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Frontline Magazine Volume 26, Issue 26: Dec. 19, 2009 - Jan. 01, 2010

Forgotten people

By A.G. Noorani

INDIA no longer screams about the United States’ military base on Diego Garcia. But when it did, for over a decade in the 1970s, not once did it mention the “mass kidnappings” conducted by Britain and the U.S., the forcible removal of the people, and their relocation in grinding poverty in alien lands.

Had it voiced its protest at the treatment of the people, India would have not only acquired the moral high ground and secured a better deal for the hapless people, but also made a telling point politically. Two factors dictated restraint. India was afraid of offending the U.S. on a sensitive issue and it had its own ugly skeletons rattling in its rickety cupboards.

David Vine, Professor of Anthropology at American University in Washington, has rendered high service by writing a thoroughly documented expose of the crime, which the world has ignored because one of its perpetrators is a superpower, the U.S., and its accomplice, the U.K., though vastly reduced in power and prestige, still wields some clout. Royalties from the sale of the book are donated to the people of the archipelago, the Chagossians. Vine has consulted officials in the know. The book was inspired by Michael Tigar, a lawyer of 40 years standing, who was part of a team of lawyers from the U.S., the U.K. and Mauritius who sought justice for the people. He had visited the camps in which they were housed in Mauritius. Friends recommended David Vine.

The Chagos Archipelago is a group of about 64 small coral islands at the centre of the Indian Ocean. Chagossians no longer live in Chagos today, but 1,200 miles (1,920 kilometres) away on the islands of Mauritius and the Seychelles. Between 1968 and 1973, in a plot carefully hidden from the public but of which India could not have been ignorant, the U.S. and the U.K. exiled all 1,500-2,000 islanders to create a major U.S. military base on the Chagossian V-shaped island of Diego Garcia.

“Initially, government agents told those who were away seeking medical treatment or vacationing to Mauritius that their islands had been closed and they could not go home. Next, British officials began restricting supplies to the islands and more Chagossians left as food and medicines dwindled. Finally, on the orders of the U.S. military, U.K. officials forced the remaining islanders to board overcrowded cargo ships and left them on the docks in Mauritius and the Seychelles. Just before the last deportation, British agents and U.S. troops on Diego Garcia herded the Chagossians’ pet dogs into sealed sheds and gassed and burned them in front of their traumatised owners awaiting deportation.”

Fate never treated kindly the descendants of enslaved Africans and indentured South Indians brought to Chagos in the 18th century. There are around 5,000 of them today; most are deeply impoverished. “Meanwhile the base on Diego Garcia has become one of the most secretive and powerful U.S. military facilities in the world, helping to launch the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (twice), threatening Iran, China, Russia, and nations from southern Africa to southeast Asia, host to a secret CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] detention centre for high-profile terrorist suspects, and home to thousands of U.S. military personnel and billions of dollars in deadly weapons.”

The largest and best-known island of the archipelago is Diego Garcia. “The archipelago’s name appears to come from the Portuguese chagas – the wounds of Christ.” The people, though poor, led contented lives. “Life there paid little money, a very little, but it was the sweet life,” an inhabitant barred from returning to her home told the author sadly.

It was the brainchild of Stuart Baker. He wrote to the Navy’s brass: “Within the next 5 to 10 years, virtually all of Africa, and certain Middle Eastern and Far Eastern territories presently under Western control will gain either complete independence or a high degree of autonomy”, making them likely to “drift from Western influence”. The solution was the “Strategic Island concept” – avoid traditional base sites located in populous mainland areas where they were vulnerable to local non-Western opposition. Instead, “only relatively small, lightly populated islands, separated from major population masses, could be safely held under full control of the West”.

In law, Britain controls the Chagos as the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). The colony was created in November 1965 by royal decree, separating it from Mauritius. Only four days later, London cabled the BIOT’s headquarters in the Seychelles: “Essential that contingency planning for evacuation of existing population from Diego Garcia… should begin at once.” In 1966 an agreement signed “under the cover of darkness” gave the U.S. the right to build a base on Diego Garcia. Technically a joint facility, it is de facto U.S. territory.

British officials expended the native brand of humour in their deliberations on a sordid affair. Sir Paul Gore-Booth, Permanent Under Secretary in the Foreign Office, wrote: “We must surely be very tough about this. The object of the exercise was to get some rocks which will remain ours, there will be no indigenous population except seagulls who have not yet got a committee (the Status of Women Committee does not cover the rights of Birds).”

One of his colleagues, D.A. Greenhill (Later Baron of Harrow), penned back, “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 etc. When this has been done, I agree we must be very tough.”

Foreign Office legal adviser Anthony Aust proposed to “maintain the fiction that the inhabitants of Chagos are not a permanent or semi-permanent population”, adding: “We are able to make up the rules as we go along.” They would simply represent the Chagossians as “a floating population” of “transient contract workers” with no connection to the islands.

WARTIME USE

The author places the crime in its international setting. “Diego Garcia saw its first major wartime use during the first Gulf War. Just eight days after the U.S. military issued deployment orders in August 1990, eighteen pre-positioned ships from Diego Garcia’s lagoon arrived in Saudi Arabia. The ships immediately outfitted a 15,000-troop marine brigade with 123 M-60 battle tanks, 425 heavy weapons, 124 fixed-wing and rotary aircraft, and thirty days’ worth of operational supplies for the annihilation of Iraq’s military that was to come. Weaponry and supplies shipped from the United States took almost a month longer to arrive in Saudi Arabia, proving Diego Garcia’s worth to many military leaders.

“Since September 11, 2001, the base has assumed even more importance for the military…. The (once) secret 2002 ‘Downing Street’ memorandum showed that U.S. war planners considered basing access on Diego Garcia ‘critical’ to the invasion…. In early 2007, as the Bush administration was upping its anti-Iran rhetoric and making signs that it was ready for more attempted conquest, the Defence Department awarded a $31.9 million contract to build a new submarine base on the island…. Former U.S. Army General Barry McCaffrey publicly named Diego Garcia as a detention facility. A Council of Europe report named the atoll, along with sites in Poland and Romania, as a secret prison.”

Vine goes on to say: “[John] Pike, who runs the website GlobalSecurity.org, explained, ‘It’s the base from which we control half of Africa and the southern side of Asia, the southern side of Eurasia.’ It’s ‘the facility that at the end of the day gives us some say-so in the Persian Gulf region. If it didn’t exist, it would have to be invented.’ The base is critical to controlling not just the oil-rich Gulf but the world, said Pike. ‘Even if the entire Eastern Hemisphere has drop-kicked us’ from every other base on their territory, he explained, the military’s goal is to be able ‘to run the planet from Guam and Diego Garcia by 2015’.”

Vine mentions several other places which met with the same fate. “Generally those displaced have, like the Chagossians, been small in number, under colonial control, and of non-white ancestry. Some of the examples are relatively well known, like those displaced in the Bikini Atoll and Puerto Rico’s Vieques Island. Others have received less attention, including the Inughuit of Thule, Greenland, and the more than 3,000 Okinawans displaced to, of all places, Bolivia.” The U.S. has some 1,000 military bases and installations on the sovereign land of other nations.

Decisions were taken at the very top. On December 7, 1970, Secretary of State William P. Rogers informed British officials that it was time “for the U.K. to accomplish relocation of the present residents of Diego Garcia to some other location. All local personnel should be moved from the western half of the island before the arrival of the construction force in March 1971. We hope that complete relocation can be accomplished by the end of July 1971 when aircraft begin using the air strip and the tempo of construction activities reaches its full scale.”

The questions Vine raises should trouble us. “Beyond Stu Barber and the other officials in this story, aren’t most of us complicit in the Chagossians’ exile and the suffering they experience to this day? Don’t we all share responsibility, beginning with the tax dollars that U.S. and British citizens paid to expel the islanders and build the base? Don’t the people and governments of countries like Japan, Germany and Saudi Arabia share responsibility through financial and other contributions that assist U.S. domination of Diego Garcia and the Persian Gulf? Don’t we all share responsibility through our silence?”


Copyright 2009, Popular Science