Kath Noble

Time for the TNA to step in

Posted in The Island, The Sunday Leader by kathnoble on August 28, 2013

Why Tamil politicians must defend the interests of the Tamil fishermen of the North and East

Northern fishermenOne of the reasons people dismiss the support of Tamil Nadu politicians for Tamils in Sri Lanka is their complete lack of concern for the immediate welfare of the community. Where they are going to get their next meal doesn’t matter. Unless their problems can be used to blame the Government, they are ignored.

Last week, I said that Karunanidhi was right to focus on the need for a political solution and the full implementation of the 13th Amendment in recent protests aimed at getting India to boycott the Commonwealth Summit in November. It is an entirely reasonable demand, and he will be doing everybody a favour if he can marshal the emotions of 72 million Tamils in Tamil Nadu into a campaign that can actually deliver, rather than misleading them into thinking that they are helping by continuing to call for Eelam – and in the circumstances another devastating war.

But he is absolutely wrong on the other issue that he raised – the arrests of Indian fishermen by the Sri Lankan Navy.

Everybody other than Tamil Nadu politicians agrees that the treatment of fishermen who cross the international boundary has improved considerably since the end of the war. On the whole, the Navy is not shooting at them, as it no doubt once did – it would seem to have understood the rather obvious logic that sending people to jail for their crimes is far more effective than killing them when one wants to secure the support of their elected representatives. Better very late than never!

And the Government has clearly been trying to minimise the length of time it takes to send them back to India. Their incarceration doesn’t usually last more than a few days, and they are rarely made to pay more than a token fine, which is a much better deal than they get from any other country.

Of course even that is undesirable, and it is worrying that the Government is now apparently thinking of getting tougher.

These are poor people. They can’t afford fines, and they can’t afford to be kept away from their livelihoods.

But it is the job of the Indian government to look after them. The Sri Lankan government has to look after poor Sri Lankans, and the fishing communities of the Northern Province are some of the poorest in the country, having been very badly affected by the three decades of conflict in Sri Lanka.

That many lives were destroyed by the war is well known – certainly by Karunanidhi.

He should also know that their livelihoods suffered more or less the same fate. Fishing has always been a major part of the Northern economy. In 1980, the North supplied 50% of the national catch, but the catch in the Northern Province had fallen from almost 100,000 MT to just 15,000 MT by the end of the war. The restrictions imposed by the Security Forces in an attempt to prevent the smuggling of weapons and militants across the Palk Strait made it very difficult for fishermen to survive.

And although the sector is recovering, the catch has still only reached 60,000 MT.

Meanwhile, the catch in the rest of the country has increased considerably, so that the Northern Province now contributes about 12%.

Most fishermen in the North have only basic equipment, while many from the Mannar, Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu districts who were caught up in the final battle with the LTTE lost whatever they had when they were displaced.

They are far behind where they were three decades ago.

Even more importantly, they are far behind the Indian fishermen who cross the international boundary.

In Tamil Nadu over the same period, the catch has gone up from 375,000 MT to nearly 615,000 MT. Fishermen have moved from the small boats that used to dominate the industry to trawlers, which sweep up everything in their path. Sri Lankan fishermen say that these new methods not only destroy their nets and damage their boats – the trawlers move about at such high speeds that they can easily run into them in the dark – but also risk the sustainability of fisheries in the North.

They are surely right.

After all, Indian fishermen are so keen to come to Sri Lankan waters precisely because there aren’t enough fish in their own. They have overexploited their resources.

A decidedly uninspiring editorial in The Hindu on Friday suggested that a solution could be found through negotiations between Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen. It said that Indian fishermen believe that Sri Lankan waters are their ‘traditional fishing grounds’. Well, no doubt they aren’t alone – I bet that Sri Lankan fishermen believe that Sri Lankan waters are their traditional fishing grounds too!

In fact, Indian fishermen are proposing an ‘open seas’ policy, with set times for Indians and Sri Lankans to fish wherever they like.

Of course they are.

Sri Lankan waters haven’t yet been overexploited. Opposition by Sri Lankan fishermen to such a disingenuous proposal is therefore absolutely understandable, and it is stupid to ask them to agree to the extension of what is already a serious problem.

Indeed, at least some of the violent incidents in the recent past have occurred between fishermen themselves.

Tamil Nadu politicians try to pretend that the cause of all the angst is Kachchativu – the island in the Palk Strait that was ceded to Sri Lanka in 1974. An extremely belated and totally useless competition has now emerged between Karunanidhi and Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, with the latter passing a resolution in the state assembly in May calling on the Centre to take back Kachchativu and the former responding in a matter of days with a petition in the Supreme Court seeking the same thing, on the grounds that the agreement was never ratified by Parliament.

Whether or not they have a point doesn’t matter, since we are not talking about just a few square kilometres.

Indian fishermen are not only crossing the international boundary near Kachchativu. According to Sri Lankan fishermen, they come right up to the mainland, and move as far down the western side as Puttalam and as far down the eastern side as Trincomalee – about one third of the coastline.

And they say that 2,000 trawlers come almost every day.

This weekend, Karunanidhi intensified his efforts by reiterating his demand for the Centre to establish a naval base in Tamil Nadu, specifically for the purpose of protecting Indian fishermen.

But it is alternative livelihoods that they need, not an armed guard.

Rather than encouraging them to believe that they can go on paying so little attention to the environment, he should be busy working out a genuine solution for the fisheries sector of Tamil Nadu. He must also explain to the fishermen that Sri Lankan Tamils need not only a devolved administration in the North but also ways to make a living.

Unfortunately, the politicians who are likely to run the Northern Provincial Council have not been willing to speak out either.

The TNA intervenes on many crucial and urgent matters, and it deserves praise for addressing problems of importance to the whole country in addition to the concerns of the community that it represents. Its leaders have made some excellent speeches on the impeachment of the Chief Justice, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution and other important topics. These are all very necessary. But it does not excuse them from taking action on this issue.

The debate on the fishermen of the Northern Province must not be left to Tamil Nadu politicians and the Government of Sri Lanka, or it will never end.

This article was published in The Island on 28th August 2013 and republished without permission by The Sunday Leader on 1st September 2013. The internet versions may be accessed here and here.

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A few thoughts for Navi Pillay

Posted in The Island, The Sunday Leader by kathnoble on August 21, 2013

Why the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights should focus on the politicisation of the legal system and excessive policing of protests and dissent rather than allegations of war crimes during her upcoming visit to Sri Lanka

naviandothersAs the Commonwealth Summit draws closer, the world is going to turn its attention to the situation in Sri Lanka. It is a major international event, and people will want to know what is happening in the host country. When Mahinda Rajapaksa stands up to welcome his fellow heads of government, talking about their shared values and vision, he will give them the perfect opportunity to ask questions – principally, do we really have anything in common with this administration?

Some campaigners have already decided on the answer. They want a boycott, and in the next few months they will be working hard to persuade key individuals – in particular David Cameron and Manmohan Singh – to stay away.

Whether or not they succeed is not very important. What matters is the issues that they raise in the process.

Navi Pillay’s visit will set the tone. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who is due to arrive in Colombo this weekend, has had plenty to say about Sri Lanka since she was appointed back in 2008. But this is her first trip to the island. She will spend a week here, meeting various officials, politicians and activists, and her report will form the basis of the next round of discussions in Geneva, as well as informing the positions of the Secretary General and member states. It is also to her opinion that the international media will turn for an assessment of how the Government should be treated – like a naughty child or like an armed and dangerous criminal.

And she has a decision to make.

She can continue to focus on allegations of war crimes, in step with the Transitional Government of Tamil Eelam, which last week renewed its call for an investigation in a letter to the new United States Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power.

But that would be ethnically polarising. Sinhalese overwhelmingly reject the idea of international oversight of the way the war was fought, many of them believing that such intervention would not be honest or reasonable. There is a feeling that Sri Lanka is being singled out, and that sense is strengthened by the memory of what most people regard as a much worse episode in the country’s history – the response to the JVP uprising in the late 1980s, resulting in the deaths of thousands of Sinhalese – that did not generate anywhere near as much of a reaction.

In any case, Navi Pillay getting involved in efforts to seek justice for war victims only makes them less likely to succeed, by pushing Sinhalese back into their narrow conception of nationalism, which is most ably represented by Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The other option would be for her to stress issues of concern to everybody.

At the moment, the vast majority of people in Sri Lanka could agree on two points with regard to human rights. First is the need for the authorities to crack down on crime and in particular on politically connected criminals, or in other words to depoliticise the legal system. Sri Lankans from all communities are fed up with selective policing. They have been appalled by the revelations from Deraniyagala – the latest example of politicians abusing their power, with villagers describing the situation in recent years as a ‘reign of terror’ by the Pradeshiya Sabha Chairman. Most of them are also disgusted by Sinhalese extremist organisations, whose attacks on Muslims have been allowed to go on for several months now.

They would feel the same about politically connected criminals from the Tamil community if they had heard about them.

The second point on which there is consensus is the need for the authorities to go easy on protests and dissent. The killings in Weliweriya shocked the nation in a way that no other excess by the Security Forces has done in a very long time.

Delivering a strong message on these issues would show that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is on the side of the majority of the population.

Majority does not mean the majority community. It means looking after the interests of the powerless, whether they be Sinhalese, Muslim or Tamil.

International solidarity with or support for struggles against the powerful cannot help if it does not take account of the context in which they are going on. It has to respond to the prevailing attitudes in the society, working intelligently to change them over time, acknowledging that it is not just a matter of telling people what to do – they have to be convinced.

The Transitional Government of Tamil Eelam is the perfect example of how to fail.

One of its other demands is a referendum in the North and East on the establishment of a separate state. It says that Tamils should be free to decide their own destiny, just as the Scottish will do next year when they vote on whether or not to leave the UK. But it is not that simple. The Scottish have persuaded the English to accept it. And this effort was needed, because our people could never be completely apart from each other and would not want to be – our lives are intertwined through centuries of sharing the same small island. We have to get along.

Likewise, the Tamils of Sri Lanka have to live with Sinhalese and Muslims.

Of course things can be imposed on small countries from outside, but history shows that this does not tend to work out as intended.

Navi Pillay must concern herself with both means and ends.

Pressing the Government to act on the two points referred to above can open space for others to work, including representatives of the Tamil community.

One person who now seems to have grasped the importance of such an approach is Karunanidhi.

The DMK chief is not known for his measured approach to Sri Lankan issues. But despite the fact that India is fast approaching a parliamentary election, which generally encourages parties in Tamil Nadu to issue ever more radical statements on Sri Lanka in competition with each other – being a matter of foreign policy, they know that they do not have the power to actually do anything, so they can say whatever they like – Karunanidhi has chosen to stress entirely sensible demands of late.

His revival of the Tamil Eelam Supporters Organisation last year did not bode well, but in the protests that he led a few weeks ago calling for India to boycott the Commonwealth Summit, it was a political solution and the full implementation of the 13th Amendment that was stressed.

This is good news for Sri Lanka.

These are things that the Government can and must agree to, and the extra pressure that it is going to be subject to in November if applied in the right direction has a chance of bringing results.

This article was published in The Island on 21st August 2013 and republished without permission by The Sunday Leader on 25th August 2013. The internet versions may be accessed here and here.

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