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November 28, 2008

The Making of an Unpeople


by John Pilger

I went to the Houses of Parliament on 22 October to join a disconsolate group of shivering people who had arrived from a faraway tropical place and were being prevented from entering the Public Gallery to hear their fate. This was not headline news; the BBC reporter seemed almost embarrassed. Crimes of such magnitude are not news when they are ours, and neither is injustice or corruption at the apex of British power.

Lizette Talatte was there, her tiny frail self swallowed by the cavernous stone gray of Westminster Hall. I first saw her in a Colonial Office film from the 1950s which described her homeland, the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, as a paradise long settled by people "born and brought up in conditions most tranquil and benign." Lizette was then 14 years old. She remembers the producer saying to her and her friends, "Keep smiling, girls!." When we met in Mauritius, four years ago, she said: "We didn't need to be told to smile. I was a happy child, because my roots were deep in Diego Garcia. My great-grandmother was born there, and I made six children there. Maybe only the English can make a film that showed we were an established community, then deny their own evidence and invent the lie that we were transient workers."

During the 1960s and 1970s British governments, Labour and Tory, tricked and expelled the entire population of the Chagos Archipelago, more than 2,000 British citizens, so that Diego Garcia could be given to the United States as the site for a military base. It was an act of mass kidnapping carried out in high secrecy. As unclassified official files now show, Foreign Office officials conspired to lie, coaching each other to "maintain" and "argue" the "fiction" that the Chagossians existed only as a "floating population." On 28 July 1965, a senior Foreign Office official, T.C.D. Jerrom, wrote to the British representative at the United Nations, instructing him to lie to the General Assembly that the Chagos Archipelago was "uninhabited when the United Kingdom government first acquired it." Nine years later, the Ministry of Defense went further, lying that "there is nothing in our files about inhabitants [of the Chagos] or about an evacuation."

"To get us out of our homes," Lizette told me, "they spread rumors we would be bombed, then they turned on our dogs. The American soldiers who had arrived to build the base backed several of their big vehicles against a brick shed, and hundreds of dogs were rounded up and imprisoned there, and they gassed them through a tube from the trucks' exhaust. You could hear them crying. Then they burned them on a pyre, many still alive."

Lizette and her family were finally forced on to a rusting freighter and made to lie on a cargo of bird fertilizer during a voyage, through stormy seas, to the slums of Port Louis, Mauritius. Within months, she had lost Jollice, aged eight, and Regis, aged ten months. "They died of sadness," she said. "The eight-year-old had seen the horror of what had happened to the dogs. The doctor said he could not treat sadness."

Since 2000, no fewer than nine high court judgments have described these British government actions as "illegal," "outrageous" and "repugnant." One ruling cited Magna Carta, which says no free man can be sent into exile. In desperation, the Blair government used the royal prerogative – the divine right of kings – to circumvent the courts and parliament and to ban the islanders from even visiting the Chagos. When this, too, was overturned by the high court, the government was rescued by the law lords, of whom a majority of one (three to two) found for the government in a scandalously inept, political manner. In the weasel, almost flippant words of Lord Hoffmann, "the right of abode is a creature of the law. The law gives it and the law takes it away." Forget Magna Carta. Human rights are in the gift of three stooges doing the dirty work of a government, itself lawless.

As the official files show, the Chagos conspiracy and cover-up involved three prime ministers and 13 cabinet ministers, including those who approved "the plan." But elite corruption is unspeakable in Britain. I know of no work of serious scholarship on this crime against humanity. The honorable exception is the work of the historian Mark Curtis, who describes the Chagossians as "unpeople."

The reason for this silence is ideological. Courtier commentators and media historians obstruct our view of the recent past, ensuring, as Harold Pinter pointed out in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, that while the "systematic brutality, the widespread atrocities, the ruthless suppression of independent thought" in Stalinist Russia were well known in the west, the great state crimes of western governments "have only been superficially recorded, let alone documented."

Typically, the pop historian Tristram Hunt writes in the Observer (23 November): "Nestling in the slipstream of American hegemony served us well in the 20th century. The bonds of culture, religion, language and ideology ensured Britain a postwar economic bailout, a nuclear deterrent and the continuing ability to 'punch above our weight' on the world stage. Thanks to US patronage, our story of decolonization was for us a relatively painless affair..."

Not a word of this drivel hints at the transatlantic elite's Cold War paranoia, which put us all in mortal danger, or the rapacious Anglo-American wars that continue to claim untold lives. As part of the "bonds" that allow us to "punch above our weight," the US gave Britain a derisory $14m discount off the price of Polaris nuclear missiles in exchange for the Chagos Islands, whose "painless decolonization" was etched on Lizette Talatte's face the other day. Never forget, Lord Hoffmann, that she, too, will die of sadness.


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  • John Pilger was born and educated in Sydney, Australia. He has been a war correspondent, film-maker and playwright. Based in London, he has written from many countries and has twice won British journalism's highest award, that of "Journalist of the Year," for his work in Vietnam and Cambodia.

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