By Rajeewa Jayaweera –
News of the recently held India – Sri Lanka Joint Commission trickling into the public domain appears to be grim and very unfavourable to Sri Lanka. The single most important bilateral issue between Si Lanka and India, namely poaching by Indian fishermen in Sri Lankan territorial waters has supposedly received a one line mention in the Minutes of the meeting.
The Minutes of the meeting, supposedly has been prepared in Delhi and sent to Colombo for comments, rather than being prepared by the host nation and sent to the visitors for comments. The Minutes, covering a gamut of issues consisting of around four dozen paragraphs, supposedly devotes one sentence to the poaching issue. It is understood that words such as ‘Bottom Trawling’ ‘Poaching’ and ‘illegal fishing’ necessary to describe this important issue have been scrupulously avoided in the Minutes prepared in Delhi. If this be the case, it can only be assumed, the Sri Lankan delegation led by our Foreign Minister has once again failed to impress upon the Indians of the importance of this particular issue from a Sri Lankan perspective. It has been a repetition of previous instances since 08 January 2015 during visits by Foreign Secretaries, Foreign Ministers, Prime Ministers and our President to each other’s countries. Sri Lanka today, has not moved a single step forward from status quo which prevailed at the commencement of the Sirisena Presidency. In the absence of joint Press Conferences and/or Joint Communiques after important visits, the public has no choice but to assume that all discussions held in both countries were stage managed by India with little or no input from Sri Lanka. There is a definite danger of the manner Sri Lanka and especially our Foreign Ministry have handled this issue since January 2015.
A similar conflict prevailed between UK, a super power similar to super power aspirant India and Iceland, a small nation similar to Sri Lanka from 1958 to 1976. British fishing trawlers were found poaching in waters claimed by Iceland but not recognized by UK. The dispute erupted three times during the eighteen year period and was referred to as Cold War 1, 2 and 3. During the first cold war, 37 Royal Navy ships and 7,000 sailors were deployed against six Icelandic gunboats and 100 coast guards. Cutting of British fishing nets, firing at British fishing vessels by Icelandic coast guard vessels and ramming of at least one Icelandic coast guard vessel took place during the three cold wars. The issue was sorted out at the United Nations under the aegis of the Law of the Seas Conference. During the conflict, Iceland, on several occasions threatened to leave NATO. Though never openly stated, the US – Iceland Defence Agreement too could have been in jeopardy. Iceland achieved its overall aims to the detriment of the already declining British fisheries industry, severely affecting the economies of northern fishing ports in the United Kingdom.
What is relevant to Sri Lanka is while regular stand offs were taking place, vigorous diplomatic negotiations continued followed by Iceland placing the issue before the United Nations. How much longer is Sri Lanka prepared to wait before placing this travesty before the United Nations and other international forums? The importance of properly documented efforts to resolve issue bilaterally becomes relevant when placing our case before the international community even under a different dispensation. One liner Minutes of Joint Commission meetings will not serve towards this end.
Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, addressing the India – Sri Lanka Society recently is on record stating Sri Lankans, particularly the majority Sinhala community should not get ‘paranoid’ over unfounded fears of Indians ‘swarming’ their country. He has termed those having concerns as ‘neo-fascists’. He has advised opponents of CEPA/ETCA with India to shed their ‘minority complex’. He warmly referred to “my dear friend and counterpart, the Hon. Sushma Swaraj” making a third visit in a year. She did not reciprocate his warmth by failing to pay a customary courtesy call on our Foreign Minister during her visit, as required by diplomatic protocol. Yet another breech of protocol took place during Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj’s courtesy call on Prime Minister Wickramasinghe at his hotel during his recent official visit to India. Seating arrangements accorded her a chair in a location meant for a Prime Minister and not a Foreign Minister. Our Foreign Minister and his team need take full responsibility for the omission. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe recently decided to appoint a ‘Global Affairs Committee’ to supervise the Foreign Ministry on the basis ‘the Foreign Ministry has done little or nothing in the past one year’. Though not an ideal situation, under the circumstances, it is perfectly understandable.
Foreign Minister Samaraweera, when referring to Sri Lankan’s fear of India, need be mindful of certain facts. Illicit Immigrants from Tamil Nadu in the 1950s and 1960 and Indian hegemony during 1980s need no elaboration. India’s refusal to respond at a time when Jaffna Garrison was on the verge of falling to LTTE terrorists is not forgotten. In more recent times, the periodic reference to the Indo-Sri Lanka Bridge by senior Indian politicians despite repudiation by our own Prime Minister in Parliament, the ETCA opposed by many professional bodies, the ‘no paper missive’ against purchase of JF-17 fighter aircraft manufactured in Pakistan, opposition to according Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan an opportunity to address our Parliament, India’s refusal to constructively work with Sri Lanka in resolving the poaching issue and our Foreign Ministry agreeing to a one liner reference to the issue in official Minutes are but a few of the contributory factors which gives cause for such fears.
The need for close and friendly relations with India, without acting in a manner detrimental to their security cannot be disputed and is essential for Sri Lanka’s own survival. However, the need to conduct relations with mutual respect without capitulating to Indian suzerainty cannot be overemphasized.