Diego Garcia – The Island the UK sold for a military base

I recently heard of Diego Garcia , and was surprised that I had never heard about what happened there before. Apparently this was big news in the mid 70’s, and did have a slight resurgence of interest about 5 years ago, but I missed that, so I thought I would share anyway. Most of the information here I garnered from wikipedia (in particular, from here), which is quite well referenced, so I won’t reference much here, though I will put some links at the bottom.

So I essentially just want to give an outline of events, and what the current situation is, as well as a quick wikileaks quote on the issue. So the whole situation is a by-product of our (British) imperialism. We “owned” Mauritius as part of the commonwealth until the mid 1960s, and by the time we gave sovereignty back we had detached Diego Garcia as a separate entity, which remained “British”. The sole reason for this was in order for the US to use the island as a military base, as it had no others in the area.

Next came the depopulation, since the US cannot abide for people to live near to it’s military bases. This involved a couple of techniques. To start with all the companies on the island were bought out (or at least their islands operations were), and were then closed down, leaving everyone unemployed. This caused a number of people to leave for Mauritius, seeking work. Others stayed, living off what the island supplied. However, if any of these people were to visit other islands, they would be unable to get back, being told that the boat trips were only one way. Eventually the US navy, who had started settle there, removed and shipped away the few inhabitants that were left (there were about 2000 to start with).

To help demonstrate the political motives, I feel that a couple of quotes, from what were at the time internal and private memos, could not hurt:

“…avoid using the phrase ‘permanent inhabitants’ in relation to any of the islands in the territory because to recognise that there are any permanent inhabitants will imply that there is a population whose democratic rights will have to be safeguarded…”

“The purpose of the Immigration Ordinance is to maintain the fiction that the inhabitants of the Chagos are not a permanent or semi-permanent population. ”

“We shall continue to try to say as little as possible to avoid embarrassing the United States administration.”

“We would not wish it to become general knowledge that some of the inhabitants have lived on Diego Garcia for several generations and could, therefore, be regarded as ‘belongers’.”

The last two quotes are from the then head of the Indian Ocean department of Foreign Commonwealth Office. I think that they speak for themselves.

After the event, £625,000 was given to Mauritius as compensation. However, Mauritius did not recognise that they had any obligation to help resettle the people, and hence the money did not go to them. In the mid 70’s there was some media interest. There were hunger strikes from some of the Chagossians, there was literature published and even a 6 year one man protest outside the foreign office in London by a Methodist priest. After this, in 1978, £1.25 million was offered to the people that had been moved, if they gave up their right to request to return to the island. A large number signed the document, but later many who were illiterate claimed they had been tricked in to it.

Later, in both 2000 and 2002 islanders and their descendants secured British court rulings declaring that they should be allowed to return. However, before this could happen, the government made this illegal, and when this was taken to House of Lords, they over ruled the two previous court rulings. Now the case is being taken to the EU court.

The contract was meant to be for 50 years, starting in 1966, so in 4 years a lot more noise may be heard. On the other hand, as the wikileaks cables have informed us, the fact that the islands are currently being put up for being a marine reserve.

“HMG would like to establish a “marine park” or “reserve” providing comprehensive environmental protection to the reefs and waters of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), a senior Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) official informed Polcouns on May 12. The official insisted that the establishment of a marine park — the world’s largest — would in no way impinge on USG use of the BIOT, including Diego Garcia, for military purposes. He agreed that the UK and U.S. should carefully negotiate the details of the marine reserve to assure that U.S. interests were safeguarded and the strategic value of BIOT was upheld. He said that the BIOT’s former inhabitants would find it difficult, if not impossible, to pursue their claim for resettlement on the islands if the entire Chagos Archipelago were a marine reserve.”

There has been a petition recently regarding the issue in America, which was sent on 4th April this year, and is awaiting a response.

For references and further reading (this is a very brief summary), I recommend:

Wikipedia (as always)

An open democracy piece

The Guardian

Finally, this documentary (for those who prefer a visual format).

Please let me know about the copious amount of errors that I am bound to have made!

My work website – unrelated http://www.personal.soton.ac.uk/jjt1e10/

About joetait

Maths teacher at Cantell School
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