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Our Fishing Heritage
Chapter 14. Fishermen in a Civil War


  1. Sri Lanka

May 1984 I made my first visit to Sri Lanka, that beautiful tear-drop shaped island state off the south-east end of India. Colombo struck me as a poor city. It had a few attractive buildings and an obviously prosperous, if small, financial centre. Tea, tourism, and gemstones, were the country’s main earners of foreign currency. West of Colombo up the mountains lay the tea plantation towns of Kandy and Nuwara Eliya. The area to the east, north and south of the plantations was the focus of the great Mahaweli project of hydro-electric dams, reservoirs, and irrigation canals, - Sri Lanka’s version of the Tenessee Valley Authority. The first Head of the Mahaweli project, Lalith Godamunne, who went on to be a Director of the World Food Program, was my counterpart consultant on a later ADB project in Sri Lanka. The south-west coast of the island, from Negombo north of Colombo round to Hambantota on the south coast, was the main centre of Sinhalese fishing ports. The main Tamil town of Jaffna lay at the northen point of Sri Lanka. Around that peninsula and down the north-east coast past Trincomalee to Batticaloa were most of the Tamil fishing villages. The Tamil north was much less well endowed with roads, schools, hospitals and other services, than the Sinhalese region in the west and south.

But my visit came at a time of crisis for Sri Lanka. Travelling through the city on minicabs, I drove past row after row of burnt out shops and houses. They were the scars of vicious ethnic violence that was eventually to flare into full scale civil war. Each day the local press, radio, and television carried jingoistic speeches by Sinhalese politicians, exulting in their new-found aggressiveness, and daring India to respond in kind. The violence had occurred a few short weeks before my arrival. Later some Tamil friends and those of mixed marriage, told of the night of mob law when drunken gangs were led by militant Buddhist priests, who urged them to burn Tamils out of house and home. Distraught relatives told of family members crying to them on the telephone while the crowds outside smashed windows and set fire to the building. Tamil families who were Christian in their religious affiliation received the same treatment as the Hindu members of their race.

The Tamil – Sinhalese tensions go back a thousand years, to when Tamils from India settled in the north and east of the island. Later, British tea planters were to bring more Tamils to work on their estates since they represented cheaper and more pliable labour. For a brief time after independence from Britain, the Tamil language enjoyed equal status with Sinhala as an official means of communication, but this was to change in a series of measures to placate Sinhalese nationalists. The measures were introduced by the Bandaranaike family who presented themselves politically as pro-poor, but who were described to me by Sri Lankans as merely “opportunistic socialists”. Their real political philosophy, and the source of their political power, lay in Sinhalese nationalism, promotion and protection of militant Buddhism (surely a contradiction in terms), and intense dislike of Tamil people.

Although conditions were later to deteriorate close to ethnic cleansing, there were still many Tamil officers in public service when I first arrived, and it was a young Tamil fishery extension official who was to take me around the fishing harbours and explain the nature of the local fisheries and the issues they faced. On my second and third visits 24 years on, each Ministry Department had a political officer, much like a commissar though he had a normal title, and he would quiz us at length about the ethnic origin of our national staff, and even our cleaners and support personnel. My third visit was delayed for a week at 2 hours notice as Tamil forces had just attacked Colombo airport and destroyed several national airline passenger jets.

The Tamil north-east produced around 40 % of Sri Lanka’s fish. This had amounted to 15,000 tonnes in 1971 rising to high of 48,000 tonnes in 1983, after which the SLN, the Sri Lankan Navy destroyed much of the Tamil fishing fleet. The high Tamil catch was representative of the numbers of Tamils dependent on fishing, - over 320,000 compared with 250,000 for the remainder of the country. I was to work for a while with Prashantha Pieris, a Sinhala boat owner and fish merchant who was keen to help the Tamil community. This was during the brief period in office of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe, an opposition party leader who halted the hostilities and began to build bridges to the Tamil community. Prashantha formed an association with the Jaffna fishermen’s union, and agreed to help market their catches.

The arrangement came to an end when President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s party regained power in 2004. But long before that, the Sri Lanka Navy, Air Force, and Army exacted a heavy toll of lives and boats from the Tamil communities. In any civil war, the ordinary people suffer most, and when one side has massively superior equipment and arms, then the weaker side has to endure the highest losses. Atrocities are perpetrated by both sides in such a conflict, and this account of the suffering of Tamil fisher communities, in no way justifies the killing of civilians by the LTTE, the Tamil liberation army.

The Tamil fishing communities were spread around Jaffna, Mannar, and Mullaithivu in the north-west, and Trincomalee, Batticaloa, and Amparai on the east coast. Prior to 1983 the north-west fishing towns had 14 ice factories, a boat yard and net factory, CeyNor, which was a joint venture with Norway, and a number of marine workshops and fuel stations. Most of this infrastructure was destroyed by the army, and if not wholly destroyed, but deteriorating, the military authorities would not permit its repair or maintenance.

In 1983 the Tamil fishing fleet numbered over 22,000 vessels. Over half of these were non-motorised craft called Vallam and Kattumaram. There were also over 700 motorised Vallum, and over 3,000 motorised Kattumaram. Decked boats numbered over 1,200 thirty foot, 3½ ton boats, and over 4,000 mechanised boats of 30 to 50 feet in length. Mainly over the 15 year civil war period after 1983, the SLN destroyed 3,843 non-mechanised boats, 1,567 traditional motorised boats, 569 3½ ton boats, and 2,048 boats of around 17 tons size. The destruction took a range of forms. Boats were confiscated and sent south to Sinhalese areas, some were broken up on the beach so the wood could be used to construct SLA army posts and other defences. A large number were fired on and sunk at sea, sometimes for little more than sailing too close to SLN imposed exclusion areas.

The fishing coast along the northern edge of Jaffna is Thondamanaru. The SL army took over its jetty at Koddadi in 1983, plus a surrounding area of half a mile in all directions. All of the fishermen and other civilian houses there were burned down, displacing 290 families. Many of the local kattumarams were broken up to get wood for security posts. The president of the fishers organisation was later shot in the stomach but survived. He was also arrested and imprisoned for 14 days on charges of ‘putting sand in the Navy officer’s food, and burning the national flag’. Of the 45 entry points from the sea to the beach through the reef, the fishermen were allowed to use only 20. Some displaced families such as those from Valigamam, have had to spend up to 15 years in refugee camps. They have lost their land, their income, their way of life, and their community; and received no compensation in return.

During the civil war the Sri Lankan military gradually took more and more control of Tamil villages and key locations like harbours, airports, and road intersections. At most of those locations, Tamil residents were forcibly removed, and some were moved repeatedly. Some Tamil coastal villages were ethnically cleansed, and their populations replaced with persons of Sinhala or Moslem origin. Ukanatha-Soodamunai is an ancient Tamil village in Trincomalee that has 100 anchorages and three lagoons that were used for prawn farming. Today none of the local Tamil fishers can work there.

Tamils have also been excluded from economic activities like the buying of fish. No Tamil can do business in the Trincomalee market where the SLN control the activities and often threaten the locals with paramilitary actions. The Sinhalese military has used Moslem surrogates to terrorise the population even to acts of murder and rape. Records compiled by Tamil families and foreign NGOs list the names of over 117 fishermen who were shot and killed at sea by the Sri Lanka Navy, plus a further 28 who went missing but there was no direct proof of SLN involvement. A 45 year old fisherman, Chellaiah Yogendrarasa, from Vaduvan, Mullaitivu, told of his experiences at the hands of the SLN as follows :

When the Sri Lankan Army took Mullaitivu, we were displaced to Mathalan. Once I went back to Vaduvan just to check my home. My leg was blown off by a land mine planted by the SLN. Later during a SLA bombing raid, my arm was badly injured and I lost the sight of one eye.

People helped me to get a boat and I started to fish again as I had 6 children to care for. My boat went missing in 1995 and when I was looking for it, the Navy saw us. They beat us badly, put a rope around us and pulled us into their boat where they beat us again and burned us with cigarettes. We were taken to Palaly military camp and kept there for 7 months. My family did not know where I was. We were given the remnants of meals to eat, food that was only fit to be thrown out. The military said this was what they gave to LTTE prisoners. We were eventually released through the intervention of the ICRC.

I was arrested again after a similar incident and taken to Trincomalee. I was hung upside down there with others, and a fire of chillies was burnt underneath us. Bags filled with petrol were placed over our heads. They were removed only after we were choking and about to expire. Interrogations continued but we said we were just family men and had no connection with the LTTE. We were close to death when we were handed over to the police and released through the courts.

In 2001 my 17 year old son went fishing with a friend. We got extremely worried when we heard Navy gunfire. The fishing boats were all rushing to the shore. My son’s friend came rushing to me and fell at my feet in tears. He told me that my son had been killed by the gunfire.”

We have all seen the dreadful pictures of the devastation caused by the tsunami of December 26th 2003, on the south-west coast of Sri Lanka, including the train that was swept off the railway line by the sea. (We knew the train well, regularly viewing its arrival and departure at the capital from our apartment window, and often walking across its single track line). But television viewers will not recall any pictures or scenes from the Tamil north-east. They were never shown, though that area probably suffered the most casualties, 20,554 deaths of which 6,440 were fishermen. 33,937 houses were destroyed, 19,306 belonging to fishing families.

Relief agencies were quick to offer aid and support to tsunami struck villages, but as they have expressed in their NGO reports, their efforts were largely frustrated by the Sri Lanka military and government. In many cases aid intended for Tamil fishing communities was diverted to Sinhalese non-fishing villagers. When houses were built for the homeless, the military took control of these areas and prevented Tamil families from occupying the new homes. In addition to Sinhalese settlers, Moslem families were also resettled in tsunami rehabilitation areas, to reduce the Tamil residents to a minority. The control of new homes and resettlement of non-locals occurred throughout Jaffna and Trincomalee. Relief to war displaced Tamil families was actually decreased after the tsunami, from Rupees 1,260 down to Rs 600 maximum per month.

In Vakarai, one Batticaloa village, where the fishermen’s union had 4,888 members, 2,100 of whom perished in the tsunami, all fisher houses were destroyed, along with over 500 boats. Not a single permanent home was built for the Tamils who lost their houses due to military restrictions on bringing building materials into the village. NGOs were ready to replace the broken boats but only 166 of the 500 possible were allowed in by the government.

The human cost of the tsunami damage and SL Navy activities is sadly but eloquently expressed in the words of a 47 year old Tamil widow, Jeyadevan Banumathy of Uduthurai, in Jaffna province :

We were displaced from our village to Chundikulam in 1990 due to attacks by the Sri Lankan military. We were very poor but we were happy. My husband, Subramaniuma Jeyadevan, went to sea on 3rd March 1990. He did not return; but his boat reached the shore. There I found the sarong and his food box. The food had been eaten and the box was empty.

Later I heard that his fellow fisher on the boat, had survived. He told me that my husband was hit in the head by gunfire from the Navy vessel. They had both jumped into the sea and tried to swim for shore. The friend reached the beach but collapsed and fainted, not knowing what became of my husband. We searched later in the sea and found his body which had gunshot wounds in his head.

I continued to bring up my three small children, supporting them by selling dry fish. My eldest son got married but died shortly after in the December tsunami. One of my two brothers was taken away by the Sri Lankan Navy. He is still missing.

For 25 years now, the Tamil fishermen and their families have been persecuted and harassed by Sri Lankan authorities. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Tamil struggle for a degree of self-government or outright independence, the Tamil fishers have paid a terrible price. No similar price has been paid by Sinhalese or Moslem fishers. Instead they have been rewarded by allocation of boats seized by Tamils, and by protected access to fishing grounds now closed to Tamils. They have also been allowed and encouraged to occupy Tamil villages. After the tsunami which affected all coastal villages around the country, official aid was liberally supplied to Sinhalese communities, while the government and military blocked and frustrated the efforts of aid organisations to get relief inputs into the hands of the Tamils.

A national fishery-dependent community of 320,000 has seen their share of the fish harvest drop from 48,000 tons to near zero, and even now, after some recovery, to be less than half the amount produced in 1983. Of a fleet of 20,000 boats, they have lost 8,000 to attacks by the SL navy, and a further 10,000 destroyed or damaged by the tsunami. Documented evidence reveals that 117 fishermen were murdered by the Navy, and a further 28 are missing after pursuit or capture by the SLN. Whole villages have been knocked down, taken over by the military, or handed over to Sinhalese or Moslem groups. The tsunami disaster led to the deaths of 6,440 Tamil fishers in a total of 20,554 killed of the Tamil population. Tamil fisher families lost 19,306 houses out of a total of 33,937 destroyed in the north-east. But the Sri Lankan government suppressed news of the damage and deaths in the Tamil region, and permitted film crews to see only what occurred in the south-west. When relief aid began to pour in, it was directed to the south-west, and largely blocked from entry to the north-east, as all the relevant aid organisations and NGOs have attested.

  1. Cambodia after the killing fields

There are today over 600,000 fishermen in Cambodia, a country of 13 million persons. Thirty-five years ago when the population was less than half that number, its government was overthrown by a ruthless regime known as the Khmer Rouge which was led by Pol Pot (Saloth Sar). This extreme Marxist group was able to take power after the country had been de-stabilised by having its rural areas heavily bombed by the American Air Force. The then President, Richard Nixon, and his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, believed that the North Vietnamese were using the eastern region of Cambodia as a conduit for troops and supplies.

In December 1970 President Nixon and Secretary of State Kissinger ordered a massive bombing of Cambodia, the orders being transmitted down through General Alexander Haig. After the American pull-out from Vietnam the US military helped the government of Cambodia to shell and bomb further rural parts of the country in an unsuccessful attempt to destroy Khmer Rouge forces. Phnom Penh fell to the rebel army on April 17 1975.

I was working across the South China Sea from Cambodia and Vietnam when all that happened, in Indonesia and the Philippines, while the ‘killing fields’ horrors were being perpetrated. Then in 1978 the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia, following some provocations by the Khmer Rouge (which was linked to communist China, while Vietnam was linked with the USSR). The Khmer Rouge forces of Pol Pot were defeated and driven to the north and west of the country in 1979. There followed a period of Vietnamese rule until a UN peace plan was agreed in 1991 and elections took place in 1993. Then Cambodia once more achieved self-government. Ten years after the restoration of democracy, and 5 years after the death of Pol Pot, I was invited by the UN and the government, to work on the restoration of Cambodia’s fisheries, and the development of its hundreds of fishing communities.

The project I was responsible for, in 2 phases from 2003 to 2008 concerned the fisheries of the great lake of Tonle Sap, and 178 of the communities involved, spread out among the six provinces surrounding the lake. The Tonle Sap river flows from the lake to join the Mekong river at Phnom Penh, but for half of each year, the river reverses its flow to run from the Mekong river back into the great lake. The lake itself, some 3,000 to 16,000 square kilometres in area, has a rise and fall of over 30 feet between the dry season and the rainy season. This means that most fisher-folk there live either in houses built on poles, or on floating houses that could move offshore and inshore as the waters rose or fell. The lake is surrounded by a vast flooded forest of tree species than can survive on dry land or in water. Around a quarter million tons of fish are produced from the lake each year, making it one of the most productive in the world, and earning it the title of the ‘fish basket of Indo-china’.

Most of my national staff of 50 Cambodian officers had spent years of their childhood in youth labour camps established by the Khmer Rouge where they suffered much from brutality and malnutrition. All of them had lost at least one parent and some siblings or uncles during the Killing Fields era. Following the Vietnamese invasion they got reunited with what was left of their families, and started schooling under grass roof huts with no blackboard or books, - just writing Khmer letters in the mud or sand. Yet by the time they joined my project, most had college diplomas or university degrees, and were proficient in the use of computers and the relevant software. A few who had studied in the USSR during the period of Vietnam rule, could also speak Russian. An elderly office watchman had worked as a driver for the Khmer Rouge, sometimes taking groups of unfortunate victims to the place of execution.

As we drove around the great lake, and through the provinces of Banteay Meanchey, Siem Reap, and Kampong Thom, my driver Veth would point out the places where fighting took place between the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese. He had driven ambulances for a Belgian relief programme during the 1980s when skirmishes were still taking place. He would point out the locations of major battles and show where they came across dozens of bodies of soldiers and cadres. His own father had been murdered by Pol Pot’s people, and he would get angry when those KR leaders who were later apprehended, blamed all the deaths on the Vietnamese.

Very little fishing took place in the lakes and rivers during the war, as the Khmer Rouge forbade the people to do so, unless it was to get fish for their soldiers and leaders. This led to there being a huge harvest the first few years after the cessation of hostilities, as the fish population was probably at maximum level. Once an elected government was in place, the fisheries authorities reverted to the former French colonial system of auctioning to the highest bidders, all of the major fishing areas, which went under the term of fishing lots. That left the poor villagers with little access to the fish resource except during the closed season, and in the open parts of the lake, and then only with ‘family size’ fishing gear.

In the year 2000 the Prime Minister, Hun Sen, took the surprising but welcome step of initiating fishery reforms that allocated 56% of the former fishing lots to local villagers who had to form ‘community fisheries organisations’. Our project was to support 178 such organisations which represented around a quarter million persons. This remarkable reform laid the basis for future well-being and sustainability of small scale fishers throughout the country.

The village populations reflected the impact of the civil war, the killing fields era, and the Vietnamese invasion. There were not so many elderly people, and relatively few men and women over 50 years. Many men had lost legs or arms from land mines that littered the rural areas for over 20 years after the conflict. They were suspicious of government at first, but on the surface, very willing to go along with whatever programme or procedures were applied by local, regional, and national administrations. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the years of strict Marxism which had stopped all education, destroyed books and machinery, and had closed all banks, - had not destroyed indigenous culture or rural skills. The Cambodian people have a wealth of traditional song and dance, and that have survived the dark period largely intact. We had one lovely country girl in our office who would gladly break into song whenever a suitable occasion arose. The songs, in plaintive Khmer tunes, were about love stories, family life, and the vicissitudes of farming communities.

Surprisingly for an inland body of fresh water, Tonle Sap is harvested by a range of gear types and fishing techniques that are as varied and numerous as those in any other fishery in the world. There are scores of different types of creels, traps, weirs, bag nets, lift nets, fyke nets, gill nets, and cast nets. There are also dredges, scoop nets, trawl nets, and purse seines, and a range of hook and line gear. Most of the boats are small canoes, the majority hand-powered. The motorised boats are mainly powered by long-tail or power-pole motors, - the eastern low-cost version of the outboard motor which is familiar to tourists who have visited Thailand and Indonesia or other countries in the region.


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