A northern fisherman set fire to his boat and fishing gear on Thursday, in a protest that highlighted the escalation of the anger against Indian vessels that enter illegally into Sri Lankan waters. There were multiple protests by fishermen this week condemning the deaths of two young fishermen and illegal fishing by Indians. The fisherman [...]


Murder at mid-sea: Northern fisherfolk reach breaking point over Indian raiders blamed for deaths


A northern fisherman set fire to his boat and fishing gear on Thursday, in a protest that highlighted the escalation of the anger against Indian vessels that enter illegally into Sri Lankan waters.

There were multiple protests by fishermen this week condemning the deaths of two young fishermen and illegal fishing by Indians.

Northern fishermen hold protests. Pix by N. Lohathayalan

The fisherman from Polikandy, Valvettithurai who staged the fiery protest at a fishing jetty said he could not go fishing until Indian poachers are stopped. He is forced to look for alternatives to make a living, he said.

The incident reflected the collective agitation of the northern fisherfolk community against Indian trawlers which frequently enter illegally into Sri Lanka’s territorial seas, and even come close to the coast for bottom trawling. Bottom trawling is banned and has been declared as illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing.

Indian trawlers from Tamil Nadu continue to breach the International Maritime Boundary Line to fish in Sri Lankan territorial waters.

On January 27,  two fishermen from Vaththiraayan, Supparmadam, a fisherfolk village some 14 kilometres from Point Pedro, put their boats to sea in the evening. Even after three days, they did not return home. Fellow fishermen searched for days, but only found damaged fishing nets. They did not even find debris.

The northern naval command searched for the missing fishermen. 

On Monday, January 31, the bodies of two fishermen washed up near the coast of Aaliyawalai, another nearby fishing village on the northern coast.

The victims were identified as J. Premkumar, 34, a father of three young children, and A. Thanikaimaaran, 21, from the same family. The latter’s parents died in the 2004 tsunami and the family had been supported by relatives.

Weeks before the incident, the Point Pedro fishermen alleged that at least 400 Indian bottom trawlers trespassed into Sri Lanka’s territorial waters throughout the week and reached the northern sea via Point Pedro-Kankesanthurai sea.

Leader of Vadamarachchi East Fisheries Federation president, N. Varnakulasingham said Indian trawlers fitted with powerful lights can be seen near the coast in the early hours.

Many local fishermen have chosen to stay ashore since their nets had been damaged by Indian trawler activity and some had been missing in midsea, fishermen leader Mr Varnakulasingham said.

Days before the incident, tensions were high because of a lack of a response from authorities to stop Indian trawler intrusions into Sri Lanka’s territorial waters despite many protests and repeated assurances from Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda to take stern action.

The fishermen alleged that the incident could have been a ‘deliberate’ collision. The boat sank. They said parts or the engine had not been recovered.

When the two bodies washed over, the agitated fisherfolk community poured on to the street and blocked traffic on the Ponnalai-Point Pedro street.

Fishing nets and boats were carried to the middle of the road and a temporary shed was erected. The fishermen alleged that Sri Lanka government authorities had turned a blind eye to their protests in the recent past.

When Mr Devananda, arrived at the protest site, the emotionally charged fishermen demanded answers. They accused him, a Cabinet Minister representing the Northern Province, for failing to secure a solution.

They told the minister that the failure of the government to find a lasting solution had resulted in the death of two fishermen and had forced them to act. 

The local fishermen made it clear that if the authorities cannot ensure the safety of the fishermen and their fishing equipment from Indian intruders, then, the fisherfolk community will be compelled to take up the task. They demanded an assurance in writing from Mr Devananda himself.

Mr Devananda tried to respond to the request by the fishermen diplomatically, but the angry response from the fishermen forced him to leave the meeting.

On the following day, the agitating local fishermen set sail when they came to know that some Indian trawlers had again entered Sri Lankan territorial waters.

At least 10 local fibreglass boats surrounded a large Indian trawler in the Point Pedro sea carrying seven Indians. A navy patrol vessel had then intervened and taken the Indian suspects into custody along with another cornered trawler and fishermen. Totally, 21 Indian fishermen and two trawlers were taken into navy custody and handed over to the Department of Fisheries for further legal action.

The Sri Lankan fishermen called for a ‘hartal’ across the district and staged a massive protest in front of the Jaffna District Secretariat on Thursday. Even though the officials requested the fisher community leaders to come for talks in the office, the fishermen rejected it saying that they have been cheated for years with empty assurances from officials for years.

Following protests led by the fishermen which caused a public outcry, Tamil political parties expressed solidarity and visited the fishermen. However, fishermen unions requested political parties not to leverage their struggle for politics. Local politicians representing the Tamil National Alliance, too, came to support the protest.

Muththukumar Sivakumar, a fisherman from Supparmadam Rural Fisheries Union, told the Sunday Times that the continuous failure by both governments to resolve the issue led to the ‘bloody’ conflict in midsea.

“We suspect whether there is a hidden agenda to turn the fisherfolk communities of the two countries against each other to reach political goals. What we have been asking the government is to implement the law and prevent the trespassing of Indian fishermen into our waters. See what has happened now,” Mr Sivakumar said while asking who will support the bereaved families.

“We have repeatedly pleaded with the Indian fishermen not to come into our waters and destroy our livelihood. As fishing communities, we request both governments to urgently come forward to resolve the issue. If not, I fear this would lead to ugly clashes among us in mid sea. Nobody wants to see that,” he said.

On Monday, the Tamil National Peoples’ Front led by Kajendrakumar Ponnambalam, met the UN Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka, Ms Hanaa Singer in Jaffna, and took up the issue of Indian poaching in northern waters as one of the major livelihood issues and stressed authorities had failed miserably.

Later, police secured a court order from Point Pedro Magistrate’s Court on Thursday under provisions of public nuisance, against the setting up of a temporary shelter by protesters blocking traffic.

This is the first time two northern fishermen have died in a ‘midsea clash’ between local and Indian fishermen. Last year alone, at least five Indian fishermen were killed in the Palk Straits. The navy has denied any wrongdoing.

The 45-60 feet long Indian trawlers are known for their aggressive moves in midsea even when the navy had tried to warn them away from Sri Lanka’s territorial waters. Last October, an Indian vessel sank after ramming a navy vessel. The navy vessel was also damaged and recalled to Kankesanthurai base for repairs.

Spokesperson Captain Indika de Silva said the navy will continue patrols around the border and warn away Indian trespassers,

“The apprehension of an Indian trawler by local fishermen in Point Pedro sea was an isolated incident,” Capt de Silva said, while indicating another trawler had been taken into custody.

Meanwhile, the release of two Sri Lankan fishermen who are detained in India was further delayed this week. Both were taken into custody by the Indian Coast Guard recently. They were to be released on Friday, February 4.

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