S. P. Thamilselvan

Tamil Tigers political leader


S.P. Thamilselvan, guerrilla leader: born Chavakacheri, Sri Lanka 1967; married (one son, one daughter); died Kilinochchi, Sri Lanka 2 November 2007.

In October 2006, when talks in Geneva between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government broke down, a journalist asked S.P. Thamilselvan whether the Tamil people had been given any hope by the discussions. The head of the Tamil delegation was to the point: "We ourselves are not hopeful, [so] how can the people be?"

In recent years, Thamilselvan had been the international face of the struggle by the rebels, known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or (LTTE) or Tamil Tigers, as they fought for a homeland in Sri Lanka. With the group's leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, declining to appear in public, Thamilselvan was one of the points of contact for a conflict that has taken an estimated 70,000 lives. On 2 November, he, too, became one of its victims when he was killed during a Sri Lankan air -force bombardment.

Thamilselvan joined the armed struggle in 1983 as fighting broke out between the rebels and the government forces. He took part in several military operations in north Sri Lanka, including an abortive bid to storm the Elephant Base camp in 1992 and the battles in Pooneryn. But he was wounded in both the stomach and the leg and had to refrain from any further active military service.

Many observers saw Thamilselvan as a moderate, but earlier this summer he told reporters that the rebels were prepared to launch major attacks on both military and economic targets to try to cripple the country's economy. "Let the Tamil people live in their traditional homeland," he said in an interview in Kilinochchi, the rebels' de facto headquarters. "Leave the Tamil people without any military occupation or persecution. That will be the day there is no war."

Thamilselvan was born into a humble background and worked originally as a barber, before rising through the LTTE ranks, partly through his association with the Tamil leader, Prabhakaran, for whom he once served as a bodyguard. His wife is a member of the Tigers' women's wing.

In 2001 he was considered of such importance that the Sri Lankan government dispatched its army's Deep Penetration Unit after him; on that occasion he survived the attempt to kill him.

His profile grew during the late 1990s, especially after Norway took an interest in the struggling peace process. When the Tigers' international spokesman, Anton Balasingham, became increasingly ill from kidney problems, Thamilselvan, who was already heading the rebels' political wing, found himself being asked to take a more prominent role as a spokesman – even though he did not speak English. Following Balasingham's death in 2006, Thamilselvan was the Tigers' chief point of contact for the outside world.

Andrew Buncombe

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