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The Situation Report

22nd August 1999

Top level Indo-Lanka talks on security matters end successfully

By Iqbal Athas

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A general election only weeks away and heightening security concerns over fighting with Pakistan, did not deter India from addressing the security concerns of her southern neighbour, Sri Lanka, early this week.

A top level delegation led by Defence Secretary, Chandrananda de Silva, held talks with high ranking officials of the Indian defence establishment over security related matters. If he was happy the talks ended on a successful and harmonious note, he was equally happy his three day long mission to New Delhi went off without the glare of any publicity.

Until the departure of Mr. de Silva and his entourage from Colombo last Sunday and their return during the early hours of Thursday, there was no mention in the Sri Lankan and even the Indian media about the visit or the issues that were to come up (or discussed) during a string of top level talks.

Mr de Silva was accompanied by a high level team. It comprised retired Inspector General of Police, Frank Silva, now Director General, Directorate of Foreign Intelligence (DFI), Rear Admiral Daya Sandagiri, Chief of Staff, Sri Lanka Navy, Captain T.S.G. Samarasinghe, Deputy Director, Operations, Sri Lanka Navy, Air Commodore Lal Perera, Director, Aeronautical Engineering and two Foreign Ministry officials Dr Rohan Perera, Senior Legal Advisor and Romesh Jayasinghe, Director, South Asia and SAARC. Sri Lanka's High Commissioner in India, Mangala Moonesinghe, was also associated with the team together with Defence Attache Captain D.W.A. Dissanayake.

Mr de Silva and his delegation are learnt to have discussed security related bi-lateral issues with his Indian counterparts headed by Defence Secretary, T.R. Prasad. Some members of the team also met their respective counterparts

One of the main areas of discussion, according to authoritative sources, were security matters of interest to Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean region including the Palk Straits a subject which had earlier been raised at an operational level during talks between officials of the two Navies. (Situation Report- May 9, 1999)

That time, it came in the backdrop of reports that LTTE arms shipments were arriving on the north eastern coast. Two senior Sri Lanka Navy officials Commodore T.N. Thuduwewatta and Deputy Director, Captain T.S.G. Samarasinghe- raised the issue during talks with Indian Navy officials in New Delhi. The talks were held on May 13 and 14. Of particular concern then were two vessels, "MV Mariamma" and "Showa Maru."

The Indian authorities then explained that the Indian Navy had then acted on representations made by the Sri Lanka Navy. Together with the Coast Guard, they had mounted surveillance on "MV Mariamma" and had later closed in on the vessel. It was then observed to be on fire. There was no sign of life on board. An air and sea search had also shown no survivors. Indian Navy suspects that "MV Mariamma" transported fuel. They had said they picked up some barrels of fuel.

As for "Showa Maru", the Indian Navy had explained that they had monitored the vessel. However, it had sailed out to international waters before the Indian Navy/Coast Guard could engage or apprehend them.

These and other related incidents in the Palk Straits were in Mr. de Silva's brief. But by some coincidence, as the delegation sat down to talks in New Delhi, more developments in the north eastern waters were to further bolster the position of the Sri Lanka delegation.

A Naval flotilla engaged four Sea Tiger boats in a pre-dawn confrontation last Monday ( August 16) in which they drowned one and forced the rest to flee. The incident occurred after what Navy officials describe as a new tactic Sea Tigers had adopted. Their boats hid amidst a cluster of local fishing boats to advance towards the Navy patrol. The first boat loaded with a suicide cadre, Navy officials claim, was fired upon. The boat fitted with a 12.7 MM gun and a small radar exploded before it sank. The remaining three boats had headed towards the Mullaitivu coast.

Navy officials said they requested the Sri Lanka Air Force to intercept the three boats as they headed for the coast. "SLAF bombers did take on the boats. We have no reports on how many were hit," the Navy officials said.

They claimed that Sea Tiger cadres had forcibly commandeered the boats of a group of Muslim fishermen from Pulmoddai in their bid to attack the Navy patrol. One Muslim fisherman who had defied a Sea Tiger request to move towards them was shot, Navy officials said.

A day prior to the incident, (Sunday, August 15), a Navy patrol in the north eastern waters spotted a group of Indian fishing vessels. After a while, they observed two Sea Tiger boats separating from them and speeding towards the Mullaitivu coast. The Navy patrol could not engage them. Some four weeks earlier, Navy Headquarters in Colombo had sent out a signal to all Naval establishments not to engage Indian fishing vessels under any circumstances. They were told to use extreme caution in dealing with them.

The Navy Headquarters order, a defence source explained, was particularly in view of the upcoming general elections in India. Since the fishermen were all from Tamil Nadu, there was the likelihood of any incident becoming a political tool to whip up anti -Sri Lanka feelings by parties contesting the polls there, the source said.

Even before Sri Lanka and India determined their maritime boundaries through the conclusion of two Maritime Boundary Agreements of 1974 and 1976, the question of fishing in Palk Bay, Palk Straits and the Gulf of Mannar, have been a long standing issue. However, the advent of guerrilla activity over the years brought a new dimension to the situation.

A background paper prepared by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1996 gives an idea of what has been going on. This is what it said:

"Even after the conclusion of the Maritime Boundary Agreements there were an appreciable number of Indian trawlers operating within Sri Lanka waters. This caused considerable damage to fishing nets and other fishing gear of Sri Lanka fishermen and also depleted appreciably the fish stocks in Sri Lanka waters, particularly, prawns. Offending vessels were rounded up in naval operations.

"The reasons for the incursions were mainly economic, since the Indian fishermen as well as the owners of the boats were aware that the rich prawn beds were on the Sri Lanka side of the Maritime Boundary, particularly around Delft and Mannar Islands. This explains the large scale poaching around the Delft Island and more recently near Mannar. They were also aware that the Sri Lanka fishermen did not exploit these resources adequately and it was virtually a monopoly of the Indian fishermen. Consequent to the promulgation of the Prohibited Zone in these waters under the Emergency Regulations, fishermen in the North and the East do not engage in any fishing activity in these waters.

"The first occasion the question of violations of Sri Lankan waters by Indian fishermen was formally taken up was when a detailed Aide Memoire was transmitted to the Indian authorities on May 4,1976. This was when continuing violations assumed serious proportions with about 150-200 Indian trawlers fishing within Sri Lankan waters daily, particularly in the area of the Maritime Boundary.

"Arrests of Indian fishermen carried out in naval operations was mainly a deterrent against continuing encroachments. However, even where arrests were made fisherman were detained and normally released within 24 hours of the arrest and even where prosecutions were instituted, these have been withdrawn in the interest of bilateral relations. However, once legal action is instituted in Court, legal proceedings have caused considerable delays.

"Since 1983, with the escalation of terrorist activities in the North and the East and the ferrying into Sri Lanka of terrorist cadres, arms and equipment from bases in Tamil Nadu, the incidents of violations by Indian fishermen assumed a new dimension, as they now constituted a serious security problem to the Government of Sri Lanka. In view of the grave security threat posed by these continuing violations, a decision was taken by the security authorities in August 1984, that any future violations of Sri Lanka waters by Indian vessels would be dealt with firmly under the laws of Sri Lanka and if necessary, Sri Lanka naval craft will open fire on any boats violating Sri Lankan waters. This decision which was communicated to the Indian High Commission in Sri Lanka on August 10, 1981 was taken in the expectation that the Indian authorities would take preventive action on the Indian side of the Maritime Boundary.

"However, this problem has persisted over the years and has been the subject matter of a series of Diplomatic Notes exchanged between the Foreign Ministries of the two countries, as well as at bilateral meetings on fisheries and related matters between officials of India and Sri Lanka."

In March, 1994, during official level talks on fisheries matters, the Indian Government handed over a draft Memorandum of Understanding to the Sri Lanka Government and urged Colombo's response. The salient points of this MOU were:

To prevent the use of force against fishermen and fishing vessels from India and Sri Lanka which may have strayed into the Exclusive Economic Zone/Territorial waters of the other country in the Palk Bay area.

To secure the expeditious release of fishermen and fishing vessels which may have strayed into EEZ/Territorial waters and the other country in the Palk Bay area; and

To allow fishing activities in a regulated manner by Indian fishermen in Sri Lankan waters.

The background note observed: The MOU thus made a clear linkage between humane treatment of Indian fishermen straying into Sri Lanka waters, their expeditious release and allowing fishing activities by Indian fishermen in Sri Lanka waters.

"This linkage was clearly unacceptable from Sri Lanka's point of view as fishing rights in the Palk Bay and Palk Straits were denied even to Sri Lankan nationals with the declaration of a Prohibited Zone in these waters under the Emergency Regulations. There was also the security implications given the potential for smuggling of prohibited items such as kerosene, etc. to LTTE cadres by Indian fishermen.

"The second unsatisfactory feature of this draft was that it sought to permit straying upto a distance of 'X' nautical miles on either side of the Maritime Boundary without any enforcement measures being taken against fishermen found in these areas. While the objective may have been to cover cases of "innocent straying" within a permitted area, the legal effect of such a provision in a MOU would have been to establish a "safe corridor" for fishing activities on either side of the Indo-Sri Lanka Maritime Boundary and thereby whittling down the regime created under the Indo-Sri Lanka Maritime Boundary Agreement of 1974 and 1976.

"Another unsatisfactory feature of the MOU was the reference to 'traditional rights enjoyed by the vessels of India and Sri Lanka in each other's waters' which, under the Agreement has no relevance to fishing vessels.

"However, there were certain positive elements in the Indian draft MOU which were desirable. These were referred to as "Institution of New Arrangements" which sought to impose certain obligations both on the fishermen as well as the Navy/Coast Guard of the two countries.

"In terms of these provisions, both Governments were required to advise their fishermen to take the precautions listed below:- "

(I) Fishing vessels are to have at least one fisherman on watch in the boat at all times during day and night. (ii) They are to show at least one light on deck/mast from sun set to sun rise; (iii) When warned by Navy/CG authorities, the fishermen are to come on the deck and show themselves; (iv) Boats are to be stopped when warned by the Navy/CG authorities".

"Further, the Navy/Coast Guard of the two countries were required to use minimum force as necessary against straying vessels during the course of apprehension with due regard to avoiding loss of life. Navy/CG of each country were to follow the procedure stipulated below:

(i) The Navy/CG will warn and draw the attention of the fishermen, if required, by firing tracer shots; (ii) In the event of no response to (I) above, Navy/CG will fire one warning shot across the bows; (iii) If necessary Navy/CG will fire another warning shot after a lapse of two to three minutes. (iv) If no response is received from the boat/boats, Navy/CG will fire on the bows "without an intent" to harm the fishermen.

"After apprehension/interception of the fishing vessels of the other country, the concerned Government will be obliged to convey to the other Government, through diplomatic channels, all relevant details surrounding the incident within a week of its occurrence. Each party was free to maintain a list of vessels which have strayed and serve a warning to them at least twice. After two warnings, if a vessel is caught again, the Government concerned was free to treat is according to the due process of law and not to release it and its crew automatically as stipulated in the MOU.

"The draft MOU also contained provision on payment of compensation to fishermen for loss of life or destruction of property and also to facilitate visits by owners of apprehended vessels to examine their boats and to undertake repairs."

Sri Lanka responded by proposing to India that there should be joint patrolling by the Navy/Coast Guard of the two countries. Sri Lanka presented what was officially described as a "Non Paper." The proposals included:

Co-ordinated patrolling by the Navies of Sri Lanka and India, which, while operating in their respective waters could effectively prevent fishing vessels from either country encroaching across the Indo-Sri Lanka Maritime Boundary.

Establishment of radio communication link between the Navies for the rapid exchange of information on encroaching vessels and any incidents involving fishermen.

Designation of Co-ordinating Officers of the two Navies and the fisheries authorities of the two countries.

There were also other suggestions in the Sri Lankan "Non Paper" including a procedure for release of fishing vessels, which "inadvertently" stray into each other's waters. Though no concrete measures were evolved between India and Sri Lanka over the issues discussed, diplomatic exchanges between Colombo and New Delhi continued over the years.

Last year, Sri Lanka's High Commissioner in New Delhi, Mangala Moonesinghe, raised these and other related matters during a meeting he held with the Indian Defence Minister, George Fernandes. The latter had urged Sri Lanka to come up with more specific proposals for consideration by the Indian Government. A process to evolve them began after Mr. Moonesinghe reported matters to Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar.

This led to a series of meetings early this year between Navy Commander, Admiral Cecil Tissera and Indian High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, Shiv Shankar Menon.

For obvious reasons, one cannot elaborate on the scope and content of the accord reached by Sri Lanka with India on this important issue. The absence of a mutual accord has enabled the LTTE to smuggle arms and military hardware from sea routes in the Indian Ocean thus enhancing their resources to sustain their military campaign. With new arrangements in place, Indo-Sri Lanka co-operation will hopefully improve policing of the seas. One source closely associated with the talks said "India has fully appreciated our concerns. We are very happy about the conclusions which demonstrate the cordial ties we now enjoy."

The presence of a senior official of the Sri Lanka Air Force in the delegation, among other matters, related to the question of maritime movements in the Indian Ocean. In recent months when suspicious vessels were observed in the high seas off the north east coast, Air Force surveillance had to be restricted to avoid aircraft straying into the Indian Flight Information Region (FIR). Hence, co-ordination with Indian authorities became an important requirement.

These developments came as top brass in the security establishment were undertaking official trips abroad.

Commander of the Sri Lanka Air Force, Air Marshal Jayalath Weerakoddy, is now in Moscow attending the International Salon for Aviation and Kosmos "MAKS 99" (Moscow Air and Kosmos Show). Among those accompanying him are Squadron Leader N.R.P.C. de Silva, ADC, Wing Commander W.A.M.R. Wijesundera, Staff Officer and Air Commodore Channa Gunaratne, Zonal Commander (South).

Army Chief of Staff and Commander, Security Forces, Wanni, Major General Lionel Balagalle, is expected to visit Hawaii to address a conference of Army officials representing over 40 countries. This is to be followed by a visit by Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Srilal Weerasooriya, to the first ever United States sponsored conference of heads of Pacific armies to be held next month in Singapore. During the four day session Lt. Gen. Weerasooriya is also scheduled to have a one-on-one meeting with General Hugh H. Shelton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The increasing military contacts between Sri Lanka and other important players in the Indian Ocean Region augurs well to improve the strategic concerns of the country.


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