Stealing a Nation...


By now, many have heard how 2000 'native' islanders were forcibly removed to make way for the base at Diego Garcia. If you haven't heard this story, you can find links to the documentary made by John Pilger at Wikipedia. It is indeed a tragic story in some ways, one that cannot fail to move anyone who is possessed of any degree of empathy for their fellow human beings.

But there are a lot of things to this story that I have to wonder about, myself - things such as whether anyone is really looking out for the best interests of the Chagossians even now. I have to wonder whether part of the motive is recognition for the story itself, rather than a real desire to look at what the possible outcomes are, or even would have been.

Let's face it - the story wouldn't have nearly as much impact if the players had been different, or the motive different - even had the end result been the same, that the Ilois/Chagossians had to leave Diego Garcia, forcibly or voluntarily. This is not to make any excuses whatsoever, nor to say that some of the things done were not heinous - they were.

But what if the original motive had been to create a natural sanctuary rather than a military base? Would the story carry as much impact then, even if the end result had been exactly the same?

By the same token, what if there had been no action by any government, but instead the plantation had been shut down by the business concern that was running it, and all support and infrastructure withdrawn?

I very much have to believe that the plantation's days were numbered even by the late 1960's, that its end was already in sight. I have no idea what kinds of prices coconut oil and/or guano are fetching these days, but I doubt they'd have kept up indefinitely with the price of shipping combined with the ready availability of the same product in places that aren't as difficult to get to.

Would the islanders have been able to maintain their idyllic life when the plantation shut down, would they have been able to support themselves and continue to live there? I very much doubt it - without support from outside, I doubt that any population could thrive in such an isolated place (survive, maybe - but not thrive). Without having a particular reason for a ship (or aircraft) to stop there on a regular basis, how would they get the things they needed?

Granted, there are other island populations that are equally remote; but all the equally remote ones I can think of are Pacific volcanic islands rather than coral atolls. And the other settled coral atolls in the region are much closer to populated land masses. Plus volcanic soil (such as is found in Hawai'i and many other remote Pacific islands) is a lot richer and will support a lot more crop diversity than coral sand will.

In the documentary, it is mentioned several times that the islanders didn't need anything, that the only thing they needed from outside were the clothes that they wore. Accurate from their perspective I'm sure, but I don't see this as being a completely accurate picture overall.

It is somewhat akin to a teenager believing that they're completely independent because they are working and (now) buying their own clothes, food, and gas for the car. We probably all went through a phase like that when we first started working - and then had our eyes opened rather abruptly at whatever point we actually did leave the nest and had to start providing *everything* for ourselves. I am not sure that even now they've had that same eye-opening experience - one that would bring with it the understanding of how life really would be, now, if they were returned without the same level of support they had when they were removed.

It's never mentioned, but one would assume that the infrastructure was completely provided by the plantation - the workers would not have had to be concerned with things like creating the means to collect/store/purify drinking water, or sanitation, or how to replace a livestock population if something happened to the one they had.

They didn't have to worry about financial matters, currency or economy. They didn't have to create a means to communicate on the island or with the outside world; maintain a way to let someone know that they needed transportation to somewhere else, or to replace things that had broken down or run out. They didn't have to provide their own medicines or medical treatment - however rudimentary those might have been.

To say that the population was indigenous...seems a fallacy. Again this isn't said as any sort of excuse for what was done. Just that the term brings up a picture that to me is slightly out of focus. Indigenous, to me, also indicates self-supporting - as the Hawai'ians were, or the Maori, or the Samoans, etc.

The islanders were not there supporting themselves before there was something there to support them; they were there because the plantation was there, full stop. They came there (or were brought there) for it, and remained there with it.

Of course they lived there - you cannot work there without also living there, nobody is going to be commuting back and forth to Diego Garcia. And of course children were born there as well - anywhere there are men and women living together, there are going to be children eventually. If it were allowed today, the resident workforce that is there now (American, British, Filipino, Mauritian) would also have children born there. Generations of them even, as long as their reason for being there in the first place also remained.

But to me that still doesn't make them 'indigenous', because even today, without the base, the workers would not be there either - and if the base went away, the workers also have to find somewhere else to go because the island by itself couldn't really sustain them. They could not remain (with any sort of quality of life) if that outside support went away.

I don't really see how the plantation that preceded it would have been any different in that respect. And without the plantation, I don't see how the islanders could have remained.

Even if they tried to continue farming copra and/or guano by themselves, how were they going to make the outside contacts to sell it, contacts to buy in the things they needed to keep the machinery running, and to resupply their personal needs? I doubt anyone would claim that the plantation's owners/leaseholders should have also had the moral obligation (in that scenario) to hand over their business contacts, their support structure, and their business knowledge along with handing over the buildings they occupied and the equipment they used upon exiting the island; that that level of responsibility should fall to them simply because they had brought the workforce there in the first place. Transport off the island would be an obligation, surely. But the entirety of the support and infrastructure (external and internal) that kept the island viable for a population of 2000? That would make for one amazing severance package, indeed.

It is that support and infrastructure that I believe is being ignored a bit too much in the quest for returning the Chagossians to Diego Garcia. It sounds like a wonderful thing on the surface of it, a righting of many wrongs. But I cannot see any scenario that ultimately benefits them as a whole, because I cannot see any scenario where that internal or external infrastructure remains intact.

First let's consider the extreme of giving it to them wholly. Say that the US and UK pull all the military out, and in the process leave behind all the internal infrastructure - a working water treatment plant, a working port, working power generation stations, working sanitation, even a working runway and air traffic control tower.

Are the Chagossians going to be able to make use of this? Of course not - they don't have the expertise. Okay, so we bring in another workforce who do have the skills - but what are we going to pay them with? Who is going to invest in this? It is going to take a very large monetary investment to keep Diego viable for population support, even if all the infrastructure is left intact - just the maintenance alone of it will be incredibly costly, and even more so because of its remote nature. The Chagossians may not need much, but they do need a means of basic life support, and someone will have to provide it.

And, what sort of industry are we going to set as the focus, that won't completely exploit and destroy the natural resources? Tourism? What does Diego have to offer that can't also be found in places that are easier (which also equals cheaper) to get to - the Maldives, the Seychelles, Cocos/Keeling? An unspoiled nature is one thing I can think of - but how long is that going to last if thousands of tourists are tramping over every square mile on a daily basis?

Part of the reason (at least in my opinion) that Diego is so unspoiled even today is that the current population is under a degree of control that could not exist in a tourism environment. The penalties for misbehavior in the military are always going to be a lot more severe than anything that would be allowed in a purely civilian environment.

And while the contractors and civilian support personnel are not subject to the same sorts of penalties, at the same time they're used to living under a much more regimented system than most. Misbehavior might not result in being thrown in the brig or losing half a month's pay for two months, but it could result in being sent home and/or fired from the job.

Last I recall, the fine for taking a piece of live coral, or for harrassing the wildlife, was steep - £500 per incident, we were always told (though I never put it to the test nor met anyone else who had - so I don't know if that was an exaggerated figure). The workforce on the base, whether military or civilian, was and is a completely captive audience - so collecting such a fine was not going to be difficult. You knew they were going to be around to pay up, and you also knew you could apply to their employer for redress if needed.

But how does one collect a fine like that from a tourist? What happens if they can't pay it? Who is going to enforce it if there isn't a detachment of BIOT Royal Police anymore? And, would a tourist have anywhere near the reason for taking it as seriously as the military workforce now does?

And continuing the thought of leaving the island entirely to the Chagossians...what of today's 'indigenous' population, the resident workforce that exists there now? The military members are of course not going to suffer by relocation, they're used to it. But what about the Filipinos and Mauritians?

Many of them have been there for well over a decade; I saw the same faces every deployment I made from '92 to '97, and I don't doubt that many if not most of them are still there today. Would the plan be to extend them the same rights of continued residence that are being sought for the Chagossians? And if not, why not? The fact that they don't have families there should not be a consideration, because they aren't allowed to - most of the long-term workforce certainly would have families there if they could.

One of the other discussed options; what if the island is turned over to Mauritius in 2016? Given how little concern the Mauritian government has shown the Chagossians thus far, is anyone under any illusion that they'll give the Chagossians any say in returning to the island, or any stake in what happens to it?

Lastly, they could consider a co-existence - letting the Chagossians return and resettle the plantation site, and fencing off the base site(s) so that people cannot move any more freely from base to local population or vice versa than they can at any other base on foreign soil.

This sounds a little more workable on the surface of it, but again - what are the Chagossians actually going to do to support their own population if this happens? Farm copra? Start a commercial fishing venture? Work on the base, when they have neither the skills nor the language?

And would any of the above options preserve the peaceful paradise they remember and long to return to? I wouldn't think so - neither the tourism industry nor the military make for quiet or unobtrusive neighbors.

And the peaceful paradise that they remember is what I think the crux of the whole equation is. I believe that what was taken from them, what causes 'the sadness' they speak of, is not the island itself. It is their innocence that they have lost, and that is unfortunately something they can't ever regain.

Oh yes, the island is beautiful - there isn't any doubt about that. But so are many other Indo-Pacific islands that they could have resettled in, could still be resettled in. I can lay a picture of Cocos/Keeling next to a picture of Diego Garcia next to a picture taken in the Maldive islands, and unless there were specific features/structures visible which are unique to one or the other in the photo, I can guarantee that even someone who had been to all three places would not be able to tell which was which.

When listening to what the Chagossians have to say about what they miss, what comes through is not the description of the land so much as it is a description of the life they had there. Well, no kidding, one might say...but it is an important distinction, because it is that life that cannot be returned even if the land is.

I mentioned the naiveté of teens (who believe they're self-supporting when they really aren't) earlier - but at the same time the average teenager, whether born in the poorest nation or the wealthiest, usually also grows up with the knowledge that someday, they'll have to leave the nest and make their own way in the world.

A fifth- (or even fourth-) generation Chagossian would not have learned this, because they would not have needed to. By that point in the generational tree, the plantation had 'always' been there. No reason to believe it wasn't still going to be there to provide them with jobs, and housing, and basic necessities just like it had for their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents...there would be no reason to believe that would ever change. There would be no living ancestors who remembered things differently, who had had to provide most of their everyday life support by themselves, rather than having much of it provided for them.

So it is no wonder that they were so ill-equipped to make their way in any other society. I believe that even had they been given enough positive incentives to get them to leave the island completely voluntarily, and enough money to support themselves for three generations, they still would not have had an easy time of integration into the 'real world'. It doesn't matter how many times they might have visited that 'world' in the past - visiting anywhere isn't the same as living it, and they had never had to live in the 'real world'. Their way of life was artificially created and artificially sustained.

This also happens to some degree with service veterans, enough so that the military finally (and wisely) introduced a program to help servicemembers transition back into civilian life. To help move from the somewhat-artificial life of the service, to the 'real world' that everyone else inhabits.

If twenty years in the service is enough to make someone (a lot of someones, actually) need help making that transition, how much more impact are you looking at when you are talking about time that spans multiple generations rather than just a portion of one lifespan?

And it is this that I feel is being ignored or glossed over in the name of sensational story, and where the Chagossians are still being done a disservice even by those who are trying to help them. Returning them to Diego Garcia is not going to return them to their way of life, because that way of life is gone. And I don't see any way it could ever be returned.

It was also unfortunately inevitable, because I think the plantation's time was coming to an end even before the forcible removal of its workers. No business concern is going to operate at a loss just so its workforce can continue with their way of life.

Again, this isn't to say that I think their removal was justified or that they have no right to return - just that I don't think it's ultimately going to be of benefit to them if it happens. And I think it's a little cruel to keep them believing otherwise.

Arrange visits for them, certainly - that isn't too much to ask at all. I feel sad that I have been able to walk among the graves of the plantation workers, where their own relatives cannot go. I could photograph the monuments, and pay my silent respect to the dead as I would at any gravesite whether of a relative or a stranger - and they cannot. That is one thing they wish for that can actually be returned.

But I don't think that anyone should be making a global call for the repatriation of the Chagossians unless they've got a rock-solid plan to ensure the success of that repatriation - taking also into account the impact to the people whose lives will be disrupted if the plan includes their removal or the removal of their jobs. Dumping the islanders back on DG without any more means of support than they have now in Mauritius is not a solution, even if it is what they themselves believe they want (especially if that thinking is based in any way on not understanding the complexities or expense of living there without the support they had at the time they were removed).

I am grateful to John Pilger for bringing the story to the world's attention - it needed to be told even if the Chagossians ultimately cannot go back to what they had. But I could wish that he'd been a little less driven to exaggeration when it comes to what things are like there for the military - some of his descriptions are downright laughable to anyone who has actually been there.

I haven't read his book, but the excerpts given in many of the reviews literally had me in tears - for example:

"All this began to end when an American rear-admiral stepped ashore in 1961 and Diego Garcia was marked as the site of what is today one of the biggest American bases in the world. There are now more than 2,000 troops, anchorage for 30 warships, a nuclear dump, a satellite spy station, shopping malls, bars and a golf course. "Camp Justice" the Americans call it."

Well, the "Camp Justice" moniker is new. We called it a lot of things the times I was there, but that wasn't one of them - and many of them are not fit to utter in polite company. malls, bars, and a golf course. Wow, how thoroughly modern and civilized that sounds! And hey, you forgot the yacht club, the swimming pool, the bowling alley, the gym, the movie theater, the skeet shooting range, and the ballfields. Sounding more like a resort every minute, isn't it?

Just too bad that the realities of all those things bear so little resemblance to the mental image that the words might conjure in the minds of the uninitiated (or at least did when I was there).

Working backwards - the ballfields have a no-slide rule, because if you slide into base, the coral is going to tear your skin to ribbons. And whatever gets imbedded in the process will have to be picked out, or dug out, or surgically removed.

The skeet range I never visited myself, but from what I've heard it would be more along the lines of something Uncle Bubba set up on his deer lease than something you'd find hosting a skeet competition.

The movie theater is a covered open-air outdoor area with hard concrete benches to sit on. The movies are free, but worth about what you pay for them - being second-runs and usually at least two months behind whatever the rest of the world has seen.

The gym is probably one of the few things worthy of its mental image, it has lots of equipment and is available 24 hours a day.

The bowling alley is a whole four lanes. The swimming pool is fairly nice, but it's also the highest point on the island - they had to build that section up to put an 'inground' pool in, because they couldn't go down. It's certainly functional, but if you're thinking of something more in line with a Sandals resort than a Motel 6, you're definitely thinking along the wrong lines.

The yacht club is a small building near the Brit club, where a small fleet of sailing craft are maintained. And by small, I mean small in size even more than small in quantity. If a collection of small sailcraft (HobieCats, Darts and the like) is your idea of a yacht club, then you're on the right track - but I doubt that most people would bring that up as their image of a yacht club. Which is not to take anything away from the DG Yacht Club, just to say that it's another example of things having a potential to sound like a lot more than they are when you're just hearing about them rather than seeing them.

And the golf course - you might think of a sparkling gem of a course dropped into a perfect tropical setting...with carts, and caddies, perfect greens and a great nineteenth-hole club overlooking the turquoise waters of the lagoon to relax in afterwards. That'd be great, wouldn't it? Too bad it's nothing like that at fact, it made CNNSI's list of the worst courses ever, something unusual for any military base (golf courses on most any base may not ever be ranked as best in the world, but they're usually worthwhile). Like many other things there, it might be described as functional, but it certainly isn't anything to write home about.

The bars - well, let's just say that if any of them were transported to the mainland, they wouldn't be somewhere you'd want to take a date to impress them. Much closer to 'dive' than 'trendy' on the nightclub spectrum, but they do serve their purpose and definitely never lack for clients.

But a shopping mall...or shopping malls (plural), as was quoted...I must confess that I'm completely stumped on this one (but I definitely got a good laugh out of it). I certainly never saw anything that would even remotely resemble a shopping mall, much less more than one. There are places on the island where you can purchase things, yes, but calling any of them a shopping mall is about as accurate as calling a rusted-out Volkswagen van a luxury RV.

There is a small package store where you can buy alcoholic beverages and sodas; a bulk sales store where you can buy a few types of foodstuffs in bulk; the Ship's Store where you can buy a little of everything, but not a lot of anything, and sometimes there is a whole lot of nothing (especially right after a payday). But to call it a mall? It wouldn't even pass muster to be a small K-Mart...

Then there is something on the island with the word 'mall' in the name, the Cummins Mini-Mall - but it was not a place to shop. It was instead a collection of services - laundry, barber and beauty shops (where you can get a haircut that is sure to impress all your friends...), and a tailor shop (for basic tailoring only, such as hems in uniform pants - if you want anything more advanced in the way of tailoring, you're wise to find an aircrew that is heading off to Korea or somewhere similar and send your stuff out with them instead).

But of all the things covered in the review of John Pilger's book (When Sin Plucks On Sin: The Stealing of Diego Garcia), it was this quote that about made me fall out of my chair laughing: "the US navy describes the living conditions as so outstanding that they are "unbelievable"."

No way that any sailor told you that. Or if they did use the word 'unbelievable', it wasn't in a positive way (maybe like you might describe living in a tent city in Iraq as being 'unbelievable', but it certainly doesn't mean outstanding).

Either you read the propaganda on the Navy's DG website (which says "Personal living conditions on the island are excellent." ...right, maybe if you're a senior officer, but I guarantee that your average enlisted sailor isn't going to share that opinion of the living conditions, even if they love the island itself), or else you were talking to a Navy PAO (Public Affairs Officer, the Navy's professional spin doctors), or a detailer who just couldn't get out of the mindset of 'selling' a set of orders to an unwitting sailor, even though he or she wasn't trying to sell a set of orders to you personally.

While the BEQs there aren't the worst I've ever seen, they're certainly far from the best (and even the best are not something an average person would ever describe as outstanding either - c'mon, this is *military* housing that we are talking about here. Whether it's in Hawai'i, Diego, Japan, or here in the US - nobody in the Navy [except possibly at the Admiral level] gets housing that anyone of an equal salary/standing in the civilian world would envy. But we certainly do get a few that might be described as unbelievable...) Again, if you're thinking anything beyond budget motel as far as accommodations go, you're way outside the real picture.

But 'living conditions' also goes way beyond where you are sleeping at night - it also describes your quality of life as a whole. So let's see...before the internet made it out that way, the only outlet for phone calls to your loved ones was the Cable & Wireless (most people called it Cable & Heartless) satellite station. From there you could call home - but it definitely wasn't cheap. Or you could write letters, but the long transit time meant that you'd be arriving home long before your last letter would.

And then there was the shopping mall...errr, KMart...errr, Ship's Store, which in addition to serving as the uniform shop was also the only outlet for basic personal supplies like shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste, laundry powder, etc. If they didn't run out, that is.

One of the times I was there, they ran out of deodorant. When they finally did get some in, it was a case or two of Ban Roll-On. Too bad if that makes you break out or would not be anywhere near your first choice of deodorant - unless you had your own brand stockpiled, it was going to be Ban Roll-On or nothing. Another time, they ran out of laundry soap for an entire month. The fortunate among us could still get one of the aircrews to pick some up while on a run to another country, but the rest of the population just had to do without. And this is what the Navy described as outstanding living conditions? If anyone really did say that, they were either having you on, or had never been there themselves (or were quoting the party line because they had to).

The story doesn't need such wild exaggerations to have merit; and that such were included honestly can't help but make me wonder if the rest of story hasn't also been embellished to a similar degree. Diego Garcia isn't and never was the Navy's secret resort island, playground of the Navy elite; and they've certainly never had people lining up to go there. Those of us who loved it are the people who love nature in general; anyone who doesn't enjoy living without amenities and/or living in almost total isolation from the rest of the world is not going to like Diego Garcia despite its beauty. And you can find a whole lot of military members who will tell you that it was their own personal version of hell rather than any sort of paradise.