A new documentary by John Pilger, to be screened next Wednesday, reveals how in the 1960s Britain secretly and brutally expelled the inhabitants of the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean – so that the US could build a military base there.
The largest of the islands, Diego Garcia, is now America’s biggest overseas military base and was a launchpad for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. With more than 4,000 troops, two bomber runways, thirty warships and a satellite spy station, the Pentagon calls it an ‘indispensable platform’ for policing the world. Located halfway between Africa and Indonesia, Diego Garcia is also home to a secret camp for suspected terrorists, part of a global network of prison complexes which includes Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.
Before the Americans came, more than 2,000 people lived on the islands which were, and still are, a British crown colony. But in the 1960s, the Labour government struck a secret deal with the United States to hand over Diego Garcia. The Americans demanded that the islands be ‘swept’ and ‘sanitised’. Unknown to Parliament and to the US Congress, the British government plotted with Washington to expel the entire population – in secrecy and in breach of the United Nations Charter.
At first, they starved them of essential supplies; then rumours spread that the islands would be bombed; then the people watched their pets gassed to death before they were herded on to boats and dumped in the slums of Mauritius.
Now the Chagos Islanders, who are British subjects, are fighting for the right to return to the islands and compensation for their unlawful exile which began more than 30 years ago. Last year, thirty people from Diego Garcia camped out at Gatwick Airport in protest at their treatment by the British authorities.
In next week’s documentary, John Pilger and producer Christopher Martin reveal hundreds of astonishing official documents which shed light on how the expulsion of the Islanders was first planned and then covered up. ‘The documents show clearly that the conspiracy to expel the population rested on a big lie’, says John Pilger. ‘This claimed that the population were itinerant workers, when the government knew this was a population that went back generations. Most had never left the islands.’
The attitude of racial superiority with which the Foreign Office regarded the Islanders was illustrated by the comment of one senior official who described them, in a letter, as ‘mere Tarzans and Men Fridays’. That another potential site for a US military base in the Indian Ocean – the uninhabited island of Aldabra Atoll – was rejected because it was home to a rare breed of turtle further indicates how little value was placed on the welfare of the Islands’ populations.
Foreign Office documents of the time, now made public under the thirty-year rule, suggest that the government sought to mislead the public to avoid criticism. One document is revealingly headed, ‘Maintaining the fiction’. Another says, ‘We propose to certify these people, more or less fraudulently, as belonging somewhere else.’
Commenting on these documents, John Pilger says: ‘We have secret memos that propose how the government should lie to the world. I have never read anything like them.’
Rita, a Chagossian who is now in her 70s, lost her husband and three of her children following their deportation from the Chagos Islands. In the documentary, she says: ‘I am a British citizen and they threw us out of our homeland in the name of the Queen.’
Charlesia, another exile from the Chagos Islands, says: ‘What hurts most is that we were never told what they were doing with our islands. If it had been built for poor people to work, fine. But it’s a base for bombers – and the bombs that fell on Iraq came from our paradise.’
Stealing a Nation, a special report by John Pilger, will be shown on ITV1, Wednesday 6 October, 11pm to midnight.