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The Colombo Aligned Summit



In the latter half of the 20th century, the Non-Aligned Movement played an important role at a time when East-West tensions were running high. In August 1976, Sri Lanka hosted the 5th Non-Aligned Summit in Colombo. This was one of the high points in Sri Lanka’s international relations. Here, we publish an extract from Leelananda De Silva’s autobiographical volume – The Long Littleness of Life – his Memoir of Government, the United Nations, family and friends.

Sometime in 1973, Mrs. Bandaranaike, the Prime Minister, directed that I should be in charge of the economic side of the Non Aligned Summit (NAS), to be held in 1976 in Colombo. She was anxious to attach a high profile to economic issues in non aligned discussions. This was for two reasons. The first was that she wanted to make the NAS clearly more non-aligned, getting rid of the extreme anti western rhetoric of previous conferences, which was partly due to the focus on political issues. Talking economics, specially at a time when the North-South dialogue was a dominant feature in international relations made great sense. The second reason was that she felt that greater attention to international economic issues would better relate the Summit proceedings to Sri Lanka’s own economic interests. As I advised her, it was necessary to focus on relevant economic issues for Sri Lanka, instead of merely following earlier Non Aligned economic agendas where issues like transnational corporations and the New International Economic Order were focused upon. These issues were pushed by countries like Cuba and Algeria, as these were aimed at attacking the United States and other Western countries. Thereafter, my engagement with non aligned issues became my central task, during my Planning Ministry years. Between 1973 and 1977, 1 was working as much with the Foreign Ministry as with the Planning Ministry.

The Fifth Non Aligned Summitheldin 1976 was the culmination of a long process which started with the Fourth Summit in Algiers in 1973. The Prime Minister led the delegation to Algiers and the other members were Felix Dias Bandaranaike, Mrs. Lakshmi Dias Bandaranaike, Shirley Amarasinghe (Permanent Representative to the UN in New York), W.T. Jayainghe (Permanent Secretary of Foreign Affairs), Susantha De Alwis (Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva) and myself. This delegation constituted many of the key persons who were responsible for the substantive preparations of the Colombo Summit. The other two persons who were not there were Arthur Basnayaka and Izeth Hussain. The Algiers Conference was a grand affair and was held in a newly constructed palatial conference hall. One of the things that struck me most was that the Conference was not organized well. During the week we were there, the conference sessions were held in the night, and during the day we had our rest. This made most of the delegates very tired. Mrs. Bandaranaike suggested to the delegation that we should observe the way in which the Conference was organized in Algiers. There was nothing much to learn from them.

I was looking after the Economic Committee and it was being chaired by Ambassador Hernan Santa Cruz of Chile, a leading personality of the time in international affairs. I remember working closely with the Ambassador from India, K.B. Lall, who was later to lose out to Gamani Corea, in the UNCTAD Secretary General stakes. The work of the Economic Committee was dominated by Algerian pressures to obtain support for the Opec oil price hike which had just occurred, raising the price of oil from US $4 to $13. This was a great shock to poorer developing countries. The Algerians and other oil suppliers manipulated the Summit to obtain a clear endorsement of the Opec position, although it was the poorer developing countries which paid a heavy price for the oil price hike. Opec promised that they would support schemes to obtain better prices for other commodities, but this- never happened, apart from unrealistic resolutions to change the world economic order. The Opec countries started to push for a New International Economic Order which was later adopted by the United Nations in 1974. Layachi Yaker, the Algerian Minister of Trade was the key figure organizing this Opec campaign in the non aligned context (he was later to be the head of the UN Economic Commission for Africa).

The great event of the Conference, in effect, took place outside Algiers. Salvador Allende, the President of Chile was overthrown and killed in a coup led by General Pinochet during the week of the Conference. Chile under Allende had emerged as an icon standing up to US hegemony in Latin America and generally in the third world. Many of the non aligned delegations were shocked by what happened in Chile. Hernan Santa Cruz, who was chairing the Economic Committee, was the living embodiment of the Chilean crisis and he was not to go back to his country fora long time. One unforgettable memory that I have of this Summit was our departure from Algiers airport. Waiting for our respective planes, along with Mrs. Bandaranaike, were Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia and President Houari Boumedienne of Algeria was there to wish us goodbye.

The most important objective for Sri Lanka at Algiers was to get the Summit to endorse Colombo as its next venue. Whether this would be done was not at all certain. To the great delight of Mrs. Bandaranaike, the Algiers Summit confirmed Colombo as the venue for the Fifth Summit. This was the start of the preparatory process. Mrs. Bandaranaike was anxious that economic issues, particularly in a North- South context, should be equally placed with political issues on the NAS agenda. This was my task in the next four years, and those preparations were pursued largely in UN multilateral forums, which were then brought into convergence at the NAS. The story of my involvement with these North- South issues will be related in another chapter. Here, I will confine myself to non aligned forums.

After the Algiers Summit and prior to the Summit in Colombo, I attended three non aligned meetings held in Dakar (Senegal), Lima (Peru) and Algiers. The Dakar and Lima meetings were at Foreign Ministers level. Apart from myself, others on the delegations were Felix Dias Bandaranaike, Shirley Amarasinghe, and Arthur Basnayaka. The Dakar meeting was held outside the main city in a newly built conference hall, in the middle of nowhere. One night, Shirley Amarasinghe, Arthur Basnayake and I had to go in a car assigned to us by the government fora late night meeting. The relations with our driver was pretty bad as he was using the official vehicle assigned to us for his own purposes. This night, on our way to the conference hall, he stopped the car in the middle of a jungle saying there was no petrol and that he was going to leave us and go to collect some petrol. This was a frightening experience. We had to forget our status and had to plead with the driver offering him some goodies to take us to the conference hall somehow. About half an hour later, he said that he had some petrol in the car and that he would use it. Anyway, we got to the conference hall and we did not see the driver again.

I was to work closely with Shirley Amarasinghe on Non Aligned issues, although he was in New York and I was in Colombo. We travelled together for many meetings and met often in New York and in Colombo. I enjoyed working with Shirley Amarasinghe. Shirley had held the highest offices of government, being appointed as Secretary to the Treasury at the age of 47. One day in Dakar he told me that when Felix Dias Bandaranaike had to leave the Finance Ministry in 1962, he also had to leave his post of Treasury Secretary. He had thought of retiring from the public service and his brother Clarence who ran the leading motor firm Car Mart had asked him to come and take over the running of the company. He was seriously considering moving to the private sector. At this point, Mrs. Bandaranaike and N.Q. Dias who was the Secretary of the Ministry of Defence and Foreign Affairs had asked him whether he would like to move into the diplomatic service and proceed to New Delhi as High Commissioner. His whole life changed with that decision to go to New Delhi at the age of 50. For the next 17 years until his death, he was a leading figure in UN circles and latterly as Chairman of the Law of the Sea Conference.

I remember another amusing incident. Over the weekend in Dakar, Arthur Basnayake, whose academic background was geography, wished to go to the interior of Senegal by train. He wanted to go alone, and there was a train going to that place. So I accompanied Arthur to the railway station. The Dakar main railway station was totally deserted and there was no train in sight. We walked down the long platform and there was a man seated at the end of it, smoking a cigar. We asked him whether we could see the station master. He said he was the station master. We asked him about the train, which was scheduled to leave that morning. He told us that was a good question, as yesterday’s train had not yet left. He suggested to us that we take the bus outside the station to our destination, as that will get us there sooner. The bus was run by the station master’s son, and to get business for the bus, it was in the interest of father and son to see that the trains were delayed.

The meeting at Lima, Peru had the usual agendas and the usual speeches. What was more interesting was the coup that took place while we were in Lima. On the Monday morning of the conference, it was ceremonially opened by General Morales, the Military Dictator of Peru. On the Wednesday morning, as we were leaving for the conference, we were informed that we should stay in the hotel as a coup had taken place and there was a curfew. The conference met again the day after and it was wound up on the weekend. When it was wound up, the new military ruler came to declare the conference closed. The host Government Peru insisted that the former dictator Morales’s name should not be mentioned in the communique and he should not be thanked for opening the conference. This was non aligned politics at its best.

The mechanism for pursuing non aligned agendas was the Coordinating Bureau of the Non Aligned Countries Meeting at Foreign Minister’s level. I attended a meeting in Algiers of the Bureau in early 1976. The task of the Sri Lankan delegation was to keep the Bureau informed of our preparations in Colombo. I remember this meeting for one poignant reason. Although Chile had a military government now, the Non Aligned Bureau, still recognized the Allende government of Chile. Its Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier, suave, elegant and the perfect diplomat, was there in Algiers. I had a cup of tea with him and discussed the forthcoming Conference in Colombo, which he expected to attend. About a month later, he was gunned down in the streets of Washington D.C. in broad daylight, a murder which had ramifications the world over.

Let me now briefly set out my observations of the NAS in Colombo. I was appointed by the Prime Minister to be Secretary of the Economic Committee of the Conference. By virtue of my position, I chaired an inter-ministerial committee on economic issues for the NAS in Colombo. We met a few times but it was not productive in shaping an economic agenda from Sri Lanka’s point of view. This had to be done by the Planning Ministry. One of the first things I had to do was to provide an input into the Prime Minister’s speech for the Conference. After discussing with the Prime Minister and with Felix Dias Bandaranaike, I submitted two proposals- one for a Countervailing Third World Currency and the other for the establishment of a Third World Commercial and Merchant Bank. The first proposal for a third world currency was a political one, to please radicals like Cuba. The second proposal was one I had developed and discussed with the Prime Minister. She liked the proposal which was pragmatic, and this was included in her speech. The Summit adopted the proposal and was later to be followed up by UNCTAD. I was asked by UNCTAD to come over to Geneva to prepare a paper on this proposal which I did in May 1977.

I am proud of this proposal, with which Mrs. Bandaranaike agreed. She wanted a high profile for economic issues, as they related to her own domestic concerns. People could relate to food and agriculture and pharmaceuticals in a way that they do not relate to Arab- Israel or East West political confrontations. The proposal fora Bank, which had merchaht banking functions, was modelled on the experience of the Crown Agents in London. Most developing countries at the time did not have the expertise and the skills to get the best terms from exporting and importing transactions. It was found at that time that Sri Lanka was purchasing commodities like oil, rice and wheat, when prices were high in a volatile world market; and full of stocks locally when the prices were low in world markets (at a time when we should be buying). A central facility for developing countries would enable them to obtain large gains through combined purchasing and other means. The bank could also handle many financial transactions of borrowing and obtaining export credits. An institution of this kind is still relevant in today’s world for many of the smaller developing countries.

Prof. Senaka Bibile had made his mark through his proposals for rationalization of pharmaceutical supplies and the purchase of non- branded, generic products for national health services. Such arrangements reduced the costs of medical supplies. Senaka Bibile was known to Mrs. Bandaranaike. She suggested to me that I should have him on the delegation to work with me in the Economic Committee to develop his ideas through a resolution which would then be applicable to the developing countries in general. Senaka Bibile worked with me at the Conference to get the resolution drafted, and we had to do some lobbying among the delegations. I found that most countries welcomed the proposals on pharmaceuticals and there was no problem in getting a strong resolution adopted. This is a resolution which had clear implications for health policies in countries like Sri Lanka. It was a delight to have worked with Senaka Bibile.

The NAS was a historic event and it should be remiss of me if I did not mention the others who were associated closely with the NAS, as I had personal knowledge of the event. In organizing an NAS on this scale, Sri Lanka was punching above its weight in international relations. Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the Prime Minister, was primarily responsible for the success of the Summit. She personally supervised many of its key aspects. Felix Dias Bandaranaike and Shirley Amarasinghe were actively engaged in most of the preparatory work between 1973 and 1976. They were persons of international standing and were highly respected, and with Mrs. Bandaranaike, were responsible for a highly acclaimed Summit. W.T Jayasinghe , the Foreign Secretary, Arthur Basnayake, Director General of the Foreign Ministry and Izeth Hussein, Director of the Non Aligned desk at the Foreign Ministry were key figures in the preparations on the political side. Susanta De Alwis who was our ambassador in Geneva, was the secretary of the political committee, and he and I being secretaries of the two committees had to interact closely to avoid possible conflicts in conference proceedings and resolution drafting. Neville Kanakarathne can be added to this list. Izeth Hussein made a distinctive contribution in drafting what was considered an outstanding Political Declaration which captured the essence of Non-Alignment.

Dr. Mackie Ratwatte, was the man in charge of the organizational side of the Conference. He was assisted by several Foreign Office officials, specially Ben Fonseka. Manel Abeysekara managed a flawless protocol operation with finesse and flair. This aspect of the Summit was crucial, as delegations with Heads of Governments and State are sensitive to their treatment by the host country. Vernon Mendis, who was then the High Commissioner in London, was brought to Colombo to act as Secretary General of the Conference, as W. T Jayasinghe and Arthur Basnayake declined to undertake that role, Vernon’s role was to assist the Prime Minister during the Conference proceedings. Dharmasiri Peiris, Secretary to the Prime Minister, worked behind the scenes over this entire four year period and was guide and adviser to the Prime Minister on many NAM issues, and ran her office at the Conference, where many questions had to be addressed on an urgent basis. He was associated with Nihal Jayawickrama, Secretary to the Ministry of Justice and Sam Sanmuganathan, Secretary to the Ministry of Constitutional Affairs On the economic side I received much assistance from Wilfred Nanayakkara, Deputy Director of the Economic Affairs Division in the Ministry of Planning. Lakdasa Hulugalle, an outstanding economist working with UNCTAD and an authority on North South issues was in regular contact, and was a great source of advice during the Summit. Havelock Brewster, a well known Caribbean economist from UNCTAD worked with the Economic Committee, at my request. He was actively involved in the drafting of the large number of economic resolutions which came up at the Conference.

Let me divert here to record my recollections of two episodes connected with the Summit as they are instructive and should not be forgotten. First was Mrs. Bandaranayaike’s decision to vacate ” Temple Trees” so that Mrs. Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India could occupy it during her visit to Colombo. At this time, Indo- Sri Lanka relations were at a low ebb, due to Sri Lanka’s assistance to Pakistan during the Bangladesh crisis. Mrs. Bandaranaike wanted to signal her closeness to India and also her personal regard for Mrs. Gandhi by this gesture. That was a master stroke in bilateral relations. The second was with regard to Kurt Waldheim, the Secretary General of the UN. He was in Colombo accompanied by Dr. Gemini Corea, who was Secretary General of UNCTAD. He expected to address the Non Aligned Summit, of Heads of Government. There were many who were opposed to Waldheim addressing the Summit and preferred him to address the Foreign Minister’s Conference the previous week. It is my recollection that Waldheim in the end addressed the Summit. In 1976, the Secretary General of the UN was not regarded as an equal to Heads of Government.

The Colombo Summit was attended by over 60 Heads of Government and I remember seeing most of them either in the Conference hall or outside. There were Anwar Sadat of Egypt, Gadaffi of Libya, and Marshall Tito of Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia was one of the key countries in Non Aligned and Third World organizations, and it is astonishing that 20 years later Yugoslavia is no more. I remember standing next to Tito as the national anthem was being sung to bring the Summit to an end. He had gone out of the hall and had just come in and I happened to be standing next to him. Apart from the Heads of Government, there were many other Foreign Ministers and high officials I came in contact with in the course of my work on the Economic Committee. It is a long time and I forget their names.

After the Summit, in early 1977, Felix Dias Bandaranaike, Sherley Amarasinghe, Arthur Basnayake, Izeth Hussein and I were the delegation to the Non Aligned Foreign Ministers meeting in New Delhi. Mrs. Gandhi had lost the election and there was a new BJP government. Mrs. Bandaranaike had asked the Sri Lanka delegation to meet with Mrs. Gandhi, informally at her residence. This was not at all appreciated by the new Indian Government. That was the last time I was to see Mrs. Gandhi, having seen her on many occasions in the last 6 years. This was also my last non aligned meeting, as Mrs. Bandaranaike lost the election later in the year and a new government came in.

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Arms race accelerating to new heights in Asia



The arms race is being accelerated to unprecedented heights in the Asian region through the introduction by some major powers of what is being described as the hypersonic missile. China was the latest nuclear-capable state to test fire this missile which could be equipped with nuclear warheads and is, therefore, invested with a mass destruction potential. However, India is making it clear that it would not be outdone by China in this competition for superior weapons technology by developing a hypersonic missile of its own.

A recent news report said, among other things, of the Chinese experiment that, “China recently tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile which circled the globe before missing its target, demonstrating an advanced space capability that caught US intelligence by surprise.” It is the missile’s advanced space capability that is among its most notable characteristics. In this respect it is a clear upgrade over the inter-continental ballistic missile that has a very much lower strike range.

As specialists have pointed out, the ICBM has a parabolic movement and hits its target at an ascertainable distance on the same geographical plane from the launch site but it does not possess the capability of travelling around the globe. The hypersonic missile, in contrast, has this globe-encircling capability and ought to be more worrying in respect of its destructive capability. However, it is the weapon that has come to be prized by the major powers. Besides the US, China and Russia, some other states that are said to be in the running for developing hypersonic weapons technology are; Australia, France, Germany and Japan, besides India. That is, almost the entirety of the world’s regions is caught up in the race for developing hypersonic missiles, with, of course, grave implications for the security of the human race.

Considering that China and India are in an unrelenting arms race and also taking cognizance of the possibility of other regional powers, such as Pakistan, not standing idly by as this competition continuously hots-up, it could be said that South Asia’s development prospects in particular stand the risk of being progressively blighted. Needless to say, South Asia’s poverty would be greatly aggravated when defense budgets of the region’s key states acquire greater precedence over their social welfare budgets. Besides, issues such as climate change would come to be overlooked by these states, resulting in the region’s development prospects being further undermined.

Ideally, SAARC needs to take a collective policy position over climate change issues that would be surfacing at the upcoming Climate Change Conference in Glasgow but with the region’s foremost powers hardly talking to each other and arms taking precedence over ‘Bread ‘, climate change questions are unlikely to acquire the importance due to them at Glasgow and other prime climate-linked international parleys. As a result, social welfare in South Asia would be steadily imperiled in the days ahead.

Focusing on the numerous dangers faced by the SAARC region as a result of climate change questions coming to be overlooked by the relevant governments, the ADB warned some time back: “…the collective economy of six countries – Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka – could shrink by up to 1.8 per cent every year by 2050 and 8.8 per cent by 2100, on average.”

However, it is not only the poor of South Asia who would be badly affected by the current global arms race. It would be correct to say that in degree to the proportion to which the arms race speeds-up worldwide, to the same extent would the poor everywhere be further impoverished and rendered vulnerable. This is on account of welfare budgets the world over suffering shrinkage in the wake of stepped-up arms spending. But the segment to suffer most acutely will be the poor of South Asia.

The continuing tensions between China and India on their disputed border areas would only aggravate the arms race between the Asian giants in the days to come. There are veritable eye-ball-to-eye-ball stand-offs between the armies of the two countries in the areas in contention. These tensions are currently focusing on the border India’s Arunachal Pradesh has with China. A few months back China-India tensions centred on the Ladakh region. Talks between the countries to sort out these disputes are ongoing but increasing insecurities would only stress the importance of armaments over development.

As this is being written, US President Joe Biden is heading for talks with the G20 grouping, which comprises the world’s most powerful countries. Biden would subsequently head for the climate change parley in Glasgow. Hopefully, the big powers would focus strongly on the current accelerating arms race and its consequences for the world. Put simply, they would need to discuss the ways and means of containing the arms race before it grows out of control. They would also need to understand, very crucially, that the major powers cannot credibly speak in terms of nuclear arms control and disarmament before they opt to systematically do away with the lethal, mass destruction arms which they already possess.

India and Pakistan possess a nuclear capability but they are not signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). From the viewpoint of these regional powers, this refusal to formally endorse the NPT is understandable because although some of the foremost powers of the Western hemisphere have signed the NPT, they are yet to say a clear “Yes” to nuclear disarmament. As long as the foremost global powers, such as the US, China and Russia, hold on to their nuclear weapons they cannot expect the prime powers of the South, such as India and Pakistan, to desist from developing a nuclear weapons capability.

Accordingly, the foremost powers could no longer gloss over arm control issues and pursue the relevant talks mechanically without connecting them to questions, such as, development, climate change and increasing worldwide insecurity. There is a logical link between insecurity, arms spending, underdevelopment and climate questions. The securing of sophisticated nuclear weapons is seen as a means to their security by powerful states, but they only create insecurities in their neighbours and the wider international community, who are in turn prompted to arm themselves with the same weapons. Thus is the arms race accelerated at the cost of human development and the environment. Slowing down the arms race is, therefore, imperative.

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Ending the Dispossession of Northern Fishers by Indian Trawlers



Prof. Oscar Amarasinghe and Dr. Ahilan Kadirgamar

(Chancellor of the Ocean University and Senior Lecturer, Jaffna University, they are also, President and Executive Committee member respectively, of the Sri Lanka Forum for Small Scale Fisheries – SLFSSF)

From the beginning of the early 1980s, trawlers, from Tamil Nadu, have been crossing the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) and illegally fishing in the Palk Bay waters of northern Sri Lanka, damaging the ecosystem by bottom trawling, smuggling fisheries resources, belonging to the northern Sri Lankan fishers, damaging their fishing equipment, and undermining their livelihoods. Diverse types of interventions, by the two governments, dialogues between the fishers of the two countries, involvement of civil society actors, and others, have done little to prevent human suffering, economic losses and the volatile political situation disturbing the relations between two friendly countries that have emerged from this 40-year long story of resource piracy. The northern Sri Lankan fishers, who suffered 30 years of civil war have had enough and there is an urgent need to end this crisis.

Extracting and devastating resources

Both Sri Lankan and Indian fishers used to share the Palk Bay waters (historic waters) in the past, which they did in harmony. However, post-war developments saw radical changes in the structure and organisation in fisheries, the expansion of the market and the establishment of borders separating the Palk Bay region, all of which had tremendous influence on fisheries, especially on the type of technology employed (craft-gear combinations), target species, fishing pressure and area of operation. In this process of change, a tremendous increase in Indian trawlers was observed, which finally resulted in a serious decline of fisheries resources on the Indian side of the Palk Bay and crossing of the IMBL by the Indian trawl fleet to fish in Sri Lankan waters.

In northern Sri Lanka, over 37,000 fishers operate more than 11,650 boats, the majority of which are 18 feet FRP boats propelled by outboard engines of 8 to 25hp. Including post-harvest sector employment and dependents, about 200,000 people in the Northern Province are dependent on the sector. They don’t stand a chance against the 2500 odd 30-60 feet trawlers from Tamil Nadu propelled by 70-190hp outboard engines. Indian trawl boats are crossing the International Maritime Boundary Line (which was established in 1974 and 1976) to fish on the Sri Lankan side of the Palk Bay. These boats are poaching in Sri Lankan waters in large numbers as well as extracting and devastating the resources belonging to Sri Lankan fishers. Although the process of poaching commenced in a situation where Sri Lankan fishers in the North had limited fishing opportunities due to the civil war. Today the issue has become one of the most important economic and political issues in the country, because with the end of the war in 2009, the Sri Lankan fishers in the North has commenced fishing.

The Palk Bay Pirates

Trawlers come at night, three days a week, smuggle colossal amounts of fisheries resources, and damage Sri Lankan fishers’ nets, causing enormous financial losses. To avoid the trawlers, Sri Lankan fishers often stay at home instead of going out to sea, thus loosing valuable fishing time. They are forced to adopt less-profitable, near shore operations and/or resort to destructive fishing practices (trawling, wing nets, purse seining, dynamiting, etc.). The social institutions of the fishing communities, particularly fisheries co-operatives present in every village, have been weakened due to the long decline of fishing incomes, where a fraction of such incomes are normally contributed to run the co-operatives. Thus, participatory management and coastal support for fishing communities have been undermined. The long disruption of fisheries after the war has made it difficult for fishing communities to plan for the next season, and many are slowly moving out of the fishing sector to other forms of day wage labour.

In the early years, arrests of Indian trawlers for poaching were made for security reasons, because the Sri Lanka Navy, which was fighting a war, was less interested in fisheries issues. But since the cessation of the war, the Navy arrested the intruders for illegal entry into Sri Lankan territory. The arrests were made under the Foreign Fishing Boat Regulations Act No. 59 of 1979, Immigration Act of Sri Lanka and the Prevention of Terrorism Act. The impact of the arrests in preventing Indian trawl intrusion was neutralised by the arrests of Sri Lankan multiday fishers for poaching in Indian Territory, and detained in Indian prisons. Often, through the intervention of the embassies of the two countries, the Indian trawler fishers arrested and detained in Sri Lankan prisons were released in exchange for Sri Lankan fishers detained in India.

Early Interventions

In trying to deal with this escalating crisis, the two governments drew up an MOU in 2005, which made provision for the establishment of a Joint Working Group (JWG), which among other things, would deal with issues of poaching and arrests. Although several rounds of discussions were held since 2008, no significant developments were reported, other than agreeing that fishers in both countries should be able to pursue fishing activity in a safe, secure and sustainable manner. However, some progress was achieved in the front of fisher-fisher dialogues. Several such dialogues have taken place in the past, initially organised by ARIF (Alliance for the Release of Innocent Fishermen) and later with the active involvement of the two governments. The most important of such dialogues took place in August 2010, where the Indians agreed to stop mechanised trawl fishing in Sri Lankan waters within a period of one year, during which time, only 70 days of trawling were to be allowed. Unfortunately, the governments failed to back up these decisions, and the promises were not kept. Further dialogues took place under state patronage in March 2011 and January 2014, which did not produce any fruitful results.

Post-2015 developments

In April 2015, President Maithripala Sirisena convened a meeting with the various arms of the state and the northern fisher leaders on the request of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). This high level meeting and continued engagement gave the fisher folk the confidence that their plight was a matter of serious concern to the Government, and initiated bipartisan engagement on the issue, leading to significant progress. The Parliamentary debate in October 2015 on the ecological and socio-economic damage by Indian trawlers, growing awareness through media coverage and the greater involvement of actors in Colombo, raised the fisheries conflict to the level of a national issue, rather than a problem confined to the North. Fisher leaders also took their issue to court and actively sought legal recourse towards prolonged confiscation of trawlers, and a ban of trawling in Sri Lanka. An Amendment to the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act banning bottom trawling in Sri Lanka was passed by Parliament in July 2017.

On another front, the Indian Government, in 2015, made unambiguous statements that Tamil Nadu trawlers should stop cross-border fishing. Furthermore, the increased media attention on the devastation caused to Northern Fishers exposed Tamil Nadu’s hypocrisy. The Tamil Nadu Government called for INR 1,520 crore (USD 225 million) package to convert the trawler fleet to deep sea vessels under the ‘Blue Revolution Scheme’., of which INR 450 crore (USD 66 million) was approved by the Government in Delhi, and the rest was to come from bank loans. By September 2019, close to 590 trawlers have applied for this facility. Although concerns were raised about whether such a conversion to deep sea fishing and buy back is realistic and sustainable, the engagement from Tamil Nadu pointed to an acknowledgement of the unsustainability of trawling and poaching.

An important development was the setting up of a Joint Working Group in November 2016 during ministerial talks held between India and Sri Lanka (revitalising what was formed in 2005), which would meet every three months and a meeting between the Ministers for Fisheries every six months.

The Terms of Reference for the Joint Working Group (JWG) included: i. expediting the transition towards ending the practice of bottom trawling at the earliest, ii. working out the modalities for the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for handing over of apprehended fishermen, and iii. ascertaining possibilities for cooperation on patrolling. Both Governments agreed on setting up a hotline between the two Coast Guards. Agreement was also reached on the request by the Fishermen Associations that there should be no violence and no loss of life in the handling of fishermen by the Navies and Coast Guards of the two countries. They agreed to encourage the Fishermen Associations of the two countries to meet every six months to take further their dialogue. Yet, many of the decisions taken at the bilateral Ministerial talks were not followed through towards a permanent solution.

As a result of campaigns of small scale fishers from the North, the work of researchers and activists and engagement with the governments of the two countries, and more importantly, the enforcement of the Foreign Fishing Boat Regulations (amendment) Act, a significant reduction in the incidence of Indian trawlers illegally fishing in Sri Lankan waters was noticed by 2018. Yet, the Northern fishers did not even have a breathing space for a new beginning, because the country was hit by the Covid Pandemic in early 2020. Very little action was paid against the poachers and there has been a resurgence of the incidence of Indian trawlers poaching in Sri Lankan waters, drastically affecting fishing livelihoods, which were already being threatened by the pandemic. The aggravated current situation, continues to dispossess the small scale fishers of the North; they were devastated by the war until 2009, crippled by the Indian trawlers in the decade after the war and impoverished by market disruptions with the Covid-19 pandemic since March 2020.

Moving forward

The decision to arrest and retain trawlers that are crossing over the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) by the Sri Lanka Navy, particularly since 2013, places significant pressure on the Tamil Nadu establishment. Yet, the lower levels of arrests over the last two years (71 vessels were arrested in 2017 while only nine were arrested in 2020) is in part due to fears of the Covid-19 virus spreading through arrests. Evidently, expanding deterrence is of paramount importance in dealing with the present crises, which needs strict enforcement of the Foreign Fishing Boats Regulations (Amendment) Act, No. 01 of 2018 to arrest foreign vessels in Sri Lankan EEZ which has provisions for imposing heavy fines on trawl owners ranging from Rs. 4 – 15 million. The Trawl Ban Act. No. 11 of 2017 should also be implemented. Given that Indo-Sri Lankan relations are currently of great importance, where the priorities for both governments are in furthering trade, investment and defence ties between the two countries, deterrence is to be employed carefully. There is the need for a broader strategy that asserts pressure at different levels to ensure that Tamil Nadu addresses the issue of poaching by their trawlers; particularly given that fisheries is a devolved subject in India. Pushing for joint patrolling operations by the Indian and Sri Lankan Navy could be strategic. The Indian side needs to be convinced to install vessel monitoring devices on their trawlers to track their location. However, these efforts will prove futile unless the incidence of Sri Lankan multiday boats violating Indian maritime boundaries is brought under control.

Raising the issue both by the Sri Lankan Government towards the Indian Government and the TNA and Tamil political actors towards Tamil Nadu would be strategic, given the political realities. Strong emphasis should be made on the devastating impact of resource smuggling on the livelihoods of Northern fishing populations of Sri Lanka. Strategies to work with the newly elected Government in Tamil Nadu in relation to the fishing conflict will be necessary. Engagement by the Tamil fishing community and community leaders from the North will prove important for challenging a change of stance by Tamil Nadu Government and its leaders.

Thousands of nets worth millions of Rupees have been lost in the past decade, with no single fisherman ever being compensated and with no insurance being available. Fishers now deserve financial reparations for their lost assets and for lost fishing days. Financial reparations can also be asked from the Tamil Nadu fishers, the Tamil Nadu government or the Indian government. If such demands, however, are not met in the short term, the Sri Lankan government itself may need to find the required funds. A campaign for reparations for northern Sri Lankan fishers will help consolidate the demand for a permanent solution to the fishing conflict.

The larger aim of interventions in the Palk Bay should be to establish a sustainable, comprehensive, and socially just fisheries. Current data on the state of fish stocks in this region are highly deficient. Similarly, very little scientific knowledge on the damage caused to the environment by trawling is currently available. There is an urgent need for NARA to intensify research in the Palk Bay. This can provide the foundation for developing a rational and legitimate framework for fisheries governance. Such research will also continue to weigh on the need for a permanent solution that ends bottom trawling in the Palk Bay.

While the fisher-to-fisher negotiations conducted in Chennai in 2010 were initially widely acknowledged as promising, the follow-up was poor. Similarly, the Ministerial level talks in November 2016 were significant and even led to considerable changes, however, again follow up was poor. There is a need to build on the tremendous gains of those talks, regardless of the change of Government.

At the current moment there should be a clear plan recognising the realities in Sri Lanka and India, including the political changes in Tamil Nadu and the Covid-19 pandemic to work through a process of consensus building, but with firm resolve to end bottom trawling. There should be no setback on issues agreed at the Ministerial level talks in November 2016, and calls for licensing cross border fishing should be rejected outright.

Concluding remarks

The measures suggested above will be important steps towards resolving the Palk Bay fisheries conflict. Such measures along with the recent national attention on fisheries can also lay the foundation to ensure sustainable governance and management of the natural resource base and the people who depend on it. The establishment of effective interactive platforms (e.g., strengthening fisher community organizations, co-management platforms) and clearly laid down rights and responsibilities of participating actors, along with consultation, collaboration and coordination of all concerned actors can lead to effective and sustainable policies. Indeed, sustaining small scale fisheries in addition to solving the Palk Bay fishing conflict will encompass dialogue among relevant actors, capacity development, law enforcement and empowerment of coastal communities.

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Sri Lanka at EXPO 2020



….a huge disappointment 

Rajitha Seneviratne’s description of the country’s pavilion, at EXPO 2020, in Dubai, has been endorsed by quite a few Sri Lankans who had the opportunity of checking out the Pavilion, themselves.

Briefly, this is what Rajitha had to say (The Island of October 12th):

“When I saw the pavilions of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and even Afghanistan (this country has no official exhibit but a private collector’s items), the SL pavilion is a huge disappointment, indeed. An EXPO is held to show the world where we are heading, more leaning on futuristic hope…not on showcasing only what we have/had….EXPO happens once in five years (Olympics is held every four years) and it’s a once in a decade opportunity. Where is the “WOW” factor in our pavilion? It is NOT about money but I got to know we have spent USD150 million – by any means quite a sum – and created a “pavilion” good enough to be a regular ‘stall’, at a local show, at the BMICH, in Colombo.”

And corroborating his statement are the following:

* Kumudu Abeyawardane:

I’m not someone who ever runs SL down. As messed up as we maybe, it is still the country that is home and I am one of those who chose not to leave, even when the opportunity existed.

“I was at EXPO 2020, in Dubai. I didn’t visit everything, but I visited almost all of Africa, and Asia, and, of course, Sri Lanka. What I saw was sad…as you entered there was a counter from the Ceylon Tea Board, with two very friendly girls who talked to everyone, who stopped to have a cup of tea, and did a brilliant explanation of Ceylon tea. Hats off to them! But, the experience ended there.

“The rest of the staff, except for one other lady, who was welcoming everyone, was sitting in corners, ignoring everyone….The SL brochure was only in Arabic. Someone forgot that this is an International exhibition.

“There were a few masks…a few photos that did nothing to bring out the magnificent beaches, or the heritage, or the wildlife we possess. Nothing about the development, or anything about the opportunities for investment!

SL was a sad contrast to even countries like Bhutan, or Congo, who were so eager to explain about their heritage.

“The US, and many other pavilions, were manned by student ambassadors – young and energetic, eager to talk, and happy to talk to people. Proud of where they come from.

“Let’s hope the authorities concerned will see this. EXPO 2020 is on till March 2022. We have five months to change things because we need both Tourism and Investments.”

* Akram Abbas:

“Totally agree with Rajitha Seneviratne’s article. We are living in Dubai and it was so disappointing to see the standard of our pavilion. The Afghanistan Pavilion is better than ours.”

* NM:

“I visited. Can’t explain how disappointed I am.”

In the meanwhile, it’s reported that the Saudi Arabia Pavilion, at EXPO 2020 Dubai, received 23,000 visitors in one day, bringing the total number of visits to over 200,000…at the time this article was written. Probably, it would have doubled by now!

The Saudi pavilion provides visitors with diversified content, based on four main pillars: nature, heritage, bio-community, and the economic opportunities that the country offers to the world.

And, what is our Pavilion, at EXPO 2020, offering the world!

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