UK took our homes; US killed our dogs

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article was published in the Sunday Island on September 10 2011.

When I look from the balcony of my favorite hotel, the Light House in Galle, I see an empty expanse of sea and think there is no more land until Antarctica. Looking at a map, I realise that travelling in a certain direction southwards one would encounter The Maldives and beyond them the Chagos Archipelago, 900 miles from Sri Lanka.

At a recent symposium, Defeat War Crimes Conspiracy, held at BMICH, Gomin Dayasri called attention to the crimes of the UK and the USA, including their disgraceful treatment of the islanders of Diego Garcia. The UK and the USA conspired to evict the inhabitants to make room for a US military base.

The biggest of the 60 Chagos Islands is Diego Garcia which measures a mere 27.20 km; the total land area of the archipelago is only 63.17 km. The islands were uninhabited until the late 18th century. The first inhabitants were lepers transported by the French from Mauritius. Then the French came up with a cunning plan to make a profit out of the islands. These are sometimes called the Oil Islands because the French produced vast quantities of oil from the coconut plantations they established. There are scant details about conditions then but it is probable that most of the workers were slaves imported from Africa and South India (rather like the British importing Tamils into Ceylon to grow coffee, tea and rubber on land stolen from the natives, and Irish slaves sent to the West Indies to tend the sugar crop).

By the mid-1950s there were around 2,000 inhabitants remaining, even though the market for the oil plantations had collapsed. It was, by many accounts, a Spartan life but a happy one in an idyllic place. Rita David recalls, “Life there paid little money, a very little…but it was the sweet life.” Sir Hilary Blood, former colonial governor of Mauritius wrote: “How lovely! Coconut palms against the bluest of skies, their foliage blown by the wind into a perfect circle…Its beauty is infinite.”

Unfortunately for the islanders their home attracted the attention of the US military and their British pet poodles. The uninhabited island of Aldabra, near Madagascar was initially considered for use as a military base. However, Aldabra was a breeding ground for a rare species of tortoise. The advantage of choosing Diego Garcia was that Aldabran tortoises could copulate in peace. The fate of 1,800 human Chagossians, or Ilois, who had inhabited the islands for over 200 years was of less import.

In his book Island of Shame, David Vine writes: “Although the British Government and its agents performed most of the physical work involved in displacing the Chagossians, the U.S. Government ordered, orchestrated and financed the expulsion.” Vine quotes military analyst John Pike telling him that the U.S. military’s goal is “to run the planet from Guam and Diego Garcia by 2015, even if the entire Eastern Hemisphere has drop-kicked us from every other base.”

The Chagos Islands were detached by the British from the colony of Mauritius in 1965, in breach of international law, before Mauritius was granted independence in 1968. During the 1960s and 1970s British governments, Labour and Tory, tricked and expelled the entire population of the Chagos Archipelago so that Diego Garcia could be given to the United States. UK Foreign Office officials conspired to lie, coaching each other to “maintain” and “argue” the fiction that the Chagossians existed only as a “floating population”. There is even doubt about Britain’s right to lease the islands as they may have been illegally acquired from France, which also illegally seized them.

On 28 July 1965, a senior Foreign Office official, T C D Jerrom, wrote to the British representative at the United Nations, instructing him to lie to the General Assembly that the Chagos Archipelago was “uninhabited when the United Kingdom government first acquired it”. Nine years later, the Ministry of Defence went further, lying that “there is nothing in our files about inhabitants or about an evacuation”.

In March 1971, the commissioner of the British Indian Ocean Territory gave the order for the islanders’ pet dogs to be killed. US soldiers armed with M16 rifles failed to kill them all so the survivors were gassed while their owners looked on.

A tank-landing ship and five other ships arrived at Diego Garcia with at least 820 US soldiers. They set up a rock crusher and a cement block factory. Bulldozers ripped coconut trees from the ground. The coral reefs were blasted to provide rock for a runway. Diesel sludge polluted the pure blue waters of the ocean.

Chagossians who were away from the islands were told that they could not return as their homeland was now closed to them. Most Chagossians had never previously left the islands but were told that it was a criminal offence to stay without a permit. The British deliberately ran down supplies of food and medicine. Salvage crews dismantled the plantations so there was no work or home-grown food.

The remaining Chagossians were herded onto cargo ships and, after a horrendous voyage sleeping on decks awash with urine and vomit, were dumped in Mauritius and the Seychelles where they have had to live in tin shacks in the slums, suffering extreme poverty and alcoholism.

Some think the worse thing they have suffered is sagren, the melancholy of longing for a lost homeland.

The Chagossians’ efforts to plead their case in the English courts have sometimes been successful. However, a great deal of legal to-ing and fro-ing ended with the House of Lords, sitting as the highest court in the land, rejecting the islanders’ claims. In October 2008, the Law Lords refused Chagossian refugees in the UK the right to return home. As Lord Hoffmann expressed it: “The right of abode is a creature of the law.”

Dr Sean Carey, Research Fellow at Roehampton University, who has written extensively about this subject, wrote an open letter to David Miliband in the New Statesman, in which he said: “Perhaps Barack Obama’s inauguration as US President in January will provide an opportunity to change current policy towards the Chagos islanders.” See how that worked out! The journeys of a Gulfstream aircraft, registered N379P, are disclosed in a list of more than 3,000 flight logs obtained by Stephen Grey, an investigative journalist and author of Ghost Plane. The same aircraft flew from Washington via Athens to Diego Garcia, the logs show. Though there have been persistent reports in the US that detainees have been secretly held in Diego Garcia, the British government has always dismissed the claims. Diego Garcia was used to launch bombing missions in both Iraq and Afghanistan and some fear it could be used to attack Iran.

Pete Bouquet of Rainbow Warrior described what the base looks like: “The Diego Garcia base is alien and horrible. The quisling-like British complicity in it, from the red telephone kiosk in the airport arrival area, to the fact that UK personnel have to cadge flights off the Americans, is shameful and degrading. The Chagossians should be allowed to return and the base should be closed.”

More recent dirty dealings in relation to a Marine Protected Area were revealed by WikiLeaks

Click to access annotated-wikileaks-diplomatic-cable-chagos-island-diego-garcia-marine-protected-area.pdf

William Hague and Nick Clegg soon ditched their pre-election commitment to change the former Labour government’s shameful policy

The 1966 Anglo-American Agreement for the US military base on Diego Garcia comes up for renewal in 2016.