Groundviews

Militarized charity and land grabbing: Experience of Keppapulavu in the Vanni

Photo by author from Menik Farm: The tragic end of a bitter saga, from detention to forced relocation

I read with interest the article by Amal de Chickera titled “Racing Tanks with Bicycles: A Parable of ‘Reconciliation’ in Sri Lanka” and response to this by Sri Lanka Unites (SLU). I had often struggled with issues raised by Amal and SLU in my interactions with friends, colleagues and people in the North and East in the last six years, especially in the Vanni after the end of the war. I have a particularly strong attachment to the people of Keppapulavu referred to in both articles, because of my frequent visits to meet them last few years – in their present place of residence and when they were in Menik Farm.

The basic fact SLU hides – Keppapulavu is illegally occupied by the military
A simple basic fact that Amal’s article notes and SLU avoids, is that the people of Keppapulavu were compelled to go into the middle of a jungle as their village has been occupied by the military.  This information is by no means a secret and is widely available in the public domain, for anyone concerned and interested enough to find out. I have shared a detailed account of  and others too have written extensively on this in websites and some English and Tamil newspapers (see for example this article).

I believe that the omission by SLU of this simple and fundamental fact that is central to the Keppapulavu tragedy is deliberate. I could be wrong, and the omission could have been due to ignorance, but I think it is unlikely that a group such as SLU could be ignorant of this fundamental fact, considering their community contacts as indicated in their own article.

In my understanding, the occupation of Keppalulavu by the military is totally illegal. It does not follow procedures laid out in Sri Lankan law for the Government to acquire land. And I believe this is also wrong from a humane, moral, ethical, religious or spiritual perspective. It is daylight robbery. There maybe those who disagree, and I would be interested in knowing on how they would feel if the military, or anyone else for that matter, occupied their homes, land, paddy fields and properties that have been acquired as a result of generations of hard work and savings; without following any legal procedures, consultations with the community nor offering alternative options and compensation.

So to make it clear – these people are FROM Keppapulavu, but are now NOT IN Keppapulavu. They have been compelled to reside in a jungle area that was cleared up AFTER they were compelled to go there, when the Government had more than three years to make the necessary arrangements. It is in effect another camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs); It is re-displacement, not re-settlement. It is another version of Menik Farm – with the military deciding who can visit them, and whoever is allowed in being closely monitored.  A part of this ‘eye-washing’ process was in the notice board that was put up at the entrance to the jungle patch where the people were sent, which read ‘Keppapulavu Model Village’.

Can and should we avoid fundamental issues by branding them as “political”?
The occupation of Keppapulavu by the military is a political decision, based on military interests. But for the people who have been robbed of their way of life and personal belongings, it is very personal, and not just political. So this is not a discussion about “political issues”, rather, it is a discussion about having people’s houses and properties being stolen; an entire community’s way of life being dismantled. This was the dominant and pressing issue mentioned to me, in the conversations I had with the community every time I met with them after they were compelled to reside in a jungle area near their own village. I find it difficult to believe people have not told SLU about this. Perhaps it is easier for some writers andcommentators to dismiss this daylight robbery by the military as being a “legal and political issue” when it’s not their land and property being stolen. Or perhaps because they are scared to discuss it due to reprisals from the military and political forces that made that decision, or their close alignments with them? Discussing issues that have direct bearing on people’s daily life are often political and controversial, and doesn’t mean those discussing are involved in party politics. Indeed, deliberately avoiding discussing this is also a political decision!

Anyone who makes the effort to go and meet the people directly will know the truth, as long as you go without military escort. I have personally encountered how people have stopped mid-sentence when military personnel are in the vicinity. If you do try and speak to the people independently, and go as friends or in a legitimate professional capacity such as a journalist or religious leader, you would have to contend with threats and arbitrary and illegal restrictions posed by the military – as I, and many others had to undergo. Some of us have even written about these threats and restrictions (for example, see Restrictions and intimidation on journalists covering resettlement process in the Vanni and Menik Farm And Beyond…). If these restrictions were based on any law, no one in the military or the Government has explained them to us, even though we had asked. To my knowledge, there has been no action taken against those who placed illegal restrictions on us. In my case, and at least in the case of another journalist, the Government Agent for Mullaitivu had expressly told us that we could go and speak to the people, and visit this civilian area, and even take some video footage of the area. Most importantly though, the people were eager to share their stories with us, and even queried as to why the military was stopping and intimidating those who wanted to come and hear their stories and tell them to country and the world.

Why involve and glorify the military in charity?
It seems a cruel irony to make any donations via the same military that has stolen, and are currently occupying their homes and paddy lands and in essence, destroyed their way of life. Especially when that military that is very friendly towards SLU and their partners, threatens and restricts concerned individuals from hearing the stories of these people. Not to forget also that the military (along with the LTTE) have been responsible for multiple killings, disappearances, injuries and other trauma that these people have been made to undergo.

I recognize that some, if not all who have made donations might have had a genuine intention to help. And definitely cycles and school bags etc. were needed and would have been appreciated by the recipients, because the Government – whose responsibility this is – is not providing these when they seem to have ample funds to build lavish monuments and structures for the military. Even if organizations outside the Government such as SLU, would like to take on such projects, is there a need to distribute these goods via the very military? Some military personnel may genuinely want to help these people at an individual level, but surely they could do so in their private capacity? I have come across some who have done so quietly.

I admire and encourage charitable initiatives to respond to humanitarian and immediate needs, especially by youth. However, I believe that “glorifying” the oppressors – which in this case is the military, and contributing (deliberately or otherwise) to hiding the truth, can only stand to undermine all the good that is being done. I believe that type of charity must be condemned, challenged and discouraged. I have also been involved in such charitable projects in the Vanni and know others who do so much more regularly than me, and on a much larger scale, but without military involvement. Here, I seem to find some common ground with SLU, who says they don’t work with military on principle, and that they have not done so before, even as they admit to the Keppapulavu project being an exception.

So IT IS possible to donate and engage in charity without military involvement, in the Vanni. What is required is creativity to overcome restrictions by the military, and the courage to face up to any potentially inevitable threats and intimidation, and of course the conviction and commitment.

To tell the people’s story or our story?
Many of us who have been working with similarly displaced people, have tried to focus on relating the stories of the people whose struggles we are trying to support, rather than writing about ourselves and the experience of the project itself. We try and publicize photographs of the reality of their lives and the challenges they face, and their struggles, rather than exhibit our work. We try and leave ourselves out of the narrative, and rather relate the stories of those who would like to share their stories, but who are prevented or suppressed from doing so. This is what we tried to do in our many visits to assist the people of Keppapulavu.

Is it not fair that the stories of the problems people face should get at least as much publicity as is given to the success of a group’s charity project? And if a group feels strongly in favour of publicizing photographs displaying the involvement of the military, would they at least be willing to consider giving equal publicity to photographs of the lands, houses and paddy fields of the people of Keppapulavu, now occupied by the military?

The people of Keppapulavu have been struggling to return home –by means of protests, making appeals and courageously telling their story to anyone who would care to listen and then speak or write about them. SLU says they visited Kepapulavu people several times “to meet the people and discuss what could be done” and that their efforts were based on people’s requests. Based on my own interactions with the Keppapulavu people, I find it hard to believe that they had not indicated as their primary need (even if not the most urgent) as being able to reclaim their land, presently occupied by the military. Or did the people mention this, and SLU decided to ignore this? Even if SLU doesn’t want to support the struggle and aspiration of the Keppapulavu people, could they not clarify what their position is? SLU calls itself “non-political” and says “we do not endorse any decision made by any party in regard to this settlement”. Doesn’t their unwillingness to acknowledge the military occupation of Keppapulavu and lack of a principled (as opposed to a political party driven) position, make them aligned with political forces that made the decision to occupy the land of the people they claim they want to serve?

The story of Keppalulavu is not an isolated one – people of Mullikulam in the Mannar district have also been compelled to live in jungles due to their village being occupied by the Navy. I have known this community for several years and have admired their love for their village, land and way of life. I know of individuals and groups who have provided essential and urgent material needs in the absence of Government support, but without photographs or publicity. On the contrary, they have attempted to draw attention to the plight of the Mullikulam people, unable to access their homes due to the Navy’s occupation of their lands. I have also met many other people faced with the same situation as a result of the military occupation of their land – i.e. Iranathivu in the Kilinochchi district, Sampoor in the Trincomalee district and many others in the Jaffna district.

A parable of a stolen cycle
Charity to me is a positive thing, to be fostered. But it should be saved from being used as a tool to cover up land grabbing and other abuses – by perpetrators themselves or others.

I would also like to end with a story of a cycle I have heard from East Timor. Two boys were friends. One boy, the stronger and more powerful one, from an influential family, stole the cycle of the weaker boy. The boy owning the cycle did not complain nor fight. But the boys stopped talking to each other and the friendship ended. After some time, the boy who stole the cycle came around in the same cycle and told the owner of the cycle, “our friendship is more important than a cycle, so let us forget the cycle and be friends”. There was no mention or indication that he was going to return the cycle, apologize, make up for his actions in any way, or make a commitment never to act in that way again.

Will such a model of reconciliation work?