LONDON (Reuters) - Almost always smiling, smartly dressed and carrying a polished cane, S.P. Thamilselvan was the key contact point between Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tiger rebels and the outside world.
Killed on Friday in a government air strike, the leader of the Tigers’ political wing was the public face and mouthpiece of the rebels who met foreign diplomats and reporters denied access to reclusive rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran when they visited the de facto rebel capital Kilinochchi.
While the government says his death shows they can strike senior rebels at will, analysts and diplomats say it will make bringing the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the government together even harder, further locking the country into its civil war.
In previous decades of war, Prabhakaran used English-speaking and British passport-holding negotiator Anton Balasingham for political advice. But Balasingham’s influence appeared to have waned after he returned to London for medical treatment before his death last year.
Diplomats and observers could never agree whether Thamilselvan exercised significant influence over rebel policy. But he effectively replaced Balasingham as the voice of the rebels, and led a delegation to peace talks in Geneva last year.
Born in 1967 on the northern Jaffna peninsula in what is now a government-held enclave, he joined the fledgling rebel movement in the 1980s before being wounded the following decade by an Indian peacekeeping force that ended up fighting both sides.
Once a rebel military commander, he joined the political wing — although he still occasionally appeared in public in the rebel trademark tiger-striped camouflage carrying a sidearm.
Visitors would be shown into a glass-fronted peace secretariat office before his Landcruiser with blacked out windows screeched into the compound and he stepped out accompanied by bodyguards with radios and assault rifles.
Both before and after a 2002 ceasefire collapsed into open warfare last year, he would express the commitment of the rebels — masters of suicide bombing and accused by the United Nations of abducting children to fight — to peace. But he was unwavering in his demands for a separate ethnic Tamil homeland.
He clearly understood some English but preferred to use his veteran official translator George, a former postmaster, whose flowery translations drove some correspondents to despair.
“If the military decides to thrust a war on the people by escalating military violence ... and thereby create a situation whereby we cannot just be onlookers, that may be a very decisive moment where we have to make decisions to make sure the people are safeguarded,” he told Reuters in 2006 as violence flared.
He would reply to questions with an unnerving smile and would shift uncomfortably when asked about thorny topics such as human rights abuses, child soldier abductions or ambushes on troops that seemed designed to restart the war.
“We have need of such tactics,” he said regarding child soldier recruitment. “But in the case of (a) 16-year-old child who was pulled out and shot dead by the military, can we go and say to the child’s brother ... you cannot resort to violence because you are below the age of 18.”