Friday, January 20, 2012

Really and Not Really Existing Colonialism

Last year anthropologist David Vine visited Guam as part of a research trip where he visited areas around the world where communities were protesting (in various ways) the presence of US bases near them. While this is his most current research project, he is best known for his work on chronicling the plight of the Chagos Islanders, who come from the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. If you are in the military you have most likely heard about the base there. If you are a fan of the live-action Transformers films then you might remember it being featured as a secure location where a sliver of the infamous all-spark is kept safe. If you are someone, who like me keeps lists of the not-so-great-things that have been done by the US over its history, than Diego Garcia is a particularly gross and recent atrocity.

Through postwar collusion between the US and British governments, the people living in Diego Garcia were first tricked into leaving their island and barred from returning, and eventually just forcibly removed from the island and all their homes destroyed. The British government did the dirty work so that the US could use the island to build a key military facility in the Indian Ocean. As of today, that base is one of the most important the US has in the world. It is a base that defines "strategic flexibility." Not only is it close to so many potential "future" or "current" targets of the US, but it also has no sovereignty. There is no "government" in Diego Garcia that can or will cause problems, protest or make demands. In Diego Garcia, it is a military commander's dream in the sense that there is no law except military law and strategic interests. Diego Garcia is so valuable, that it is often remarked that if it did not exist already, it would have to be invented.

A longtime activist amongst the Chagos people, Lisette Aurelie Talate died recently, here is an excerpt from an article detailing her legacy of fighting for her people's right to return to their island:
When in the 70's, Talate was dumped in Mauritius along with her children and other Chagossians, she immediately embarked on a relentless struggle to go back home to Diego Garcia. During her lifetime she undertook several hunger strikes to draw attention to the legitimacy of her cause and, in the process, became an icon of the Chagossian diaspora.
She was a frail woman in physical appearance but, like an iron fist in a velvet glove, she constantly told the authorities concerned that her land has been robbed. When finally she was “allowed” to visit Diego Garcia, everyone still cherishes the vivid image of how she kneeled down to kiss the soil and screamed “Diego, my land!” while the military who "occupy" the island, witnessed the scene unfazed. It was, sure, only a short visit, like being on transit -- not to say a humiliating way to be asked to come and look at your home from far and then politely be invited to sleep outdoors !
At the funeral service, Olivier Bancoult paid tribute to Talate in very emotional terms. He recalled how one day he was with Talate in London fighting for their case when she found herself with some British MP who sympathised with her cause, at the Cafetaria of the House of Commons. When invited by the MPs to have a coffee and eat a bite with them, she flatly refused. She would later tell Olivier how could she be eating and drinking in the very institution that had decided to deport her from her island home. For her, the Houses of Parliament represented a dramatic symbol. She was a woman of conviction, who always got her message across forcefully in the creole language.

When David Vine gave a presentation at the UOG Lecture Hall (alongside Leevin Camacho from We Are Guahan), I thought at first that people might have difficulty following the woeful saga of the Chagosians. I thought that people might respond not with their minds when considered this story of the terrible and unthinking displacement of so many people, but rather with their passports and their blind patriotism. Such is common on Guam. When you aren't really part of America, but are groomed to desperately want to be, you find your own inkind donations to the making and sustaining of America. You are often more willing to look the other way and to refuse to acknowledge the sins of the US. Since you don't get to enjoy a casual, comfortable Americaness, you find ways to make up the difference by proving you are even more American than real Americans. So on Guam, people are often times more conservative than you might imagine, and will chose to forget or even recognize the way the US has damaged the lives of Chamorros, since that is the price of admission to the cheap seats of American belonging.
I was impressed however when people seemed to absorb very well the story of Diego Garcia, and even ask some very provocative questions, which made connections between Guam and Diego Garcia. As a historian these connections are obvious to me, but I was excited to see students and community members considered them.

Guam and Diego Garcia is very alike, yet you could consider them to be very different as well. They both have a very recent history of serious displacement in order to build US military bases. In Diego Garcia is meant total dispossession and an attempt to deny even the right to return to their island. In Guam, it meant that more than half of the island was condemned, Chamorros removed from their lands in order to build the bases we know of today (and a few more which have since WWII been closed). Of course, there are still differences. The people in Diego Garcia were not even notified about their displacement, whereas Chamorros in the ashes of World War II often times celebrated, at least for a little while, their displacement since it was a way they could give back to the US military after it had expelled the Japanese in 1944.

In liberal discourse, which in this vein you could think of as commonly invoked antiwar or peace activist narratives, Guam and Diego Garcia are very very different, for almost hysterical reasons. Diego Garcia is something that while few know about, those who do in the US, cling to it very tightly. It is on the Right, a key base. Forget about the history, as the Right is so adept at doing, what matters is the role its existence plays today as keeping America and its interests safe. On the Left, Diego Garcia is another tragic example of America misbehaving. It is one of those "rare" examples where America unleashes its inner colonizer and it does something truly "colonial" in the old fashioned sense of the word. In most cases, this abuse is exceptional and not the norm. It is not something that you should perceive of as being central to what defines America, but an occasional mistake. The US seems to have quite a bit of these mistakes.

Guam is the opposite. While very few can look at the history of Diego Garcia and say that it is not an example of colonialism, it is the norm to look at Guam and say that it isn't an example of such. This is something which I have struggled with in both my activism and academic work; the ways in which Guam is clearly a colony today, something that cannot actually be disputed in any way shape or form, but yet it is a peculiar case of colonialism that most people would argue doesn't signify colonialism. While in the states I got into many arguments with people who refused to accept the idea that Guam was something that needed attention, that needed to be fixed, that required some sort of justice. It didn't matter what the history was, people could not accept either the history of it or the current reality as something that you could use to condemn the US as a colonizer. In my academic work, most prominently my dissertation, I tried to theorize what this might mean, having a place that is clearly a colony, but is refused to be accepted as such. What sort of power does the US get by having such a strategically important place, with a history of racism, displacement and discrimination, not signify any real negative associations?

A case in point was when the US was starting to collect "terrorists" from around the world after 9/11 and did not want to go through the painful process of giving them trials or giving them any basic rights as prisoners, it created a list of places where those newly christened "enemy combatants" could be held. The list was determined by a number of factors. Military facilities, since it would be ideal for the US government if these terrorists could be dealt with in terms of military justice, since it is much more flexible and pliable than other legal systems. Jurisdictional and juridical flexibility in order to limit the number of ways the detention could be challenged, and give the Federal government more ways to argue it had the right to hold people in what most would call illegal ways. Guam showed up on the list, alongside other places such as Diego Garcia and Guantanamo Bay, which as we all know was the eventually winner in this gruesome legal contest. In the minds of those who designed the US's detention rules for enemy combatants, Guam was a possibility because of the banality that I've mentioned above. Although US laws now apply to Guam, they do not apply in the same way they apply to states. There is more flexibility in being in Guam, since more than a century of legal precedents say that the US Federal government can do whatever it wants in Guam.

This sort of banality is the norm in life. We make hierarchies of struggles, or human meaning. A first world life is worth more than a third world life, even if just for the simple reason that there is less of it. For some, the comfort of animals is more important than the comfort of other people. For many, the missing of a favorite show is more traumatic than the things that are done in the name of the US around the world. On Guam the right to vote for So You Think You Can Dance? is more important than the the ability to vote for President or in Congress.

For some, what happens in Guam is banal. It is something you can glaze over. If you even notice Guam amidst all the clutter of the world, how can you even consider it a place that is being oppressed? They have so much of the US there, so much of what everyone else in the world is supposed to want. The US saved them, takes care of them, does everything for them. If anything, colonialism there is nothing more than whiny children, thinking too much of themselves, with the US as the adult who has to do everything for their overgrown, overweight, but completely useless on their own child.

This is why I found it so inspiring that people on Guam were able to make connections, even if people elsewhere refuse to or just can't seem to make the mental leap. At the event with David Vine I was the moderator and screened the questions people asked. So many people did not take the usual route that First World people take when hearing about the Chagosians; "those poor people, suffering, I will show compassion and how it pains me to see them like that."

The capacity to show pain in this way, to feel it, and to have this emotional response is the prototypical first world reaction. It is as some theorists argue, the different between suffering pain and experiencing trauma. For the Chagos people, like the majority of the people in the world, their lot is pain and suffering, but for those from the First World who gaze upon them, it is much more complex, it is trauma that they feel. Trauma, which could be defined as the feeling of something terrible that is not the norm. The crux of this definition is that those outside of the First World live lives determined primarily by suffering, where the exceptions are happy, safe, comfortable moments. Their lives are pain and tragedy, and so there is no room for trauma, no room to sit back and reflect on how bad things are. They feel tragedy, but have no time or place to sit back and reflect on how tragic or sad thing are. Such an ability is only reserved for those in the First World. And that is part of the hierarchy of human life, part of the ways in which people at the top of the world argue for their reproduction at the top of the world; in this case it is because of the way they can see more and can feel more.The Third Worlder suffers without understanding, whereas the First Worlder understands suffering, but does not suffer it.

Some people responded like this, since it is such a tragic story and often times all people know how to do in response to hearing something, is to feel terrible and just feel how lucky you are not those people. But so many of the questions dealt with what meaning their story might have for Guam. People in their handwritten barely legible questions scratched on scrap paper, didn't see Diego Garcia as this place of suffering that they needed to do their First World duty towards and look at and say how big that is and terrible. Instead they connected their histories together and saw that they shared certain things, those things I mentioned above. As such, so many of the questions focused on the ways Guam and Diego Garcia are the same, and many asked, in worried ways, whether or not the displacement in Diego Garcia could ever happen in Guam or the CNMI? Alot was mentioned about Tinian, but I'll save that discussion for another day.

Here are some of the questions that people asked. I've pasted them below:

Can you both speak to more examples or stories of successful resistance to military/colonial control and limiting their control in general?

Has Dr. Vine studied the plight of the Kurdish people in Iraq?

Mr. Vine, do you think that what happened to the Chagos Islanders could happen to Guam?

Dr. Vine mentioned UN mandates and resolutions on decolonization; could he elaborate on that with names and dates?

Can you talk about the role of art and cultural resistance in building a movement against military imperialism?

Since we have local leaders here, do you think they can petition the Federal Government to bring the UN Fourth Committee to conduct a seminar here on decolonization?

Can you please explain the similarities between Guam and the Diego Garcia Ocean Monuments?

What will Guam win through its current lawsuit against the US military?

How can we expect the military to take root on island and protect whatever it is they are supposed to protect if we protest them?

Given the economic hardship in Tinian and the fact that people are leaving the island in large numbers, do you think that the US may one day want to turn it into a base like Diego Garcia?

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