Noor Adam Essack
Le Défi Media Group
The political party LALIT hosted a four-day international conference on the Chagos Archipelago from 30 October to 2 November 2010 at its Port Louis headquarters in GRNW. A national forum on ‘Political Strategy about Chagos and Diego Garcia’, a component part of the conference, was held on Monday 1 November at the Municipality of Port Louis. Chaired by the lawyer Jean-Claude Bibi, the forum was attended by two guest speakers, Dr Arvind Boolell, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Lindsey Collen, a prominent member of LALIT. The Leader of the Opposition Paul Bérenger was also invited to participate in the forum, but he later informed LALIT that he would not attend it. A number of international speakers (Wilbert van der Zeijden from Holland, John Percy from Australia, Penny Duggan from the UK...) lent their voices to the conference. LALIT also received several messages of support from various overseas organisations, including seven messages from Japanese NGOs based in Okinawa. The conference was well attended by a cross-section of people from all walks of life, including young and more elderly Chagossians as well as veterans of the Chagossians’ struggle like Kishore Mundil and Roland Latour. LALIT also benefited from the participation of local artists and singers, from Jean-Claude Baissac and Nirmal Hurry to Menwar, Daniella Bastien and Richard Beaugendre. The latter sang a very powerful song “Twa avan mwa” (You before me) about the wide chasm between the privileged and the underdog. Three films, produced by Peadar King, John Pilger and David Constantin respectively, were also shown at the conference where 11-year old Ryan Kistnasamy, a budding documentary-maker, was a true revelation.
THREE OVERARCHING OBJECTIVES
Recovery of the territorial sovereignty of the Republic of Mauritius, closure of the US military base on Diego Garcia, ‘reparations’ for the people of the Chagos Archipelago (right to return to their islands and adequate compensation for their re-settlement) were the three main objectives around which the conference revolved.
In her welcome speech, Lindsey Collen said that the issue of the Chagos and Diego Garcia is now at a crossroads. The Chagos Refugee Group’s case before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has put the Chagos back on the international agenda. The US giant is now economically weaker than it was ten years ago. There are US bases in the world which have been closed. The Pelindaba Treaty, which Mauritius has ratified along with some 30 African countries, calls for a nuclear-free zone and is in force since 15 July 2009. The Diego Garcia lease agreement (between the UK & the US initially for a period of fifty years) will expire in 2016 and negotiations for an extension of the lease for another twenty years will begin in earnest in 2014.
Cassam Uteem, ex-President of the Republic, spoke at length about the stratagems used by the British Government since the illegal excision of the Chagos and the callous and inhumane expulsion of the Chagossians to Mauritius and the Seychelles. For example, with mounting national and international pressure about the plight of the Chagossians, there were talks of a possible return to the “outer islands” (Peros Banhos, Salomon...), leaving intact the US military base on Diego Garcia... He said the US and the UK claim that they need to keep Diego Garcia as a military base to safeguard the security of the West, “but why don’t they build and use a military base in the West! Why do they have to use part of our territory for their security interests”! He went on to say that “the UK Government backed by several environmental groups has now put us in front of another fait accompli with their decision to create a Marine Protected Area around the Chagos Archipelago.” Cassam Uteem added that we must know how they had planned to excise the Chagos from Mauritius and expel the Chagossians in the years prior to the independence of Mauritius in 1968. He appealed to the current President, Sir Anerood Jugnauth, to reveal what he saw and heard during the Constitutional Conference which took place in 1964 at Lancaster House in London given that SAJ is the only surviving delegate who attended that Conference.
‘Declaration of GRNW’?
A number of resolutions and action plans (which may or may not be formalised in a ‘Declaration of GRNW’) were voted at the close of the conference. These will be widely disseminated by LALIT across its national and international networks. A small committee of six individuals (three from LALIT and three volunteers from the audience) will work on a set of key recommendations which they will hand over to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Prime Minister’s Office. LALIT will be looking at how the Mauritian Government might take the Chagos case to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
Marine Protected Area
Before he started his talk about the UK Government’s decision to create a Marine Protected Area around the Chagos Archipelago, Vinesh Hookoomsing paid tribute to the singer Menwar who preceded him and sang a poignant song about Diego Garcia. He said that Menwar reminded him of how in the 1970s “committed singers” supported the struggle for a better Mauritius and said that “we need singers like Menwar”. Then, he thanked LALIT, “enn ti-larme, me ek enn gran kuraz” (a small army, but a hugely courageous one).
Vinesh Hookoomsing said that the concept of a Marine Protected Area (MPA) is not new. MPAs exist elsewhere, and one of their characteristics is that they do not exist without people to look after them. The difference between all these MPAs and the one which the British Government has set out to create around the Chagos Archipelago is that people are banned from the area! Travel writers have highlighted this nexus between man and the sea. Vinesh Hookoomsing quoted one British writer, Robert Scott who, in his 1961 book entitled ‘LIMURIA, The Lesser Dependencies of Mauritius’ spoke of the harmony he witnessed between the Chagossian people and their natural environment. Towards the end of his book, Scott warned that technology must not disturb this harmony between people and the environment. For Vinesh Hookoomsing, Scott must have known that “dezord pe vini” (trouble was in the pipeline). “Who can be the best custodians and natural guardians of the Chagos than the Chagossians themselves?” he said. But, sadly, he went on to add, “as from midnight tonight (31 October), there will be a ban on all commercial fishing in Chagossian waters”.
Ryan Kistnasamy, the budding film producer
His T-shirt says: ‘Been there. Done that’. Indeed he has. This schoolboy has a keen interest in filming, and he attended one of LALIT’s marches last year and filmed the whole march until the protesters arrived in front of the British High Commission. He then caught on camera the moment when two members of LALIT, Lindsey Collen and Alain Ah-Vee, handed over a petition about Diego Garcia/Chagos to the British High Commissioner. The whole thing happened very quickly. Ryan Kistnasamy was only ten when he made this short documentary film. Ram Seegobin called him the “Mauritian Kurosawa”. Perhaps one day, this boy will make epic, Kurosawa-esque films. But the sense of trepidation and drama in his film reminded me more of Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers. In view of his age, there is no doubt that Ryan Kistnasamy, perhaps unwittingly, was a true revelation at LALIT’s International Conference on the Chagos.