October 22, 2004

Pilger Explores Military Base

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John Pilger, a Frank H. T. Rhodes Class of ’56 Professor, screened his documentary Stealing a Nation, which explores the roles of England and the United States in turning the island of Diego Garcia in the Chagos Archipelago into a military base in the 1960s. Pilger’s documentary played in Kaufmann auditorium on Wednesday.

The issue of what to do with Diego Garcia’s indigenous population arose in the 1960s, when America wanted to purchase the island from the British. Pilger claims that America wanted Diego Garcia “swept and sanitized,” which meant removing the native population.

Pilger postulated the possibility that Americans were paranoid about the local people selling them out to the Soviets, which was why they could not continue living the on the island with the presence of a military base.

The film begins with scenes of natives going about what Pilger calls their “benign, undisturbed way of life.” He takes special care to capture the locals’ love of their pet dogs, who were later rounded up and gassed by American officials as a scare tactic.

“We knew what they did to our dogs they were gong to do to us,” one woman in the film says.

The documentary claimed that before long, the locals were forced to board a ship to the English colony of Mauritius, where they were “dumped on the docks.”

Pilger’s film dwells on the derelict houses that the Chagos people were forced to occupy, on slums that lacked water, electricity and sanitation. He observes that islanders began to die “not only from poverty, but from what they called sadness.” According to the film, suicides were commonplace and young girls became prostitutes to survive.

By the end of 1975, Pilger said, their expulsion of the indigenous population was complete.

“Most people know Mauritius as an exotic honeymoon destination,” Pilger said, but added that tourists almost never see the slums. “What was done to these people is today defined by international law as a crime against humanity.”

The second half of the documentary focusses on the 1990s, when the Chagos people struggled to return home to their island. The film goes on to explain how in 1965, British officials had invented a fake colony, the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), to conceal the nature of Britain’s own motives. British officials claimed that the islanders were temporary contract workers, although they had lived there since the end of the eighteenth century; this gave the British sufficient ground to expel the natives. They were treated “as a floating population” according to documents, even though the officials knew well that this was not the truth. Richard Gifford, a lawyer for the Chagos people, explains in the film that the officials were only concerned with whether they would be discovered.

Notably, even the British prime minister agreed to carry out this plan, Pilger pointed out in the documentary. He also claimed in the film that Washington had a “parallel conspiracy” to keep the expulsion of the Chagos a secret from Congress.

The documentary shows an interview with a British official privy to Britain’s involvement in Diego Garcia in which Pilger asks for justification of the affair.

“This was a very small matter,” said the official.

After the High Court in England ruled the expulsion illegal after 30 years, it seemed that the Chagos would finally be returning home, Pilger said. But soon after the ruling, the Foreign Office conducted a feasibility study, questioning whether the displaced Chagos could survive in their old homeland. Pilger pointed out that the U.S. military base was already thriving there.

The anticipated cost of having the inhabitants return to their home would be relatively inexpensive, Pilger said.

“The reason is not money, it’s power,” Pilger said.

“I’m a big fan of Pilger’s work and I think it’s important that stories like this one get told … They’re all examples of outgrowth of one system perpetuating oppressive, tyrannical policies over most of the world. Film is a great way to show that, film is a great way to give a voice to the voiceless,” said Brian Kwoba ’06.

“It is very heart-breaking, but God will punish them for this injustice,” said a local woman in the film. “I will keep fighting until the day God takes me from this Earth.”

Stealing a Nation opened in London on Oct. 6 and has received widespread publicity. Pilger, a Frank H.T. Rhodes Class of ’56 Professor, has served as a war correspondent in Cambodia, Bangladesh and Vietnam, and has won numerous awards for journalism.

Archived article by Maya Rao
Sun Staff Writer