10.45pm on Wednesday 6th October 2004. My life was about to change and I didn’t even realise it. I sat down and watched a documentary by the respected journalist John Pilger on the British Television channel ITV. The content was on something I had only come across once in my life before, when my dad alerted me to a court case that had taken place some four years earlier. The documentary was called “Stealing a Nation” and it was about the depopulation of the Chagos Islands and the injustice that continued up to the present day.
The following day I looked on the internet for more information and came across contact details for the UK Chagos Support Association (UKChSA). It was the beginning of my time as an activist for the Chagossian quest for justice and a right of return to the islands they were illegally removed from.
Today that chapter comes to an end. It feels weird. It feels strange. There are emotions of guilt and sadness, but deep down I know it is the right decision to take.
I had previously warned that working with the Chagos Refugees Group (CRG) after leaving the UKChSA could be one of those complicated scenarios. It could be a situation where you have the best of intentions but ultimately cause more damage or at best add to the problem. It is not why I got involved in October 2004.
Last summer I lifted the lid on the reasons behind why three senior members of the UKChSA left the organisation simultaneously. I have always maintained that the organisation is not fit for purpose and should be closed down immediately. It is not a message that I have ever deviated from over the past eleven months since that now watershed AGM in April 2014.
It is true that the UKChSA experience did leave a bitter taste in the mouth. A long working relationship which came to such a thunderous end amidst recriminations, I would not be human to suggest that I did not have a sense of anger at the way things ended. However this was always been so much more than individuals or a clash of personalities. This was about good, honest people who sympathised with the Chagossians’ fight for justice and donated money believing that their contributions were being used to benefit a community that had been treated so shamefully.
I refused to sit back in silence while the UKChSA continued to plead for donations, when I knew that I had seen for myself practices which were borderline criminal. Whether anyone listened to me, that’s their prerogative, but at least I knew that I had enabled them to make an informed decision. If they still wanted to donate, well as the cliché goes: some people really do have more money than sense sometimes.
It is my insistence on ensuring that everyone knew the truth about the UKChSA that is a big reason behind things coming to a head recently. They were not allegations fished out of thin-air, and every point can still be substantiated by the mountain of emails I have retained to this day. Like the one from the treasurer asking for receipts for a football team which never existed.
Sadly it is not a view that is shared any more. Others feel that because the long awaited Feasibility Study has been completed, it is a delicate time and I should effectively refrain from repeating the truth. This doesn’t sit easily with me. My experience of working on this cause at different levels, including the executive committee of the UKChSA, means I know precisely how things work.
I know that when the Chagossians are in the news, as they have been recently, there is a natural spike in interest. Inevitably this leads to the UKChSA being contacted in the same way that I found them all those years ago. To suggest my silence under such circumstances would be unethical would probably be the understatement of the decade.
I cannot do it. I will not do it.
I got a lot of stick down the years from friends who never got their head around my passion for helping the Chagossians fight back. My response to them was always that I thought that maybe one day it would help me get to heaven. To ask me to be complicit in a conspiracy to bury the truth from my time at the UKChSA completely undermines that.
Olivier Bancoult and Sabrina Jean are good people. Whatever they’ve done or continue to do have always been in the best interests of Chagossians all over the world. I understand the reason why they think it’s for the best for me to tone down my vocal opposition to the UKChSA. I strongly disagree with their view, but I understand completely the reasons for their position.
I am just sad that it means I can’t continue to work on this cause anymore. I can’t highlight the Chagossian quest for justice under those restrictions because I know that my efforts will benefit the UKChSA by raising awareness and they will reap the rewards of that. It doesn’t matter that I am not personally financially benefiting from the arrangement, I would be no better than anyone who I had spent the past year exposing.
It was an unbelievable dilemma to be placed in. On one side I could break a promise I made to Sabrina years ago that the only way I’d stop being an activist is when the Chagossians had the right to return the Chagos Islands. Alternatively I could keep that promise, but help to conceal a dirty little secret about an organisation I no longer worked with or the reasons why I believe that the organisation should be closed down.
Today it is the end of that road and I am officially a former Chagossian activist. I hope the Chagossians secure a right of return and I wish everyone connected to the CRG well. If anyone asks me about the cause, I will be unable to help. This will be the post that I circulate as my response to the questions that will inevitably arise. I just hope that everyone understands the reason behind why I have taken the decision I have.