KOKKILAI: Seven years after the end of the war the fishermen of Kokkilai in the Tamil-majority Mullaitivu district of North-East Sri Lanka are yet to enjoy the fruits of peace.
If fighting on land and sea disrupted their livelihood during the 30 year war, illegal fishing by Sinhalese and Muslims from outside the area; forcible occupation of lands by outsiders with state-backing; and grabbing of private lands to build an army-backed Buddhist temple, are troubling the Tamil fisher folk after the war.
In the context of a past when the nearby Weli Oya (Manal Aru) area was systematically colonized by the Sinhalese in 1985, the fishermen of Kokkilai are apprehensive about a future of economic and political marginalization and even displacement.
In a letter addressed to President Maithripala Sirisena dated April 26, 2016, the Tamil fishermen of Kokkilai, Kurunattukerni and Kokkuthoduvai said that 450 to 500 boats of Muslim fishermen from Pulmoddai in neighboring Trincomalee district have been fishing in the Kokkilai lagoon using boats with outboard motors and the “kottu valai” net, both which are banned by a Gazette notification of July 2015.
The banned techniques are destroying the lagoon’s resources besides denying the local fishermen a chance to fish in the lagoon using traditional nets and small boats, the letter said. With the lagoon denuded of fish by the poachers, the affected local fishermen are thinking of committing suicide, the letter said.
Suspecting that a high Fisheries Ministry official based in Colombo had been bribed by the poachers, Kokkilai’s Tamil fishermen approached Mullaitivu’s Government Agent, Roopavathi Ketheeswaran. She wrote to the official concerned quoting the Gazette notification, but got no reply.
Highlighting the other major problem faced by the Tamil fishermen, a local Catholic priest, who is taking up their cause, said that about 1000 non-Tamil fisher families from Chilaw and Negombo on the Western coast have settled permanently in the Kokkilai area. Of these only 78 families had traditionally come to Kokkilai to fish and these were not settlers but itinerant fishermen, he pointed out.
The priest alleged that in Muhadwaram, 250 non-Tamil families from the South are building houses on lands without getting deeds.
“The affected Tamil fishermen cannot even approach these colonies because of the strong arm tactics used by the leader of the immigrants,” the priest said.
In this context, the Tamils of Kokkilai got irritated when an army-backed Buddhist monk started building a Buddha Vihara on land grabbed from five Tamil families.
“The monk, who is also backed by the Colombo-based radical organization Bodu Bala Sena, has been trying to buy off the lands, but the concerned owners have rejected the offer,” the Catholic priest said
He observed that the Tamils find the determined efforts being made to build a Buddha Vihara in an area which has no Buddhists other than the soldiers in the nearby army camp, a bit intriguing.
Tamils generally see this and the settlement of Sinhalese speaking fishermen from the Western coast as an early sign of planned colonization of this traditionally Tamil area with a view to changing the ethnic ratio.
But Tamils do not mind fishermen from the outside fishing in their midst if it does not harm them.
“There were 78 families from the South which used to come here even during the war, and the LTTE used to permit them because of tradition. But people object to the planned settlement of outsiders denying the locals their rights; the favoritism shown to non-Tamils from outside the area; and the use of banned methods of fishing, which denude local resources,” the Catholic priest said.