January 2005 update

This Update cannot begin without a word about the dreadful tragedy that befell parts of Asia after Christmas. The scale of the devastation really defies comment and we all feel deep sympathy for those caught up in the disaster.

Our Association has had many enquiries about the Chagos Islands since the tsunami: it would appear they were unscathed despite their nearness to the epicentre. Diego Garcia’s elevation is 4-22 feet but waves of only 3-4 feet were experienced. The reason, apparently, they escaped damage is because the undersea topography and the numerous coral reefs dissipated much of the waves’ impact. The Chagos Archipelago also survived the Krakatoa earthquake and its after effects without being trashed in 1883.

In February 2004, a sophisticated seismic recording station was installed on Diego Garcia – part of a chain which includes the Cocos Islands, Sri Lanka and Seychelles. From this, it is known almost immediately when something dramatic has happened so what is needed now is a fast reliable way of passing on the information. How about a direct line to CNN or the BBC World Service? They function twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

It is ironic that islands the Foreign and Commonwealth Office decided (for reasons of their own) were unfit for resettlement by their exiled inhabitants because of “flooding, storms and seismic activity” survived unscathed.

Pierre Prosper, leader of the Seychelles Chagossians emailed us to say he “witnessed the tsunami but Seychelles was not hit as badly as those closer to the epicentre. One life was lost and much structural damage. A really sad happening for our region.”

On December 27th., Olivier Bancoult (leader of Chagossians on Mauritius) visited the office of the United Nations Displaced Persons Resident Representative in Port Louis to hand in a letter for the Secretary General, Kofi Anan. The UN international conference on sustainable development of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) has just been held in Mauritius.
Whilst there, Bill Rammell of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office visited the Chagossian Community. He said “…while I understand there may well be some individuals who may be in need, my observations…tell us that this is not because of their status as Chagossians.” Obviously, being forcibly exiled and deserted by the government who should care for you, exposed to new diseases and living in grinding poverty at the bottom of the heap in a society that didn’t want you are not considered a handicap to progress by the Minister.
Once again, he repeats the debatable line that £14.5 million compensation “at today’s prices” has been paid. It would be interesting to know what would be a realistic annual rent to charge the United States for use of Diego Garcia “at today’s prices”. Nothing is what they actually pay.
The Foreign Office also says that the ship booked by to take some Chagossians to visit their ancestral graves has been cancelled by the Mauritian government.

A traveller’s club has been advertising trips to the Chagos Islands. “This is your once-in-a-lifetime chance to dive and snorkel in these remote coral atolls….the cost per person is a value-for-money £4250….air-conditioned cabin with en suite and delicious meals etc. etc…” and only four places left. As our Chairman, Paul, says “ It is an extreme affront (for the Chagossians, who live in poverty and deprivation elsewhere) to witness this expensive, luxury cruise taking place to what are, in reality, THEIR islands”. Perhaps the Chagos Conservation Trust who seem to have a hand in organizing this trip, could offer the remaining places, free, to genuine Chagossians. The CCT is interested in conserving flora and fauna, rather than the native population.

We note the Freedom of Information Act with great interest but wonder how much use it will be to us as the government will probably say that things cannot be revealed for security reasons.

We have explored the possibility of registering with the Charity Commission which would enable us to reclaim tax paid by donors. However, although we raise money which is used for “public benefit” (exiled Islanders wherever they may be), we are also a campaigning organisation – for a fairer deal from the government for those islanders. Therefore, like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, we do not qualify.

At this point, we would like to thank everyone who has kindly raised money and sent donations. We know that this is an expensive time of year and that there are many worthy calls on your cash and are grateful for every gift sent. The money is disbursed quickly to help alleviate poverty and distress.

There have been numerous articles in the papers lately referring to Diego Garcia and the Chagos Archipelago including one by Richard Norton-Taylor in the Guardian on Jan 7th. and one by Denise Hall in the Irish Examiner on 10th.Jan. Denise, a good friend to us, is flying to Sri Lanka this week to help in relief work. We wish her all the best with a stressful task.

From Crawley, Allen Vincatassin tells us that they are still waiting for the court hearing to start (which should decide who is responsible for the exiles). Several of the most recent incomers to the area now have jobs and have started courses at Crawley College studying English and Information Technology.

Georges Weuthrich, of the Swiss Chagossian group, has sent best wishes for 2005 to all our supporters and to the Chagossians in the UK.

We have had an email from a Princeton student who is writing her senior thesis on the Chagos issue. She is interested in talking to anyone who has been involved in supporting, defending and representing the Chagossians’ claims as well as meeting the Islanders themselves. She can be contacted via celiawhittaker@chagossupport.org.uk

We have had emails of support from New Zealand where the John Pilger programme has been shown on television.

As usual, suggestions of things you can do to help:
1.Please encourage your MP to support us and to sign the Early Day Motion 1355 which deplores the treatment of the Chagossians by the government. If enough MPs signed this, the government would have to take notice.
2.Contact your MEPs as well and ask them what they CAN do then get them to do it!
3.Write to Jack Straw at the Foreign Office, King Charles Street, London SW1A 2AH
4.Write to Nigel Pickard, ITV Network Ltd., 200 Gray’s Inn Road, London WC1 8HF and ask him to repeat the Pilger programme at an earlier time. His email address is nigel.pickard@itv.com and his phone is 0207 843 8000
5.Encourage everyone you know to do all the above as well.

For those wanting to learn more about the history of the islands, ask your library for “Limuria” by Robert Scott published in 1961 by Oxford University Press. Robert Scott was Governor and Commander-in-Chief over Mauritius and its Lesser Dependencies (Chagos etc) from 1954 to 1959. It is very detailed about the history and geography up to about 1900 and then nothing until an account of his own visits to the islands as Governor during the fifties. The following extract from his last paragraph is most poignant : he is discussing possible changes in the Islanders’ “settled, happy” lifestyle. Changes he could not know would be so soon and so catastrophic.
“The danger is, that the process (of change) might be unbalanced by untimely, if well intentioned, efforts to shape those communities to a pattern unnatural to them; and so lead to their dissolution. This is far from being a plea to make the Lesser Dependencies a kind of nature reserve of the anachronistic. It is, however, very definitely a plea for full understanding of the islanders’ unique condition, in order to ensure that all that is wholesome and expansive in the island societies is preserved.”
This plea, it transpired, fell on deaf ears that were far from well-intentioned.

Please can you let me know you have received this – along with any ideas, suggestions, comments – all are welcome.

With best wishes for 2005,

Celia Whittaker