Drama on the high seas
A third party bent on spoiling Indo-Sri Lanka
By Ranil WIJAYAPALA
Patrolling Navy Fast Attack Craft
The waters across the Palk Strait after remaining calm for a few
years has once again turned turbulent with the Indian authorities
pointing a finger on the Sri Lanka Navy for the killing of two fishermen
from Tamil Nadu state just within ten days apart.
It has not only made the Indian Government summon Sri Lankan High
Commissioner in New Delhi to the External Affairs Ministry to lodge
their strong protest over the incident but also created a highly
sensitive political issue in Tamil Nadu in the run up to elections for
the state of Tamil Nadu.
Vice Admiral Somathilaka
Navy spokesman captain
Despite strong denials by the Sri Lankan Government and the Sri Lanka
Navy, some Indian politicians based in Tamil Nadu are continuing their
agitation campaigns pressurising the central government to take strong
action against Sri Lanka Navy. But, clarity seems the most essential
factor that is lacking in their allegations against the Sri Lanka Navy.
They have dared to directly point the finger at the Navy but had failed
to point out the exact location and the way the incidents had occurred.
It was the Navy Commander Vice Admiral Somathilaka Dissanayake on the
very same day he assumed duties as the Navy Commander on January 15, who
very correctly put the record straight requesting the Indian authorities
to forward any evidence, if any, to prove the allegations that the
Indian fishermen was killed by the Sri Lanka Navy.
He pointed out that India as a country equipped with such a big Navy,
Coast Guard and state-of-the-art technology should have the capability
to monitor any such incident taking place in the high seas.
At the same time the Navy Commander pointed out that Sri Lanka Navy
which is constantly monitoring its ships and vessels out at sea
specially in the sea adjacent to International Maritime Boundary Line
between India and Sri Lanka, has not detected any such incident in their
radars installed at the Delft island with a link to the Operations Room
at the Navy Headquarters in Colombo.
It was on that basis the Sri Lanka Navy denied any involvement in the
incident and sought any proof from the Indian side to show the SLN
involvement in the incident to conduct an investigation to trace any
Navy involvement in the incident.
Further he said strict instructions have been given to ships and
vessels operating in the Palk Strait not to fire or harass any Indian
fishermen who had trespassed into the Sri Lankan territorial waters.
"The Sri Lanka Navy or the Government will not stand on behalf of any
Navy personnel if they are involved in such acts", the Navy Commander
It was just two days after the January 12 incident the Navy Commander
Somathilaka Dissanayake made that comment.
The situation was once again fuelled by another incident when
fisherman, Jayakumar, 28, from Pushpavanam in Nagapattinam was killed
off the coast of Kodaikarai last Saturday.
Earlier it was a fisherman from Jagadapattinnam near Pudukottai, who
was fishing in the Palk Strait was killed on January 13 in a shooting
incident. Following the second incident Indian people led by Tamil Nadu
politicians and the Indian Government took no time to put the blame on
the Sri Lanka Navy. This time too they came out with the same allegation
without any detail about the incident.
Sri Lankan High Commissioner in India was summoned to External
Affairs Ministry office in New Delhi to lodge their strong protest.
A statement issued by the Indian Government also said: "We have
received reports of the death of an Indian fisherman due to firing by
Sri Lankan Navy personnel. Our High Commissioner in Colombo has
immediately taken up this matter with the Sri Lankan Government and
expressed our deep concern and regret at this incident. We have
emphasized that resort to firing in these situations has no
justification and called on the Sri Lankan authorities to desist from
use of force. The welfare and the safety of our fishermen in the waters
between India and Sri Lanka have received very high priority by
Government. We have consistently emphasized to the Sri Lankan Government
to refrain from firing on our fishermen and scrupulously adhere to the
October 2008 Understanding reached between the two governments. We call
on the Sri Lankan Navy to exercise maximum restraint and avoid use of
force in such situations.
It was in this backdrop some Buddhist monks and the Maha Bodhi
Society in Chennai came under attack by some unruly elements in Tamil
Nadu who tried to take the law into their hands.
Sri Lankan High Commissioner in India had to request security for the
Buddhist monks and pilgrims visiting India following this incident.
Fortunately, it was confined to an isolated incident and Indian
authorities have already arrested seven suspects involved in the
incident. The suspects who had been arrested belonged to a political
party in Tamil Nadu. But there are signs the two incidents to blow into
a hot issue at the forthcoming elections in Tamil Nadu state.
However, for the Sri Lanka Navy, such situations are not rare. "From
time to time there had been many such allegations by Indian authorities
but none of those allegations have been proved", Navy Spokesman Captain
Athula Senerath said.
"In these instances also Sri Lanka Navy has not received any
information about the exact locations where the two incidents had
occurred from the Indian authorities even for the Sri Lanka Navy to
carry out any investigations", the Navy Spokesman said.
According to Captain Senerath the Sri Lanka Navy has been handling
the Indian fishermen issue very carefully as they are aware of the fact
that any mistake on their apart could lead to a diplomatic crisis
between India and Sri Lanka.
"For each and every ship and vessels patrolling the Palk Strait have
been given standing operation procedures how to act with regard to
Indian fishermen trespassing the IMBL", he added.
The normal procedure with regard to Indian fishermen poaching in the
Sri Lankan waters, is to warn them to leave the Sri Lankan waters and
take them to the Indian waters in coordination with the Indian Navy or
the Coast Guard.
"We arrest the Indian fishermen only when they do not heed our orders
and leave our waters", he added.
Even after arrest they are treated humanely and handed over to the
Police for legal procedures.
Can Sri Lanka Navy harass or kill those Indian fishermen, poaching in
Sri Lankan waters in flotilla of fishing trawlers and exploit Sri
Lanka's fishing grounds freely under such circumstances is a pertinent
question one can ask.
"Even after these allegations hundreds of Indian fishing trawlers
freely engage in fishing in Sri Lanka waters", Captain Senerath added.
As a journalist who had visited the Northern seas in the peak of the
conflict, I also have observed Indian fishing trawlers approaching the
shores of islands in Jaffna when Sri Lankan fishermen were banned from
fishing in the Northern waters.
The Sri Lanka Navy had to spend sleepless nights looking at hundreds
of small dots which indicates the fishing boats to trace the suspicious
craft among them.
Although LTTE exploited the poaching issue to smuggle fuel and
explosives to the shores of Sri Lanka, Navy did not react angrily
towards their presence in the Sri Lankan waters. But it was the LTTE
which tried dirty tricks to ruin that cordial relationship the Sri Lanka
Navy had with Indian authorities by trying various tactics to antagonise
India and Sri Lanka.
The hijacking of the Indian fishing trawler 'Sri Krishna' in March
2007 along with 12 Indian fishermen was a classic example how the LTTE
exploited the poaching issue to their advantage.
The vessel bearing the name Sri Krishna (registration number KFO 7339
ALP 2749) had set sail from Kollam (Quilon) in Kerala on March 7, 2007
and the Indian Coast Guard had last seen the vessel on March 12, near
the India-Sri Lanka maritime boundary off Pamban near Rameswaram in
Tamil Nadu.It reappeared on May 16, 2007 in the south of the Maldives
chain of islands.
Sri Lanka Navy had to bear the blame until the Maldivian Coast Guard
detected and sunk the vessel in their waters and arrested the LTTE
suspects and got the Indian fishermen who were released from LTTE
But the greater patience exercised by the Navy ultimately succeeded
in their names being cleared and expose the real culprits behind the
scene. If Sri Lanka Navy could act with such patience during war time is
there any need to kill any Indian fisherman either in Sri Lankan waters
or Indian waters if there is no threat from them?
It is the firm belief of some senior Navy officials even at this
stage that some third party is involved in creating a problematic
situation between Sri Lanka and India. The same sentiments were
expressed by the Sri Lanka High Commissioner addressing a media
conference in India regarding the situation. What they need is to bring
disrepute to the Sri Lanka Navy working with a good understanding with
the Indian Navy and the Coast Guard to settle issues relating to the
The cordial relationship between the countries was very much evident
when Sri Lanka Navy celebrated its Golden Jubilee with the participation
of the Indian Navy Chief and Indian ships. If the Sri Lanka Navy was
committing such crimes could Indian Navy chief and Coast Guard chief
visit Sri Lanka and sit together at the biannual meeting on board Indian
or Sri Lanka Navy vessel on the IMBL to discuss issues affecting the two
Navies? Moreover, how can Sri Lanka Navy rescue Indian fishermen in
distress if they are shooting at them?
Therefore, what is left for the Sri Lanka Navy is to act with
restraint and work hard to expose those who are really engaged in those
acts whilst Indian politicians were making baseless allegations to