Eelam. He had no option but to cling on to this verbiage and concepts with a ferocious passion.

The best of his theorizing and rationalizations failed to win the more the disillusioned Tamils to his side. After his death his harshest critics were the Tamils. (Fire) wrote: "Balasingham was a traitor to the Tamil community." (Bees Honey) wrote: "Balasingham is the man justified the violent killings of Tamils. His death cannot be considered a loss to the people." (Awake) wrote: "He is the man who acted as the advisor to Tiger violence and killings and he never dared to question the atrocities of Velupillai Prabhakaran."

These Tamil comments present Balasingham more as a vice that unscrupulously justified Prabhakaran’s political crimes. His main aim was to bring the Tamils under the umbrella of "the sole representative of the Tamils." But he underestimated the fiercely independent streak in the Tamils who were revolted by Prabhakaran’s inhuman violence. Prabhakaran had no strategy other than violence. Consequently, Balasingham had no option but to justify his master’s violence. Balasingham’s theory of "a liberation struggle" lost all credibility when Prabhakaran emerged as the worst political criminal in the annals of the Tamils – worse than even Sankili who marched into Mannar and slaughtered the Catholics for swearing allegiance to the Portuguese king. Like Prabhakaran he divided the Tamil community into irreconcilable segments.

At best "the Voice" (translation: spokesperson for Tamil violence) was persuasive enough to make his fellow-travellers believe in his myths. Besides, Prabhakaran could always depend on him to defend his crimes against humanity and war crimes. Balasingham promoted the Tamil political mythology with an ardent fervour partly for his cause and partly to enlarge his own image among the Tamils. His adulating followers too liked to make him look bigger than he was. Even the London Times, in its obituary, repeated the fiction that he obtained a doctorate from an English University though his wife, Adele, says that he had to abandon his doctoral thesis due to the heavy load of political work.

Some of his fans would say that he was a press liaison officer at the British High Commission when he was only a translator in the British Council. In his book Will to Freedom he even makes a faint bid to portray himself as the brains behind the brawn of Prabhakaran. In the one and only press conference given by Prabhakaran in the Vanni under Balasingham’s auspices he did try to impress this point by taking over the conference in his translations.

There is some justification for Balasingham to claim his larger than life role. He had a better understanding of the dynamics of international politics. His mission was to present a human face to cover-up the sub-human politics of Prabhakaran. The lesser educated "Thamby" of the Vanni was dependent entirely on the more sophisticated "Voice" of Balasingham.

Balasingham also knew how to keep the international interventionist at bay. He could drag on negotiations whenever it was needed to give the impression that the Tigers were for peace. He could also terminate negotiations with the flimsiest of excuses. He could produce pompous proclamations for the unilateral declaration of peace and also trot out excuses for the unilateral declaration of war which was not far behind the unilateral declaration of peace.

He did declare in Oslo that with the signing of the Ceasefire Agreement the Tigers had committed themselves to a federal solution (and Solheim repeats it to this day) and then reneged on it saying that he meant "self-determination." He could negotiate agreements with the UN to terminate recruitment of child soldiers and the next minute pigeon-hole it, never to be looked at again. He could vehemently condemn any excesses committed by the Sri Lankan security forces and in the same breath downplay the brutalities of the Tamil Tigers as "collateral damage."

In short, while his "Thamby" kept the home fires burning (literally) he attempted to blow away with his words the billowing smoke rising like an evil genie from his master’s bunker in the Vanni. His task was to carry Prabhakaran like the way Sinbad the Sailor carried the old man on his back. But with all the valiant efforts of Balasingham he could not rescue image of Prabhakaran from that of a banned terrorist. Prabhakaran’s problem, without Balasingham, would be to prevent it from diminishing further into a de-humanized pygmy ever produced by the Jaffna Tamils.

Prabhakaran and Solheim are in the same boat paddling without the coxswain. Balasingham was Solheim’s pipe-line to Prabhakaran. They both could talk the same language. Of course, Balasingham was far superior to Solheim. He could talk well enough to convince Solheim that he is with him though Balasingham’s basic instincts were to make Solheim pay for his politics. Their friendship was so close that Solheim would even rush in to pick up his unpaid liquor bills in international hotels. In the end, Balasingham got all what he wanted from Solheim. But what did Solheim get from Balasingham? That is the question for the international community. Solheim is now left without his friend. So is Prabhakaran. Can the east (Prabhakaran) and the west (Solheim) meet again as before without a go-between? Prabhakaran always spoke through two outlets: 1) Balasingham and 2) the gun. Without Balasingham Solheim will now have to listen increasingly to the gun.

However, it is wrong to conclude that the death of Balasingham spells the end of the world. No man is indispensable. True, Solheim will feel more isolated than before. Rightly or wrongly, Balasingham gave him a feeling of having some control over the Vanni leadership through him. Though Solheim got nowhere really, he could at least persuade the Tigers at times to come to the negotiating table to save his face.

Balasingham saved the faces of both Solheim and Prabhakaran. Without Balasingham to hold his hands Solheim will have to find new ways of saving his face. In the vacuum he is in now he will have to find an escape route which will be the one he has been using all this while: blaming the government of Sri Lanka. Of course, at every turn Balasingham increased the volume in blaming the Sri Lankan government.

In between, during their long private conversations, he brain-washed and trained Solheim to be his pet parrot. Solheim aligned himself with Balasingham hoping to manipulate the peace process through him. He was mistaken. It was Balasingham who manipulated Solheim to do his bidding. Balasingham used the peace process to serve his master’s ends leaving naïve Solheim up in the air with nothing to his credit as a peace-maker.

Their close relationship did not make a difference to the peace process. It could not have been otherwise because Solheim surrendered his common sense to Balasingham’s rationalizations and theoretical fantasies with which he justified the worst atrocities committed against the Tamils by Prabhakaran. In spinning these theoretical yarns he turned out to be the best hoax master in Prabhakaran’s bag of tricks.

Balasingham lived and died in promoting his master’s myths. He lived essentially in the political fantasies of Prabhakaran. Their symbiotic relationship served to prop each other. Balasingham argued tirelessly for the promised land of Eelam not to deliver the Tamils but to keep his other half alive because he needed Prabhakaran for his own survival and glory. When he finally died in London he had nothing concrete to show for all his labors except the Tamil victims of his bogus theories, bearing their suffering, their agony and their misery in silence without any hope of deliverance from their leaders.

So is there any point in speculating whether Balasingham’s death can make any difference to war or peace in Sri Lanka?

- Asian Tribune -

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