Forcibly Exiled Nearly 40 Years Ago, Diego Garcia Natives Fight to Return to Island Home Now Used as Key US Military Outpost
We turn now to another island that is a key military outpost for the United States. Located in the Indian Ocean, Diego Garcia has often been used for strikes on Iraq and Afghanistan and played a critical role in the US extraordinary rendition program. Unlike Guam, Diego Garcia has no inhabitants resisting the US military. All of the island’s residents were forcibly removed in the early 1970s. For the last four decades, former residents of Diego Garcia and their descendants have been fighting for the right to return. We speak with Olivier Bancoult, a leader of the exiled people of Diego Garcia and president of the Chagos Refugees Group; and David Vine, author of the book Island of Shame: The Secret History of the US Military Base on Diego Garcia. [includes rush transcript]
Olivier Bancoult, leader of the exiled people of Diego Garcia and president of the Chagos Refugees Group.
David Vine, author of the book Island of Shame: The Secret History of the US Military Base on Diego Garcia.
JUAN GONZALEZ: We turn now to another island that is a key military outpost for the United States. Located in the Indian Ocean, Diego Garcia has been used for—often used for strikes on Iraq and Afghanistan. The island also played a critical role in the US extraordinary rendition program.
The military analyst John Pike recently described Diego Garcia as the most important facility the US has. According to Pike, the military’s goal is to be able to run the planet from Guam and Diego Garcia by 2015.
Unlike Guam, Diego Garcia has no inhabitants resisting the US military. All of the island’s residents were forcibly removed in the early 1970s by the British as part of an agreement with the United States. Most of the former residents of Diego Garcia were shipped to Mauritius, located over a thousand miles away. For the last four decades, former residents of Diego Garcia and their descendants have been fighting for the right to return.
We’re joined now by Olivier Bancoult. He is a leader of the exiled people of Diego Garcia and president of the Chagos Refugees Group. He was expelled from his native Diego Garcia when he was four years old.
We’re also joined by David Vine, author of the book Island of Shame: The Secret History of the US Military Base on Diego Garcia.
Olivier Bancoult, I want to start with you. Welcome to Democracy Now!
OLIVIER BANCOULT: Thank you for inviting me to Democracy Now!
JUAN GONZALEZ: Could you talk to us first about the experience of the removal, what you and your family remember of the removal by the British and how it came about?
OLIVIER BANCOULT: Yeah. The way that we have been removed, it was forcibly removed by the British government in order to make place for the US military base in Diego Garcia. We all have to move, first on Diego Garcia and then followed by the outer island, Peros Banhos and Salomon. So that means that we have been removed twice. And we have been dumped in the slum of Port Louis without any consideration and without any planning.
And the whole what we used to do in Chagos was now the same in Mauritius. Life become more and more difficult for us. This is why we have been trying to see what we can do, and it give me this opportunity to be here in the United States to just try to have an open dialogue with the new administration of Barack—President Barack Obama administration, to see. And it’s very important that on this day I’ve been—learned that President Barack Obama had been awarded Nobel Peace Prize. And I think that he will use it in order to solve the problem, to put an end to all the—solve the problems faced by Chagossian community since the uproot, their removal from their birthplace.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And when the British removed your people from the island, how many people were removed? Did they offer any kind of compensation to the families for the properties they lost? And what kind of compensation did they receive?
OLIVIER BANCOULT: When we were removed, we were, in all, 2,500. But there was no compensation. This had been followed by all the legal battle, not only by hunger strike, by demonstration, by Chagossian women. And for some years, we have received very little compensation, which was not enough in order to pay all the debt we had done during our stay in Mauritius, because in Chagos, everyone has his own house, whereas in Mauritius, we have to pay rent, and we don’t have money, we don’t have a job. And this is why we consider that compensation was not enough. And people are still living in poverty, and we have been dumped the slum of Port Louis, the capital of Mauritius.
JUAN GONZALEZ: David Vine, you have chronicled this incredible story that is little known throughout the rest of the world. How did the British end up depopulating the island on behalf of the United States?
DAVID VINE: It was—and this is one of the main points of my book Island of Shame—it was, from the beginning, a US plan. The US identified Diego Garcia as the site for a military base beginning in the late 1950s and approached the British to gain access to the islands and to remove the Chagossians. And with the help of a $14 million secret payment that we made to the British government, we secured their agreement to give us access to the island and then to forcibly remove all the Chagossians, which was ultimately done, again, on our orders.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And the island remains under whose sovereignty right now?
DAVID VINE: It remains a British colony, actually the last created British colony. But the base is firmly a US base. It’s a massive Air Force and Navy base.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, you went all around the world trying to dig up the documents on this. Tell us how you got involved in investigating this scandal.
DAVID VINE: I got involved about eight years ago, when some of the lawyers representing the Chagossians in lawsuits in the United States and Britain contacted me to serve as an expert witness in their suits, to go and live with the Chagossians and to document the effects of the expulsion on their lives. But very quickly, I realized there was a larger story that I wanted to understand and tell, and that was how US government came to order the expulsion of the Chagossians and orchestrate it and why we have a military base in the Indian Ocean in the first place.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And why is Diego Garcia so important?
DAVID VINE: Largely because of its proximity to a large swath of the globe, from south—from southern Africa through, and especially, the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, all the way to South and Southeast Asia. But it’s been the control that the United States has been able to exert over the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, and its oil and natural gas supplies, in particular, that have made Diego Garcia so strategically important.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, you make the point in your research that the leaders of Congress were not always favorable to this idea of establishing this base on Diego Garcia and that, in effect, folks in the Pentagon attempted to circumvent the political leadership in terms of being able to reach the point that they have now of this major military base.
DAVID VINE: That’s right. Actually, members of Congress were not told at all about the base until the end of the 1960s, when the Navy went to Congress asking for an appropriation for the construction of what they called an “austere communications facility,” although, from the beginning, they had plans for a much larger base. But members of Congress were simply not informed about the expulsion of the Chagossians and were lied to, in fact.
At the end of the 1960s and in the early 1970s, when they asked about local inhabitants, they were simply told that the island was home to a few transient laborers. This was part of a public relations plan that the British helped craft, where they would, quote, “maintain the fiction,” unquote—and those were the words they used—“maintain the fiction” that the islands were inhabited by transient laborers, rather than an indigenous people that the Chagossians are, who had been living there for more than five generations, since the time of the American Revolution.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And Olivier Bancoult, your reaction to being labeled by the Pentagon “transient laborers”? What was life like on Diego Garcia before the military came?
OLIVIER BANCOULT: Life was very good. Everyone was enjoying life in harmony and peace, because we have our culture, we have our tradition. We all have a house. We all have a job. We used to work in a coconut plantation, where just after working our work, we used to go to the sea to fish. And there is an idea of share between each other. We all live as one family. And we have our culture, like our special meal, like our music, which had been taken [inaudible], because everyone wants to promote culture, but what about our culture? They just want to destroy it. This is why it’s so important for us to have our dignity and our fundamental rights back as all human beings to be able to live in our birthplace.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And the rest of the population of the island was scattered, not just to Mauritius. What other parts of the world did they end up in?
OLIVIER BANCOULT: Yeah, most of the Chagossians was—they have been in Port Louis, the capital of Mauritius. But we have others of our brothers and sisters in Seychelles, and where we still are fighting—the most important for them is how life was in Chagos, is very different to Mauritius and to other place, because we prefer to be in our birthplace, as all human beings, because it’s something very important to all human beings.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And David Vine, you traced some of this diaspora to other parts of the world, as well, even to England directly?
DAVID VINE: That’s right. In the past six years or so, the Chagossians, as a result of the struggle that Olivier described, that they’ve been waging for more than four decades now, the Chagossians won the right to full British citizenship, which includes the right of a vote in Britain. So we’ve seen in the past several years about a thousand or more Chagossians moving to Britain, where they’ve—some have been able to improve their lives a bit. Many are actually working in low-wage jobs at places like Gatwick Airport. But the diaspora has spread, while they continue their struggle to return to their homeland and receive proper compensation for what they’ve suffered in exile.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And you mentioned that this is an island that journalists—no journalist has ever visited?
DAVID VINE: Since the very early 1980s, essentially no journalist has been allowed to go. I was denied and turned down on multiple occasions when I asked both the US and British governments for permission to go to the islands to carry out my research. And journalists have effectively been barred there for more than two decades.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I’d like to thank you both for being with us, David Vine, author of the book Island of Shame: The Secret History of the US Military Base on Diego Garcia, and Olivier Bancoult, a leader of the exiled people of Diego Garcia and president of the Chagos Refugees Group.
DAVID VINE: Thank you so much.
OLIVIER BANCOULT: Thank you so much.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Thank you for being with us.