By Udara Soysa
In an exclusive interview with The Sunday Leader, Head – Strategy and Security Studies, Center for Asia Studies, Commodore R. S. Vasan said that “there is a need for the law enforcement agencies to exercise utmost restraint and ensure that no innocent lives are lost due to trigger happy sailors” patrolling the Indian Ocean.
The complaints by the Tamil Nadu fishermen about the firing by the SLN have been made regularly. There have been many cases of reported deaths due to firing in Sri Lankan waters. Some of the shootings during the four Eelam wars were attributed to the SL Navy by the LTTE and vice versa. During the period of the fishing ban enforced during the war period, with the known modus-operandi of the LTTE, it is not at all surprising if the SL Navy did fire on suspected boats who were trying to flee. With each such report of firing, there were allegations, counters and inquiries,” he said.
According to Vasan, during the many quarterly meetings held between, Navy and Coast Guard officials from both the countries, invariably this issue came up for discussion and the SL Navy maintained that they did not resort to use of fire arms to shoot the Indian fishermen.
However, he said that with the success enjoyed by the LTTE suicide cadres, the SL Navy units would have been wary of using the usual procedure of boarding for examination with fears of being attacked particularly during the conflict phases of the war.
“Based on the Rules of Engagement (RoEs) and the interpretation of the right to self defence, it can be safely assumed that at least during such phases, there would have been definite use of fire arms against suspected boats whose intentions could not be established on detection by other means,” he pointed out. “The root cause lies in the agreement on the demarcation of the maritime boundaries way back in 1974 by which Kachchativu was ceded to Sri Lanka. The TN fishermen who quote historic rights since times immemorial, have not accepted this agreement and routinely cross over to what is now in Sri Lankan waters,” he added. He noted that “not withstanding anything said before, it must be made clear that there can be no excuse what so ever for firing on any innocent fishermen particularly post May 19th last year when the LTTE was defeated militarily.”
“The standard international practice for those straying into each other’s territory is to apprehend them and have them tried/ prosecuted in a court according the law of the land. Barring a few violations, such a practice has been in vogue with fishermen of our neighbours including Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh. After some time, trial by court and intervention by the concerned governments, such offenders are usually returned along with their boats and gear in good will gestures or in exchange by the countries involved. This practice should be followed even with Sri Lankan Tamils who try to flee the country and seek refuge in Australia and Canada after treacherous voyages in ill equipped vessels with dubious credentials,” he added.