Sri Lanka: Navy wages secret war on Tamil fisherfolk

Allegations made by south Indian Tamil fisherfolk against the recently deposed Mahinda Rajapaksa government in Sri Lanka reveal a trail of death and corruption.

They said 750 fisherfolk have been killed by the Sri Lankan navy since 1983. Eighty-four boats were seized in the past six months alone.

I travelled along the Rameswaram coast in south India in December last year. The regional economy is dependent on fishing and is close to Sri Lanka. The day I was there, the whole fishing fleet was in the harbour due to a 10-day protest against the attacks by the Sri Lankan navy and the lack of protection from the Indian navy.

Five young Tamil men from India were to be sentenced to death in Sri Lanka last October for drug smuggling. They had been seized by the Sri Lankan navy while in Indian waters and held without trial for three years.

Huge protests broke out in Rameswaram. Thirty thousand protesters blocked the causeway bridge, stopping trade with the mainland. Thirty-eight people were arrested and jailed, including the brother of one of the fisherfolk awaiting execution in Sri Lanka.

Local political parties called on the Indian government to intervene. Five men who were on trial were released and deported to India on November 21. Three other Tamils from Sri Lanka, who were also accused at the same trial, are still in jail.

One of the five released men wanted to be known only as Augustus and was so highly disturbed by his ordeal that he wanted his family to do all the talking. They said he had returned from jail suffering mental health issues.

They told me there were 89 Indian Tamil fisherfolk in Sri Lankan jails, among 300 other prisoners mostly from Pakistan and Bangladesh. They said that if a Sinhalese fisherfolk is caught fishing in Indian waters, the Indian navy hands them back to the Sri Lankan navy and never jailed. It is only the Tamil fisherman from India and Sri Lanka who are attacked, jailed and killed.

One of the fisherfolk I spoke to is Sekar Pandiyan. He is 45 years old and was shot at sea in Indian waters by the Sri Lankan navy on January 11, 2008. He has suffered disability as a result of the injury, but receives no unemployment benefits or compensation. He is still forced to go to sea for his income.

Pandiyan was shot while on his boat with a crew of five, including his son. At 12.45pm, a Sri Lankan navy boat came alongside and opened fire, hitting him in the top of the shoulder. He said the navy officers were taking video and yelled at them to leave and not come back.

His crew phoned for help and they were met by an ambulance. The police made an incident report but nothing was followed up. Pandiyan did not receive treatment for his shoulder for two days. Today, he still can’t lift his arm.

This was not the first encounter Pandiyan had with the Sri Lankan navy. In 2002, his boat was boarded and he received a machete slash to the back of his leg. He told me: “I am still waiting for justice and compensation. There are many much worse off than me.”

The Indian government pays compensation to the family only if a fisherman is killed. Pandiyan said: “No government should be allowed to kill civilians.”

The family of several jailed fisherfolk told me the Tamil Nadu government has issued GPS devices to the fisherfolk so they could show they were fishing in Indian waters. These have little effect on the Sri Lankan navy’s actions. “They just do whatever they want,” the mother said.

An old fisherman told me: “Tamils and Singhalese fisherfolk have been fishing these waters for thousands of years without any trouble. We have returned to the same spots every day and we always catch fish — now the navy is attacking us and we can’t live. Why won’t the Indian navy help us?”

I tried to find out why the Tamils were so persecuted in this area. Local fisherfolk told me that Tamil and Indian fisherfolk further up the coast were not attacked. I thought the causes may have been due to lack of fish stocks, mineral or oil claims in the area or a hangover from the Sri Lankan war on Tamil Eelam. But the fisherman I spoke to blamed racism in India and Sri Lanka against the Tamil people in general.

However, there are also more serious allegations that the Rajapaksa government had direct involvement in the drug trade. Allegedly, Sri Lanka has become the gateway for Afghan opium and heroin into the Asian market. One fisherman told me: “It is the Rajapaksa government controlled drug trade that is behind the attacks. They don't want us in the area.”

It has since been reported that another attack on fisherfolk took place on January 13. This is under the new Sirisena government.

[Tim Gooden is secretary of Greelong Trades Hall and a member of Socialist Alliance.]

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