Indian Ocean islanders in 44 years of colonial limbo

| May 6, 2010
The Ground-Based Electro-Optical Deep Space Surveillance System (GEODSS) facility at Diego Garcia is one of three operational sites worldwide. Photo: United States Air Force photo/Senior Master Sgt. John Rohrer/Wikipedia.

In 1966, England was all about the soccer, the Labour Party and the Beatles. The country had just won the World Cup and things were swinging with 1960s euphoria and happiness.

But it was also the year which marked the commencement of an exercise to depopulate the Chagos Islands, a coral archipelago in the Indian Ocean, approximately 1,600 km north-west of Mauritius. The indigenous community were soon to have their homes taken away from them in a shameful act of latter-day colonial vandalism.

The 60s were a period of heightened tensions during the Cold War. The Cuban Missile crisis of October 1962 had brought the entire world to the brink of a global nuclear war. The need for military bases to spy on perceived enemies in the East was paramount in an era of suspicion and distrust. The Indian Ocean represented a strategic and important location for such a project.

The U.S. government enlisted the assistance of its British allies to source a base where they would be able to monitor the activities of enemies in that region. The search first identified the uninhabited Aldabra Toll, but unfortunately for the Americans they were also home to rare breed of turtles. Fearing a prolonged battle with ecologists, British Prime Minister Harold Wilson ruled the option out before recommending the use of the Chagos Islands, despite the fact that they were at the time home to a population of 2,000 people

The agreement between the U.K. and U.S. for the Americans to use the island of Diego Garcia as a joint military base was finalized in 1966 and is due to expire in 2036.

The Chagos Islands were originally used to exile sufferers of leprosy who had contracted the disease in Mauritius in the mid-18th century. It was during the same period that the French, who had been the first to lay claim to the islands, commenced a project of coconut plantations with the help of African workers transported from Mauritius. The British took control of the islands following the defeat of Napoleon in 1814.

In 1903, the islands were separated from the administration of Seychelles and administered from the governor general of Mauritius, which remained the arrangement until the creation of the British Indian Ocean Territory in 1965 -- just three years before Mauritius was granted independence.

This particular episode has been the source of much speculation in Mauritius. The first prime minister of Mauritius and self-proclaimed "father of the nation," Seewoosagur Ramgoolam (the biological father of the current PM), is alleged to have agreed to a deal during the London conference of 1965 which resulted in the Chagos Islands being sold to Britain for around £3 million.

During the New Year's Honours list of the same year, Seewoosagur was awarded a knighthood and became Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam. It may be coincidence, as there is no definitive evidence to prove that Sir Seewoosagur agreed to the sale of the islands in return for the knighthood, but that hasn't stopped the rumours. In more recent years it has become a source of embarrassment for the Ramgoolam family and indirectly haunts his politician son, Navinchandra, to this day.

In any case, with the islands under British control, they were subsequently leased to the United States in return for a discount on the Polaris Submarine Nuclear deterrent, believed to be £11 million. The lease was to be for a period of 50 years with a further option to extend the agreement.

The U.S. government did not wish to deal with a "population problem" and found a British government only too happy to oblige. Between 1967 and 1973, the islands were depopulated during a series of measures before the final inhabitants were rounded up and left to fend for themselves after being dumped at Port Louis harbour, the capital of Mauritius.

Most live in poverty in Mauritius and Britain to this day.

In 1982, the British government attempted to offer a "full and final settlement" to the in compensation for the islanders' loss. However the journalist John Pilger, during the groundbreaking television documentary "Stealing A Nation," argued that the islanders were deceived into believing that the compensation was for the hardship they had suffered since their exile from the Chagos Islands, and not a formal agreement for them to renounce their claim to ever be allowed to return to the islands again.

Then, at the end of the 1990s, under Britain's 30-year disclosure rule, secret documents were finally released which served as the catalyst for the legal battles that have dominated the last 10 years.

Firstly, Lord Justice Lewis said there had been an "abject legal failure" and overturned the 1971 order that banned the Chagossians from ever returning to their islands.

Then the Labour government Foreign Secretary Robin Cook decided not to appeal the decision which was in keeping in line with the new pre-9/11 "ethical foreign policy" which the Blair government had adopted when they took office in May 1997.

The image of a triumphant Olivier Bancoult, a leader of the exiled people of Diego Garcia and president of the Chagos Refugees Group, outside a London court appeared to signal a bright new dawn in this sordid tale.

But in June 2004, the British government enacted two orders in council, a little-used decree which bypassed Parliament and at a stroke overruled Lewis's supreme court decision. In the words of Pilger, dictatorships also do when Britain did but "without the quaint ritual" of going court. It was determined that the Chagossians had been fraudulently described as "migrant workers" to make the American military occupation enforceable.

Finally, the Chagossians secured another landmark legal victory in May 2006. Bancoult told the BBC:

"We have won a historic judgement in our favour to allow us to return to our homeland. Our next step is that we will go to our birthplace as soon as we can. The right of the people who have been banished for so many years has been returned."

But the British government didn't back down, successfully appealing to the House of Lords, and in October 2008 secured a narrow decision by three to two. Foreign Secretary David Milliband said: "Our appeal to the House of Lords was not about what happened in the 1960s and 1970s. It was about decisions taken in the international context of 2004."


Currently, the case is before the European Court of Human Rights with a final decision expected by the end of 2010. The British government attempted to pre-empt the forthcoming judgement with the creation of the worlds' largest Marine Protection Zone around the Chagos Islands in last month - and are not allowing the people to return.

So the case of securing the future of an abused people has been superseded by the ruthlessness of a colonial empire -- in the name of environmentalism. What could be more ironic?

Britain had maintained that once the Chagos Islands were no longer required for defence purposes, the islands would be returned to Mauritius, who have laid claim to the territory since 1980. Despite this, Mauritius was not party to the creation of the zone, something which has put a tremendous strain on the relationship between the two countries.

Prime Minister Ramgoolam lashed out just before the announcement in April, condemning as "unacceptable" that the British "claim to protect marine fauna and flora when they insist on denying Chagos-born Mauritians the right to return to their islands all the while.

"Mauritius is appalled by the British government's decision to press on with consultations for the creation of a protected marine park project around the Chagos archipelago."

The Mauritians held a general election on Wednesday, May 5, just days before Britain, and it is not inconceivable that Dr Ramgoolam's comments were merely a ploy to paint himself as defending Mauritian interests and making a stand against their former colonial rulers.

Mauritius may take the issue before the UN, or even leave the Commonwealth, over the issue. The country is now finally ready to press ahead with a full scale diplomatic row with Britain over the islands, with many Chagossians, both in the U.K. and in Mauritius, considering it to be long overdue.

Clency Lebrasse is a U.K.-based freelance journalist, activist and second-generation naturalized Mauritian citizen living in Nottingham, England.

 

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