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Never say Never: A rejoinder to Deepa Bhookhun


Political journalist Deepa Bhookhun, though she called for people to sign the UNROW-SPEAK petition on Chagos, took the gracious step in her L’Express Weekly article of 6 April of saying that LALIT’s reserves on the demands of the petition were “pertinent”.

I could perhaps, if it were my habit, press the “LIKE” button for her article, except for its being impregnated with one important weakness, if I may say so - and this is not tit-for-tat paternalism in response to some of Ms Bhookhun’s phrases about LALIT, but something I believe in - and it is this important weakness I want to write about first, before coming to “never say never”, the title of my reply.

The weakness is, of course, not just Deepa Bhookhun’s, but it is a sign of us still living in times of hegemonic capitalist ideology that claims that the ruling class of today will reign forever, that history is a thing of the past. This hegemony is now, however, in the past 14 months, showing political fault-lines under the stress of the unending economic crises that are driving its coherence mad.

The weakness I refer to is the lack of any understanding of or feeling for just how a political water-shed builds and builds over days, weeks, months, years, and for geo-politics, over decades – and for how each person or organization’s past and present contribution to a struggle is in there, the better thought-out, the more long-lasting its effect. The more pertinent, the more effective its contribution in the long run. The more integre, the more resilient to time. There is certainly not one clever little action or the waving of one magic wand that will suddenly out-of-the-blue just pop up out of nowhere and win. No action is built on thin air either, but on an historically produced reality that exists, in turn, as a result of previous struggles. This is why we talk about the struggle to change the balance of forces. That is what one does in order to win a struggle in the long run, not just to be doing something for the sake of it, or acting in order to appease one’s own conscience, or making a sensation and keeping oneself in the headlines or proving to be “a thorn in the backside” of the powerful.

For instance, the fact that there can be any Chagossian case at all is because for decades different levels of struggle had been going on. Ditto for the fact that the Mauritian Government did eventually put in its case on sovereignty, even if it is at a tangent i.e. by means of challenging the Marine Protected Area. The fact that 28,000 people signed a petition in response to the appeals to “al vot pu Chagosyen return dan zot lil natal” as some put it - however bizarre the actual demand of the petition was, however fluffy the wording, and leaving aside the frenzy element and even the downright masking of the actual demand, which as far as I can see was not published at all in Le Mauricien and was wrongly translated on page one of L’Express – could happen because of 35 years of struggle beforehand. And of course, I do not in any way mean just LALIT’s struggle. I mean all the women in hunger strikes, in demonstrations, fights between women and Riot police, candle-light vigils in Bain des Dames, Public Order Act cases against LALIT women and Chagossian women, and I mean all the past petitions, all the telegrams, then emails, all the international mobilization against military bases, all the organizations like Organisation Fraternel and the MMM, LALIT, the GRC, Muvman Liberasyon Fam, and the Comite Social Chagossien, and all the members of all these collective efforts, who participated in action after action, based on hours of thinking and discussion. There are even contributions by lesser known organizations like CEDREFI and Komite Moris Losean Indyen, ek Komite Sutyen aux Ilois, and by individual academics and journalists, film-makers and writers, throughout the years, and even two plays performed in the US and UK. There are even Diego Garcia-born characters in two of my novels, for example, and in a Penguin novel by Peter Benson called A Lesser Dependency that I read years and years ago. Not that fiction has any big contribution. And there was all the mobilization at a diplomatic level for UN resolutions, for the Indian Ocean Peace Zone and for the UN Conference planned for Colombo – all of which opposed the military base on Diego Garcia. There was the victorious struggle whereby Seychelles got Britain to give them back their BIOT-islands, stolen just like Mauritius’s! Many there also said, “Never be able to do that!”

And so, I now get to the point about “never say never”. There was the phrase, popular until six decades ago that “the sun never sets on the British Empire”, which made lots of people lose face when the empire seemed rather suddenly to collapse – significantly after its military over-reach in the first half of the 1940s, even though Britain “won the war”. The first major book against USA bases, by Joseph Gerson, got its ironic name from this, The Sun Never Sets.

So, when Deepa Bhookhun says “The US will never put into question their military base in the Indian Ocean”, beware!

This is, in fact, just exactly what a rising voice within the warring factions in Washington has done a week ago. Of course, all military expenditure is under pressure as the economic crisis bites, following the Iraq and Afganistan military over-reach, and this throws all the US military strategies into disarray. So, in the article pasted below, we see just one of many fault lines that show that “never” is not an appropriate word. It is a word that feeds, in this context, on impotence of the broad masses relative to omnipotence of the few imperialist decision-makers. The vast majority of people on the planet are always potentially the winners against the tiny minority that control the financial-military-industrial complex, as it is so accurately referred to. It all depends on the constant struggle to understand just how to act so as to change the balance of forces in the favour of the oppressed.

Please read the article pasted below where at least one powerful faction in Washington is already clearly pushing for “replacing” and even “moth-balling” the Diego Garcia military base – to use the verbs used in the dipomatic-military push towards an even closer US-Australia military alliance to control things from the Pacific Ocean. 

Then, if, after reading this, you go and read the ex-USA Ambassador John Price’s website, where he, too, was calling for signatures for the UNROW-SPEAK petition (to his credit, he did give the actual wording of the Petition), you will see that he is part of the warring faction opposing this particular strategy. One lot see the priority as supposedly “containing China”, and the other lot supposedly “stabilizing the Middle East”. Price wants the Chagossian issue defused just a little because he is in favour of building up a military machinery in Diego Garcia so that it can be used against Iran.

The “contain-China” lot in the Washington establishment argue that Diego Garcia is just becoming too much of a problem. It is built is on a tectonic fault line, for a start, thus further investment is now known to be risky after the recent Fukushima Nuclear Plant disaster. The rate of the rise in sea levels due to pollution changing the climate may accelerate, as studies published a fortnight ago are showing. Why invest in arms-stockage in a danger zone? And then, oh dear, there is the growing No Bases movement in the USA which has taken up the Diego Garcia issue ever since LALIT put it on its agenda in the early 2000’s; there is the Mauritian sovereignty issue, already backed by a series of past UN resolutions, now causing trouble in the UNCLOS mechanism; there is the issue of the US and UK crimes against the Chagossians, an issue so many of us have prevented from being hidden – through our political action, by legal challenges, by popularizing the three main issues involved. The two issues – decolonization and displacement - do not go away. The movement against the military base does not either. The world-wide NO BASES campaign has already popularised the Diego Garcia issue for 10 years now, what with LALIT being one of the five key founder members - and even spokesperson of the NO BASES in Mumbai and in Ecuador where, incidentally, the USA military base was closed down due to protests against it!

All this to say that there is a big wing of the US Administration that senses that there is too much general instability to invest too heavily in the base on Diego Garcia. What they call “visibility” into the future is poor. Now, my point is that the political instability around Diego Garcia is present for the simple reason that the USA-UK have not been able to mask their historic crimes in a cloak of amnesia. What are these crimes? Cutting up a country as an illegal condition to Independence is a crime. Banning a people from their land is a crime. Setting up a murderous military base from which to kill civilians, on land not under anyone’s democratic control is the third crime. And that is what makes it essential that we Mauritians take our responsibility, and get the base closed down – it must be brought under Mauritian democratic control, with Chagossians having an Islands Council to run the area, to which they can return, heads held high, as their inalienable right.

I mentioned UNROW as being a joint initiator of the petition. That is also a well-kept secret, while the frenzy of signing was underway, i.e that UNROW was joint initiator. It is worth looking up. The petition was launched jointly by UNROW Litigants Clinic and SPEAK, according to UNROW on their 5 March release, also easily found on the web. On SPEAK’s web site, by the way, they mention in 2010 that SPEAK and UNROW were even then, preparing a letter to Obama, so it would be fair to assume that the wording is not fluffy by negligence.

This was meant to be a 2-line covering note for an email I had intended to send along with the article I was forwarding to Deepa Bhookhun for her interest, the article (below) forwarded to me by a LALIT member the day it came out in Sydney just over one week ago. The first two paragraphs of the article below are the reason I’m pasting it, but the whole thing is interesting. It certainly shows why we need, as LALIT already does, to call at the same time as for Diego Garcia base closure, for total US withdrawal from all overseas bases - as part of anti-imperialist reasoning, not out of mindless patriotism.

Lindsey Collen

US military eyes Cocos Islands as a future Indian Ocean spy base
by Phillip Coorey, Hamish Mcdonald, John Garnaut
March 28, 2012
Source: Sydney Morning Herald

UNITED STATES military aircraft, including drones undertaking surveillance operations over the South China Sea, could be based on Australia's Cocos and Keeling Islands in the Indian Ocean.

As part of enhanced US-Australian military co-operation announced in November by Julia Gillard and the US President, Barack Obama, the islands would replace the US's present Indian Ocean base of Diego Garcia, which the US leases from the British and is due to be mothballed in 2016.

The Washington Post reported yesterday that the US was eyeing the Cocos Islands, 2700 kilometres east of Diego Garcia, as ''an ideal site not only for manned US surveillance aircraft but for Global Hawks, an unarmed, high-altitude surveillance drone''.

''Aircraft based in the Cocos would be well positioned to launch spy flights over the South China Sea,'' the Post reported.

When Mr Obama visited Australia in November, he and Ms Gillard announced an increased US presence in Australia that experts said was all about containing a rising China. The three priorities were an increased rotation of up to 2500 US Marines through the Northern Territory, more US war planes using NT air bases, and increased access by US Navy ships and submarines to the HMAS Stirling base in Western Australia.
After Mr Obama's visit, the Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, hinted that US ships and aircraft would use the Cocos Islands eventually.

''But that's well down the track. Indeed, there would be a requirement for substantial infrastructure changes to be made for further air or naval engagement through the Cocos Islands,'' he said in late November.

Speaking yesterday at a nuclear security summit in South Korea, Ms Gillard said ''there has not been any substantial progress'' on using the Cocos Islands since Mr Smith's comments last year.

She said the focus had been on implementing the arrangement that was struck about the deployment of Marines.

''Clearly, the alliance we have with the United States is pivotal to our security. It's of long standing and we took the next natural step in my view in the evolution of that alliance last year when I agreed with President Obama that we would host the Marines on a rotational basis in the Northern Territory exercises.''

Yesterday, a spokesman for Mr Smith said the details of drones, planes and ships using the Cocos Islands had yet to be discussed.

''Cocos Islands is a longer-term option for closer Australian-US engagement but is not one of the three priority levels of engagement,'' he said.

''In the first instance, our Indian Ocean arrangement will be, in my view, greater naval access to [HMAS Stirling].''

The maritime version of the Grumman Global Hawk drone is likely to be introduced into the defence forces of both countries later this decade, under a program known as Broad Area Maritime Surveillance.

With a wingspan of almost 40 metres, it can cruise for 30 hours at a speed of 575 km/h, covering a vast expanse of ocean with its cameras, radar and other sensors.

The news that they are becoming part of Mr Obama's ''pivot'' into south-east Asia is slowly seeping out among the 600 residents of the Cocos Islands.

The caretaker-manager at Cocos Beach Bungalows, who gave his name as Bill, said he had seen reports on the internet but had not noticed any unusual activity, aside from the occasional air force plane with mechanical trouble.

The islands attract a handful of tourists each year, mainly snorkellers and birdwatchers.
For the Royal Australian Air Force, the Global Hawk will be part of the mix replacing its maritime patrol aircraft, the four-engine turboprop P3C Orion, along with a new manned aircraft, a development of the twin-jet Boeing 737 called the P8 Poseidon.

''The idea is to integrate drones and aircraft so you need fewer manned aircraft,'' said Derek Woolner, a defence expert at the Australian National University.

The progress report of the Defence Force Posture Review recommends the upgrade of the Cocos airfield.