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Their right to return


The dispossession of the Diego Garcia islanders to create a US base is an indictment of Britain

Mark Curtis
The Guardian

Today, a British-engineered occupation enters its fifth decade. There will be no commemoration, despite the human toll and murkiness surrounding what is going on there.

Yet an entire population, exiled from their homeland and betrayed by the British government, are stepping up their campaign to return home. The coming weeks may decide their fate.

Forty years ago this week, while African and Asian countries were throwing off British rule, Whitehall officials were busy establishing a new colony. The British Indian Ocean Territory (Biot) was created by detaching the Chagos island group from Mauritius and other small islands from the Seychelles, then both British colonies. Mauritius was given £3m in compensation; the following year, Britain signed a military agreement with the US leasing it the largest island, Diego Garcia, for 50 years.

Washington wanted the island as a military base and made clear it was not prepared to put up with any inhabitants there - so Britain forcibly moved all 2,000 of them, the last leaving in 1973. Ever since, the Chagossians, most of whom live in poverty in Mauritius where they were dumped by the British, have fought for their right to return.
In 2000, the Chagossians won an extraordinary legal victory allowing their return to the outlying islands in the archipelago. But last year the government overturned this decision by issuing orders in council to ban the islanders from ever returning. Unless this decision is overturned by the high court next month, the Chagossians' fate may well be sealed.

Such action might be expected to be a matter of public outrage. Yet the Foreign Office boasts in its annual report: "We have defended successfully a legal challenge from the Chagossian people ... who had sought compensation and assisted resettlement." The government has probably spent around £1m of public money to defeat the Chagossians.

Such government ruthlessness over Diego Garcia is long-standing. Foreign Office officials in the Wilson government stated in secret files the day after the creation of the Biot that it would be "best to avoid all references to permanent inhabitants" of the islands. "Best wicket ... to bat on," they went on, was that "these people are Mauritians and Seychellois". Britain ignored a UN general assembly resolution urging it not to dismember the territory of Mauritius, while British officials secretly wrote of the "urgent need to evacuate its permanent inhabitants" to make clear that the islands were "defence installations and not a new colony".

The latest phase of deception involves the claim that resettlement of the Chagos islands is unfeasible, refuted by independent environmental analysts and the experience of the Asian tsunami last December. Even the 6ft wave that hit Diego Garcia caused no damage to facilities. Moreover, the islands have already been resettled - by the US military, which has built a library, post office, bank and chapel for the 1,700 troops there and enough housing for 1,500 civilian workers. The US navy website assures incoming servicemen that "personal living conditions on the island are excellent" and fails to trouble them with any mention of the exiled population.

B2 stealth bombers based on Diego Garcia have been used against Iraq following the Blair government's approval in mid-2002 of a US request to base them there. The secret Downing Street memo of July 2002, leaked a few months back, made clear that the US military regarded the Diego Garcia base as "critical" to all Iraq invasion options.

Even murkier are the US and Canadian media reports about Diego Garcia being used to hold terrorist suspects beyond the reach of US and international law. The British government has consistently denied that any detainees from Afghanistan or Iraq have been held on Diego Garcia. Yet Amnesty International told a US senate hearing in June it had evidence that the island was one in a network of secret CIA detention facilities, where "detainees are being held arbitrarily, incommunicado and indefinitely without visits by the Red Cross".

The Chagos islands are, like Iraq, occupied territory, yet this small community has had few international friends. The story of Diego Garcia is an indictment of Britain's political culture as well as government policy. If, next month, the government succeeds in its victimisation of this long-abused community, it will be our responsibility.

· Mark Curtis, author of Unpeople: Britain's Secret Human Rights Abuses, was director of the World Development Movement

www.markcurtis.info

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See full essay at:
http://users4.ev1.net/~mevansyfib/bioessayweb.htm

excerpt -
Diego Garcia, British Indian Ocean Territory
When the Indian Ocean tsunami hit on December 26th, 2004 I had just returned with my family from sailing at a local lake. I was stunned as I watched the news. The story itself was surprisingly short for the immensity of the event. My wife asked me how I thought Diego Garcia had fared. I had just been to the small atoll in the Indian Ocean in August, earlier that year, doing coral reef surveys for the Navy. It was an honor to work there, an incredible experience. At the time that the tsunami hit, I had been working on the report for the Diego Garcia surveys. In satisfying my curiosity to find out how Diego Garcia had weathered the waves (there are good folks there, including some in the public works-natural resources office), I began looking into it and things began to smell out of place. The story I was hearing was not matching up with what I knew. The official story was that Diego Garcia experienced a mild tidal surge of three to six feet and was not affected. The reasoning was given that tsunamis do not affect Diego Garcia from the east because of the deep ocean topography nearby. Yet, I knew that the island had experienced more severe effects from tsunamis generated by the explosion of Krakatoa in 1883. There are records of waves washing over the rim of the atoll on the east side. The waves generated by Krakatoa were of comparable size if not somewhat smaller. My conclusion, from looking at reports and descriptions of the approach of the wave, was that the island was prepared, which was good indeed, but that it did not pass the warning on to other islands to the north, south, and west (such as the Maldives, Mauritius, Rodrigues, and the Seychelles) or to the nations of the east coast of Africa. It seems that it would have been the responsible thing to do. The Navy, by international treaty is at least obligated to pass meteorological information on to the island nation of Mauritius. That is a fact.

Diego Garcia does have a tragic past that seems to have been lost in the wash of history, like a wave carrying communities out to sea. But I wax poetic. The reality is unacceptably terrible and of human design. A mid-oceanic Island, Diego Garcia is located in the very smack-dab middle of the Indian Ocean (technically it would be called the geographic center of the ocean basin). It is part of an Archipelago called the Chagos. Follow the chain of islands that start off the southwest tip of India due south to the equator and then go seven degrees further. It is thought that Diego Garcia was first seen by the Portuguese, but they never settled. Diego Garcia did not have any native residents in the manner of the aboriginals of the Americas, Australia, or Polynesia but by the 1970’s it and other Chagos islands did have long-established populations. The islanders, descendants of original slaves and workers, ran coconut plantations. The islands had changed hands several times between the French and the British. Diego Garcia had also been a coaling and fueling station for ships crossing the Indian Ocean.

One story relates how at the beginning of World War One a German naval vessel, shot up from a recent engagement with an Australian warship, pulled into the fueling station for repairs, claiming the damage to be from a storm. The British, who then owned the islands, were very hospitable, invited them to drinks and assisted them with their repairs, not knowing that the war had begun. A British ship on the trail of the fleeing Germans stopped at the island and informed the islanders of the situation. The British eventually caught up with the Germans and sank the ship.

In the 1970’s when the US Navy took up residence, the islands were under the British. When the Navy came in, they moved the local residents out by tricking, lying, and forcing them with little or no compensation for their islands. Most ended up in Mauritius, living under miserable conditions. Years later, a payment went to the Government of Mauritius to be used for the islanders. Only a very small amount of the money was ever applied for their assistance. Many of the islanders ended up as alcoholics, homeless, addicted to drugs, as prostitutes. Never a hope to return to their homes to live, where their mothers, fathers, grandparents, their ancestors are buried. In exchange for the lease of the base at Diego Garcia, the British secured a discount for the purchase of submarine launched nuclear missiles produced by the US.

The Chagossians. Nobody has ever even heard of them. Maybe a few, so very few. Even if one were to believe in the strategic role of Diego Garcia, first in the Cold War, and now in the South Asian and Middle Eastern Wars. Even if one thinks it is necessary and indispensable, a fair trade for the security of Democracy in the western world. It seems to me, that the very least we could do is acknowledge these people. To show gratitude to these people who have made such a deep sacrifice for us. We don’t even know they exist. To be swept under the rug of history seems to me to be such a tremendous insult on top of tragedy. It is so very very sad. Unacceptably sad.

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