Jean Claude de l’Estrac: “We all became propagandists and journalists started carrying Anerood Jugnauth on their shoulders like a hero”

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Jean Claude de l’Estrac

Jean Claude de l’Estrac

There are few Mauritians who can boast knowing the Chagossian issue as well as Jean Claude de l’Estrac (JCDL). He spent nearly 30 years dealing with it. In the 70s, he was the spokesperson for the Front de Soutien with the ‘Islanders’ – as they used to be referred to – and, he negotiated and obtained an agreement with Former Prime Minister Seewoosagur Ramgoolam (SSR) to send a multi-party delegation to London to negotiate for a second compensation for the islanders from the British, putting an end to the longest hunger strike in the history of Mauritius undertaken by the Chagossians.  The agreement for the second compensation was later signed by JCDL in his capacity as minister of foreign affairs.

In 1982, JCDL also presided a select committee set up to look into the conditions under which the excision took place, which allowed him to question those involved about what really happened.

But JCDL has also spent the best part of his life in the press. So he knows exactly what you want to hear and what you don’t want to hear. And he gives you both. Take it or leave it. That is the deal. It would seem that the years he spent as a diplomat have done nothing to attenuate his almost brutal frankness. He is also the author of ‘next year in Diego Garcia’, based on declassified documents from the UK and the US congressional archives.

He knew we did not want to hear that this wave of optimism we have been surfing for the last couple of weeks is more of a mirage than a historic event likely to allow the Chagossians to go back and settle in the Chagos. But he still burst our collective bubble. Isn’t he pessimistic?

Realistic, he replied. I am realistic and sad about what we are doing to the Chagossian people.

What exactly are we doing to the Chagossions? Aren’t we helping them with their fight to have their land back?

I am wary of the promises made and the hopes raised. We gave the Chagossians hopes that have no chance of materialising. And the disillusion that will follow will be like a second exile for them.

How did we do that?

Everything seems to have been put in place to create those hopes. A fake patriotic euphoria was created with the only goal of showing that we are doing something, without really caring about the concrete and practical results, knowing very well that there is no chance of succeeding. I can’t possibly believe that the minister mentor is really convinced that the Chagossians will be able to go back to Chagos or even to other islands in the coming months or years.  There is no way.

What would prevent them from doing so since the Americans have been promised to keep Diego Garcia as a military base? What problem would the Americans have with that?

The idea that preceded the exile is based on a concept developed by the Americans in the 70s. It is called the ‘strategic islands concept’ which is to have the possibility of setting up military bases in areas absolutely secured militarily and politically. In other words, not to have populations which may have sovereignty claims that are likely to jeopardise the military strategy. They did not spend years depopulating Chagos to restart populating it and exposing themselves to the very problems they have tried to avoid. If there is a Chagossian population in Diego, no matter how small it is, the native Chagossians could one day appeal to the special committee of the UN which could enquire into the situation of people still colonised. The permanent undersecretary of the Foreign Office noted in a dispatch to the Americans, “If we allow a few people belonging to the area to stay on the islands, then in due course it will become another Singapore or Aden or what have you all over again!”

In this ‘fight’ to have the Chagos back, a confusion seems to have been caused by the presence of Olivier Bancoult as a member of the Mauritian delegation. What is it exactly that the Mauritian delegation was asking for in The Hague?

Here he speaks slowly, eager to put an end to the distortion of facts: There is a very big confusion in this struggle. Bancoult’s presence is very incongruous. His fight has never been about the Mauritian sovereignty over the Chagos. He has been fighting for years with the help of the British for going back to their islands as British citizens. In fact, he received financial help from the British government to lodge a case before the British courts. If he can lodge a case in a British court, that means he is a British citizen. Chagossians have the double nationality. The British found out later that even if the Chagossians became Mauritian in 1968, they did not lose their British nationality.

What does the British government gain by helping the Chagossians to challenge their presence there?

To show that the Chagossians as British subjects may have a claim over the Chagos but not Mauritius.

Are you telling me that the minister mentor, the last survivor of the Lancaster talks, is not aware of this?

I think the minister mentor does not fully understand the issues surrounding the Chagos, which is rather worrying. There are two aspects to the problem: First, the right of the Chagossians to return their native islands, which they should have. No one is contesting that on human grounds. However, the Chagossians are wary of mentioning the Mauritian sovereignty over the islands. That is not their claim. All the cases brought before the courts are based on the fact that they are British citizens. They base their claims on the fact that the British administration (the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT)) cannot deport its own citizens. It’s illegal and so the Immigration Ordinance used to expel and exile them is illegal, which was recognised by the courts. Chagos was sold!

Anerood Jugnauth, with his usual insinuations, said those who sold it took the money. Can you tell us once and for all who took the money?

The State of Mauritius took the money. The State in its continuity. The money was paid into the Account General’s account under the heading ‘Sale of Diego Garcia’. Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam (SSR) was prime minister then. However, when we went to ask for a second compensation – which we obtained – as far as I know, Sir Anerood Jugnauth was prime minister! In fact, the Chagossians were initially claiming £8 million as a second compensation but the British were not willing to pay more than £1.25 million. In return, they also wanted the Chagossians to give up all their rights of resettlement and waive all their legal rights to pursue cases through the British courts. The talks broke down and the meeting was adjourned. Then a few months later, the British sent a delegation to Mauritius and the demand for a second compensation was brought down to £3.1 million, with the state of Mauritius adding another £1 million to that demand, to bring the total claim to £4 million. In return, they had to uphold “everything that appertained to the 1965 ordinance attached to the BIOT” including the prohibition of the Chagossians from returning home. The draft agreement was vetted by the government’s lawyers and the Mauritian government signed the agreement because their lawyers told them that the agreement did not jeopardise Mauritius’ claims to sovereignty over the Chagos. The Chagossians also signed because they were in dire need of money.

According to Anerood Jugnauth, he wants to decolonise the Chagos as it has always been his dream to do so.

The answer was immediate: No! It has not always been his dream. Then he sarcastically adds: If it is, it is a new dream.

Opportunistic?

I don’t know. What’s the opportunity? Even if we get a favourable opinion, it remains an opinion. We gain nothing. In fact, we lose.

Hasn’t he already gained by moving from an old man falling fast asleep in press conferences to a warrior, a hero who went to get to the key to the Chagos?

Let’s wait for the end.

The end for us is getting a favourable opinion from The Hague…

Insisting to get his point across: But that will lead to absolutely nothing!

For us Mauritians, we are not interested in anything beyond that. A favourable opinion will be a great victory.

Maybe that is the fault of the newspapers. The press played the game of ‘patriot’. Telling the truth became anti-patriotic. No one wanted to hear the truth, not even journalists. Everyone was surfing a patriotic wave. We all became propagandists and journalists started carrying Anerood Jugnauth on their shoulders like a hero.

We were happy to see him wake up.

But he will soon go back to sleep! There is nothing more to do. And it will be very sad. It’s a story with a very unhappy ending. Even if we get a favourable opinion – and I do think we should since the UN in its charter supports decolonisation, and the UN General Assembly has condemned the UK several times for dismembering the Mauritian territory prior to independence – the UK doesn’t care. British documents reveal that the British knew they would have to face serious diplomatic and legal issues but Britain has always believed that it is allowed to set up the base for western interests.

But Britain’s arguments before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) are flimsy, though, aren’t they? How much room for manoeuvre does a colony have?

The Mauritian government could have refused to accept the “douceurs” and not allow the Chagos to be excised with our agreement.

Then forget about independence?

Documents exist to show that the British were losing patience as SSR didn't seem very much in a hurry to get independence. Diego Garcia or no Diego Garcia, independence was going to be granted.

Did the government know that?

They should have known. At least, the British, who did their homework and studied legislation knew Mauritius could say no. Hence the “generous compensation” they offered. Mauritius and the Seychelles got approximately the same amount of compensation; the latter used theirs to build a new airport.

In the Cabinet Papers that were declassified recently, there was this important note that is very pertinent. Harold Wilson’s private secretary jotted out the ‘deal’ that the British prime minister would offer to Ramgoolam during the meeting: “Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam is coming to see you at 10.00 tomorrow morning. The object is to frighten him with hope: hope that he might get independence; Fright lest he might not unless he is sensible about the detachment of the Chagos Archipelago”. How do you react to it?

When deponing before the select committee, I had the opportunity to ask SSR whether he conceded the statement of Wilson as blackmail and he replied “absolutely not!” and in fact in the notes of the meeting between Wilson and SSR, when asked about Diego Garcia, SSR replied that, “Diego Garcia is a detail”. And in fact, he later said that if it were only the British involved, Mauritius would probably have accepted to give away Diego Garcia for free and only asked for compensation because the Americans were involved as well.

Jugnauth at one of his interviews insinuated that the ministers attending the Lancaster House conference were not aware of the meeting about the Diego Garcia issue between SSR and Wilson. Were they innocent bystanders?

No! That is not true. There was a formal meeting with the heads of all parties to discuss Diego Garcia. This meeting was supposed to discuss the conditions of the excision of the Chagos and eventually settled on eight conditions for the excision, one of which was that the Chagos would be returned to Mauritius once no longer needed for defence purposes. This proposal was made by Sookdeo Bissoondoyal, the leader of the Independent Forward Bloc, of which Anerood Jugnauth was then the deputy leader. They are all putting the blame on SSR when, in truth, all the party leaders agreed with the excision with the exception of the Parti Mauricien, not because they were against the excision but because they said that the compensation offered by the British was inadequate.

If I understand properly, you are suggesting that we should not challenge the Americans’ base in Diego Garcia and we should not even have a claim over the islands since we have sold them. What should we do then?

For years now, I’ve been pleading for a diplomacy of realism. The first thing is to acknowledge that, with or without Mauritius’ consent, there’s now a military base on Diego Garcia which will remain, for many years to come, one of the most important bases in the world. The Americans today need this base even more than in the 1970s.

But nobody is asking them to leave.

The Americans will not only reject the idea that Mauritius won’t challenge the base, but they won’t accept the transfer of the sovereignty of the islands to Mauritius either. There is a political risk that Mauritius asks for the closure of the base or that the Chagossians demand their return. They won’t take that chance! They haven't bought Diego only; they’ve bought a hundred other islands worldwide. Diego Garcia is strategically located. One of the admirals called it a “fixed aircraft carrier” which controls entry to the Indian Ocean.

The Americans need to at least pay rent.

But the British have already bought the Chagos so the Americans don't want to talk to us. They are saying, “If you want to talk, talk to the British. We’re tenants of the British, not of the Mauritians.” That’s why I’ve been saying, “Let's forget about the return of the Chagossians to the Chagos. Let’s even forget about the the sovereignty of Mauritius over Diego Garcia. However, let's discuss with the British the retrocession of the outer islands. The Chagos Archipelago consists of 65 islands scattered over seven atolls. When the British created the BIOT, they also included the other islands and three Seychelles islands: Aldabra, Farquhar and Desroches, as military precautionary measures. They thought they might need another island for a runway or something else. Today, the three Seychelles islands have been returned to the Seychelles at independence in 1976, while the outer islands are abandoned. These outer islands are valuable and investment will have to be made. It doesn't serve the military interest of the British or the Americans to keep them at the moment, although there are environmental and ecological issues to negotiate. If we do get a favourable opinion, which I hope we will, I believe this should be the beginning of a new struggle. Even if it’s only an advisory opinion, it has a moral force which will embarrass the British. The Americans don’t care and Trump’s administration even less. However, this can give us the opportunity to weave new links of diplomacy. Diplomacy needs to take over from the court.

Have we lost a lot diplomatically with the UK?

Yes, especially when you see all the efforts the British have put in to avoid this issue going so far. It’s a stain. They have had to apologise before the ICJ again; other ministers have apologised before. Today, more than ever, Diego Garcia is capital in their strategy. They will not take any risks.

What you’re proposing about re-negotiating with the British won't be easy, since we have broken off all ties.

It won't. We should not sustain any hope that this episode will be wiped out soon. It will probably take time for the wounds to heal. We should then weave new relationships. But we should stop holding a discourse which makes no sense and which isn’t in Mauritius’ interest.

What are you referring to?

I hear the minister mentor holding a warlike discourse. He’s a warrior with no weapons.

This seems defeatist at a time that we are supported by big powers like India…

In fact, India has offered a minimal guaranteed service before the ICJ. Have you noticed that the only representative of India at the ICJ was its ambassador, who is based in The Hague? No attorney general, no delegation flown in from India, no nothing. Even a small country like Vanuatu sent its attorney general.

But India did plead in our favour, didn’t it?

Yes, but in an extremely nuanced way. They said something mild like the fact that the UK has recognised the sovereignty of Mauritius by declaring that the day they won't need the base, the archipelago would go back to Mauritius. India’s position can be explained by the US offering to India the use of Diego Garcia. There’s a whole thesis which was published in The National Interest, an international relations journal, which advocates giving the Indian navy access to Diego Garcia and the setting up of an Indian logistics office on Diego Garcia because of the Chinese. The Chinese opened their first overseas base in the Indian Ocean in Djibouti. They have recently invested massively in a port in Pakistan and India is worried about the Chinese silk route and about its pearl necklace. So, Modi’s government has become a lot closer to the Americans during the last few years. The idea of India using Diego Garcia hasn’t happened yet but it is being floated.

Will India risk its relationship with us?

No, they will do what they did at The Hague. They are present so we can’t say that India isn’t supporting us but their arguments are not very damaging to the UK or the US.

I am supporting you, but at the same time, I am not supporting you?

It’s more like, I am supporting you, but I will first defend my own interests. I support you for the sovereignty but I have major strategic interests to defend and I will defend them, which explains the reinforced relationship between the Indian government and the American government, especially in the Indian Ocean. India has major interests to defend in the region. We can’t blame them for defending them.

Going back to The Hague, in your opinion, Bancoult and the other Chagossians shouldn’t have been part of that delegation, should they?

In my opinion, no. I completely understand their fight. But they are not fighting for the sovereignty of Mauritius. They are fighting to go back to their own island. If Mauritius wants to support the return of the Chagossians to their island as British citizens, it has to say so. If, on the other hand, it is fighting for its sovereignty, that has to be made clear. But we can’t do both at the same time.

But Mauritians supported that move?

There is a lot of confusion in the heads of most Mauritians about this issue. By supporting the return of the Chagossians to the archipelago, Mauritians believe that they are also supporting the sovereignty of Mauritius. It is far from being the case. It is, in fact, the antithesis.

Since you left the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC), you did not stay idle, did you?  I hear a book you have authored will be out in the bookshop soon. Can you give us a sneak peep?

It’s a follow up of Passions Politiques which was a chronicle of Mauritius from 1968 to 1982. This book will cover the period from 1982 to 1995 which will see the creation of the Mouvement Socialiste Militant (MSM), the emergence of Sir Anerood Jugnauth, the background of his fight with Paul Bérenger and an account of the Jugnauth years.

What are your apprehensions once the book is out?

I have no apprehensions whatsoever. Once the book has been published, it is no longer my problem.

Knowing you, you are likely to ruffle some feathers…

Possibly but nobody should be offended by facts. In fact, I am stating facts and revealing my conversations with the various political actors.

So some secrets are likely to come out?

Laughing knowingly: Quite a few. Look out for them.

For more views and in-depth analysis of current issues, Weekly magazine (Price: Rs 25) or subscribe to Weekly for Rs110 a month. (Free delivery to your doorstep). Email us on: [email protected]

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