Troubled waters for Tamil fishermen

[TamilNet, Friday, 05 September 1997, 23:59 GMT]
A seemingly innocuous ban on fishing introduced in the Tamil areas by the predominantly Sinhalese Sri Lankan government over a decade ago has steadily destroyed the livelihood of the Tamil fishing community. Ostensibly introduced check the movement of Tamil fighters between the island and nearby India, the ban has had no impact on the growth of the Tamil Tigers, but has crippled the Tamil fishing industry. Many Tamils believe this was the Sri Lankan government's intended aim.

As Thayaparan Vicknarajah brought his fishing boat close to a Trincomalee beach, his anxiety rose. He fully expected the morning calm to be shattered by a burst of automatic gunfire.

Two days earlier, Sinhalese soldiers had ambushed and killed a close friend at a nearby village as he also returned from a night's fishing. A T-56 assault rifle had been tossed into the blood splattered boat and the entire village had been summoned to be shown what would happen to 'terrorists'.

Today however, the loudest sound was his boat crunching onto the sand. Other fishermen waded in up to their waists, and dragged the boat out of the water. The two baskets of fish were immediately distributed amongst the families as the boat was moved behind a cluster of palm trees.

Vicknarajah has been a fisherman for several years, but every time he has put to sea, he has broken Sri Lankan law. He is only allowed to fish in the vicinity of Sri Lankan army camps, within hours specified by the military.

Fishing in the shallow waters yields small fish and even stocks of these have been depleted over the years. Vicknarajah says the hours he is allowed to take his boat out are the worst time for successful fishing.

To fish further afield or at different times means running the risk of death. Sri Lankan naval craft and aircraft regularly strafe Tamil fishing boats. If the fishermen escape, the Sinhalese forces later bombard their villages. Tamil boats have been shot at even within the designated areas around SLA camps.

With two thirds of the island's coastline inhabited by Tamils, the ban has had a devastating effect on the Tamil fishing community. Many families rely on the daily catch for their own meals, and desperate to feed their families, fishermen take the risk and put to sea.

Sunk fishing boats are claimed as 'Sea Tiger' craft by the Sri Lankan government. Destroyed fishing villages are described as 'LTTE' bases. The civilians killed in such attacks are claimed as 'terrorists'.

According to the Sri Lankan government's official policy, fishermen should be compensated for their loss of earnings due to the ban, and those in desperate need should be given dry rations.

In practice, Sinhalese fishermen are well supplied and paid, but the Tamil fishing community has been ignored. Over the years, several mass demonstrations as well as individual petitions by Tamil fishermen have been unsuccessful in reversing the steady deterioration of living conditions in Tamil fishing villages.

By contrast, Sinhalese fishing boats are escorted out to deeper waters by Sri Lankan naval craft and are therefore able to exploit the lack of competition from Tamil fishermen who are restricted to the shallow waters. The Sri Lankan armed forces are overwhelmingly Sinhalese.

The fishing ban has been in place, in varying degrees for over 10 years to date . The Sri Lankan government claims the ban is necessary to prevent LTTE supplies being smuggled in.

However, the negligible impact the ban has had on the Tiger war machine is clear as the Tigers have developed from possessing a few speedboats in the early eighties to having entire naval wing (the Sea Tigers) with their own gunboats, boat factories, bases and naval commando battalions.

The Sri Lankan government's repeated refusal to lift this draconian ban (despite agreeing to) was one of the reasons the LTTE declared the 1995 talks as a sham before withdrawing from negotiations.


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