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London play highlights Chagossians’ plight

21 March 2012

MRG interns John Lubbock and Sofia Nazalya found ‘A Few Man Fridays’ at the Hammersmith Riverside Studios in London to be more than just a theatrical performance. The three-hour-long play represented a formidable campaign for the rights of the Chagossians, whose story is still not widely known.

Adrian Jackson’s play serves in part to address this lack of awareness of the people of Diego Garcia, a small island in the Chagos Archipelago, in the British Indian Ocean Territory, and epic struggle following expulsion from the island to make way for a US military base. The continued refusal of the UK to allow the Chagossians to return has seen the case taken to the High Court in London all the way to the European Court of Human Rights.

The play follows Prosper, a Chagossian searching for the identity of his mother and encountering the history of his people who he has become separated from. His attempt to put together the pieces of the past and find his mother provides a sympathetic personal prism through which to understand the Chagossians’ quest to return to their motherland.

Even at three hours, the play never became monotonous or dull, and actively encouraged the audience to take action to bring attention to the cause. The following is an exchange of thoughts between us on the event.

JL: The first thing that came to my mind was the African proverb which Marwan Bishara had previously used to describe the Arab Spring; ‘when elephants fight, the grass gets crushed, and when elephants make love, the grass still gets crushed’. Diego Garcia is a great example of two states conspiring together for mutual benefit while completely ignoring the fundamental rights of a group of people who they probably considered too small to do anything about it. In the end however, I felt that it was quite a hopeful story, because it shows that even though they are a tiny group of people, they can do something about it, and even though it’s taken 40 years, they might win and be allowed to return.

SN: Still it’s rather astounding to know that it’s been 40 years and their story is still quite unknown. I read a review of the play last week that started off highlighting this – most people, including the reviewer, had no idea who the Chagossians are, or much less where the Chagos Islands are.

JL: I imagine that probably more people have heard of Diego Garcia as a result of its use in extraordinary rendition flights and possible torture by the US military. The lack of awareness on colonial history is something I have been thinking about since I left school; at some point I realised I had studied all this history, but the story I was given was ‘in 1066 England began when we were invaded by French Vikings, then we had a couple of civil wars, invented democracy and then nothing happened for a few hundred years until the First World War began’. It’s a transparently colonial narrative of history with all the unflattering parts edited out. I think we should be made to learn about colonial history in school. I know you studied it in Singapore.

SN: Yeah, I’m not saying education in Singapore was informative at all on human rights issues, but there definitely was that consciousness of colonial history, not only of Singapore but the region. I thought ultimately the play did a great job of raising how serious the problem is, how it’s connected to people living in the UK and just how things that seem far removed from us really aren’t at all. Ultimately it’s a real eye opener, and I know it definitely moved a lot of people in the audience, and the post play Q&A discussion with the panellists answered a lot of questions to do with the legal proceedings and where the case is at currently.

JL: I was shocked by a few things raised by the play and the discussion. In the play, I was shocked by the fact that when the US effectively bought Diego Garcia, they asked for it to be ‘wiped clean’ and ‘sanitised’. They could have re-employed the people on the island and allowed them to continue their way of life to some extent, as they had been previously employed by the coconut processing company there before. And as mentioned in the Q&A discussion, even though the UK government acknowledges that they abused the rights of Chagossians, they are still trying to fight them in the courts to keep them from returning.

SN: I think the denial of their right of return can be blamed on lack of political will. Even though the UN Declaration on Indigenous Peoples is a relatively new progression, I think the fact that it exists shows how far we’ve come in terms of awareness of the need to respect and promote the rights of minorities and indigenous peoples. The fact that the expulsion happened 40 years ago shows the readiness at that point in time to exploit a situation where a group had weak legal protection and little recourse to justice.

JL: Definitely. That’s shown by the fact that the UK denied them the same rights enjoyed by citizens of other territories which were colonial possessions: the right for second and third generations to attain British citizenship even though they won that right in 2002.

SN: Yes, and the argument now seems to concentrate on things that really just seem to miss the whole point – for instance how marine conservation and the presence of the US air base are used as justifications to deny Chagossians the right of return. The situation is certainly complicated, but in the end it doesn’t approach it from a human rights viewpoint: that ultimately, the base that exists (which was the cause of their expulsion and violation of rights) is not a reason to fail to address the Chagossian cause. And the justification of protecting marine biodiversity is a mere greenwashing of the situation.

JL: David Snoxall, the Coordinator of the Chagos Islands All-Party Parliamentary Group, said that if the European Court decides the case is admissible, it is likely that the UK will have to let them return. The fact that they aren’t asking to go back to Diego Garcia but some outlying islands 140 miles away means they can’t possibly be a security concern, so you do wonder what could possibly be the reason for the UK continuing to obstruct the right of return. The UK could save itself a lot of trouble and money by facilitating their return, and also try to right a historic wrong which it created in the first place.

SN: Yes, and MRG has supported the Chagossians’ cause including submitting a shadow report with respect to the Sixth Periodic Report of the UK to the UN Human Rights Committee.

JL: That they were never consulted about their eviction is significant to note. They weren’t told they were going to be deported until shortly before it happened, they were intimidated in order to make them leave, tricked into leaving the island and not allowed to return. Even in the feasibility studies about the right of return in 2002 they were never asked what they wanted. That lack of dialogue shows there is still a serious problem with how the UK treats minorities.

SN: Definitely. I also felt that the use of different media techniques in the play was highly effective. The oral and video recordings of Chagossians, some of whom have recently passed away, the occasionally surreal scenes, the double narrative of the protagonist Prosper and his struggle, and the dramatisation of the past – they all culminated in a moving and cohesive artistic portrayal of reality.

JL: Yeah, I think the play served to give them a voice, to try to make them visible rather than just mute colonial servants like Man Friday who Robinson Crusoe has to teach to speak.

SN: Yeah I liked the part in the beginning when one of the actors talks about their language, and how Chagossian Creole isn’t a Pidgin or a colonial language but a language of freedom, a language that was born out of years of survival and struggle.

JL: The play does a great job of illuminating their culture and affecting sympathy for such a unique group of people, who have suffered such an injustice. It’s impossible not to sympathise with so basic a desire as wanting to return home.

While some may express ‘doubt that justice can now ever be done ‘ for the Chagossians, we think that change is partially up to us. You can be part of this change by signing this petition for the US Government to redress wrongs against Chagossians. Twenty-five thousand signatures are needed by 4 April 2012.

This article reflects the sole opinion of its author and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.