Anton Balasingham

Negotiator for the Tamil Tigers
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The Independent Online

Anton Balasingham, political activist and spokesperson: born Jaffna, Sri Lanka 1938; twice married; died London 14 December 2006.

Anton Balasingham was the international face of the militant group that pioneered suicide bombing, yet he was welcomed in the drawing rooms of Europe. The Prime Minister of Norway addressed him as "Excellency", as if he were an ambassador for an internationally recognised state, instead of chief negotiator for the Tamil Tigers, banned as a terrorist organisation in the European Union and the United States.

The Tigers are also on Britain's list of banned terrorist groups for their remorseless campaign of violence to win independence for Sri Lanka's Tamils, a campaign involving suicide attacks that have claimed the lives of hundreds, including that of the Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. Yet Balasingham had a British passport and was allowed to live in Britain and openly conduct the Tigers' business here - the West accepted the Tigers were a militant group that it had to be prepared to talk to.

If the sophisticated Balasingham was the public persona of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, for many years the driving force behind the group was his relationship with its reclusive founder and leader Vellupilai Prabhakaran. Balasingham was always self-effacing about his own role in the Tigers. "I am Mr Prabhakaran's voice," was how he put it. But insiders say his own influence was far greater than that. It is said he was the only one who could dare disagree with the guerrilla leader, and he was the ideologue behind the Tigers.

The contrast between the two men could not have been starker. Prabhakaran is almost never seen in public and lives hidden somewhere in the Sri Lankan jungle. Balasingham was an intellectual who worked as a journalist and as a translator in the British High Commission in Colombo before coming to London to study, and who came to the Tigers full of the theories of Che Guevara and Mao and lectured young Tiger cadres. Though Prabhakaran is considered by many to be a military genius, he left school at 16 and has none of Balasingham's airs. Many observers say it was the partnership between the two that made the Tigers so effective.

If Balasingham never fought on the battlefield, he was a fearlessly aggressive negotiator, leading the Tigers' delegation in successive talks with the Sri Lankan government since 1985. At recent failed peace negotiations, he simply walked out.

He married, as his second wife, an Australian woman, Adele Wilby, who went on to write books about the Tamil quest for independence. "I married the collective consciousness and history of a people, a man who embodied the Tamil psyche with all its strengths and weaknesses, greatness and failings," she wrote of him in her book The Will to Freedom: an inside view of Tamil resistance (2001).

It emerged last month that Balasingham had bile duct cancer and he said of his illness: "When compared to the vast ocean of the collective tragedy faced by my people, my illness is merely a pebble".

Justin Huggler