BIOT: The last conspiracy of the British Empire

January 25, 2019 18:42
A file picture from May 2006 shows Chagossians celebrating after a London court ruled that natives of the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia had been unfairly ejected from their land many decades ago. Photo: Bloomberg

As the United Kingdom grapples with Brexit woes, a dishonorable historical event of the British Empire surfaced again in news recently but received very little public attention.

The matter involves a region known as the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), and conspiracies and disputes behind it.

The BIOT was created after the disintegration of the British Empire following the end of the Second World War.

Located far away from any major continent, with the “nearest” neighbor being Maldives some 1,100 kilometers to the north, the BIOT is made up of a number of remote and sparsely populated tropical islands.

Among these tropical islands, the biggest one is known as the Chagos Archipelago, which is only 31 square kilometers in size, or less than one-third of that of the Hong Kong Island.

However, despite its remote location, the BIOT actually has a substantial strategic value, as it is lying right at the center of the Indian Ocean, which means any great power which has established its navy base on the BIOT can strike East Africa, the Middle East, South Asia or even the Pacific conveniently and can have a full grasp of the entire Indian Ocean.

In other words, the BIOT can absolutely fulfill the role as a hub in the Indo-Pacific region.

Nevertheless, it wasn’t until the middle of the Cold War, that the United States began to realize the strategic value of the BIOT, which was at that time still placed under the jurisdiction of the British colony Mauritius, and sought to build a military base there.

After secret discussions between the US and British leaders, London finally decided to lease Chagos Archipelago to Washington.

In order to do that, Britain first excised the Chagos Islands from Mauritius, and then combined them with the neighboring islands and formed a new political entity known as the British Indian Ocean Territory in 1965.

Three years after completion of that “administrative procedure”, Britain began to evict all of the 2,000 indigenous inhabitants from the Chagos Archipelago and relocate them to places such as Mauritius so as to depopulate the area and clear the way for the US to build permanent military facilities on the largest island, Diego Garcia.

The US since then had high expectations on this military base, becoming a key outpost for Pentagon to launch airstrikes against Afghanistan and Iraq in recent years.

At present, some 3,000 to 5,000 US troops and their families are stationed on the Diego Garcia military base.

Nonetheless, ever since Mauritius gained its independence in 1968, the Mauritians have been regarding the Chagos Archipelago as a disputed territory, as many of them assert that Britain’s annexation of the island chain in the 1960s was unlawful.

And even to this day after the independence of Mauritius, Mauritius still insists that it has a rightful claim to the Chagos Archipelago, and refuses to acknowledge the official existence of the BIOT.

As far as the indigenous Chagossians who were forced by the British authorities to leave their home in 1965 are concerned, their lives in Mauritius have been difficult.

For years, the Chagossians have continued to file lawsuits against the British government for their forced expulsion, and fight for their statehood, with some of them even referring to the expulsion during the 1960s as “genocide”.

In order to keep the Diego Garcia base, both the US and Britain have gone to great lengths such as declaring the adjacent waters of the BIOT as a marine reserve in 2010 in an attempt to permanently deny anyone other than military personnel access to the area.

In 2017, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution, under which the sovereignty dispute between Britain and Mauritius over the Chagos Islands was to be heard by the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Hearings on the case got underway recently.

What is noteworthy about the case is that apart from Mauritius, which is throwing its weight behind the Chagossians, some other great powers which did not want the US to take the Diego Garcia base are also pulling the strings behind the scene.

Whatever the outcome, it is worth bearing something in mind. That is, even if the Chagossians and the Mauritians manage to reclaim sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago, it may not be easy for them to sustain the local economy on their own. Leasing the islands to foreign powers to establish military bases may still be the only way out.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan 16

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal