Just 122 votes were cast in the election which created a “provisional administration in waiting” for the Chagos Islands – the Diego Garcia and Chagos Islands Council – an organisation with a tiny mandate and vast problems stretching all the way to Whitehall and the White House.
First, and most pressing, none of its members can set foot on the Indian Ocean islands they were elected to govern without being arrested by the US military. Second, it represents the population of an archipelago at the centre of a political storm over everything from human rights and international diplomacy to environmental protection and nuclear disarmament – issues on which a body representing less than 4,000 people will struggle to be heard.
New hope: The president and cabinet of the Diego Garcia and Chagos Islands Council (showing their devotion to the UK)
To compound its difficulties, around half the world’s Chagos islanders reject the council’s authority and oppose its very existence. Islanders are deeply divided over which larger country they want to be part of – the newly-elected council is based in the UK and wants British sovereignty over the Chagos to continue, while many others consider their homeland part of Mauritius (a view supported by Port Louis).
The new council’s president Allen Vincatassin says the low turnout in his people’s first ever election was caused by this dispute, as well as illiteracy and apathy among islanders, but he remains optimistic. “We had to start somewhere,” he said. “This is the first time in our history we have voted for our own leaders. We have never had politicians before and we never really had politics on the islands.
“The purpose was to elect a provisional government in waiting. If we called it a ‘government in exile’ people might assume we are aiming for independence and that is not what we are doing.” Former inhabitants of the Chagos Islands, officially British Indian Ocean Territory, and their descendants voted during a three-week ballot in December and the results were announced on January 26.
Electors did not choose from rival politicians, instead voting for or against a proposed president and vice-president and a list of key points which included creating the council itself and accepting British sovereignty. The vote was run by Electoral Reform Services and was open to all members of the Diego Garcian Society, a forerunner of the new council, which was free to join and open to all Chagos islanders and their descendants.
Mr Vincatassin and vice-president Selmour Chery are confident they can engineer the islanders’ long-awaited return to their Indian Ocean homeland by building good relations with the US and UK. Mr Vincatassin said: “I believe the Americans fear that if we returned to Diego Garcia, we could exercise our democratic right and demand the removal of the military base from our homeland.
Elected: Allen Vincatassin (front) and vice-president Selmour Chery
“By creating an elected administration, we can begin to build trust and make them understand we do not want that and that we can co-exist with the base (which takes up around half of the largest island, Diego Garcia). As a provisional government, we can negotiate with the US government to accept the fact that we exist and that we must have the right to live and work on Diego Garcia and the other islands.
“The base would be important to islanders to provide jobs and sustain the people living there. This plan is really viable and all we have to do is make the UK and US see that.”
The 50-year lease which allowed the creation of the US base expires in 2016 and the council hopes discussions to extend it will include the return of its exiled people. Electing a provisional administration will also allow islanders a greater part in negotiations on other issues relating to Chagos, according to Mr Vincatassin.
Swearing in: Mr Vincatassin receives the oath from Regis Bontemps
“We supported the creation of a Marine Protected Area by the previous British Government and we want to take a leading role in protecting the environment of our homeland,” he said. “We want to act as a guardian of the islands until our people wake up and realise they have rights. Illiteracy is one of the main problems we face. Not enough of our people are interested in politics or want to engage with these issues.
“We need to teach people, especially our younger generation, what happened in the past and what their rights are for the future. What we hope now is to get more people involved and continue the democratic process in our homeland whenever we are allowed to return.
“It is not just about demanding our democratic rights. We have to prepare our people for that responsibility as well.” But Mr Vincatassin’s hopes for a more inclusive democratic future are hampered by his council’s differences with the other main islanders’ group, Olivier Bancoult's Mauritius-based Chagos Refugee Group (CRG).
“Unfortunately we cannot work with the CRG and their partners because they want Mauritian sovereignty over the islands,” Mr Vincatassin said. “That is something we cannot negotiate. We believe that the rights of our people come first, not the state of Mauritius. We are proud to be British citizens and we believe a true democratic future lies with the UK.”
There is understandable anger among many islanders against Britain for exiling them and ignoring their plight for decades, but Mauritius does not have a flawless record. Many islanders feel they were forced to live as “second class citizens” and there are also complaints over the way compensation paid by Britain to Mauritius for the islanders was distributed.
A geographical split may partially explain the division over which state to be part of. After being removed from Chagos between 1968 and 1973, many spent decades in extreme poverty in Mauritius, where around half the world’s population of islanders and their descendents now live.
Most others live in the UK, having arrived since being granted citizenship in 2002. The majority of these flew to Gatwick Airport and now live in Crawley, West Sussex, where the new council was sworn in on February 5. Taking an oath from cabinet members, Mr Vincatassin loudly told each to “serve without fear”. They will need courage, resourcefulness and, ultimately, support from Washington and Westminster if they are to fulfil their promises.