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Land-grabbing and militarism and the Chagos islands' struggles


This article by LALIT member, Alain Ah-Vee was published in 'Broken Rifle'(No.91) the War Resisters' International online Newsletter in April 2012. The theme of this issue of 'Broken Rifle' was 'Land-grabbing and militarism'.

As the British Empire collapsed, the USA expanded into parts of it. When the USA-UK decided in the 1960’s to install a massive military base on one of the Indian Ocean Islands making up Mauritius, that is to say, on the Island of Diego Garcia, in order to implement this decision, they committed a number of crimes.

The UK-US Crimes
The British Government had, firstly, to steal the Chagos Islands, including Diego Garcia, from the totality of the islands making up the State of Mauritius. This was in the run-up to Mauritian Independence which was in 1968. They did this behind the back of the British Parliament, resorting to an archaic Royal Prerogative, an “Order in Council”. This was Harold Wilson’s Labour Government. He contravened UN Resolution 1514 which states clearly that “Any attempt at the partial or total disruption of the national unity and the territorial integrity of a country is incompatible with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the UN”. Furthermore, UN member states who had got wind of the plot to dismember Mauritius had actually voted resolution 2066 calling on Britain “to take no action that would dismember the territory of Mauritius and violate its territorial integrity”. UN resolution 2066 prohibited this land-grab.

Once Britain had stolen the Islands and concocted a new colony called British Indian Ocean Territories or BIOT (which included some stolen Seychelles Islands that the Seychelles government, importantly, claimed afterwards when Albert Rene came to power, and got), Britain, together with the USA, proceeded with the second crime.

They forcibly removed the entire population of Chagossian Mauritians living there.

They hounded them off their homes by trickery, intimidation, threats, terror and finally brute violence. The Chagossians dogs were rounded up and killed before their eyes, and before the eyes of their children. The US-UK invented a blatant lie to the effect that nobody lived there. And they knew it was a blatant lie. All this has been documented in detail, especially since the late 1990’s when the 30 years of the Official Secrets’Act ran out and proof was available by the ream – proof of the forcible removals, the conspiracy involved, of the conscious invention of lies, together with the racist comments that are concommitant to such violence. In the judgment in 2000 of Chagossian leader Olivier Bancoult’s case against the British State, the British Supreme Court deplores the conspiracy. They even quote a civil servant’s note saying “Unfortunately, along with the Birds go some few Tarzans or Man Fridays whose origins are obscure, and who are being hopefully wished on to Mauritius.”

Thirdly, the USA, the receiver of the stolen Islands, proceeded to pour concrete and tarmac on to the most beautiful coral reef in the world, a horse-shoe shaped pair of islands, called Diego Garcia. They just destroyed the entire eco-system. Now there are undersea re-inforced concrete bunkers, barracks for thousands of armed forces, clubs for the different castes present at the Base: the high caste of top brass, the next highest for officers, then for the caste of ordinary soldiers and sailors, and finally the low caste of mainly manual workers up to the level of nurses, who come from mainly the Philippines and Mauritius. There is also a huge runway from which B-52’s thundered off to bomb Afganistan and Iraq. There is a filthy harbour where air-craft carriers dock. The vessel responsible for servicing nuclear submarines expelled from Italy after demonstrations there, is now stationed. This is in contravention of the Treaty for a Nuclear Arms Free Africa, the Pelindaba Treaty, which came into force in 2010.

When a B-52 takes off from Diego Garcia and bombs a baryaat or wedding procession, killing a whole extended family, this is yet another crime. In recent years during the so-called war on terror, the US and Britain used Diego Garcia for illegal rendition of prisoners for torture.

And though much of this story is now known, the story of the resistance by the people of Chagos and Mauritius is a little known story.

From the time of the forcible removals, there was spontaneous rebellion. And when the last ship, the Nordvaer, brought 200 Chagossians to the Port Louis docks in Mauritius, there was a sit-in on the docks. Chagossians, including the woman leader Aurelie Talate who died in January, 2012, refused to leave the habour side.

Chagossians were soon facing a difficult urban environment, joining into a mass of unemployed Mauritians, eking out a living just after violent communal conflicts, which claimed hundreds of lives. Some had family, others were taken in by the poor. Many died of home-sickness.

Soon organizing began. The Organization Fraternel , a social movement, helped organize gatherings, hunger strikes, and candle-light vigils in residential areas like Bain des Dames. What characterised these protests was that they were women’s protests. Many of the men were too saddened by the humiliation of the displacement to be active. But the women were Mother Courages. LALIT women members and one of our members who is a medical practitioner soon become involved in the hunger strike movements and joined the mobilization.

Meanwhile, the Mauritian working class rose up in two huge movements that many Chagossians (who had started working the docks and in the Municipality and were unionized) participated in. These were known as the August ’79 Strike and the September ’80 mass movement, which were both huge, near insurrectionary, highly organized movements.

After this experience, in 1981, Chagossians women together with LALIT women, organized street demonstrations three days in a row in Port Louis, to support eight Chagossian women on hunger strike in the Jardin de la Compagnie, in the open air, plumb in the middle of Port Louis, opposite the British High Commission. And the demonstrations saw hundreds of women with placards literally running around the main streets, screaming slogans at the top of their voices. The third day, they all sat down in front of the British Embassy and blocked the street. A confrontation with the Riot Police saw the women winning, but 8 were arrested, including Chagossian leader, Charlesia Alexis and LALIT members, Ragini Kistnasamy and Lindsey Collen. This was a turning point. From now onwards, everyone in Mauritius knew about the problem. It had been difficult until this point, to get the issue on to the mainstream agenda.

This was when the Mauritian State acted, and together with Chagossians claimed and won compensation from Britain. Each Chagossians got a house.

Since then the struggle has had many phases, sometimes dormant, then re-awakening. In the mid-1990s the Rann Nu Diego common front was set up by LALIT and the Chagos Refugees Group, Greenpeace agreed to take us to Diego Garcia in one of their ships, but this fell through. Olivier Bancoult’s legal case then put the issue on the agenda. But since 1999, to some extent, the case has fallen into the trap of legalism, causing demobilization. Now the European Court of Human Rights has an appeal before it, which it has mercilessly postponed. Since 2004 LALIT has had support from No Bases, an international anti military bases network we helped set up. Last year the Mauritian Government, under pressure from LALIT, put a case against Britain under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. This case has the merit of exposing the UK plot to set up a Marine Protected Area in Chagos on territory that is not theirs, in order to prevent the return of Chagossians. Wikileaks documents proved this ulterior motive. Meanwhile, many environmental organizations, even Greenpeace, had fallen into the trap set by the British State.

Let us conclude by looking at the principles that have guided us in LALIT during these struggles.

The first principle was to keep the three main issues articulating together, and not to fall into single-issue traps nor allow one struggle to be bargained against another. The three struggles are:

- to close down the US military base. It is the root cause of all the suffering, and remains a danger for humankind.
- to re-unify Mauritius, its land and its people, thus completing de-colonization.
- to demand the right to return and full reparations for all Chagossians.

This first principle brings us natural allies. The entire anti-war movement when opposing military bases, anti-colonial forces seeking full de-colonization, human rights organizations, ecological and environment organizations mobilising against destruction of eco-systems are all natural allies. The women’s movement world-wide will quite naturally be an ally of such brave struggles by women. Organizations that unite prisoners and their families are natural allies against rendition that has been happening on Diego Garcia. The people in the US and UK, when they realize what crimes are committed in their names, are allies against their own Governments.

The second principle is that in struggling for freedom from domination by empires and for peace for all, we need to understand that military bases, and war machinery in general, exist for a purpose, and we need to understand this purpose. When the US says it is “protecting its interests”, we know and need to know that it is the interest not of its people, but of its ruling classes. So, the struggle is also a struggle against class rule, the reign of an owning and controlling class. And that this is a truly international struggle, though one with neighbourhood roots wherever there are military bases.

The third principle is that when we call for base closure, we must be aware of the consequences. We need simultaneously to call for employment for everyone who worked on the base. We must be sure that the base does not just get transferred. And we must demand an environmental clean-up.

In LALIT, we pay hommage in this struggle, to the tenacity of the people of the Chagos, who have so loyally continued to fight for their dignity and everyone’s freedom.

Alain Ah-Vee, LALIT

Further Reading:
Article “How Diego Garcia Was Stolen,” by Lindsey Collen and Ragini Kistnasamy, The Spokesman, Journal of the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, Number 81, Dark Times: Torture.
Search for many articles on Diego Garcia on LALIT’s web site:
“Open Letter to Greenpeace”, by LALIT member, Ram Seegobin,