International conference demands return of Diego Garcia and Chagos

An International Conference on Diego Garcia and Chagos, organised by the socialist group Lalit, was held here October 30-November 2. The conference on the archipelago, illegally given by British imperialism to US imperialism as a nuclear weapons base, was a cogent and lively event attended by some 100 people on each of the four days, half of them Lalit members from different branches around the country. In all more than 200 people were present at Grande Riviere Nord Ouest and the Municipality of Port Louis, including delegations from unions, human rights groups, women’s organisations, academics, artists, Chagossian-born people, one of whom gave testimony, young Mauritian-born Chagossians and Mauritians loyal over the decades to the Diego Garcia struggle.

The conference had an immediate effect, combined with the establishment of the so-called Marine Protected Area in the Chagos Archipelago from November 1: the Mauritian government, from the very next day, began to announce bolder, more coherent policies.

The opening speech at the international conference by the former president of Mauritius, Cassam Uteem, was hard hitting on all three aspects of the struggle: base closure, decolonisation and the Chagossians’ right to return. He set the bar very high in both precision thinking and deep commitment.

Three international guest speakers — Wilbert van der Zeijden from Holland and the No Bases movement, John Percy, a leader of the Revolutionary Socialist Party in Australia, and Penny Duggan from France in the name of the Fourth International — all spoke on related issues, while Dr. Vinesh Hookoomsing spoke on the Marine Protected Area.

Four Lalit members gave strong speeches, while five other members presided over lively plenary sessions, reminding people of past street battles won against the riot unit, as well as victorious court cases when Chagossian and Lalit women were on trial for illegal demonstrations. They told of the Rann nu Diego Committee and the successful Lalit Peace Flotilla initiative. Two of the workshops were chaired by participants in past struggles: Kishore Mundil of Komite Moris Losean Indyen and the Front National de Soutien aux Ilois, and Pynee Chellarpermal of the Centre for Documentation, Research and Training on the South West Indian Ocean.

Artists were not “divertissement” at this conference. They provided a different way of looking at the same struggle: through the senses. Strong songs were sung by Menwar, Richard Beaugendre and Daniella Bastien, and Joelle Hossenee accompanied by Rajni Lallah, in the presence of haunting art works by Nirmal Hurry and Jean-Claude Baissac. Stephanie Theordore and Ashish Beesoondial read a piece about Chagos from Lindsey Collen’s novel Mutiny, and Yannick Jeanne read about Palestine, a related issue. Krishna Luchoomun, Gerard Foy and their group presented a moving “event”.

Five Lalit supporters interpreted the conference proceedings into Kreole and into English for guests. There were international participants from the US, Australia, China and Reunion. During lunch breaks the conference continued as people chatted over their bread roll and tea or studied the exhibition prepared by three young Lalit members.

On November 1, during a well-attended national forum, presided over by Jean-Claude Bibi [a former MP, minister of justice and ambassador to Australia and to Madagascar] at the Municipality of Port Louis, it became clear that the government, represented by the foreign affairs minister, Dr. Arvind Boolell, was already stepping up political, diplomatic and legal measures on the issue. Lindsey Collen, speaking for Lalit, declared that the 42-year strategy of seeking bilateral negotiations had proven bankrupt. The British proclamation of the absurd “Marine Protected Area” adjacent to a nuclear military base does nothing but proclaim the existence of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) colony, confirm its illegal occupation of the whole of this Mauritian archipelago and bar the Chagossian people from the entire Chagos. The Mauritian Militant Movement leader, [from the main opposition party, founded as a left socialist party], chose not to be present, nor to send a representative.

After four days of rich debate and discussion, the conference reached consensus on a number of fundamental points: that the three issues of closing down the base, dismantling the BIOT and assuring the right of return for all Chagossians to all the islands and not as colonised people be kept in close articulation and not bartered one against the other; that the British imperialist Marine Protected Area be opposed; and that democratic structures be put in place for Chagossians within a unified republic. Proposals on action necessary to move the struggle forward were also agreed upon. These include getting representatives of the state, including the president and prime minister, to visit Chagos and Diego Garcia on the Trochetia [a government-run passenger ship]. They also include key ways of assuring sovereignty by using a number of United Nations bodies and remedies.

The effect of the conference was immediate. People in phone-in programs are all speaking about putting the whole of the National Assembly into the Trochetia! The Prime Minister has finally called the British state by the names it deserves: liar, deceiver, trickster. He now proposes finally having recourse to the kind of UN strategies supported by the Lalit conference, and has begun to put in place the kind of democratic structures the conference called for, proposing an autonomous regional assembly.