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Reply to J.-C. de L'Estrac on Diego Garcia


The article printed below is a reply to Jean-Claude de L'Estrac that was sent to L'Express on Sunday 27 December for publication

On the issue of Diego Garcia
Jean-Claude de L’Estrac, La Sentinelle boss, editorial writer, and historian, is bringing out a book on Diego Garcia. On 20 December, he wrote an editorial in L’Express on the issue, and today on Boxing Day, one of La Sentinelle’s other titles L’Express Dimanche printed excerpts from the book. The title in the newspaper article gives an idea of his ideas: “COMMENT DIEGO A ETE VENDUE: Le chantage, la negociation, le pot-de-vin, la trahison”. “Vendue” is perhaps the key word.

Imperialist & colony: Father & child
The facts
So long as Britain still colonized Mauritius, as it did in September 1965, the Queen was the head of State in Britain, and the Queen was also the head of State in Mauritius. So, the “sale” that Mr. L’Estrac invents is none other than the sale between the Queen and herself. Mrs. Queen signs on one side of the sale agreement, as buyer, and Mrs Queen signs on the other, as seller.

The Queen had not even, at the time of the supposed “sale” so much as prepared the fig-leaf of her Order in Council that, at Buckingham Palace on 8th December of 1965 would give some semblance of “separation” between her two selves.

The Queen was head of State on both sides of the purported sale. That is a fact.

The best analogy, in legal terms, is that the British State was the father and the Mauritian Colony the minor child. A domineering father held a pistol to the head of his 17-and-a-half-year-old son and made him sign away part of the land he would inherit as of right, in exchange for a few rupees and the rest of the land that was his due anyway. In reality, the father would effectively have to sign both sides of the agreement, were it not a mere charade.

The British State forced the Chief Minister of Mauritius, sitting as he did in a Cabinet under the control of the Queen’s Colonial Secretary, to sign away part of Mauritius in exchange for Independence plus a pittance. To make it even more ridiculous, the nearest to a Head of State inside Mauritius, short of the Queen, was an Englishman Governor, Sir John Shaw Rennie.

So, any way you take it, the Queen pretends to have made a binding contract with the Queen. And some people believe it is a contract!

Now, how on earth can any right-minded person see this as a sale. If it pretended to be a “sale”, the sale must surely fall apart on a cursory examination, for being illegal. The buyer and the seller are one and the same “person”. How can that be a “sale”?

Curiously, Jean-Claude de L’Estrac admits that Harold Wilson, British Prime Minister actually said that Diego Garcia could just be “detached”, regardless of the consent of the Mauritian politicians. In a “sale”, there is a “buyer”. How can the British have “bought” something which was already theirs for the taking?

In addition, the blackmail of the pistol to the head would render any sale illegal, anyway. One does not have to refer to the Charter of the UN, or to important resolutions, for proof of the insanity of such a possibility being open to any Colonial power in the run-up to independence. The Queen could have kept Mount Everest and given India Independence, or, a more horribly realistic example, could have kept the very Mount Kilimanjaro that she had only just got back some 50 years earlier from the German Royal cousins who gave it to her in the first place, and then given Tanzania its Independence. It is, and clearly has logically to be, against international law to attempt such a fraud.

Just to make the supposed “sale” all the more ridiculous in legal terms, the British staged the negotiations this way: on the one side was themselves, represented by the British State, and on the other side was the Mauritians, represented by mere Mauritian political parties. Ramgoolam Snr, and his other colleagues were at the negotiations at Lancaster House not as representatives of a State, albeit a structurally subaltern Colonial Government, but as no more than representatives of their respective political parties or, in one case, as something less legitimate than a political party. Ramgoolam represented Labour, Jules Koenig the PMSD, Bisoondoyal the IFB, Razak Mohammed the CAM, and Maurice Paturau … the private sector. Where did the leaders of a bunch of political party leaders and a private sector boss get the legitimacy to sell part of a country, anyway?

So, it is not a sale.

And it is not enough for Britain to produce some belated minutes from its Official Secrets Act files of some meeting and cry out “Oh, but here is the receipt!” The documents posing as “receipts” are just part of the cruel charade, itself.

Political importance
However, there are political consequences to this kind acquiescence or “consent”, however it is extorted.

Just as a father can undermine his 17-year-old son for years and years afterwards by having made him acquiesce and sign away something when this was morally shameful even for a minor to do. It might take a lifetime before he gets the courage to confront his father because of his own acquiescence. Similarly, the British State can shame and confuse leaders of a new colony into signing something and thus into remaining silent and cowed for years. Which is what happened in Mauritius.

And now, just as the Mauritian State pulls itself together to act like an adult, just as the bluff is finally being called, people come and try to give the worn-out old colonial tactic credence all over again, with the cry of: “Comment Diego a ete vendue!

The Guilty, the Victims & the Cynics
The guilty
We agree with the clear statement of Mr. Cassam Uteem, Former President of the Republic, as to who are the guilty ones. The USA Administration is the most guilty. It got its little ally Britain to steal the islands and clear them of their inhabitants so as to make way for a military base there. Second most guilty is clearly the British State, itself. It stole part of its colony, and cruelly expelled the inhabitants.

The consenting victims
Mr. Cassam Uteem calls the Mauritians in the negotiations “consenting victims”, contrasting them with the direct victims, the Chagossians, who were physically banished from their homes.

Seewoosagur Ramgoolam and his colleagues acted without political principle. That is clear. That is how they often acted. On this, there is no argument from us in LALIT.

And their “consent” does have political consequences. This is why the British needed it. The “consent” was designed to cow, and has effectively cowed, generation after generation of Mauritian politicians after Independence both diplomatically and politically. For 42 years. Politicians have been ashamed. But, this does not mean there was a “sale”.

The individual actors are all dead now, anyway.

So, why should Jean-Claude de L’Estrac want to heap blame on them? Why not blame the USA and UK Governments? The guilty ones? Why should anyone wish to legitimate Britain’s supposed “buying” of part of Mauritius? What is the political effect of this line? All we can say is that the excerpts from Jean-Claude de L’Estrac’s book, taken together with the Editorial of 20 December, are objectively a veritable gift to the USA and the Britain, whatever his intention. He claims that the Mauritian political leaders at the time gave their assent: “Ils avaient le choix, leur accord etait ‘essentiel’, ils auraient pu avoir refuse ‘l’excision’ et l’exil des Chagossiens sans compromettre aucunement l’avenement de l’independence” . So his two guilty parties are not the USA and the British, but the British and the Mauritian political leaders. Why blame the Mauritian politicians? Why, even without that being the intention, discourage the Mauritian State from any attempt to regain sovereignty?

The present President of the Republic Sir Aneerood Jugnauth who, as it happens, was named instead of Jean-Claude de L’Estrac, has recently, by contrast, attacked the British State. He said that he, though present at the Lancaster House negotiations, knew nothing about the Diego Garcia excision. He accused Britain and the US of “fou enn baz laba”. He is, in fact, the last living witness to the negotiations. But, one is forced to wonder what Jean-Claude de L’Estrac would be saying had he been the person that Navin Ramgoolam named to be President.

The cynics
While we understand the vested interests of the USA and Britain, we fail to understand the interests of the cynics who shout from the rooftops that the islands were legitimately “sold” long ago. The implication is that the mistake has already been made, there’s no hope, so give up!

It might be more helpful to look at how Mauritian politicians acted after Independence, once they were free to claim the part of Mauritius initially stolen and then militarily occupied. Immediately after Independence, Labour did nothing, the MMM set up a Select Committee chaired by Mr. L’Estrac, who was Minister of Foreign Affairs, but then lost Government. The MSM-MMM passed a new Republican Constitution in which Diego Garcia and Chagos was recognised as part of the Republic of Mauritius. The next Labour Governments also did next to nothing.

History was pushed forward only by peoples’ actions, first by hunger strikes in the late 1970’s, women’s street demonstrations in 1981, and then by the Rann nu Diego committee of the 1990s, the Bancoult Court Cases (very important cases, though brought as British citizens), and the gradual mobilization by LALIT during this Century.

Importantly, the Seychelles got its Aldabra, Desroches and Farquhar Islands back, even though Mr. Mancham, head of a political party in power when Seychelles was still a Colony, also gave the same consent to their excision that Ramgoolam gave for the Chagos. So, if he got them back, they were clearly not “sold”.

Now, finally the present Government, humiliated no doubt by the British Marine Park incident, has decided to act. It has put a claim in against Britain for its illegal Marine Protected Area under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. So much the better.

So, the question is this: Why should people harp back all the time to Old Man Ramgoolam having “sold” the islands? What is the effect of such words? Do people want the Government and everyone else to just curl up on the mat and die? Because the battle is already supposedly lost? It is most unclear.

Our aim should be to expose the British-US plot to illegally sever the Islands, and to simultaneously put pressure on Government to build up more allies, internationally and at home, on the basis of a more general strategy, and not just this one rather perilous tactic at the UNCLOS.

We live today in times when the US empire is wobbling. Its financial system has crashed. Its economy is struggling. Its wars are costly, and increasingly seen as illegitimate. It is in over-reach mode. The time is right to call for the combined military withdrawal of US troops from Diego Garcia and for the dismantling of the illegal colony, the British Indian Ocean Territories, thus creating the conditions for Chagossians to return to all the islands in full dignity as independent people, in a re-united Republic of Mauritius.

Lindsey Collen
For LALIT, 26 December, 2010