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Sunday, 30 January 2011

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Drama on the high seas

A third party bent on spoiling Indo-Sri Lanka relations:



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.


Navy Commander
Vice Admiral Somathilaka
Dissanayake

Navy spokesman captain
Athula Senerath

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 added.

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 captivity.

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 poaching issue.

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 disrepute them.

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