Columns - Political Column

Fishing crisis: Lanka sinks under Indian pressure

  • Consul General in Jaffna meets judge in blatant violation of principles of judicial independence
  • Security for World Cup match at Suriyawewa tighter than war-time measures
  • Widest publicity given in Tamil Nadu and India to dispute, while Lankan Govt. maintains silence
By Our Political Editor

For more than one reason Jaffna turned out to be the focal point of attention this week.
Relations between Colombo and New Delhi reached a flashpoint over the arrest of 112, and later 24 fishermen, for poaching in Sri Lankan waters.

Leaders of the main opposition United National Party (UNP) sans their leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, were in the peninsula to campaign for the local polls on March 17. Fears that such polls could be delayed heightened after the ruling United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) challenged in the Court of Appeal the rejection of the candidates during nominations. If a ruling on the matter is not forthcoming before the date on which the Department of Elections wants the printing of ballot papers completed, the chances of a postponement are higher, according to officials,

India's High Commissioner Ashok Kantha met Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the Defence Ministry on Friday to convey his government's "displeasure" over the apprehension and detention of the fishermen from Tamil Nadu. Also taking part in the conference was the new Navy Commander, Vice Admiral Somathilake Dissanayake. No sooner did the hour long meeting end the process for the immediate release of the prisoners began. On February 15, Point Pedro Police said, a group of local fishermen handed over 112 Tamil Nadu fishermen along with 18 fishing boats.

They were remanded till February 28. A further 24 fishermen and seven boats, Ilavalai Police said, were apprehended by local fishermen and handed over to them on February 16. This group was remanded until March 1. All 136 fishermen were released on Friday. A detailed account of the saga appears elsewhere in this newspaper.

High Commissioner Kantha's meeting came in the backdrop of the issue causing concern at the highest levels of the Indian government in New Delhi. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sat for a question and answer session on the regional television channel Doodarshan with a group of leading media personalities last Wednesday. One of them asked about the apprehension of Indian fishermen who allegedly crossed over to Sri Lankan waters. Premier Singh replied, "I have been told that about 118 fishermen have been taken into custody. We are taking up this matter with the Sri Lankan government. We take a very serious view. I think only earlier this month, the foreign secretary made a strong demarche...this kind of behaviour is not acceptable among neighbouring countries,''

Just a day ahead, India's External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna, spoke on the telephone with his Sri Lankan counterpart, G.L. Peiris. If the EAM in Colombo is quick to churn out statements for every courtesy call the Minister made on a foreign dignitary eulogising how extraordinary diplomacy by him was at work, there was stony silence on the fishermen's issue. Even the External Affairs Ministry Secretary, Romesh Jayasinghe's only reaction was to say, "We do not respond to media reports", an archaic phrase used years earlier by his predecessors. Until he became Foreign Secretary, he was Sri Lanka's High Commissioner in India. Didn't Sri Lanka's mission in New Delhi at least report to him of the prime ministerial wrath. Was it not worth a report, or if they did, then was the Foreign Secretary simply lost for words?

In other words, so to say, the External Affairs Ministry of Sri Lanka did not want Sri Lankans to know that trouble was brewing with the northern neighbour over Tamil Nadu fishermen poaching in Sri Lanka's waters. With opposition leader Wickremesinghe attending an International Democratic Union (IDU) meeting in Prague, the silence of the opposition over the EAM's intransigence was equally deafening. It was only the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which sounded a note of caution. Its Gamapaha District parliamentarian Vijitha Herath, the party's spokesman for international affairs, said the fishermen's issue was dragging towards a conflict.

Krishna told the Indian media about his telephone call. He said, "I am hopeful that the Sri Lankan Government will take all the necessary steps to release all Indian fishermen. Both governments must sort out the issue amicably.''.

He added: "I have also conveyed my deep regret that Sri Lankan nationals and Sri Lankan fishermen have taken [the] law into their own hands and confronted our fishermen."

He said there was no justification for fishermen to stray into Sri Lankan waters. Sri Lankan fishermen have also to be "very cautious'' when they are getting into Indian waters. "Nevertheless, in the light of the bilateral relationship which has always been cordial, I think it is necessary that all of us must help to defuse the situation. I have suggested that the fishermen be released."

Thursday being a Poya holiday in Sri Lanka, Krishna expressed confidence that Colombo would take the necessary steps the next day (Friday) when the courts resumed sittings to get all the fishermen released.
"I have also suggested to the Sri Lankan External Affairs Minister that fishermen associations should get in touch with each other so that they can come to some understanding with reference to fishing in international waters," Krishna said.

Krishna's remarks made clear that even before High Commissioner Kantha, a more pleasant diplomat than his predecessor Alok Prasad tied the remaining threads for a diplomatic deal; it had been concluded between New Delhi and Colombo. That is reflected by Minister Krishna's expression of confidence that Colombo would act on Friday since Thursday was a holiday in Sri Lanka. Such confidence was expressed after his telephone conversation with Peiris. Did Krishna "read the riot act" forcing Peiris to relent? Otherwise, it was some high octane 'persuasive diplomacy' on his part. The question was current in diplomatic circles but the answers will not be known since the EAM's approach to the issue is shrouded in secrecy. How Peiris responded to Krishna's claim of "….fishing in international waters…" is also unclear. Is Krishna referring to the waters by Point Pedro on the Sri Lankan side of the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) already drawn up between the two countries a long time ago as "international waters"? Moreover, the issue at dispute is Tamil Nadu fishermen poaching in Sri Lankan waters.

Beside's Krishna's comments to the Indian media, the much-publicised remarks by Premier Singh also drew ire in Jaffna and certain quarters in Colombo. The Indian Prime Minister, no doubt, was articulating his government's position with regard to an issue that had serious political connotations for the ruling Congress Party. The issue of Tamil Nadu fishermen has become a political football for the Congress Party's coalition partner, Muthuvel Karunanidhi's Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and its arch rival Jeyaram Jayalalitha's All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIDMK).

With elections to this southern Indian state due in April, key players of both parties are not only at the forefront of protests outside the Sri Lanka Deputy High Commissioner's office at Alwarpet in Chennai over the fishermen's issue. Some have voluntarily offered themselves for arrest by the Police to stir up emotions to win votes. In marked contrast to defiance during arrests, visuals on television show most of them smilingly stepping into Police vehicles.

Poaching has been going on for years. Both Sri Lankan and Indian fishermen have strayed across the lines some deliberately in search of a better catch, others merely being carried by the currents and the vagaries of wind and sail. However, on the Sri Lankan side it lessened to a very high degree due to the separatist war with fishing bans imposed by the Navy in a bid to restrict sea movements by the LTTE's 'Sea Tigers'. Then, it was the Tamil Nadu fishermen who had a free run, coming into Sri Lankan waters which were rich with fish and prawns.

They were also used by the LTTE to smuggle weapons and men across the narrow Straits. With the war now over, most Sri Lankan fishermen have resumed work and their livelihood. During the 'war' years many of them received some kind of weapons training by the guerrillas. They feel the biggest threat to their livelihood now comes from Tamil Nadu fishermen who were poaching on their grounds. A recent joint statement does not seem to have helped because according to Sri Lankan political leaders in Jaffna, some of the arrested Tamil Nadu fishermen have said that their employers back at home have given them the understanding that Sri Lanka has agreed to permit them to fish in Sri Lankan waters provided they can prove they are 'bona fide fishermen'.

Poy Warungal: An Indian High Commission official bidding farewell to a group of Indian fishermen as they set sail from Point Pedro after their arrest. Their release and departure came following intense diplomatic pressure from India.

The External Affairs Ministry's move to keep all these developments a secret and not tell Sri Lankans what has been going on is unprecedented. More so, when it comes to issues that concern the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country. On Friday, the people were simply made to believe that the courts had ordered the release of the fishermen. In fact, the Point Pedro Magistrate Srinidhi Nandasekaran had remanded them for 12 days. The Government owed it to the country to explain what happened. Even the Fisheries Ministry and the Justice Ministry joined the External Affairs Ministry in maintaining that deafening silence.

Yesterday, the Indian Coast Guard escorted to Sri Lankan waters a group of four fishermen from Jaffna who had strayed into their waters by mistake. They had said that their boat developed engine trouble and they had obtained help from the Coast Guard to repair it.

The remanding of the first batch of 112 fishermen by Judge Nandasekeran was to trigger another controversy. In delivering her order on Friday to release 136 fishermen, she made some observations about the conduct of the Indian Consul General V. Mahalingam who is based in Jaffna. She said ahead of the 112 fishermen being produced before her, Mahalingam had visited her residence. He had asked her not to remand the fishermen since such a move would "have far reaching political consequences." He had wanted them released. She directed that a copy of her order be sent to the Chief Justice Asoka de Silva for follow up action. She noted that it was improper conduct on the part of the diplomat concerned and amounted to interference in the Sri Lankan judiciary.

The Indian Consulate in Jaffna was opened in November last year when External Affairs Minister, S.M. Krishna visited Sri Lanka. Mahalingam, the first Consul General to head it was earlier the head of the Passport Office in New Delhi.

These developments came in the backdrop of diplomatic consultations now under way between India and Sri Lanka "to strengthen the safety and security" of fishermen of both countries. This is expected to be one of the major topics of discussion when the Working Group meets in New Delhi early next month. It is to be a forerunner to a Memorandum of Understanding "on development and co-operation in the field of fisheries."

Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, who was on an overnight visit to Colombo on January 30, discussed these issues during a lengthy meeting with President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Associated with him was External Affairs Minister Peiris. The main purpose of the visit was to express "the deep concern of the Government of India at the recent violent incidents in the waters between India and Sri Lanka, which had resulted in the tragic death of two Indian fishermen." A joint statement issued after her visit noted that "Sri Lankan authorities emphasised in this regard that it is the consistent policy of Sri Lanka to treat in a humanitarian manner all fishermen, including those from the Indian fishing community, who cross into Sri Lankan waters"

Besides the joint statement, Rao who arrived one night and had a busy schedule the next day briefed the Indian based media in Colombo about the purpose of her visit. Whilst Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa were still at lunch at 'India House', the official residence of the High Commissioner at Munidasa Cumaratunga Mawatha (former Thurstan Road), Rao excused herself to move out and brief the Colombo-based Indian media on the outcome of her talks before rushing to the airport for her special flight back to New Delhi.

As a Colombo EAM official pointed out, "she saw the importance of keeping the Indian public informed. She gave priority to that despite a heavy schedule. However, in marked contrast, the events related to the apprehension of the fishermen and their subsequent release was clouded in mystery for the Sri Lankans."

Even for the main opposition UNP, whose leaders were in Jaffna to canvass votes, the issue of fishermen was lost on them. Deputy leader Karu Jayasuriya, General Secretary Tissa Attanayake, Jayalath Jayawardana MP, D.M. Swaminathan MP, Daya Gamage MP and A. Sasitharan, Member, Eastern Provincial Council, were among those who were in Jaffna as part of the campaign for the upcoming local elections.

Their campaign was limited to attending a religious ceremony at the Nallur Kandasamy Kovil where Jayasuriya and others spoke to a gathering of nearly 400 who were present. The only other meeting that took place was at the residence of Vijayakala Maheswaran, wife of slain parliamentarian Thiagarajah Maheswaran. Most of the UNP leaders flew into Jaffna but the return journey was in a bus equipped for polls work. En-route to Vavuniya, the leaders visited the Kilinochchi Vihare. In Vavuniya, they addressed meetings and then travelled to Mannar. The UNP team was unable to travel to the outlying islands of the Jaffna peninsula, strongholds of Minister Douglas Devananda's Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP).

Since the rejection of their nominations in the Jaffna district among others, the EPDP backed ruling United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) has filed action in the Appeal Court challenging the decisions of the Returning Officer. The cases relating to the north are yet to be heard. Elections Department officials say that printing and distribution of ballot papers were being executed according to a schedule. Hence, delays or a possible court order may prompt them to postpone polls in those councils.

On Friday, Attorney General Mohan Peiris gave an assurance to the Court of Appeal that the Commissioner of Elections will not take any further steps until February 28 in respect of councils where the nominations have been challenged.

This is on the basis of a plethora of writ applications filed by both the UPFA and the UNP by last Friday. The Court of Appeal has also issued notices in this respect to the Commissioner of Elections and the Returning Officers.

Amidst an otherwise lacklustre local polls campaign, dampened by the floods that ravaged vast extents of the North-Eastern, North Central and North Western provinces, the fuller attention of the security forces and the police have been concentrated on the Cricket World Cup. The first world cup cricket encounter between Sri Lanka and Canada will take place at the Suriyawewa Stadium today. Yesterday, police and security forces put through a rehearsal to ensure maximum security. Whilst Army teams have searched jungles in the outlying areas of the stadium including the Yala National Park located further away; stricter measures will be in force. Special teams have been assigned to cricket contingents from competing countries with special emphasis on India and Pakistan.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa yesterday addressed all UPFA candidates for local polls at a meeting in Kandy. After returning to Colombo, he flew to the South to be on hand for today's opening of the Suriyawewa Cricket Stadium. It is located between Moneragala and Kataragama.

The security precautions, significant enough, are higher than during the time when the separatist war was under way. The highest number of troops and police have been deployed. At the Sooriyawewa Stadium, at least 1,500 policemen have been deployed for duty.

A subject of concern for the security establishment was possible attempts by groups to use the occasion for anti-government propaganda. This is by the use of posters or banners when live television coverage is being given to the matches played in Sri Lanka. The move prompted Police Chief Mahinda Balasuriya to declare at a news conference on Friday that bands and banners were among items that would not be permitted at the matches. The number of police officers drawn from several provinces shows the degree of Police deployment for today's match. Even the DIG in charge of Anurahdapura has been called for special duty at southern Suriyawewa.

In Colombo, DIGs who previously handled a match by themselves have found their responsibilities being divided. Most of them have been placed in charge of various roads and junctions leading to the match venue and given strength to protect those areas. Measures have been formulated to seal off any area where possible incidents take place.

The security arrangements, important as they would be are not meant to be a dampener to the atmosphere in these matches. Sri Lanka Cricket's Interim Committee Secretary Nishantha Ranatunga said yesterday that neither Sri Lanka Cricket nor the International Cricket Council (ICC) had banned musical instruments (bands) or horns from the 2011 ICC World Cup matches in the sub-continent. The ICC learnt a lesson at the last World Cup tournament (2007) in the Caribbean when the calypso-loving West Indians were prevented from bringing their steel bands for the matches, and the crowd turnout at the games was very poor killing the atmosphere for World Cup games.

The decision has been taken by the Police, or someone has asked the Police to take that decision. IGP Balasuriya's explanation for the ban on bands is that "this is not a musical show". Then, he admits that the ban on banners, posters and even pens is because there can be anti-government protests and "racial hatred" through these banners and posters. Quite seriously he has added that any anti-government slogans would be bad for the reputation of Sri Lanka.

Talk of a kill-joy who has extended his brief from providing protection and security for the players and spectators, to the government as well.

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