What on earth could possibly have made the normally unflappable, suave Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to blow his lid and tell a Tamil Nadu television station last week that the Lankan Navy will shoot Indian fishermen who enter Lanka’s territorial waters in the Palk Strait? Especially when the Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj was [...]


Shoot first, ask later: Lanka trigger happy in Palk Strait


What on earth could possibly have made the normally unflappable, suave Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to blow his lid and tell a Tamil Nadu television station last week that the Lankan Navy will shoot Indian fishermen who enter Lanka’s territorial waters in the Palk Strait?

Especially when the Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj was in town, engaged in delicate reconciliation talks with the Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera on how best to rebuild the bridges between India and Lanka which the Rajapaksa years had rendered derelict? Especially with the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi scheduled to visit Lanka a week later on Friday the 13th – the first Indian Premier to do so after 28 years? The last one who came, Rajiv Gandhi, came after the infamous ‘parrippu drops’ incident and got head butted while inspecting a guard of honour outside the President’s House in the Fort. If that was the thanks for giving food from Lanka’s air, what would be the parting gift for taking fish from Lanka’s sea?

PM Ranil: Uncharacteristic

What dubious surprise was he in for on this volatile island of the yakkas, Modi may have wondered when he rushed to optimistically tweet on Sunday stating, “I embark on my visit to Sri Lanka with the joy and confidence that the visit will make India — Sri Lanka relations even stronger in the years to come.” If Indians were to be shot on sight if they crossed the marine divide unlawfully, even unknowingly, he better watch his step and walk the line in Lanka with diligence, he would have noted with care and thanked his household gods that the Talaimannar- Rameshwaram ferry service was still suspended and would not resume till next year. Else it may have prompted the request for him to take the slow boat across the Palk Strait and risk a firing squad.

The row that erupted after the Prime Minister’s controversial comments on the fishermen issue also led to the postponement of the ‘fishing’ talks which were earlier scheduled to be held and finalised by Thursday the 12th, two days before Modi arrived. They are now expected to be resumed after tomorrow.
So why did Wickremesinghe so uncharacteristically shoot his mouth off, hours before hosting Ms. Swaraj for lunch, by telling Thanthi TV last Friday night that the Navy will shoot any Indian fishermen who dare to stray? His justification for this ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ policy in Lankan waters is that, “If someone tries to break into my house, I can shoot. If he gets killed, law allows me to do that. This is our waters.”

But is this a valid or desired approach to solving a problem that has muddied Indo-Lankan waters for years?
FIRST. Entering another’s property without permission with the intention to commit an offence such as stealing or with the intention to intimidate or annoy can amount to the offence of criminal trespass which entitles the occupier of the property to take steps to repel the intrusion. But it doesn’t entitle the occupier to kill the seeming offender per se. Even in the case of self-defence, there must be a real and reasonable danger or apprehension of danger that one’s own person may be at risk. The right to raise self-defence is not as clear cut as it may seem. The law permits a person to kill another in self-defence only if the person uses no more than “reasonable force.” And what is reasonable force is a matter of interpretation, taking into account the circumstances of each case.

Take the case of British farmer Tony Martin. He was sentenced to life two years ago for shooting dead a teenage burglar and wounding his accomplice as they raided his home. In 2013 he was sentenced to life imprisonment. It was held that he had used excessive force than was reasonably necessary. It established that the right to kill in self-defence to protect one’s person or belongings is not an absolute right.

But this Thursday the 12th, another British farmer who shot and injured a burglar after lying in ambush for him for twenty minutes, walked free from a British court. He had fired at the suspected burglar after he discovered him trespassing on his land in the early hours of the morning. His wife had called the police for help but she had been told that officers would not turn out unless property had actually been stolen. The farmer had then taken his own shotgun and had fired. It was held he had used only reasonable force to defend himself.

The question is whether the circumstances existing in the Palk Strait can be compared to a simple case of house breaking giving rise to apprehension of danger justifying shooting? Is murder as a means of self-defence in those circumstances, reasonable force?

SECOND: Not all who enter Lankan waters will do so with the intention of committing an offence such as illegal fishing. There may be instances, since no physical wall divides the two waters of the same sea, where Indian fishermen may have innocently strayed into Lankan waters. Is their mens rea or their criminal intent, to be probed and determined after they have first been shot, possibly killed? There may be genuine instances where the wayward winds and the overwhelming ocean current may have stubbornly dragged their boat into Lankan waters. Is the navy to stop the boat’s relentless swift drift with a sure shot bullet?

THIRD: Lanka is not at war with India. And Indian citizens cannot be classed as belligerents, as enemies in times of war who, if need be, can be shot on sight with impunity.

FINALLY: What if the Indian fishermen fly the white flag on their mast? Will the Navy still open fire even though the flag signals distress or surrender be it on the high seas or on land? This universal symbol of surrender has been also embedded as such in the Hague Convention. Will the Government be able to survive the international fallout if any fishermen flying the white flag are premeditatedly murdered whilst at their keels? Will the world agree with Lanka when she tries to justify the killing by stating that they deserved to be shot because they had defied the ban and had cast their nets in the hope of catching some fish? While Lanka’s land mass was once branded as the Killing Fields of South Asia due to the tragic terrorist war which has now mercifully ended, will this new ‘shoot Indian fishermen’ policy now unnecessarily damn her territorial waters as the Killing Seas of the Indian Ocean due to this drippy wishy-washy Battle of the Fishes?

Already Ranil’s statement has drawn flak from India’s Congress Party. Its spokesman Abhishek Singhvi tweeted last Sunday, “It’s ‘bure din’” for India if Sri Lanka can dare to flash eyes to India as it has on fishermen’s issue.” He may have forgotten how India flexed its muscles and heaved the 56 inch hairy chest in November last year when the Modi Government demanded the then President Rajapaksa to grant an unconditional presidential pardon not to an Indian fisherman but to three Indian drug couriers posing off as fisherman who had been arrested in the Palk Strait by the Lankan Forces, indicted in Lankan courts, duly convicted and sentenced to death; and how Mahinda Rajapaksa had no hesitation in genuflecting to India’s arrogance and commands and released the three Indians not to serve their sentence in Indian jails but to live free.

Understandably Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is irked, as the rest of Lanka are exasperated, with the nonchalance of India riding rough shod over Lanka’s concerns and treading without a blush on her sensitivities. But yet, can the brave new face of Lanka and the eyes that flash in ire, can the bold new voice India hears win in immoral mire? At the end of the day to be so gung-ho about shooting Big Brother’s fishermen is bound to end in disaster and invite international condemnation.

Isn’t it better therefore to resume the talks to settle the fishermen issue without such threats hanging as a cloud to darken the Indo-Lanka sibling relationship? Far better, is it not, to free Indian fishermen in custody in order to pave the way for better understanding and dialog in the manner Lanka President Maithripala Sirisena did this Wednesday when he ordered the release of 86 Indians arrested in Lankan waters as a token gesture of goodwill on account of Modi’s arrival. Somehow or other, a future release of 86 bodies of Indians shot dead in Lankan waters as a symbolic gesture does not seem to have the same silken touch of goodwill in it.

The price of silence
MR threatens come back because family is probed
Putting his family and associates first before all else, a people-deposed president Mahinda Rajapaksa has declared that he may come back to politics because he is angry that the Maithripala government has filed cases against his family members and associates.

Rajapaksa: Comeback dreams

In an interview given to India’s Hindu newspaper published this Friday, he stated that he was angered by the actions taken by President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe against his family members and associates. “If they didn’t, I would have just supported this government. But now they want to probe, put us in jail, take our passports without any evidence. How can I retire like this? I never said I would retire. At the moment I am taking a rest,” he declared.

Though he has still not confirmed his decision to emerge from semi retirement and make a comeback, all the signs reveal that he is discreetly testing the political waters and coming out of the Medamulana woodwork to stake his claim at least to the premiership. Without a foothold in the political arena, without some semblance of political power to be used as a bargaining chip to thwart the public demand for a crackdown on corruption, it is clear that he, his family and his cronies may not be able to survive the gathering storm.

Already the senseless squander of a nation’s wealth has been exposed. To mention just one instance for example, lavish palaces fit for Third World kings have been built at a cost of over two billion rupees each in remote Kankesanthurai and Panama. They have been euphemistically called International Convention Centres to disguise the glitzy extravagance that the no expense sparing Rajapaksa regime created without a qualm. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe described it as a mega luxury hotel complex with 58 chalets surpassing even Buckingham Palace in the scale of luxury. When Mahinda Rajapaksa said last week they had been built for future generations to enjoy, he may have meant future Lankan princes to indulge. And these may only be the tip of the ice berg.

Already steps have been taken to prove the various allegations made of corruption on an unimaginable scale. The Lankan Government has requested and received the assistance of the World Bank, the IMF, the EEC, the USA and Britain to launch a worldwide hunt to track down the missing 5.6 billion dollars or Rs. 750 billion the Government claims the Rajapaksa family siphoned off from the national coffers. India has agreed to set up a joint Financial Investigation Unit to assist the Government in their endeavour. The process has begun to collect the evidence. And the Government itself, whether it likes it or not, whether it is politically advantageous or not, is under a sacred duty to ensure that the public money stolen is returned to the people and the guilty are brought to justice, indicted to face the verdict of the courts.

But for Mr. Rajapaksa, as he stated in his interview, had the Government not probed his family members and his cronies, had the Government not allowed the due process to take its course, had the Government decided to selectively enforce the law and had exempted the Rajapaksa Family and their Associates from the crackdown on corruption, then he would have supported the Government and kept his peace with the Government. But the Government hadn’t. So he says:”How can I retire like that?”, making it clear that it is not for the sake of the people’s welfare that he is thinking of making a comeback but purely to safeguard the interests of his family and questionable friends.

He has now embarked on a tour of religious sites where he has begun to give cameo style short speeches to the media. A week ago he declared, “the true SLFP is with me”. On Thursday he went to Mihintale and told the Chief Monk of the temple “giving them to govern is like giving the razor to the monkey.” He charged that good governance and development had deteriorated and some people have been sacked, vengeance has returned. “If this is Yahapalanaya”, he said, “may the Gods have mercy upon us”.

No doubt there will be many more visits to temples and many more asides to newsmen; many more diatribes against the government; and many probes and arrests made in the course of the crackdown on corruption will be denounced as evidence of revenge and not as legitimate activity to bring the guilty to justice.

Now from the doldrums of defeat, the prospect of a Rajapaksa Rising as conjured by the homeless Gang of Four — namely, Wimal, Udaya, Dinesh and Vasu orphaned by Mahinda’s presidential loss and staging their Hamlets without the Prince — seemed to have stirred his imagination, fuelled his hopes and created his belief that Lanka is in dire need of him. Mahinda Rajapaksa maybe a seasoned politician but he has still not transcended the weakness inherent in all politicians: the vanity to think that crowds throng his presence or march up his Medamulana driveway simply because they love him, warts and all, and will vote for him any day. If that were true, he would still be President. But the 5 billion dollar question for him to ponder is why, when the Lankan public effectively dethroned him two months ago from the seat he thought he would hold for life, they would want him back now even before the purple ink daubed at the poll booth had barely vanished from their fingernail; and for what earthly reason the Government, now in the process of establishing a national government with the unanimous backing of the SLFP and the UNP, will be willing to risk public wrath by transgressing its sacred promise to the nation to crackdown on corruption, in return for his support to the Government?

Set to reach the biblical age of three score and ten years this November, Mahinda Rajapaksa deserves his retirement. He should do well to spend the hard earned rest wisely and, perhaps, meditate on the wisdom of the Buddha’s Dhammapada, gems of which he often loved to quote at the end of his speeches at international forums. Hopefully he will find inspiration from it and, if so, should be guided by one gem which states that one is responsible only for one’s own action, not for the actions of others. Taking it to heart, he should cease being the beast of burden, braying around bearing the sins of his kith and kin. He may have enough bags of worry of his own to be burdened with.

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