Chagos and the Struggle Against British Neocolonialism
Clency Lebrasse assesses the results and prospects of the Chagossian community’s struggle to return home.
Imagine being expelled from your homes. Dumped into the slums of a foreign land and spending over forty years fighting for the right to return to your homeland.
This is the tragic tale of the Chagossian community, who in 1966 found themselves in the way of two global superpowers who sought to turn the Chagos islands into a military base for strategic purposes at the height of the cold war. The solution to their presence was so despicable, so inhumane and so cruel that I have spent the last nine years of my life working to help the Chagossians overturn this grave injustice.
Following the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 the U.S. government enlisted the assistance of her British allies to source a base where they would be able to monitor the activities of what was then the U.S.S.R. Prime Minister Harold Wilson recommended the use of the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean, despite the fact that they were at the time home to a population of 2,000 people. What followed was the forcible removal and resettlement of the Chagossians to slums and ghettos in nearby Mauritius and the Seychelles. Since the early seventies the Islands have served as a US military base. The base is regarded as “the jewel in the crown” for the US military.
I have written extensively about the background to the plight of the Chagossian community. It is a modern day example of colonial savagery coupled with racist and unsavoury attitudes towards the islanders; a UK foreign office official once described them as a “few Tarzans or men Fridays.”
The Islands are officially known as the British Indian Ocean Overseas Territory (BIOT). They form part of a collection of overseas territories which fall under British jurisdiction but are not part of the United Kingdom. There are many such territories all over the world. The best known of which, the Falklands, were the subject of a war three decades ago between Britain and Argentina.
There are a lot of contrasts between the Chagos Islands and the Falkland Islands. Britain expelled the Chagossian community but sent a taskforce to protect the Falklands community. The war of 1982 occurred in the same year as the shameful settlement which Britain offered to the exiled (and illiterate!) Chagossians who were tricked into signing away claims to their homeland. Britain continues to protest that the Falklanders deserve self determination, but when it comes to the Chagossians 10 of the 30 articles of the UN universal declaration of human rights are breached day by day, who enjoy no self determination whatsoever.
The Falklanders recently held a referendum to decide on the future of their islands, and as expected almost unanimously backed the existing arrangements to continue. Chagossian supporters have been quick to point out that the Chagossian community have been denied this right repeatedly. Many argue that the only difference between the two sets of populations is the colour of the skin of those involved. The Falklanders are white while the Chagossians are black.
But the British government will point out that the Chagossians have already been consulted and that an election administered by the Electoral Reform Services has already been conducted. Technically they are right, but as is often the case with the Foreign Office, there is more to this than meets the eye. When it comes to dirty tricks, nobody does it better.
Last December the legal battles reached a pivotal stage when the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg finally ruled on the islanders’ case. The court decided that the action was inadmissible due to compensation being granted to some Chagossians in 1982. The Foreign Office’s official response to the ruling was that it would “take stock” of the ruling and meet with Chagossians in due course. This was welcomed by the community, a sign that perhaps the government may be ready to engage with the islanders.
Sadly as has been common since the 1960s, nothing which originates from the Foreign Office regarding this issue can ever be regarded as sincere.
The overwhelming majority of Chagossians fight on a platform for a right of return and an end to British rule on the islands. However there is one small faction, which offers a contrasting perspective. The Diego Garcia Society (DGS) are led by Allen Vincatassin and where they differ from other Chagossian groups is that they want the islands to remain British. This difference is best illustrated in their adoption of the official BIOT flag as their own, as opposed to every other Chagossian group which adopts the more widely recognised Chagossian flag as the symbol of their struggle for justice.
There is nothing wrong with Vincatassin and the DGS offering an alternative view on the future of the Chagos Islands. Their arguments should be welcomed as much as anyone else’s. It is just that their input should be viewed in the context of which it is made: as a marginalised fringe faction which does not represent the majority of the will of the Chagossian community. They add to the debate, and their views should be registered, but assessed on the basis that they are the smallest of the groups. They have a voice, but are not THE voice.
Of course the British government is never one to miss a trick. They identified very quickly that Vincatassin represented a trophy to bolster their own agenda. Here was a group of Chagossians who wanted to maintain the status quo. For the Foreign Office this was a gift from the heavens.
Vincatassin was invited by the Foreign Office to conduct an election overseen by the Electoral Reform Services and was only open to all members of the DGS. There are over 2,000 Chagossians based in the UK. Vincatassin secured just 122 votes. That’s around 6% of UK based Chagossians, which in a British election normally usually means you breathe a sigh of relief as you have saved the deposit by posting over 5%!
But Vincatassin got far more than his deposit back.
He was awarded the title of “provisional President of Diego Garcia and the Chagos Islands”. It was more than simply a meaningless honour. It provided him with unrivalled access to people at the very heart of the Foreign Office and the British government. Meetings with the then Foreign Secretary David Miliband were to be a regular feature of the elevation of Vincatassin from a marginalised fringe faction leader to the leader in waiting of the Chagossian community as a whole.
When the British government wanted to make good its promise of “taking stock” and meeting with the Chagossian community, they had a willing and able partner to legitimise their charade. Vincatassin was only too happy to meet with Mark Simmonds from the Foreign Office to discuss the implications of the Strasbourg ruling. Simmonds and the Foreign Office knew Vincatassin would merrily dance to their music and in doing so enabled the Foreign Office to respond to critics that they are indeed meeting and interacting with Chagossians.
At the time of writing, the leader of the largest Chagossian group Olivier Bancoult has still to be invited for talks. The same applies for anyone else from his organisation, the Chagos Refugee Group. That this should be the case merely supports the theory that the British government will only engage with Chagossians who reinforce its own hideous agenda. Chagossians who support British government policy are rewarded with contentious titles and access to the corridors of power which will ultimately decide on the future of the islands.
Those who oppose the British government’s policy are ostracised, excluded and alienated. That they happen to represent the overwhelming majority of Chagossian opinion is completely unacceptable. The Foreign Office cannot pick and choose who they will work with based on this subjective test.
Vincatassin has a role to play in the future of the Chagos Islands. But the role he must fulfil must be aligned to the position he occupies: as the leader of the smallest group of Chagossians. To suddenly distort the marginalised voice as being representative of the wider community is manipulation of the highest order and must not be tolerated.