The Indian Fishermen Debacle


On May 9, 2013, 65-year-old Hung Shih-cheng, was fatally shot in the back. He was a Taiwanese fisherman. Shin Cheng, his son and two others, in a small fishing vessel, fished near an island in the extreme north of Philippines (which Taiwan also claims as part of its economic zone). A Philippine coast guard vessel spotted the fishermen and they have fired a M14 rifle that killed Shin Cheng. The coastguard chiefs of Philippines insisted that the fishing vessel tried to ram the coastguard. The firing was done only in self-defence.

A fisherman dying and a country’s coastguard chiefs uttering some ludicrous statement are a common phenomenon. For example, take the fate of Indian fishermen in the hands of Srilankan coast guard. They have been at the receiving end for a long time and the great democratic country in the world is finding it hard to address the issue. But, what happened to Taiwanese fisherman didn’t pass without any repercussions. As a routine, the Philippines government issued an apology. Taiwan rejected the excuses and reacted with wrath by recalling its diplomatic envoy from Manila, frozen applications from Filipinos seeking to work in Taiwan, held naval drills near Philippine waters and issued travel alert urging its citizens not to visit to the Philippines. Even the United States of America (an ally of both the countries) expressed regret over the issue and said, “to ensure maritime safety, and refrain from actions that could further escalate tensions.”

Taiwanese condemning the Philippines government

Taiwanese condemning the Philippines government

Overseas workers are the key members of Philippines economy. In Taiwan, the third largest groups of immigrant workers are Philippines citizens (works as health aides and factory workers).  Ma Ying-jeou – President of Taiwan called the shooting as a ‘cold-blooded murder.’ Later, the Philippines authorities promised to bring homicide charges on the coastguards. The foreign ministry of Taiwan welcomed the move and recommended its government to lift sanctions against Manila. If their crime was proved, the accused eight coastguards could face 12 to 20 years in jail.

The 400km maritime border between India and Srilanka has seen lots of blood but still we have never heard such an action taken against the culprits. The debacle started in the late 1980’s after the emergence of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as a dominant militant group in Srilanka. During that period, the LTTE had a naval wing called ‘Sea Tigers’ and many fishermen were caught in the crossfire between the Sri Lankan Navy and LTTE. The attacks and arrests on fishermen became a common thing the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009 (or after the genocide of Srilankan-Tamils). Straying of fishermen occurs due to various reasons: ignorance of marine boundaries (imaginary), engine failure or due to sudden turbulence at seas. The fisherman is also not an angel. He is just like a common man who wants to catch more fish. They sometimes knowingly cross the borders.


The straying of fishermen (knowingly or unknowingly) occurs a lot. Srilankan fishermen are also caught poaching in Indian waters off coasts of Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Tami Nadu and sometimes, in Orissa. But, they Indian coastguard don’t shoot them or incarcerate them indefinitely. To be fair, the Srilankan haven’t taken a shot at Tamil fishermen at every occurrence. They should voluntarily avoid using trawlers that damage plankton and in turn make the seabed unfavorable for breeding of new fishes and prawns. In 2011, Sri Lankan Navy rounded off 2,000 Tamil Nadu fishermen that had set out in 600 mechanized boats – a clear violation. The navy released them with a warning.

What irks the fishing community of Tami Nadu is not only the ruthless approach of Lankan coast guard but also the lazy approach of New Delhi (both from Congress and BJP). The opportunistic Tamil Nadu political parties and government take this issue, only when there is a dearth of other issues. The fishermen are kept sea-blind and when blood spills in high-seas, the same ludicrous statements are uttered by Indian and Srilankan governments. Yeah, the issue is complex and easy solutions can’t be made, but the Indian government – the present or future one – is never going to take a stand like the Taiwanese government.  A holistic and strong action is necessary in this problem, or else the fishy waters will evoke more blood of the fishermen.


Satish Acharya’s Cartoon

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