‘Everyone Has the Right to Live on Their Island. Why Not Us?’

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United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency personnel arrive in Chagos, 1971. (Photo: Kirby Crawford / Wikipedia)

President Obama’s administration took a small step toward listening to indigenous people protecting their land this week.

The Army Corps of Engineers announced on December 4 that it would not grant a permit for the Dakota Access Pipeline to cross under Lake Oahe near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota — at least not without an environmental impact assessment. Standing Rock Sioux chair Dave Archambault II remarked in an interview, “It feels like, finally, for the first time in history — over centuries — somebody is listening to us.”

Native peoples across the country can surely relate, given the long history of broken treaties and broken promises about land and rights, by presidents dating to the days of U.S. independence. Thousands of miles away, in the middle of the Indian Ocean, there’s another indigenous people who understands being ignored, overlooked, and forgotten.

For almost 50 years, these people have lived in exile, pleading to return to their homeland. Like the Sioux and other native groups in the Americas, they had their land stolen by the U.S. government. Only in this case, the theft came not two or three centuries ago, but within the past two generations.

The people, called Chagossians, once lived on the small Indian Ocean islands of the Chagos Archipelago. The Chagossians’ ancestors arrived around the time of the American Revolution as enslaved and indentured laborers from Africa and India. By the mid-eighteenth century, following emancipation, this diverse group had formed a new and distinct people, with its own language and cultural practices. (While they may not fit popular images of an indigenous people, Chagossians fit contemporary anthropological and legal definitions of the term; importantly, no other group predated the Chagossians in Chagos and other indigenous peoples recognize the Chagossians as indigenous.)

In the 1960s, the Chagossians’ way of life would come to an end. Despite the supposed end of colonialism and changing racial attitudes in the United States, the Chagossians’ black and brown skin and lack of economic and political power made them an easy target for removal. U.S. Navy officials had recently identified the Chagossians’ largest island, Diego Garcia, as a site for a military base in the British-controlled archipelago. Military leaders didn’t want to deal with locals. As one declassified cable explains, they told the British government they wanted “exclusive control (without local inhabitants).”

A CIA estimate of the Chagossian population was telling about U.S. officials’ attitudes: “NEGL”— negligible. A British official called them “Tarzans” and, in a racist Robinson Crusoe reference, “Man Fridays.”

In a 1966 deal, the Pentagon agreed to secretly transfer $14 million to Britain in exchange for the right to build a base on Diego Garcia and the Chagossians’ removal. When the Navy began base construction in 1971, British officials and Navy personnel rounded up the people’s pet dogs, locked them in sealed sheds, and then gassed them and burned their carcasses. Chagossians watched in horror.

Chagossians were soon forced onto the decks and into the holds of overcrowded cargo ships. The ships were carrying dried coconut and guano — bird shit used as fertilizer. Some have compared the conditions to those on slaving ships. The ships deposited Chagossians 1,200 miles away on the docks of the western Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius and the Seychelles. They received no resettlement assistance. By 1973, the last Chagossian left the islands.

Two years later, a Washington Post reporter found the community living in “abject poverty.” The United States has since invested billions on Diego Garcia, using the base extensively in the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the Greater Middle East.

For almost 50 years, Chagossians have asked to go home. Much like the Standing Rock Sioux and their native and non-native allies, Chagossians have protested, petitioned, held sit-ins and hunger strikes, and sued the U.S. and U.K. governments to return. In November, after years of up and down struggle, Chagossians were waiting to hear if British officials would finally allow them to go home. British leaders had promised a decision since early 2015, when a government study showed that resettling the islands was feasible (an unsurprising finding, given the thousands of U.S. military personnel living there over the decades).

Almost two years after the study’s release, U.K. Minister of State Joyce Anelay said no.

Anelay, who ironically also enjoys the titles of Baroness and Lord, said the decision was based on resettlement’s “feasibility” and “cost to the British taxpayer.” And, she added, it was also based on “defense and security interests,” given “the interaction of any potential community with the U.S. Naval Support Facility — a vital part of our defense relationship.”

In short, the British government concluded that keeping the U.S. military happy was worth more than Chagossians’ rights.

The United States has long been the hidden figure in this sad story. U.S. officials came up with the idea for the base, and they requested and paid for the Chagossians’ removal. For too long, U.S. administrations have hidden behind Britain, denying any responsibility for Chagossians’ lives. For too long, U.S. officials have helped deny the basic human right of living in one’s homeland, despite the presence of civilians living next to U.S. bases worldwide — even next to the base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

The Chagossians aren’t asking to remove the base on Diego Garcia or constrain its operations. Some want to work there, like civilian employees from the Philippines and elsewhere who work at other overseas U.S. bases. Some want to return to Chagos islands 150 miles from the base. Former Reagan administration Pentagon official Lawrence Korb and other military experts agree resettlement poses no security risk.

Although the U.K. decision was another painful disappointment for the Chagossians, they can challenge it in court — and already have two pending lawsuits against the British government. “We will continue our fight any way we can,” said Sabrina Jean, leader of the Chagos Refugees Group UK.

With the Dakota Access Pipeline, President Obama showed some awareness of the long history of injustice faced by Native American peoples. Because U.S. government officials wanted a base and a people removed, the Chagossians have been living in exile for almost 50 years. President Obama should listen to Chagossians’ demands and publicly recognize their right to go home. He should instruct the Pentagon to provide logistical assistance for resettlement and give Chagossians equal rights to jobs on base.

While some might say President Trump will reverse the decision, as he may try to with the Dakota pipeline, there is still time for President Obama to do the right thing, and to force the next president to consider whether he wants to perpetuate the country’s long history of trampling on indigenous rights.

“Everyone has the right to live on their island,” Jean told the BBC, “but why not us?”

David Vine is associate professor of anthropology at American University in Washington, DC. He is the author of Island of Shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military Base on Diego Garcia (Princeton University Press, 2009) and has served as an expert witness for the Chagossians.