Sri Lanka's Genocidal War - '95 to '01
Strangling the Right to Work
- Jesuit Refugee
Service Report, 25 January 2001
"Is it fair
that we are not allowed to fish at night time in our country, but
foreign fishermen are allowed to do so?"
Fishermen in Pesalai, Mannar Island
Tamil civilians in Sri Lanka's war
zones are endangered not only by shelling, landmines and gunfire.
They must face human rights violations on a daily basis, some
life-threatening, others which subject them to indignities and to
One violation they face is severe restrictions imposed by the Sri
Lankan government and army, which incapacitate their potential to
work. In no case is this more true than that of fishermen in the
north. On Mannar Island, an estimated 78 per cent of the
breadwinners are fishermen, but they are hardly allowed to fish.
"Fishermen are not catching enough fish. They can just be stopped
from fishing, and they cannot refer to anyone else, there is nothing
they can do about it," said church workers in Mannar district.
"We are only allowed by the army to fish during very limited hours
in the day, between 6.30am and 5pm. We cannot fish at night, which
is the best time for fishing," said fishermen in Pesalai (the
largest fishing village in Mannar, where 90 per cent are fishermen).
"The motors of our boats are kept by the security forces. When we
come in from fishing, we must return our motors to the police
station and report to them." Prior to 1990, no restrictions were
applied to the fishing trade, but now a range of limitations is
rigidly imposed. The fishermen said: "Previously, there was no
restriction on fuel, now we are only allowed 50 litres. We are not
even allowed to do deep sea fishing, and are only allowed to go
three and a half kilometres away from the shore, in shallow waters."
Sri Lankan Tamils are not allowed to fish in their own waters, but
Indian fishermen are. Very likely by bribing the Navy, they make
their way into Sri Lankan waters and fish where they like, when they
like. "Indian trawlers are allowed to come and fish in Sri Lankan
waters at night. The Indian fishermen have bigger trawlers and nets
and they take everything," continued the fishermen. "Sometimes we
leave our nets at night and the Indian trawlers tear them. So now,
we can only fish on certain days a week if we want to keep our nets.
Is it fair that we are not allowed to fish at night time in our
country, but foreign fishermen are allowed to do so?"
Getting fishing equipment and spare parts for their boats is another
nightmare for the fishermen as many necessary items are restricted -
"because the army may suspect we are buying them to construct bombs"
- and a pass is needed to get them. "To buy most items for our
boats, we need to go to Mannar town, so we need a pass. Some things
we need to get from Colombo, and it is so difficult to get there, we
need passes and sponsorships," said the fishermen.
Not surprisingly, these imposed controls have led to a drastic drop
in the income of the fishermen and their families. "We have all we
need to enable us to live a good life here in Mannar, but our income
is not enough now because of the restrictions. Before, when we could
fish at night time, we would earn an average of 2,000 rupees per
day, but now we only get around 500 rupees because of the curfew,"
they said. "Once some of us were rich, now we have nothing. Our food
intake has decreased much, and this has led to an increase in ill
health, but then, medication is scarce as it is also restricted."
As if all this were not enough, fishermen are subjected to further
indignity and hardship when the army, navy and police take the best
of their catch as it is landed. "If we do not allow them to, we will
not be allowed to go fishing the next day. Out of seven kilos of
prawns, for example, they will take one kilo, always the best
quality," the fishermen said. This habitual practice takes a further
cut out of the income of the fishermen, and it is an abuse they are
powerless to do anything about. In Batticaloa, a fisherman did
refuse, and was arrested, tortured and detained for over two years
after that (on the customary vague suspicion of being a member of
the LTTE). The Mannar Bishop, Rt Rev. Dr Rayappu Joseph, said:
"Members of the Navy collect fish for their own consumption and they
ill treat and assault the fishermen. They take the best fish for
free without asking."
The violations suffered by the fishermen at the hands of the
security forces can cost them their lives. The cases of
"disappearances" of fishermen shot dead by the Navy while at sea -
because they are taken for Tigers - are legion. One woman from
Pesalai said: "My husband has been missing since August 1998, when
he was arrested while fishing. I heard he is in Kalatura prison, and
I wrote to the government asking after him. The reply I received
was... thousands of people disappear, how can we trace him? I have
spent all my money to try to find him, all for nothing, the children
do not know their father at all." Another woman explained tearfully
how her husband and her son were shot at when they went out fishing
with another man in 1994.
Under the guidance of the Church, however, a number of steps have
been taken, which have led to a decrease in such incidents. Cases of
disappearances are usually reported to the Citizens' Committee,
which follows them up.
It is not only fishermen who face problems in working. The
cultivation of land is also fraught with difficulties. In the
cleared areas, cultivation of many areas is simply forbidden, while
in the uncleared areas, it is very difficult to cultivate due to
restrictions on kerosene and a ban on fertilisers.