Sri Lanka: Up close and personal Take on Anton Balasingham

Anton Balasingham was a colourful yet controversial figure who was admired by some and despised by others

by D.B.S. Jeyaraj

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ‘Arasiyal Madhiuraignar’ (Political Adviser) Anton Stanislaus Balasingham passed away 15 years ago at his South London residence on 14 December 2006.

Bala ‘Annai’ (elder brother) as he was generally known among Tamils died of cancer at the age of 68 years. The funeral was held at the Alexandra Palace in London on 20 December 2006. LTTE supremo Veluppillai Prabhakaran conferred the title ‘Thesathin Kural’ (Voice of the Nation) upon Tiger ideologue and political strategist posthumously.

Balasingham was a colourful yet controversial figure who was admired by some and despised by others. This writer’s relationship with Balasingham too has had its twists and turns. I have both criticised and praised him depending of course on the issue at hand. Likewise he too has both spoken and written ill and well of me. I have written about this man and his role in Tamil affairs on several occasions. I shall rely on some of these writings while focusing on the professional-personal relationship between “Bala Annai” and myself in this article.

Balasingham’s background

Balasingham born on 4 March 1938 was a blend of many strands. His father was from the east and mother from the north. His mother was a Christian and father a Hindu. Though raised as a Catholic Balasingham soon became a rationalist and agnostic. Balasingham’s first wife was a Jaffna Tamil protestant. His second wife was an Australian woman of Anglo-Saxon extraction. He was a British citizen but yearned for his homeland “Tamil Eelam” which he believed was a state in formation.

Balasingham’s grandfather was a “saiva kurukkal” (non-Brahmin priest) from Mandur in Batticaloa District. His father was an electrical foreman at the Batticaloa Hospital. Bala’s mother was from Jaffna town and a former resident of Martin’s Road. She was a midwife by profession and was working at the Batticaloa Hospital when she met, loved and married Bala’s father Balasingham Snr.

She was later separated and then widowed at an early age. Balasingham along with mother and elder sister moved to the north as a child. They settled down at Karaveddy in the Vadamaratchy sector. Bala’s mother worked as a midwife at the ‘Ambam clinic’ in Karaveddy. Two of Balasingham’s nephews Victor and Anton were working at the ‘Virakesari’ composing section during the time I was a journalist at the Tamil newspaper. Incidentally my mother too was from Kaddaively in the greater Karaveddy area. The postal address was Thunnalai South, Karaveddy. In later years Balasingham would often emphasise this and declare that he and I were from the same place.

In his childhood and early youth Balasingham was known as A.B. Stanislaus. He attended Sacred Heart College in Karaveddy and Nelliaddy Central College (later MMV) in Nelliaddy. Karaveddy was a leftist bastion those days. Young ‘Stanny’ as he was known then also subscribed to leftist ideologies. The doyen of Tamil cartoonists Sivagnanasundaram known as ‘Sundar’ who ran the reputed magazine ‘Sirithiran’ was also from Karaveddy. It was due to Sivagnasundaram’s efforts that Stanislaus was appointed Sub Editor at the Colombo Tamil newspaper Virakesari in the early ’60s.

Former colleagues at the Virakesari speak of Stanny as a man engrossed in reading most of the time. He was not concerned about his appearance and not very particular about clothes. Meals too were not at regular times. At the Virakesari Stanislaus was soon put in charge of foreign news. This entailed translation of Reuters copy and other articles on foreign affairs. Balasingham however was keenly interested in philosophy and psychology. He also dabbled in hypnotism. 

Things changed soon as Stanislaus got a job as translator at the British High Commission. There was a transformation in his appearance as he opted for smart clothes now. This was not entirely due to the new job alone. Cupid too had struck. He was enamoured of a beautiful Tamil woman at the British Council adjacent then to the BHC. She was Pearl Rasaratnam, the daughter of Rasaratnam master at Hartley College, Point Pedro.

The family was well-known to my mother’s family. I remember addressing Pearl as “Poo Aunty” in my childhood. One of my sisters was a flower girl at the wedding of Pearl’s sister Rathi. The elder sister Nesam and my Mother taught at the same school for many years The romance between Pearl and Anton resulted in their marriage on 16 July 1968 at the Methodist Church in Kollupitiya.

The post-marriage happiness of the newly-wed Balasingham was short-lived. Anton’s wife Pearl became extremely ill, requiring advanced treatment abroad. British authorities were very sympathetic and generous. Both were allowed to go to England. They left Sri Lanka on 3 August 1971. Balasingham continued his higher education in England. But his wife’s condition deteriorated. It was a life of hardship and sacrifice then with Balasingham having to work, study and care for his ailing wife. She died in November 1976.

Balasingham became acquainted with a hospital staff nurse who was also a ‘stranger’ in Britain as she was from Australia. A second romance flourished between the young widower Anton and the nurse Adele Anne Wilby. They married very simply at the registrar’s office in Brixton, South London on 1 September 1978.

Balasingham teamed up with the LTTE in 1978. He did a lot of writing for the Tigers from London while paying periodic visits to India. When the LTTE broke up in 1980, he aligned himself with the Prabhakaran faction. Balasingham and wife Adele relocated to Chennai (then Madras) after the July 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom.

Meeting Balasingham

After entering journalism by joining the Tamil daily ‘Virakesari’ in 1977, I moved to the English daily ‘The Island’ when it was launched in 1981. In 1984/5 I was given the assignment of obtaining interviews from Sri Lankan Tamil militant leaders based in India by Vijitha Yapa who was the Editor at that time. In Tamil Nadu I met with most militant groups but the LTTE was playing hard to get. Finally I was asked to be at a particular spot near the Kannagi statue along the Marina beach at 5:30 p.m. I complied.

A vehicle drew up at 5:30 p.m. sharp and the LTTE stalwart “Nesan” (an ex-seminarian) driving the vehicle asked me to get in front. He then drove the car to another spot and parked. After a while another vehicle came up behind. A man got down and walked up to our vehicle and seated himself behind. As I turned around, he stretched his hand out and said, “I am Balasingham.”

Nesan then began driving the vehicle in a seemingly aimless fashion through many roads and streets. Balasingham kept quizzing me in a curt manner. The hostile questions indicated he was suspicious of me. I changed track and told him about my family and his deceased wife’s family. I also said, “Like you, I too worked at the ‘Virakesari’.” Balasingham’s attitude changed. He beamed and said, “So you are one of us.” He told Nesan, “Let’s go to Buhari Hotel.” So we went to the Muslim restaurant and had a biriyani dinner while exchanging reminiscences about the past and discussing current politics. This was my first meeting with Balasingham. There were many thereafter.

‘Tamil traitor’

In 1988 I left for the USA on a Nieman Fellowship for Journalism at Harvard University. I later moved to Canada in 1989 and began editing a Tamil weekly from 1990 onwards in Toronto. I was critical of the LTTE after the Tigers broke the ceasefire with the Chandrika Kumaratunga Government in April 1995 and declared war. 

For this I paid a price as the Tigers in Canada started a campaign against the Tamil weekly ‘Muncharie’ owned and edited by me in Toronto. They “banned” it. When the spate of death threats did not deter me, the Tigers began to target the Tamil-owned shops selling the paper and also the predominantly Tamil advertisers. The 48-page tabloid priced at a dollar had 22 pages of advertisement and sold 4,500-5,000 copies. Thanks to the Tiger intimidation and threats many shops stopped selling the paper. The paper shrunk to 24 pages with two pages of advertisements. Sales plummeted to three digits. Rather than survive on my knees by toeing the LTTE line, I opted to die on my feet and stopped publishing in April 1996.

My wife and I worked full-time for the paper. In addition we had nine others working part-time. The paper being stopped was a huge financial blow at that time. Still the demise of ‘Muncharie’ was a blessing in disguise for me as I re-entered English journalism again.

I had started out as a journalist by working for the ‘Virakesari’ in Colombo writing in Tamil. I entered English journalism by working for ‘The Island’ and later ‘The Hindu’. After I came to Canada I went back to Tamil journalism by editing first the weekly ‘Senthamarai’ and later the ‘Muncharie’. Now I went back to English journalism again by writing for ‘The Island’ and later ‘The Sunday Leader,’ ‘The Nation’ and now the ‘Daily Mirror’ and ‘Daily Financial Times’.

Incidentally the Tamil newspapers published in Colombo including my cradle ‘Virakesari’ were unwilling to let me write under my byline in Tamil fearing the LTTE. I turned down offers to write under a nom de plume in Tamil. Hence it has been English journalism for me for the past 25 years!

Though the LTTE had stopped my paper in a bid to silence me, what happened was that I continued writing in English and was critical of both the Governments in power as well as the LTTE. The Tiger supporters began slandering me as a Tamil traitor. Despite being labelled as anti-LTTE I continued with my journalism.

Balasingham reaches out

The new millennium brought a surprise. The Tamil Catholic priest Fr. S.J. Emmanuel came to Toronto in mid-2000 and got in touch with me. He said that Balasingham in London wanted to talk to me. This led to my establishing contact with Balasingham again. I had lost contact with him after I left Sri Lanka. However I had earlier “scooped” the news about Balasingham’s return to London from the Wanni in 1999.

While conversing after many years, Balasingham told me that he agreed with my view that the Tamil people needed to end the war and embrace peace with equal rights through a negotiated settlement. Bala Annai said that he was working out a peace process with the help of Norway and wanted me to support it through my writings. I was then writing for ‘The Sunday Leader’.

When I informed the Editor and close friend Lasantha Wickrematunge, he was very happy and said the newspaper will back all efforts to bring about a successful settlement. Thereafter I was in regular contact with Balasingham. There were many occasions where we would spend hours talking off the record. I learnt a lot about the inner workings of the LTTE and its evolution and growth through those conversations.

The ceasefire facilitated by Oslo came into force from 23 February 2002. I was very happy initially. Soon I found the LTTE behaving in a manner that was not conducive to a genuine peaceful settlement. When I remonstrated with Balasingham, I found him unresponsive to my complaints. Slowly he began avoiding me. I waited for six months thinking the LTTE must be given time to get accustomed to a peace process. When that did not happen I began to be critical of the negative acts of omission and commission by the LTTE. Soon I realised that the LTTE was not genuine about peace talks. These thoughts were reflected in my columns.

Balasingham was angry. He “advised” Lasantha not to carry my columns as that could affect the paper’s standing with Tamil readers. Lasantha told me of this and said, “Carry on as usual, Machang.” I continued. Later Balasingham went on to attack me by name at press conferences and at public meetings. All communication between us ceased. Balasingham even instigated sycophantic Tamil editors to attack me viciously in print.

A few years later in the third week of November 2006 I received a telephone call from London. It was from Balasingham. I was surprised as we were not on speaking terms for about three years due to our differences. I was however happy to talk to “Bala Annai” because I had heard earlier that he was terminally ill and that his days were numbered.

Bala Annai said at the outset that he was telephoning and talking to some of his old colleagues, friends and contacts. Although he did not explicitly say so, I realised that it was a farewell call from a man who was to “go out gently into that good night” soon. He had been diagnosed with bile duct cancer (cholangiocarcinoma), a rare and aggressive malignancy of the biliary system. It was in an advanced state and the doctors had given him about four to six more weeks.

Prabhakaran’s stance

Balasingham was his customary jovial self with his jokes and jibes. As the conversation progressed I sensed that he was seriously worried. It was certainly not over his impending death but something else. Soon it came blurting out: “Thambikku oru Ilavum vilanguthillai. Nilaimai Padu moasamaahuthu. Muzhu Ulagamum Saernthu Puligalai Mongappoaguthu” (younger brother is not understanding anything. The situation is becoming worse. The whole world will get together and clobber the Tigers). ‘Younger brother’ referred to LTTE supremo Veluppillai Prabhakaran who was known as Thamby to those of an earlier vintage.

Balasingham went on to say that the so-called international community was infuriated at the conduct of the LTTE. Unless the Tigers did an urgent course correction and acted in an acceptable manner, the Western nations, China, Japan, Pakistan and India were going to back the Rajapaksa regime and ensure that the LTTE was militarily defeated and destroyed. I asked Balasingham as to why he was unable to make Prabhakaran see the writing on the wall and act accordingly. Bala Annai replied ruefully that he had tried and failed.

Speaking further Balasingham said that he had in a direct one to one meeting at Kaeppaapulavu in the northern mainland of Wanni entreated Prabhakaran to see reason and understand the situation. But Prabhakaran did not budge, lamented Bala Annai. “You know how ‘Veeramaarthaandan’ (this was how Balasingham referred to Prabhakaran when annoyed) behaved with me?” asked Bala Annai in Tamil. He then continued to elaborate:

“When I kept on broaching the subject, Prabhakaran abruptly asked me whether I had seen the Tamil movie ‘Autograph’ directed by famous Tamil Nadu film maker Cheran. When I said ‘no’ Prabhakaran said then we must watch it now. So a DVD of the film was played and we watched it on TV in silence. After it was over, I again tried to talk about the situation. Prabhakaran said, “Let’s watch the film again.” So we watched it again. Once it was over I tried again to re-open the topic. Prabhakaran with an impish grin said ‘Innorukkaa Paarppam,’ meaning ‘let’s see it again’. I took the hint and took Prabhakaran’s leave. When he behaves like that I know from experience that nothing would make him relent.”

When I asked Balasingham whether he did not try to make other senior LTTE leaders understand the situation, he replied that people like Thamilselvan, Castro, Pottu Ammaan in the Wanni and Ruthirakumaaran in New York had prejudiced Prabhakaran’s mind against him after the Oslo facilitated peace talks between the Ranil Wickremesinghe Government and LTTE. 

Moreover they had also misinformed Prabhakaran into believing that the Sri Lankan armed forces could be defeated and that the world would back the Tigers against Rajapaksa. Balasingham also said that senior leaders like Soosai, ‘Baby’ Subramaniam, Balakumaran and Para understood the predicament but were powerless to persuade Prabhakaran to see reality.

We had talked for about 20 minutes when Balasingham started to cough ceaselessly. He could not continue further and we had to end our conversation. I was extremely saddened by the conversation as I could see that escalation of the war was going to be inevitable. The wretched of the Wanni earth –innocent Tamil civilians – were going to suffer a humanitarian catastrophe. Subsequent events demonstrated that my fears were justified. Furthermore Balasingham’s ominous foreboding that the international community was going to clobber the Tigers also proved correct. Only they let Colombo do the dirty work and now want to probe alleged war crimes.

Balasingham bids farewell

That final conversation with Balasingham also cleared up a lot of things for me. Chief among them was the “misunderstanding” (to put it mildly) I had with him. He made me understand through that conversation that he had indeed been genuine about a negotiated settlement but was overruled by Prabhakaran as events unfolded. 

I did not ask him why he had attacked me publicly or tried to stop me from writing for The Sunday Leader. I felt it was “not done” to do so as the man was dying. 

However I felt that he may have been compelled to turn against me publicly in order to safeguard himself within the LTTE. Thamilselvan and Castro were conducting a vicious campaign within the overseas LTTE against me at that time and it was quite possible that Balasingham was vulnerable on account of the close contact he maintained with me in earlier times.

Anton Stanislaus Balasingham passed away peacefully in his South London residence at 1:45 p.m. (British time) on Thursday, 14 December 2006. His loving and devoted Australia-born wife Adele Anne was by his side as Bala Annai breathed his last. All these thoughts about the relationship I had with him arise again as the 15th death anniversary of Anton Balasingham draws near on 14 December.

(D.B.S. Jeyaraj can be reached at [email protected])

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