From the sidelines By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya In a somewhat unusual news item on Thursday, India’s ‘Business Standard’ said that Sri Lankan Navy personnel had offered ‘biscuits and tea to Indian fishermen near Katchchaitivu.’ When the navy boats surrounded them the fishermen had initially thought they were going to be beaten up, the report said. They were [...]


Indo-SL Joint Commission and ‘tea and biscuits diplomacy’ in the Palk Strait


From the sidelines By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya

In a somewhat unusual news item on Thursday, India’s ‘Business Standard’ said that Sri Lankan Navy personnel had offered ‘biscuits and tea to Indian fishermen near Katchchaitivu.’

When the navy boats surrounded them the fishermen had initially thought they were going to be beaten up, the report said. They were surprised when the navalmen instead gave them refreshments and “offered a friendly warning asking the fishermen to fish in Indian waters and not to come too deep into their territorial waters.”

This story comes as a surprise since news reports on incidents in the Palk Straits usually revolve around mid-sea dustups between the SLN and the Indian fishermen, who have a habit of venturing into Sri Lankan waters in large numbers, attracted by the area’s rich marine resources. We may assume that the words ‘near Katchchaitivu’ in the report meant ‘inside Sri Lankan territorial waters’ although it was not expressly stated. Readers must have speculated on the reasons for this apparent sudden turnaround in approach on the part of Sri Lankan authorities.

It is well known that poaching by Indian fishermen in trawlers has become an increasingly fractious issue affecting Sri Lanka’s Northern and Eastern fisher communities. This has been a key issue souring Indo-Sri Lanka relations since the war’s end.

It is perhaps more than coincidental that External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris was in Delhi at the time, to attend the eighth India-Sri Lanka Joint Commission Meeting (JCM). Among the matters mentioned in the Joint Statement issued at the end of the meeting was a commitment to ‘decrease incidents pertaining to fishing on the International Maritime Boundary Line.’ It said “Both countries agreed that the use of force could not be justified under any circumstances and reiterated in this regard the importance of continuing to extend humane treatment to all fishermen.”

Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid’s remarks at the joint press briefing with Peiris in Delhi on Friday, at the end of the JCM, included some observations that were not in the Joint Press Statement. There he said, “The need for both sides to adhere to Practical Arrangements on Fishing of 2008, which had helped to decrease incidents on the International Maritime Boundary Line, has been duly noted.”

His wording relating to the ’2008 Arrangements’ is significant because he did not say ‘both countries agreed’ to them but only that they were ‘duly noted.’ The statement on Fishing Arrangements was made on Oct. 26, 2008 during a visit to Delhi by MP Basil Rajapaksa, Senior Advisor to the President. It said:
“Keeping in mind the humanitarian and livelihood dimensions of the fishermen issue, India and Sri Lanka have agreed to put in place practical arrangements to deal with bonafide Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen crossing the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL).” It went on to say:

“As part of these practical arrangements, following the designation by the Government of Sri Lanka of sensitive areas along the Sri Lankan coastline and their intimation to the Government of India, Indian fishing vessels will not venture into these identified sensitive areas. Further, there will be no firing on Indian fishing vessels.”

The ‘Arrangements’ of 2008 may be seen as problematic for Sri Lanka because they could be interpreted as giving the Indian fishermen license to trespass without fear of reprisal. The statement was issued at a time when the war with the LTTE was ongoing, hence the reference to ‘designated areas’ of the coastline etc. The situation has changed after the war’s end. With the lifting of fishing restrictions the number of vessels has increased and the Lankan fishermen incessantly complain of Indian trawlers invading territorial waters, depriving them of their rightful catch and causing serious environmental damage by resorting to ‘bottom trawling.’

Another point mentioned by Khurshid, not included in the Joint Statement, was the assertion that the two countries are “working on setting up of a Special Economic Zone in Trincomalee and a pharmaceutical and a textiles cluster elsewhere in Sri Lanka.” The Joint Statement further reveals that the rehabilitation of Palaly airport has been undertaken by India. It was earlier reported that Sri Lanka had denied them this strategically sensitive project. During the media interaction Kurshid reiterated Delhi’s expectations with regard to the 13th Amendment. 

“We hope that there will be early progress on a meaningful devolution building upon the 13th Amendment and leading to national reconciliation” he said.

One of the questions posed to Minister Peiris from Indian media was about demands by some ministers that the 13th Amendment be repealed. Peiris said in response that difference of opinion was to be expected in a coalition government, and that the different strands of thought were “very healthy in a vibrant democracy.” He added that “there is encouragement for the expression of different points of view.”

Surely the minister was being disingenuous in this explanation. Sri Lanka’s democratic credentials have taken a beating as never before over the impeachment of its Chief Justice, in a process condemned as being politically motivated, biased and unjust. It is significant that the strongest criticism has come from within the country — from the intelligentsia, the legal fraternity, the clergy, professional groups, the business community and others. In addition, the UNHRC Chief has called it a ‘calamitous setback for the rule of law,’ the Commonwealth Secretary General expressed ‘profound concern’, there have been calls to put Sri Lanka on the agenda of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group’s (CMAG) agenda, and groups of judges and jurists from around the world have called for the reinstatement of Shirani Bandaranayake, arguing that her sacking violated international law.
Against this backdrop Sri Lanka will face a challenging situation at the upcoming session of the UN Human Rights Council in February-March. There it is expected UNHRC Chief Navi Pillay will report on Sri Lanka’s progress on human rights and the implementation of the LLRC report’s recommendations. At last year’s session where a US sponsored resolution against Sri Lanka was adopted, many countries spoke up for Sri Lanka. There was a perception of a ‘ganging up’ by western powers and a failure to acknowledge the magnitude of the task faced in a post war situation. There was a groundswell of sympathy locally
The context has changed now. Sri Lanka will be badly in need of friends at forthcoming interactions in international fora . India’s failure to back Sri Lanka at the UNHRC in 2012 had disastrous consequences, and no doubt India’s support will be seen as vital this year too. Perhaps this has something to do with the recent ‘tea and biscuits diplomacy’ observed in the Palk Strait …?

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