Friday, June 1, 2007

Dyer: Chagos Islanders May Go Home At Last

Gwynne Dyer's been in top form lately, but you have to be nimble to catch him. His column in the May 26th issue of Canada's Hamilton Spectator is beautifully written, and it shows Dyer doing what he does best, in my opinion: looking at an issue that's been mostly ignored, and breathing a bit of life into it -- with "counter-spin"!

This time he's got a great opening line, too:
One should never underestimate the cunning and treachery of the British government.
Beautiful, no? Dyer continues:
Even the French, no slouches in this domain themselves, quite rightly refer to "perfidious Albion." But the British courts are another matter and for once it looks like the government has lost.

The Chagos Islanders (or "Ilois," as they call themselves) are finally going home after 40 years of enforced exile. Unless the British government appeals the court ruling yet again, of course.
Can you imagine? Forty years of enforced exile? And counting??

It was all deliberate, too, and of course it was done in the name of "freedom".
"We must surely be very tough about this," wrote Sir Paul Gore-Booth, a senior official at the Foreign Office, as the plan to expel the 2,000 Chagos Islanders from their homes took shape in 1966. "The object of the exercise is to get some rocks which will remain ours ... There will be no indigenous population except seagulls."
Yikes! 1966? What??

Most of the people I know don't know anything about this. Do you?
It was the depths of the Cold War and the U.S. wanted an air and naval base in the Indian Ocean.

Britain, ever the loyal sidekick, offered Diego Garcia, the largest of the 65 coral atolls that make up the Chagos Archipelago.

It separated the isolated islands from Mauritius, which was about to gain independence, and declared them the British Indian Ocean Territory.

But the United States didn't want a "population problem" at its new base, so the Foreign Office got to work on removing the population.
"Removing the population"!
Chagossians were encouraged to visit Mauritius or other Indian Ocean islands (many people had relatives elsewhere) and then not allowed back. As American troops moved in, they were drawn into the campaign to intimidate the islanders into leaving. At one point, American soldiers rounded up their dogs and gassed them.

In the end, islanders who still stubbornly clung to their homes were simply loaded on ships without most of their possessions (one bag per person) and dumped on the waterfront of Port Louis in Mauritius, where most of them have subsisted in abject poverty ever since.
You should know more about this. We all should.

John Pilger's "Stealing a Nation" is a powerful video documentary of this shameful episode.

In Pilger's words:
There are times when one tragedy, one crime, tells us how our whole system works, behind its democratic facade, and helps us understand how much of the world is run for the benefit of the powerful, and how governments often justify their actions with lies.
And the shameful episode is by no means over! As Dyer writes:
After that crushing legal rebuke to the government, the Chagossians probably would have gone home in due course -- except for 9/11.

Suddenly, Diego Garcia stopped being a military backwater and became a key base for U.S. aircraft bombing Afghanistan, bombing Iraq or just flying prisoners untraceably around the planet.

In the post-2001 mania for "security," the U.S. and British governments started insisting it would not be safe to have the original inhabitants return even to islands 100 kilometres from Diego Garcia.

If the islands were inhabited, people might launch raids on Diego Garcia from them or observe the movements of American warplanes.

Utter nonsense, of course, and the British Foreign Secretary, the late Robin Cook, felt so sorry for the Chagossians that he arranged to grant them British citizenship. But once Cook had resigned in protest against the plan to invade Iraq, the Blair government moved swiftly, issuing an order in council in 2004 to block the islanders' return on security grounds.
Of course, despite all the utter nonsense surrounding it, the GWOT rots on, so the American base is still there, and no matter who's "going home", you can bet it's not the troops!

You can find more from Gwynne Dyer on this story at The Spectator, and more from Dyer in general at this link.