The Corruption That Makes Unpeople of an Entire Nation

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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.”

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.

29, 2008

was born and educated in Sydney, Australia. He has been
a war correspondent, filmmaker 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. His new book, Tell
Me No Lies: Investigative Journalism and Its Triumphs
, is
published by Jonathan Cape in June.

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