By Lindsey Collen and Ragini Kistnasamy of LALIT, Mauritius
IN the late 60s thousands of Mauritians living on Diego Garcia island were forced from their homes when all the islands of the Chagos Archipelago were dismembered from Mauritius by the British state to make way for an infamous US military base named, irony of ironies, Camp Justice.
On 30 March 2006 a group from amongst the people originally forcibly removed were taken by ship to visit their home islands and tend the graves of their ancestors.
The British Government chartered a ship to take a hundred of the Chagossians for this brief visit. Here is an update on the struggle for justice.
In the run-up to the World Social Forum in Mumbai in January 2004, Lalit and the Chagossian Refugees Group were working on getting a ship to take people back home to Diego Garcia to visit. This was as a form of protest against the base and the forcible removals it exacted.
As the idea developed, smaller yacht owners asked to join in, and this had become the planned Peace Flotilla against the military base there. We were drawing together the three interlinked struggles i.e. to close the base (with environmental clean-up), to completely decolonise and reunify Mauritius, the twin struggles of right to return of Chagossians and their proper reparations.
The peace flotilla got massive support from people all over the world in peace groups, capturing the imagination of women's groups, environmental groups, political groups, human rights groups, peace groups and especially anti-military-base groups.
John Pilger’s outstanding documentary, Stealing a Nation, then came and brought the issues quite literally centre stage. Thousands of British people reacted in anger at their Government's crimes.
WHEN the peace flotilla gained ground, the British Government issued a regulation banning all Chagossians from all the Chagos Islands. Feeling increasingly exposed, the British state began to negotiate.
It offered, itself, to take the Islanders on a visit to all the Chagos Islands including Diego Garcia. It wanted a visit strictly under the control of the British State. That is how this present planned visit has come about.
Another tactic of a cornered British state has been to issue British passports to the Chagossians and their descendants, and the entire community is now in flux. From most families, someone has left Mauritius, is leaving, or is planning to leave for the UK, where they believe work will be easier to find and the standard of education and social services is higher. Some then find the going tough in the UK, and return to Mauritius, as yet others are preparing to leave.
And meanwhile there is the case for reparations that the Chagossians has filed in the US against the US government and private companies that run the base.
The military base was used for B-52s to take off from to drop bombs on Afghanistan and Iraq, and it is still there, in all its concrete and tarmac horror. It is still believed that prisoners are kept there or near there on ships, and “interrogated” and/or “rendered” to other states. The UK Government says that the US could not use the base in this way without informing them, and has not informed them. The US spokesmen refuse to reply.
We, in Mauritius, find ourselves socially and politically responsible for keeping on the agenda the complete closure of this much detested military base.
Today, the struggle to close the US military base, and for the reunification of Mauritius, is for the first time becoming a struggle in which the organisations of the Chagossian people are involved to a decreasing degree.
The US and Britain have between them managed to drive a wedge between the Chagossians’ right to return and their rightful struggle for reparations, on the one hand, and the overall struggle against militarism and against the capitalism that drives it, the very realities that robbed the Chagossians of the islands they lived on.
We, in Lalit, are still working on all three fronts i.e. to close the base, decolonise the entire country, and for the right to return and reparations. And this in the knowledge that the struggle to close the base on Diego Garcia is now united with the overall struggle to abolish all foreign military bases, and that this struggle is growing apace world-wide in a way that was never even imaginable before.
• International gathering in Ecuador, March 2007: Abolition of all foreign military bases. www.abolishbases.org