Sri Lanka’s maritime environment has seen a significant transformation to peacetime conditions
1st Oct 2010
Since the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009, Sri Lanka’s maritime environment has seen a significant transformation to peacetime conditions. In fact, any traces of the once powerful and feared Sea Tigers, the maritime wing of the LTTE, have vanished with the group’s sudden demise. However, although the civil war is over, the dawn of peace has brought a new series of maritime security challenges, as told in an exclusive Defence Review Asia interview with Vice-Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe, the Commander of the Sri Lanka Navy, who illustrates how the service is reorganizing its peacetime priorities to safeguard the country’s maritime borders.
Revival of Fisheries Industry
In the evolving post-civil war era, the Navy’s most significant emerging challenge is to safeguard and monitor the island’s ever expanding fisheries industry. At present, and according to the Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, Sri Lanka has 21 fisheries harbours, 15 anchorages, 548 fisheries co-operative societies, 164,870 fishermen and 42,429 boats of all types used by fishermen.
With the conflict over, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse has made the expansion of the fisheries industry a cornerstone of his economic policy: “I am determined to change this situation and develop the fisheries industry and to bring it to a level of the industry in Japan and Thailand,” he said. “I will also make arrangements to provide 500 multi-day boats at concessionary prices to the coastal fishermen in Sri Lanka... [and] develop 100 fishery harbours, anchorages, boats yards and fishery crafts centres along the coastal line.”
The fisheries industry in the ethnic-Tamil dominated Northern Province, formerly the epicentre of the secessionist insurgency, is gradually recovering from nearly three decades of conflict. Vice-Admiral Samarasinghe explained: “Previously, due to the conflict, the fishermen in the north and east of Sri Lanka were very restricted in their activities. We had fishing marshalling points and whenever a fisherman left the shore we checked them, and once they returned we also checked them, therefore we maintained our awareness of what was happening,” he said.
“Physical security on the coastline is critically important for an island nation like us. We need to know who lands and leaves our beaches and whether the person who left has come back with the same amount of people or not. However, right now, fishing is unrestricted. There are no restrictions on anybody and they can leave at any time they choose.”
Sri Lanka’s Northern Province has a coastline of 480km that has 250 fishing villages and an estimated 35,000 fishermen. A clear demonstration of how the conflict prevented the development of the fisheries industry in the north is exemplified by the recent comments made by the assistant director of the Fisheries Department for the Jaffna District, KK Dharmalingam, who affirmed that 9000 fishing craft are being operated of which all are one-day boats that are unsuitable for deep sea fishing.
In addition to the impact of the conflict on the development of harbor facilities and the acquisition of modern fishing vessels, Sri Lanka’s fisheries industry is also still recovering from the catastrophic 2004 tsunami, which destroyed a large proportion of the country’s entire fisheries fleet.
“The government is trying to encourage fishing and hopes to encourage more fishermen out to sea, especially in northern Sri Lanka. Northern fishermen have been deprived of going out to sea with bigger vessels; they were restricted to smaller boats all these years because of the conflict,” said Vice-Admiral Samarasinghe.
“That is why the government is taking the initiative, taking account of their requirements and providing soft loans and financial support, as well as boat building facilities. Since the end of the conflict the fishermen in the north are happy because their incomes have increased seven to ten-fold,” he added.
Conversely, the very fact that fishing activities have dramatically escalated, means that it also presents a major challenge for the Navy, which Vice-Admiral Samarasinghe confirmed: “The Navy is available in all fisheries harbours around the country and have established special marshalling points so that we can randomly check and be aware of what is happening.
“Even if someone goes to a place where the Navy is not present, our foot patrol surveillance will know of it. To support them, we have stationed coastal deployments and radar stations operated and coordinated by the Navy. I feel that for an island nation like Sri Lanka, the physical security on the beach is critically important to prevent illicit immigration, smuggling and illegal fishing,” he said.
In addition, the Navy has made it mandatory for all fishing vessels to use outboard motors of no more than 15 hp capacity and have their vessels illuminated at night and fitted with radar reflectors.
Such measures are also intended to assist the Navy to easily identify vessels in distress, which in the light of the rapidly increasing maritime traffic has seen the Navy conduct 13 search and rescue missions in 2009.
“Our fishermen” affirmed Vice-Admiral Samarasinghe, “go quite far out into sea. Recently I had to send a vessel 230 miles out to save a Sri Lankan fisherman who was very ill. The Navy has even gone out 300 miles to rescue a foreign captain who suffered a heart-attack and brought him back to Colombo,” he said. “As the fishing fleet and their activity increases our duties increase, and we cannot ignore a vessel in distress. We have to handle many SAR activities and, if we cannot handle them, I request help from India. Over the last seven months the Navy has conducted 30 SAR missions,” he added.
Border Security and Indian Fishermen
Although the civil war has ended, the perennial problem of Indian fishermen poaching in Sri Lankan waters continues to fester and has been the cause of much tension between the fishing communities of both countries. For instance, in January 2010, the Indian daily, The Express Buzz reported that exasperated Sri Lankan fishermen have threatened Indian fishermen with violent reprisals if they continue to poach in Sri Lankan waters. “On a daily basis there are anywhere between 100-300 Indian fishing vessels that enter Sri Lankan waters. They have particular days, about four to five days a week where they come in large numbers right along from Thallai Mannar to Point Pedro. The problem of Indian fishermen crossing the international maritime boundary line and entering our waters does exist and is a long standing one,” stated Vice-Admiral Samarasinghe.
“We try to persuade them through warning shots and the like, but they don’t pay attention to that. Also, the trawlers often use fishing techniques which are detrimental to the environment. Although these factors cannot be stopped completely, they need to be managed,” he confirmed.
According to Vice-Admiral Samarasinghe, the Sri Lanka Navy is at the forefront of devising a comprehensive strategy to significantly reduce the intrusion of Indian fishermen: “All these years the northern Sri Lankan fishermen have never gone to sea, so the Indian fishermen have had a field day and took advantage of the situation.
“If no Sri Lankan fishermen are there then they will not stop entering our waters. But if Sri Lankan fishermen are there, then they would be reluctant. Our fishermen should be in our waters and that is why the Ministry of Defence has taken the initiative to cooperate with the fisheries ministry; to enhance the livelihood of fishermen and increase their numbers, which we think, will be another factor towards discouraging Indian fishermen from poaching in our waters.”
Indo-Lanka Maritime Security Cooperation
Cooperation with the Indian Navy in attempting to manage and mitigate the problem posed by Indian fishermen has also been vitally important for the Sri Lanka Navy, which Vice-Admiral Samarasinghe illustrated: “In order to curb it, we have communicated to the Indian navy that more barriers at the international maritime boundary line would be of great help.
“For day to day functions we are authorized to communicate with the Indian Navy. If a situation arose they would use their boats to block it. The Indian Navy collects their stranded fishermen from us, and our fishermen once arrested are collected by us when released,” he said.
The effective navy-to-navy cooperation that has existed since 2005 between both the Indian and Sri Lanka navies has been instrumental in aiding the Sri Lanka Navy to safeguard the maritime security environment in the vulnerable Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Strait. Vice-Admiral Samarasinghe explained: “We maintain a friendly relationship and have been supported from training to the provision of vessels. The Sri Lanka Navy has a great deal of focus on training with India. Recently, we sent 150 of our officer cadets on board an Indian ship and they go out to sea for four to five days.
“Their navy cadets are disembarked in Sri Lanka and they move around our areas, just interacting. Officer to officer interaction is very important at this level. Training with the Indian Navy has increased two or three fold. In 2009, we had 157 officers and almost 300 sailors train in India.
“I am authorized to communicate with my Indian counterparts at any time. Every year our navies send their heads of operations to meet in either New Delhi or Sri Lanka. Similarly, the Southern Naval Commander of India and the Northern Naval Commander of Sri Lanka meet every six months at sea along the international maritime boundary – which we call a flag meeting, where in addition senior officials from the Indian Coastguard and intelligence officials are also present,” he said. “These meetings are designed to sort out the practical problems we face with the large number of Indian fishermen coming into Sri Lanka’s waters,” he added.
Maritime Policy Development
In conjunction with the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, the Sri Lanka Navy is at the forefront of developing a comprehensive short and long-term maritime policy for the island-nation. “The country’s strategy is to expand the Navy primarily for coastal security and fisheries protection and also because we are in close proximity to the heaviest regional sea route near the Hambantota harbour,” affirmed Vice-Admiral Samarasinghe.
“I have a 30 year policy as well as five year plan,” he says. “A ship’s lifespan is 30 years which is why I call it a 30 year policy. Normal ships, if well maintained, can last from 30 to 40 years. Phasing out plans must be projected. Most importantly ships need harbours and infrastructure; such as piers and maintenance facilities.
“All these things are incorporated in the 30 year plan. The five year plan is to improve the assets that I have and place an order for any other major assets. As an island nation we need to develop a maritime culture; maritime sports and other activities, and that has to start from the school level.
“At the moment the Offshore Patrol Vessel fleet meets the Navy’s standards, but even so, it isn’t an ideal situation. For example, recently we had a SAR mission in very rough weather and by not possessing a strong and durable vessel, this limitation sometimes prevents the Navy from doing what we would have otherwise preferred.
“We require more naval personnel to be at sea. At the moment the percentage of naval personnel who are seaborne is limited and is not the right proportion. I would like to have more assets deployed at sea, for the purpose of training and of assisting the economic concerns of the country.
“The Navy is a force that requires long-term planning because training for officers takes four years to complete, hence the need for training infrastructure. We also need more timely maintenance because we had to cut back many activities to meet the demands of full-scale conflict, so now maintenance will be more streamlined.
“Then we have to be prepared for maritime calamities and disasters. A naval air wing is of course a possibility, but it is not the need of the hour. It’s something that any navy would like to have so maybe in the distant future, because all of these depend on the amount of money we have. Despite our vision, the reality is the dollars and cents. I am required to fall in line with the national budget and convince the authorities that whatever share of the pie I get, is for the good of the country.”
In line with key maritime policy objectives, a critical step forward in further enhancing Sri Lanka’s maritime security interests has led to the formation of the Sri Lanka Coast Guard, which was inaugurated in January, 2010. “The Coast Guard was created to share some of the load now undertaken by the Navy to venture out beyond our territorial waters,” said Vice-Admiral Samarasinghe.
“In that context, handing over duties such as illicit immigration, fisheries protection, coastal pollution control to the Coast Guard will relieve the Navy of those duties. We are one and the same, we are not two entities, although administratively the Coast Guard will function separately, in the larger picture they are under the purview of the Navy. The Navy and the Coast Guard will be synchronized as one unit, which will share burdens, perhaps on different angles.
“At the moment, the Sri Lanka Coast Guard consists of 500 men doing shore duties, including three vessels all of which are manned by seconded Navy personnel. They have a base down south near Galle, it is their own unique base, but they share all Navy facilities of repair and maintenance.
“In time the Coast Guard’s abilities and facilities will improve and gradually assume greater commitments assigned to them. At the moment, the Navy has given them some of our facilities through vessels and manpower and the Coast Guard is progressing towards fulfilling the role expected of them.”
The measures endorsed by both the Sri Lanka Navy clearly indicate that even in peacetime Sri Lanka’s maritime security remains a top priority. Given that Sri Lanka is in the midst of a maritime revival, which in addition to the rapid growth of the fisheries sector, is also witnessing the expansion of existing ports as seen by Colombo, Galle, Trincomalee and Kankesanthurai harbours; and the creation of new ports, namely at Hambantota, Oluvil and Point Pedro, the Sri Lanka Navy will continue to play a major role in ensuring the future stability and economic prosperity of the island-nation.