Ranil's belligerent talk is unhelpful

It is unfortunate that Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has adopted a confrontationist position on the fishermen conflict between the two countries. In an interview to an Indian television channel, he described as “legitimate” the shooting of Indian fishermen trespassing in Sri Lankan waters. While Sri Lanka may be well within its rights in shooting down trespassers, his approach is provocative. The problem over Indian fishermen entering Sri Lankan waters has been festering for some time now. Underlying the conflict is the practice of trawling by Indian fishermen, which has caused depletion of marine resources along the Indian coast. This has in turn forced our fishermen to go further into the sea in search of catch. Since international maritime borders are not visible, they often end up straying into Sri Lankan waters. Sri Lanka’s frustration in this regard is understandable.

Not only are Indian fishermen entering its waters but also their trawling for fish is denying Sri Lankan fishermen of the catch. What irks Sri Lanka additionally is the fact that India has done little to prevent the use of trawlers, a practice Colombo has curbed effectively. Sri Lanka’s frustrations are understandable but Wickremesinghe’s bellicose tirade is unhelpful as resorting to threats and violence is not the way to address the problem. The fishermen conflict is one that can be resolved through dialogue, one that includes not just Indian and Sri Lankan officials but civil society on both sides of the Palk Strait, especially the fishermen affected by the conflict. Wickremesinghe’s warning will not ease this process; rather it will add fuel to an already emotionally charged situation and encourage hardliners in both countries to adopt belligerent postures. The problem needs a humanitarian approach.

India-Sri Lanka relations that had soured under former President Mahinda Rajapaksa are beginning to look up with Maithripala Sirisena assuming the presidency. His trip to Delhi last month served to set in motion a process of repairing frayed ties. Both sides are looking forward to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s upcoming visit to the island, the first by an Indian prime minister in nearly three decades, to take this process further. While it is regrettable that Wickremesinghe struck a discordant note at a crucial juncture in bilateral relations, this must not set the tone for the Indian prime minister’s historic visit. There are several problems, including a political solution to the island’s ethnic conflict, the fishermen conflict and India’s security concerns that need to be addressed and Delhi must use Modi’s visit to build a stronger relationship with Sri Lanka.
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