Close all US bases!'
"We have got to demand that all foreign troops leave Iraq certainly, but let's also demand that the troops come back from the US bases around the world, not just the war zones. We need to mobilise against the [current] wars, but also against militarisation and for that the US bases have to go."
This declaration by Mauritian socialist Ram Seegobin was greeted with rousing applause from the hundreds of local and international activists attending the Asia-Pacific International Conference (ASPIC), held in Sydney at Easter.
Seegobin is a long-time leader of Lalit (which means "struggle" in Mauritian Kreol), a revolutionary socialist party that has played a leading role in the struggle to have the illegally excised Chagos Archipelago returned to Mauritius and for the dispossessed Chagossian people to be allowed to return to their homelands. Since its formation in 1982, Lalit has fought to have the massive US military base on Diego Garcia, part of the Chagos, closed down and removed.
"Diego Garcia used to be a beautiful coral atoll", Seegobin told Green Left Weekly. "It is literally in the middle of the Indian Ocean, equidistant from Africa, India, Australia and South-East Asia. Since 1991, it has expanded to become one of the biggest, if not the biggest, US military base outside the US."
"The Diego Garcia campaign has three interlinked components that Lalit tries to keep in sight, because there is a tendency for some groups to try to concentrate on one, while ignoring or downplaying the others", Seegobin explained.
"Opposition to the base itself is the first component. The second component is the decolonisation and sovereignty issue, because the Chagos Archipelago used to be part of Mauritius." In 1965, before Mauritius gained its independence in 1968, the British Labour government illegally excised the 65-island archipelago and declared it part of an artificial new "colony", known as the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT).
Diego Garcia's strategic location made it an ideal location for the US and British governments to establish a military base from where they could militarily intervene in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. In defiance of many United Nations, Organisation of African Unity and Non-Aligned Movement resolutions, London leased the Chagos, including Diego Garcia, to Washington, supposedly as the site for a "communications base". The US has spent billions to construct a massive land-based "aircraft carrier" on Diego Garcia.
It was from Diego Garcia that the US launched B-52, B-1 and B-2 bombers to pulverise Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003.
The US almost certainly stores nuclear weapons on the atoll, violating the UN's 1971 Indian Ocean Zone of Peace resolution. In 1995, a UN treaty for a nuclear-weapons' free Africa was agreed to by all the countries concerned. However, at the insistence of Washington and London, the treaty contains "dotted lines" around Diego Garcia, excluding it from the treaty's provisions.
Seegobin continued: "When the Chagos was excised from Mauritius' territory there were more than 1500 people living in the archipelago. To make way for the US base, Britain deported — forcibly — these people from where the lands on which they had been born and had lived their whole lives, where their parents had been born and where their ancestors were buried. [Between 1965 and 1973], they were forced onto ships and literally dumped more than 2000 kilometres away in Mauritius and some in the Seychelles. So the third issue is the right of return and full reparations for the deported native Chagossians and their descendants."
Since their brutal dispossession, the Chagossians have lived in misery, confined to the poorest areas of Mauritius (and the Seychelles) and suffering disproportionately high rates of unemployment, poor health and literacy and drug and alcohol abuse.
With the exiled Chagossian community, Lalit has participated in many demonstrations, hunger strikes, petition campaigns over the years and supported legal action against the British andUS governments' ethnic-cleansing of the Chagos Archipelago.
In 1998, legal proceedings were initiated to challenge British legislation that denied the Chagossians' right to return to their islands. In November 2000, the High Court in London ruled in the Chagossians' favour, giving them the right to return. However, this was reversed by the High Court in 2003. In June 2004, Tony Blair's Labour government cynically sought rulings from the Queen to forever remove the Chagossians' right to return to their homelands and deny the British courts the power to overrule the decision.
However, despite the setbacks, the campaign continues. Seegobin told GLW that renewed attention in Britain has resulted from the recent showing on British television of John Pilger's powerful and moving documentary about the Chagossians' plight, Stealing of a Nation. Lalit is continuing with plans, launched at the January 2004 World Social Forum (WSF) in Mumbai, to organise a "peace flotilla" to Diego Garcia to return Chagossians from their exile.
Seegobin told the conference participants on March 25 that Lalit is intensifying its campaign for the closure of the US base on Diego Garcia, as part of a campaign to close all US bases around the world. "This initiative was taken up by a number of organisations, like Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in Britain and Focus on the Global South. We had the first meeting in Mumbai in January last year. At the Porto Alegre WSF in January, there was a second meeting of the organising committee and we are planning to have our next organising committee, possibly in Cuba, in August.
"There has been for years and years hundreds of small or large groups of people who are fighting against military bases, from the Philippines to Okinawa, from Greece to Britain, and there have been some notable victories. In Vieques in Puerto Rico for example, they have shut down every US base. The Vieques people are part of the movement that was formed at Mumbai. There have even been victories in the Bay Area in San Francisco, where there have been mobilisations against military installations and a number of them have had to close.
"What we are trying to do in this international movement against bases is bring all these struggles together to fight against the permanent wars of the US empire", Seegobin explained. "Today the base on Diego Garcia has a special relevance because of the concentration of US military aggression in the Middle East, and Diego Garcia's being a focal point for [facilitating] US military activity in that region."
The Lalit leader also pointed to another sinister parallel between Diego Garcia and other US military installations, such as Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad and Bagram in Afghanistan: their use as torture chambers. "Diego Garcia is being used as a Guantanamo-like prison. The US and Britain have denied it, but we are convinced that a number of people from Iraq and Afghanistan have been — another amazing word we have got used to — 'rendered' on Diego Garcia and have been tortured there. We have written to ask the International Red Cross to inspect the base to see if it is happening. We are convinced it is."
Stan Goff, a former US soldier and a leader of the anti-war Bring Them Home Now! Campaign in the US, who was also a guest at the APISC, is promoting Lalit's proposal for an anti-bases campaign in countries where they are present. Writing on his web log (<http://stangoff.com>) on April 5, Goff noted that "the US is undergoing a military crisis in Iraq that has temporarily undermined its capacity to intervene militarily in other regions". He argued that "an international struggle against [US] bases by activists in the 'host nations' to further undercut US power over the rest of the world makes strategic sense".
On March 20, Lalit launched an international petition addressed to the parliaments of Britain, the USA and Mauritius asking for the closing of the US base on Diego Garcia, the reunification of Mauritius, and recognition of the Chagossians' right of return. The full text is available from <http://www.lalitmauritius.com/>. The website also contains a full-length book on the denial of the Chagossians' rights and the illegal US-British occupation of Diego Garcia.
From Green Left Weekly, April 20, 2005.
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