New phase in the struggle for Diego Garcia

Diego Garcia.

By Lalit (Mauritius)

December 3, 2009 -- The Diego Garcia struggle is moving into what we call “phase 4”. Each past phase has had its victories, victories within which there were defeats. And each victory won has been won because the three elements making up the struggle held together, were embraced as one “whole”.

Before looking at phase 4, let's look first at three intertwined past crimes.

The first crime – and it is the cause of the problem – was the United States' diabolical plan to set up an imperialist military base in the Indian Ocean from which it could control the world’s raw materials and transport systems, and its spy systems. And from where, when necessary, it launches attacks on civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. And, if convenient, it illegally renders prisoners. So, if we want victory on any Diego Garcia issue, we should never, ever collude with the base, never remain silent about it in exchange for anything whatsoever. The base is the reason for all the suffering and, for victory, it must be constantly in our sights.

The second crime is that the place used for the Diego Garcia base was stolen by means of breaking up the country of Mauritius. This was an illegal condition for 1968 independence. It is not only against UN resolutions but against the UN Charter itself. The UK stole the Chagos Islands, including Diego Garcia, from Mauritius and transferred them to the USA, the receiver. The price paid was a reduction on the price of Polaris weapons for the UK’s submarines. So, if we want victory, we should never, ever accept this splitting of the country of Mauritius, continued colonisation by the fiction that only the UK  and the USA recognise: the shameful “British Indian Ocean Territories”.

The third crime was the banishment of the people of the Chagos Islands. The condition that the US insisted upon for its odious base was that the whole archipelago be “depopulated”. So the authorities of the UK and the USA proceeded to lie, saying there were no inhabitants there, even as they were tricking and then ultimately starving the 2000 inhabitants off the islands, after having gassed their dogs before their very eyes. Then they just dumped the people in shiploads, mainly on the wharfs of Port Louis, the Mauritian capital. They were homeless and homesick. Many died of sadness. Others were taken in as best they could be by the poor people of Port Louis. But they have never received proper reparations, and they must win the right to return – to return as citizens of Mauritius to Mauritian territory.

So, any dignified victory means never faltering on any of these three elements, never bartering any one against any other. The Mauritian government has always shamelessly bartered any one against the others. The government is up against far too powerful a force to risk this type of typical opportunism. So, the struggle demands that we consistently and with integrity spell out our aim explicitly as being to get the base closed down (and cleaned up), to get the country of Mauritius reunified and fully decolonised, and to win the right of return and reparations for all Chagossians. All three. Silence on any one issue is just not good enough.

Past three phases

Let’s look at the three past phases of the struggle with this in mind. Also bear in mind that they overlap.

Phase 1 was the struggle in the 1970s, culminating in the 1981 hunger strikes and women’s street demonstrations, with arrests and trials under the Public Order Act. In these street battles were all three points were expressed loud and clear. In this movement were Chagossian women, Komite Ilwa Organization Fraternel, Lalit de Klas and the Muvman Liberasyon Fam (MLF). This struggle brought both immediate dignity, and immense potential progress.

The movement gained increasingly strong support, in Mauritius and abroad, and after the confrontation between the riot police and some 300 women for three days running in 1981, followed by the defeat of the riot police at the hands of angry women, the Mauritian government suddenly began to act and it organised new negotiations with the British government. This led to compensation. In this victory, there was, however, a defeat. The compensation money was paid against the signing of a disclaimer by the Chagossians. Lalit de Klas and the MLF did not agree that it was correct or even necessary to sign. Everyone only had to hold out a little longer and the payment could have been won without the outrageous disclaimer. So, the victory was compensation; the defeat was giving up future other claims. The pitifully small compensation was not proper reparations. However, many Chagossians did acquire a home of their own. The compensation calmed the struggle down for some years, leaving all the issues relatively unchallenged.

It should be said that during phase 1, the Mauritian state had consistently sought and won support, in its bid for sovereignty and complete decolonisation, in the UN General Assembly, the Non-Aligned Movement and Organisation for African Unity. This element, taken on its own, was never enough to win on, when the Mauritian government was reassuring the US that it would not oppose the base. But it was enough for the Mauritian bourgeoisie: huge EU quotas under the Lome Sugar Protocol, US sugar quotas, textile deals from both, and a few orders for fresh fruit and vegetables and eggs for the military base.

Phase 2 was in the mid-1990s when Olivier Bancoult’s group, the Chagos Refugee Group, had been reduced to a very small group. Lalit approached the Chagos Refugee Group, and together we set up a broad front of 12 or so organisations called Rann Nu Diego (Return Diego to us and us to Diego!). Rann Nu Diego had a very clear stand on all three elements: No to the base! Yes to full decolonisation! Yes to reparations and the right to return for all Chagossians! As the Rann Nu Diego common front gained in strength from its principled actions, so the Chagos Refugees Group also gained in strength until it became credible enough to enter a case in the British courts.

The case involved a difficult question: in order to get legal aid, the Chagossians had to use the contradiction that they were British (as well as Mauritian). They were British given that the British had continued to colonise the British Indian Ocean Territories. Some even had British Indian Ocean Territories identity documents. However, court cases that begin as a means to an end have a way of becoming an end in themselves. Soon, there was also an attempt to get a reparations case into the US courts as well. The first thing the Chagossians won, and the only thing they have won permanently so far through the courts, has been the right to a British passport. What this has meant is that the British state has now started a process of solving its problem by the assimilation of the Chagossians. Chagossian families are once again ripped apart: some living in Crawley, others still in Mauritius. In the early court victories, defeats thus set in. But, the major victory early on was that Chagossians won the right to return. It was then, before any appeals had begun, or any laws been changed that Lalit acted.

And so phase 3 began. In 2003, Lalit again approached the Chagos Refugee Group and we organised a joint delegation to the World Social Forum in 2004 in Mumbai where we gained massive support from the entire world anti-war movement and the worldwide No Bases movement (just being born). Our aim was a political action: to get a ship to go to the Chagos and Diego Garcia and to take the Chagossians home. Lalit had at one point previously got agreement from Greenpeace in Amsterdam to take a boat to Diego Garcia, but a practical problem on the Greenpeace side prevented this from coming true at the time, and by Mumbai, Greenpeace had become prisoner of its US donors. Soon, however, three or four other vessels had been offered by individuals and groups for the action. By then the planned action was called the “Peace Flotilla”, and it had captured the imagination of the entire anti-war movement, the environment movement and women’s movement. The flotilla unified all the issues. It was a victory even as it was still an idea.

Then the benificent British state, as if it were not the guilty party, offered itself to take the Chagossians to Diego Garcia. It would charter a ship. The Chagos Refugee Group accepted the offer. The visit instead of being a challenge to the US armed forces was turned by the British state into a trip to put flowers on long-neglected graves, on condition that the visiting Chagossians immediately left again.

In victories, there are defeats. And the court case logic of being British had by then taken hold. The lawyers in such cases put heavy pressure on their clients. The Chagossians were told to renounce any contestation of the base so that their US damages case could get into the courts. The renunciation was made, but the case failed to get into the courts anyway. A double defeat. For the UK case too, those behind the litigation made Chagossians feel that in order to win the right to return, they had to barter the right to oppose the base, and even the right to mention Mauritian sovereignty. They had to deny Lalit in court, St Peter-style, three times. So, Olivier Bancoult was by then “indifferent on sovereignty”, and no longer opposed to the military base. In fact, he called for Chagossians to get work on the base, even while Lalit was calling for a ban of Mauritians working there. A handful of Chagossians and a handful of Mauritians do work on the base. This is not a victory, but, of course, a defeat. Who wants to roll bombs around before they are loaded on B-52s to go kill civilians? Who wants to make the beds of those who torture illegal prisoners?

Phase 4

And now, Phase 4 is upon us. This is the situation for 2010:

1. The US empire is wobbling. It is in danger of overreach in Iraq and Afghanistan. Its economy ails. Its financial system is on life support. So, any struggle against the military base on Diego Garcia and against the continued colonisation of the Chaos Islands is up against an objectively relatively weaker imperialism today than in the past: weaker ideologically, politically, economically, financially and, as a result, militarily too.

2. There is known to be nuclear weaponry on Diego Garcia. But with the Pelindaba UN Treaty for an African Nuclear Weapons Free Zone coming into force in July 2009, the situation is unstable. Lalit has called for an inspection under the UN International Atomic Energy Agency.

3. In 2016 the 50-year treaty between robber and receiver of stolen goods (the UK and the USA) comes up for renewal. It is time for the Mauritian government to get a UN General Assembly resolution to request an opinion on sovereignty at the level of the International Court of Justice at The Hague. Lalit is acting politically on this, too. The Mauritian government is being led up the garden path into a supposedly bilateral “technical committee”, by Britain's Labour government, meanwhile wasting time until the 2014 deadline for cancelling the treaty and proposing supposed NGO schemes for making what is effectively a nuclear storage site into a “marine park”.

4. Early in 2010 the Chagossians' case against the British government for damages comes before the European Court of Human Rights.

5. While working as we always have with Chagossians who agree with base closure, reunification and reparations, and the right to return for all Chagossians, we need to mobilise the entire Mauritian working class in order to get democratic control over the Mauritian islands of Chagos, including Diego Garcia; we cannot rely on our government which repeatedly separates the issues of sovereignty, base closure and the right to return.

6. The UK has recently removed Mauritius from the list of countries that need visas. The US is making the same change soon, as they both try to lock Mauritius as a whole into a close relationship, as the US has already done with the US African Growth and Opportunity Act.

7. At a world level, there is now an organised No Bases movement. This movement has contributed towards the closing of the bases in Manta in Ecuador and the Manas base in Kyrgyzstan, and gives the anti-war movement an ongoing life and permanent nearby targets. It also exposes militarism, instead of waiting for a new war.

[Lalit is a revolutionary socialist party in the Indian Ocean country of Mauritius. Visit Lalit's website at]