For his PhD thesis, Joeri Scholtens, a PhD researcher at the University of Amsterdam (UvA), studied the enduring fishing dispute between Sri Lanka and India. At Scholtens’ request, illustrator Laura Eggens transformed part of his findings into a graphic novel.
‘It never really was “ordinary” doctoral research,’ says Scholtens, who will be defending his thesis on 13 October. ‘When studying a conflict like this – where there is so much at stake for so many people, and you find yourself regularly working alongside local universities and NGOs – you soon end up in the domain of “action research”. I didn’t only seek information from stakeholders and policymakers – I also tried to put people in touch with each other, break through the political game-playing and ensure that the conflict was shown in the media from the perspective of local fishermen.’
Since Scholtens was keen for his PhD thesis to be read both in the academic world and beyond, he wanted to make it as accessible as possible. ‘This is how the idea of working together with my friend, the illustrator Laura Eggens, and turning part of the study into a graphic novel came about. The conflict is discussed in the local papers virtually on a daily basis, but the emphasis in those articles tends to be on the latest news regarding arrests at sea and the political repercussions. The comic, on the other hand, tries to expose the underlying reasons why the conflict can’t seem to be resolved.’
The roots of the fishing dispute lie in the Sri Lankan Civil War (1983–2009), 26 years of bloody conflict between the Sri Lankan military and the so-called Tamil Tigers. The war wreaked havoc on the local economy in general, and on the fishing sector in particular, on which a quarter of the Sri Lankan population depends for their livelihood. Fishing families in the affected area (most of whom are Tamil) often had to flee their villages to escape the violence, and fishing was largely prohibited for safety reasons. The war ended in 2009 when the Sri Lankan military defeated the Tamil Tigers. When the fishing families finally returned to their villages, it turned out that no fewer than 2,000 Indian trawlers from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu were now fishing the rich Sri Lankan waters. The Indian fishermen were using larger vessels than the Sri Lankans, which could easily destroy their nets at night. This has made it virtually impossible for the Sri Lankans to fish.
However, the fishing conflict is not an isolated issue. The post-war regime in Sri Lanka was very authoritarian and acquired a reputation for oppressing ethnic minorities such as the Tamils. And on the rare occasions when the government does intervene in the conflict, for example by arresting Indian fishermen, they immediately run the risk of a geopolitical conflict with ‘Big Brother’ India – all the more reason for the Sri Lankan authorities to take a hands-off approach. The Tamil Nadu government says that it supports the Tamils from both countries, but where fishing is concerned, it tends to take the side of its own trawlers rather than their ‘Tamil brothers’ over in Sri Lanka. ‘And so the conflict keeps going, with the 30,000 fisherman as its largely-defenceless victims. This type of conflict shows how what may appear to be a straightforward dispute over fishing grounds is inextricably bound up with the history of civil war, ethnically-driven national politics and regional geopolitics.’