ISLAND OF SHAME: The secret history of the US Military Base on Diego Garcia

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HENGRIDE PERMAL, chair of the Chagos Islands Community Association (left) with fellow Chagossians and author DAVID VINE (centre) at the book launch in Crawley last Friday night
HENGRIDE PERMAL, chair of the Chagos Islands Community Association (left) with fellow Chagossians and author DAVID VINE (centre) at the book launch in Crawley last Friday night

‘ABSOLUTELY must go!’ were the three words Admiral Elmo Zumwalt gave to US navy officials on Diego Garcia, concerned about the expulsion of Chagossians from their homeland.

This terse, brutal response from the highest ranking official in the US navy was also the message for the Chagossians, said David Vine last Friday night, at the UK launch of his book Island of Shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military Base on Diego Garcia.

Speaking to over 50 exiled Chagossians and their supporters at Crawley library, Vine said his book ‘tells the story of Diego Garcia and how the two governments of the US and Britain conspired to expel the Chagossians and deport them to Mauritius and the Seychelles.

‘It does this by intertwining the lives of individual Chagossians in exile with the story of US government officials and, to a lesser extent, British officials who orchestrated the expulsion.’

Up till now, recent court cases have focused attention on the British role in the expulsion.

‘My book attempts to put more light on the United States government and the role that they played, and to even out that story,’ said Vine, who is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the American University in Washington DC.

He added that the book also aims to show that Diego Garcia is part of a ‘hidden empire’ of a thousand bases on foreign territory that US imperialism uses to exercise its power.

Vine was approached eight years ago by lawyers in the US who were representing Chagossians in lawsuits against the US government, following the ‘historic victory’ in 2000 against the British government.

He was asked to serve as an expert witness and to conduct research documenting the effects of the expulsions and life in exile on the lives of Chagossians.

Research involved spending seven months in Mauritius and the Seychelles living with Chagossians, a meeting ‘which changed my life,’ confessed Vine.

He interviewed former US government officials who had participated in the process and accessed archives that had been kept secret for over 40 years.

Such is the importance of the base on Diego Garcia to US imperialism and the need for secrecy, that he is still waiting for requested documents, which are often redacted (words blanked out) or even have completely blank pages.

This secrecy veils the horror story of the suffering of  Chagossian people like that of Marie Bancoult, who left Diego Garcia with her family to seek medical treatment in Mauritius for one of her five children, who later died.

Still mourning, when she went to buy tickets to return, she was told: ‘Your island has been sold; you will never go there again.’

On hearing the news, said Vine, her husband suffered a stroke and within a year Rita spent time in a psychiatric hospital. Five years later her husband died from ‘Sagren — profound sorrow’ and three of her sons died at an early age after alcohol, drugs and begging had taken their toll after being uprooted and torn from their natal lands.

Quoting Rita, Vine said: ‘It’s as if I was pulled from my paradise to put me in hell.’

It was certainly a far cry from the ‘sweet life’ Rita and other Chagossians had in Chagos.

Vine said that for over 200 years the Chagossians created a distinct and unique society that became emancipated from slavery, and developed its own traditions and its own language.

Even though by the 1960s it was still a plantation society, Chagossians enjoyed an incredible secure life, said Vine.

‘It was a life free of want, where everyone had jobs and in exchange for their work received generous employment benefits: salaries; cash and food; free health care; free education; they had their own land, their own houses,’ he quoted from his book.

This ‘sweet life’ started coming to end in the late 1950s said Vine, who stressed that the initial plan and idea to create a military base on Diego Garcia did not come from the British government.

The US government and officials in the US navy initiated secret conversations with the British government to gain access to Britain’s Diego Garcia and the entire Chagos Archipelago.

In 1963, president Kennedy approved the plan, and the following year US officials insisted that the US gain ‘exclusive control’ of Diego Garcia ‘without local inhabitants’.

In 1965, at the insistence of the US government, the British government created a brand new colony, the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) by ‘chopping off’ Chagos from Mauritius and three islands from the Seychelles, in contravention of UN rules on decolonisation.

Vine said that documents show this was done by paying a ‘bribe’ of £3 million to the Mauritian government and also threatening them that they wouldn’t get independence unless it gave up Chagos; and by building an airport on the Seychelles in exchange for three of its island groups.

The following year in 1966 the US and British governments signed an ‘exchange of notes’ to finalise that deal.

In that exchange of notes, the US agreed to pay Britain a secret payment of $14 million to finance the creation of the BIOT and to pay for the expulsion of the Chagossians and the bribes to Mauritius and Seychelles.

Instead of signing a Treaty, which would have required both administrations to go to Parliament and Congress to get the plan approved, the notes, which Vine said ‘effectively is a Treaty’, required no congressional or parliamentary notification.

In the secret agreement that went along with the exchange of notes, the document explains that the British government will take ‘those administrative measures’ necessary for resettling the inhabitants of Chagos.

This, said Vine, was a very polite way to describe the expulsion process.

These ‘measures’ included barring Chagossians from returning from Mauritius after 1968, killing their pets and restricting medical supplies to the islands and food in order to starve them off the islands.

Then came the herding of the islanders onto overcrowded cargo ships between 1971 to 1973 to be deported to Mauritius and the Seychelles and dumped on the docks with no resettlement assistance at all, to face a life of abject poverty.

In 1971, the US navy began construction of the base. Vine found documents in Naval archives that revealed that when US navy personnel began meeting Chagossians, some of them became concerned when discovering the islanders weren’t ‘itinerant labourers’ or ‘transient workers’ as both governments were declaring.

The concerned officials’ cable to the Pentagon brought Admiral Zumwalt’s infamous reply, but the reply of the Chagossian people, winning ‘amazing victories’ over the two most powerful imperialist nations in the world, ‘gives us all hope’ said Vine.

This is what motivated him to write ‘Island of Shame’, ‘to let the people of America know about the story of Diego Garcia and the Chagossians’ and ‘to right this wrong’.

The book launch, which was organised by the Chagos Refugee Group, saw Chagossians and their supporters still angry at their exile and the lack of compensation, and still determined to fight.

The time is rapidly approaching when the Chagossian people will win their fight to return to their homeland.

And when they are told closing down the US military base on Diego Garcia is not ‘realistic’, they can reply with three words to the sceptics: ‘Absolutely must go!

‘Island of shame’

The Secret History of the US Military Base

on Diego Garcia’

by David Vine

Published by Princeton

University Press

ISBN/3: 978-0-691-13869-5

Price £20.95