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Free Tibet and the West’s Struggle with China’s Growing Influence

For more than thirty years Free Tibet have been at the forefront of the West’s scrutiny of China’s human rights record.

The organisation gained widespread international support in the 1990s, with governments and celebrities alike speaking out in support of Tibetan rights and independence.

There are signs however that as Chinese influence and power grows on the world stage, high profile support for organisations like Free Tibet is getting harder to come by, as economic and strategic interests take precedence.

“It was everywhere in popular culture.” said John Jones, Campaigns and Advocacy Manager for Free Tibet.

“I think a lot of Hollywood stars are reluctant to speak out about it now. I think some films in Hollywood would be considered a flop if they didn’t break into the Chinese market, and the Chinese government has a say on what films get in.”

In a 2002 episode of The Simpsons, Lisa Simpson shouted “Free Tibet” after winning a spelling bee. A series of concerts in support of Tibet were held from 1996 through to 2008 throughout the west.

By 2018, London’s Royal Court theatre was pulling a play about Tibet after the British Council advised it would coincide with “significant political meetings” in China, and could stop the company from working there in the future.

This change within a decade coincides with an explosion in China’s economic prowess and global influence.

In 2018, the UK received $4.8bn in foreign direct investment from Beijing. China is also being earmarked as a vital post-Brexit trading partner, and the UK’s reluctance to outright oppose China has been displayed this year in its tentative approach to Huawei’s implementation of 5G networks throughout the country.

While Britain’s traditional allies the US, Australia, and New Zealand have banned the Chinese company from implementing its 5G networks, citing national security concerns, the UK has sat on the fence.

Both the US and China have threatened the UK over the issue.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested that the US may not trade diplomatic secrets with the UK if it had a Huawei-operated network.

Meanwhile Chinese diplomat Chen Wen alluded to “substantial” repercussions for Chinese investment into Britain should the network’s implementation be hindered.

What the Huawei issue shows is that the UK is desperate not to antagonise China, even at the expense of its traditional diplomatic relationships.

As Britain and the world struggles to come to terms within China’s ascent into superpower status, Beijing’s grasp on Tibet continues to tighten.

The Chinese military on the streets of Ngaba, Tibet, in 2011.

Mr Jones said: “Its hard for us to know just how bad Tibet is because its so closed. The information we get is sent in very convoluted ways. Its hard to get information out and it takes a while.”

Restrictions on the flow of information in and out of Tibet increased following strong western condemnation of the Chinese response to the 2008 Tibetan Uprising, during which the Tibetan government-in-exile claim that 203 people were killed.

Beijing subsequently invested in increased security forces, surveillance, internet monitoring, and border checks. Journalists are restricted, and the UN must be accompanied by government minders.

In 2014, hundreds of fake Twitter accounts which were found to be circulating Tibet-related pro-Chinese propaganda were shut down.

While exploiting western social media for their own gains, Beijing strictly regulates use of the internet within its own borders.

These restrictions extend to giants such as Google, Facebook, YouTube, and Wikipedia. Desperate to break into the Chinese market, Google began developing a Beijing-compliant search engine, Dragonfly. After heavy criticism, including a campaign led by Free Tibet, the programme was ostensibly pulled.

The information that does filter out typically tells of Beijing’s efforts to water-down Tibetan identity and autonomy.

This is done by suppressing the use of the Tibetan language, and the practice of Tibetan Buddhism.

Mr Jones said: ‘In order for [the Chinese] to cement this this state of affairs they want to eradicate or compromise aspects of Tibetan culture, you see that in the taking over of monasteries, in schools in Tibet which now revolve around the teaching of Mandarin Chinese, with Tibetan relegated to the status of just one class in the way that we might do French classes in a school in the UK.’

China has recently moved to demolish Larung Gar, a town famous for having the world’s largest Tibetan monastery, in an act some brandish cultural whitewashing.

Mandarin Chinese is now the standard language used in Tibetan secondary schools, and use of the language is increasingly common in the region’s cities, which are populated by a growing number of ethnic Han Chinese incentivised to move into the area.

The geopolitical significance of Tibet is undeniable, and Beijing’s desire for control of the reason is understandable given its provided access to the Himalayas, water supplies, and rich mineral wealth.

In turn, the Communist Party is keen to silence any pro-secessionist discourse, partly to protect these interests, as well as to protect Chinese soft-power on the international stage.

‘When Tibet is brought up, there is this real, defensiveness, probably because the government knows that some of the things its doing are reprehensible’ added Mr Jones.

Free Tibet continue to lobby governments and raise international awareness over these issues.

One notable such campaign is on the disappearance of the Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima.

The Panchen Lama is the second highest authority in Tibetan Buddhism. Gedhun disappeared aged 6, and six months later the Tibetan child of two Communist party members was named his replacement.   

This Beijing-based Lama is still in place, and the whereabouts of Gedhun remain unknown.

There are also some concerns that Beijing plans to appoint the successor to the Dalai Lama, the most influential figure in the region.

Free Tibet campaign to locate the whereabouts of Gedhun, and the freedom of Tibetan Buddhism from Chinese influence.

The organisation also works with the Tibetan diaspora , which stands at around 150,000 spread across 40 countries.

In February 2019, Tibetan-Canadian student Chemi Lhamo recieved a wave of online abuse and death threats after being elected president of the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus Student Union.

A petition to prevent her from becoming president gained over 10,000 signatures, part of which stated that “she is very deep into a group called Free Tibet. We think she is irrational about this.”

The petition appears to have been set up and signed primarily by Chinese students. This supports claims that members of Confucius Institutes and Chinese student associations throughout the west report to the Communist Party.

2019 has also seen Uyghur activist Rukiye Turdush filmed and shouted at while speaking at McMaster University in Ontario, also primarily by Chinese students.

The increasing difficulty with which Tibetan activists operate, both at home and abroad, is symptomatic of China’s growing power and influence.

Without organisations like Free Tibet, it is hard to know who, if anyone, would hold the Communist Party to account for his actions in Tibet, Xinjiang, and beyond.

For more information about Free Tibet and the Tibetan cause in general visit www.freetibet.org 

Life on the Isolated British Outpost of St Helena

Between worrying about Brexit and traditionally eating curry once a week, Saint Helenians could hardly be more British.

The main difference for the island, which forms part of the British Overseas Territory of St Helena, Ascension, and Tristan da Cunha, is that it is set in isolation in the Atlantic Ocean, 8,000km away from the UK.

Since the opening of its first airport in 2017 the remote island has been reinventing itself as a tourism hotspot, making the most of its ties to Napoleon as well as its rich marine environment.

“Before the airport opened we only had a ship that would call once every three weeks.” commented St Helena’s Director of Tourism Helena Bennett, 40.

“Since the airport has opened, we’ve even been getting Chinese visitors.”

Tourists had been relatively few a fair between prior to the airport’s opening, comprising almost exclusively of over 60’s cruises. Now taking far less time to get to, a younger, more adventurous demographic are being attracted to St Helena thanks to its rich diving environment and whale sharks.

A single tour operator had 46 people on diving packages in January and February, a very healthy number for the island. Ventures like this are invigorating the local economy.

Saints, as they refer to themselves, are hoping that political turmoil in the mother country won’t derail this increasingly positive outlook.

Ms Bennet said: “Everybody here is aware of Brexit, we’re conscious of it, and we’re all holding our breath to see what Brexit will mean for us. We are a bit worried.”

Funding from the EU has been essential for innovation and green energy projects throughout the island, and for the scientific research which brings in foreign workers and their spending money.

A conference on the impact of Brexit on British Overseas Territories, which have a combined total of around 250,000 was held in Tahiti March. However, much like mainland Brits, Saints are waiting to see what Brexit will really mean for them.

Despite its geographic isolation, the local population have a diverse heritage stemming from all corners of the world.

First discovered in the 16th century by the Portuguese, the island was settled a century later by the English East India Company (EIC).

The EIC encouraged immigration from Britain, imported African slaves, and used indentured labourers from India and East Asia.

As a result, Saints today can trace their heritage to India, Malaysia, Madagascar, Ireland, Scotland, England, and America.

“We don’t have no rules when it comes to racial mix.” added Ms Bennett.

This is reflected within their cuisine, which typically includes curry, pilaf rice, and the traditional British Sunday roast.  

Ties to Britain are exemplified by use of the English language, albeit with a unique accent, use of the (St Helenian) Pound, and a reverence for the Queen.

“We are British, but you don’t relly notice it until something goes on in the UK like the Queen’s Jubilee. Then you’ll find we all break out into having a party here.” added Ms Bennett.

St Helena however remains best known for the exile of Napoleon Bonaparte and his death on the island.

Napoleon was sent to St Helena in 1815 after defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. Having escaped from exile on Elba, the Allied powers were keen to send the emperor to as remote a location as possible.

Initially he stayed with the Balcombe family at Briar’s Pavilion, however he soon took up residence at Longwood House, under supervision of a specifically designated garrison of British soldiers. He died on St Helena in 1821.

The islands are preparing for international attention in 2021, the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s death.

Some have found St Helena’s capitalisation on Napoleon’s name as controversial, owing to his ostensible cause of multiple conflicts in Europe.

Ms Bennett commented: “They don’t like the idea that we should be celebrating Napoleon, but it is not celebrating, it is marking a significant point of time in our history.”

Celebration of the island’s history does not stop Saints from looking forward.

“In France, you’ve got everybody who knows of St Helena because of Napoleon, but when we were at the travel show there last year, they said ‘okay Napoleon was there, but what else can you do?’” added Ms Bennett.

If its tourism industry continues to grow at the rate and along the path that locals intend it to, there may soon come a day that St Helena is as synonymous with adventure holidays as it is with Napoleon Bonaparte.

An Independent London? Disillusioned Londoners Are Thinking About Going It Alone

Britain’s impending departure from the European Union is leading to increasing calls for autonomy and self-government for its pro-EU capital, London.

Almost 60% of Londoners voted to remain in the EU in 2016’s Referendum, and the turmoil which has followed the Brexit vote has provoked some to call for the capital to go it alone.

Geoff Hinkley and Rizwan Syed are part of a fledgling organisation named Londependence, which aims to represent Londoners disillusioned with Westminster.

Mr Hinkley said: “Brexit has shown that London can’t trust England to make good decisions about a shared future. And without that trust, do we have a future together at all? Sometimes a relationship just isn’t salvageable and you have to walk away.”

A YouGov poll conducted just after the 2016 Referendum indicated that 11% of people wanted London to become a separate country.

A petition for London to join the EU as a separate country gained more than 180,000 signatures.

In 2017 Labour MP for Tottenham David Lammy wrote in The Independent that London should become a city-state in the event of a ‘hard Brexit’.

The alienation between the country and the capital can also be felt on the ground.

Mr Syed, a former journalist and current web developed, said: “you hear people say it in coffeeshops ‘oh London, its like its own country.’”

Londependence are planning to launch a political party, which would aim to capitalise on this disillusionment and give Londoners an alternative vote. Its founders however remain realistic about their prospects.

Mr Hinkley added: “we are trying to build an idea that people will vote for an the only way to get more than a candidate’s name on a ballot paper is to have a political party.

“We don’t have any illusions about winning much just yet but it shows we know where we want to go.”

“We are a movement in its infancy. We’re not in a position to launch a broad appeal to public. Our immediate goal is just to be doing something that people who are interested in the idea of Londependence can get involved in – even if that something is not all that effective yet.”

The group seek greater autonomy and self government for the capital, which polls suggest is a relatively popular idea amongst Londoners.

YouGov’s July 2016 survey found that 23% of Londoners want a London Parliament, with devolved powers similar to Scotland’s.

“We want to be free to use our city’s own considerable talents to fix the problems that matter to Londoners. We are sick of London subsidising the rest of the country while Londoners are shouted down as metropolitan elites or foreign interlopers.” added Mr Hinkley.

While Brexit has been the catalyst for much of this dissatisfaction, the cultural, political, and ideological differences between London and England have in any case been widening in recent years.

London’s population is just under 60% white, compared to 86% for England and Wales.

Around 9% of England’s population are aged 25-34,  with that age group forming 24% of Inner London’s inhabitants.

The 2011 Census showed that 37% of London’s population was foreign born, the world’s second highest foreign born population after New York’s. This number falls to around 14% for the UK as a whole.

These differences are visible in UK politics. A look at a map of the 2017 General Election results shows London as an island of Labour-red amongst a sea of Conservative-blue.

Londoners envious of successful independent city state, Singapore, are now taking inspiration. How apt are the comparisons between the two cities?

Singapore and London bear some interesting similarities. Both are financial superpowers, have a multi-ethnic population, and carry tremendous soft power.

Singapore was incorporated into the Federation of Malaya, along with North Borneo (Sabah) and Sarawak, in 1963, to form Malaysia.

This was largely done on the premise of a customs union, which Singaporeans felt would boost their economy.

Malayan nationalists were however wary of Singapore and it’s ethnic Chinese majority, which they felt could upset the country’s ethnic and political balance.

It was feared that Chinese Singaporeans would harbour Communist sympathies, giving that movement a platform in Malaysia proper, and allowing for Beijing to influence Malaysian affairs.

This led Malaysia to unanimously vote Singapore out of the federation, effectively forcing independence on the city state.

Singapore today is a thriving financial superpower, and is viewed by many as a model for successful statecraft. Many in Malaysia sorely regret its expulsion.  

Parallels can be seen here with London’s relationship with England and the EU.

Like Singapore’s when compared to Malaysia, London’s population is vastly different ethnically to England’s in general.

Londoners fear significant damage to its economy should Britain leave the European Customs Union, just as failure to establish a customs union post-independence damaged Malaysia economically and hindered Singaporean/Malaysian relations.

Malaysia could not reconcile itself with Singapore’s assumed natural predisposition to left-leaning politics, and as Londoners shift increasingly left politically, this could be reflected by those in England who view those in the capital as ‘metropolitan elites’ and ‘foreign interlopers’.

It is no wonder that secessionists in the capital look to the Lion City as an example.

London however remains very much the English capital. Unlike many western countries, in which various cities serve important roles, London is England’s cultural, political, and financial centre.

While initiatives such as Northern Powerhouse fail to get off the ground, London continues to establish itself as the world’s pre-eminent ‘global city’.

An England without London is almost as hard to imagine as an independent London, and it is not easy to predict which of the two would be more successful.

While fledgling organisations like Londependence are embryonic at this stage, London’s power relative to the nation as a whole could see small movements like this one make a huge impact.   

Thousands March on London to Demand Brexit People’s Vote

Thousands marched on London today calling for a second Brexit referendum and the revocation of Article 50.

The “Put it To The People” march travelled from Park Lane to Parliament Square, with organisers claiming that more than a million people took part.

A petition calling for the revocation of Article 50 gained four million signatures this week, after the EU agreed to delay the UK’s exit until April.

Protester Jen Llywelyn, 70, from Ceredigion in Wales, said: “I’ve travelled because I suffer from depression, and I’m getting more and more depressed as this madness continues.”

Mrs Llywelyn said that Theresa May had ignored the Welsh people and their interests, and that Brexit could stoke Welsh nationalism.

The march is set to rivals 2003’s Stop the War March, when more than 750,000 protested the UK’s co-operation in the invasion of Iraq, as the largest this century in this country.

Huge crowds gathered on Park Lane for a 1pm start, with many people carrying flags, homemade banners and signs.

Speakers at Parliament Square included London Mayor Sadiq Khan, Sandi Toksvig, and Siobhan McSweeney, of Channel 4’s Derry Girls, who reiterated the importance of the EU to the Northern Irish peace process.

Christopher Penney, 67, of Leicester, said he hopes the UK will eventually revoke Article 50, and that political divisions were causing the current stalemate.

Mr Penney said: “I hate to say it but I think we’ve got right on our side, correctness on our side.”

BREXIT - a timline

Theresa May has insisted that a second EU referendum is not on the cards.

Frank Connor, who is a member of the Green Party, suggested that the ‘disaster’ of Brexit could allow for eventual parliamentary and electoral reform.

Mr Connor said: “I’m kind of hoping that this week something nuclear will happen.”

The UK is currently scheduled to leave the EU on the 12th of April.

Football in Exile: The Chagos FA and the Struggle to Get Their Islands Back

Establishing a national football team can be difficult, particularly if the British Government forcibly depopulated your entire country.

Yet despite living in exile in Mauritius, Seychelles, and the UK this is exactly what the Chagossian people have done.

Sabrina Jean is a second generation deportee, and settled in the UK in 2006 after having lived in Mauritius. Since 2013 she has organised the Chagos FA, who represent the Chagossian diaspora as part of Conifa – the Confederation of Independent Football Associations.

Chagos FA enter the field alongside opponents Matabeleland, led by Liverpool legend Bruce Grobbelaar.

“I was inspired to start a football team after two friends of mine gave me some advice on how it can benefit my campaign.” said Mrs Jean.

“So after long consideration we started the Chagos Football Association. Now since we created the team many other countries know about the Chagossian struggle.”

The Chagos Islands are an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, administered as part of the British Indian Ocean Territory.

The islanders were brutally deported during the 1970s so that the United States could built an enormous military base in exchange for discounted Polaris nuclear technology. Over 100 pets are said to have been gassed during the expulsion, to prevent Chagossians from returning to them.

The islanders have since struggled to maintain their identity and to fight for their return. Many have settled in Crawley, West Sussex. Despite living in the UK, Chagossians are often denied citizenship by the British Government, and the British public remain largely unaware of the issue.

Chagossians are hoping that initiatives like the national football team will gain attention and garner public support.

The Chagos FA first played in 2013, against the Principality of Sealand. Since then they have played against sides such as Somaliland, Tamil Eelam, Panjab and Barawa. Chagos even participated in the 2016 Conifa World Cup in Abkhazia.

Chagos enter the field alongside their opponents: Bruce Grobbelaar’s Matabeleland

Funding has been a long-standing issue for the organisation. The precursor to the Chagos FA, the Union Chagossiene de Football, were forced to fold in 2012.

Mrs Jean said: “we have many difficulties, we don’t have a specific place to train also we don’t have a sponsor. We have made lots of applications to have a sponsor but these have been in vain.”

Conifa has gained a lot of publicity in recent years as a mode for which ethnic groups, identities, and other groups otherwise unable to join Fifa can compete and raise their profile.

Despite the assortment of identities within Conifa, the Chagossians are a rarity, as alongside the Rohingya FA they form one of the few participants unable to return to the country they are representing.

The chance to come together and be represented can however be taken as a welcome positive after decades of persecution.

Vice-Chair of the UK Chagos Support Association Stefan Donnelly said: “It’s an amazing chance for young people, most of whom have never been to the Chagos Islands, to connect with their heritage.

As a direct result of the brutal deportations of the 1960s & 1970s, many of these young people have had hugely difficult lives. The Chagos Islands National Football Team gives them a chance to show their pride in what remains an incredibly committed, close knit and proud community.”

Chagos are next scheduled to play in Surrey in April 2019.

Western Sahara: The EU, the US, Morocco, and an inconvenient truth

Go to Google, search for a map of the world, and take a look at north-western Africa. Wedged between Morocco and Mauritania on the Atlantic coastline, you’re likely to see a country labelled Western Sahara. This is peculiar, because if you travelled to that area and asked the locals where they are from, they are unlikely to reply with the name given to the territory on most western map editions. No, those hailing from Western Sahara are either citizens of Morocco, or the Sahrawi Democratic Arab Republic, depending on their political inclinations. This anomaly stems from a territorial dispute dating back to the 1970s, when Spain’s belated decolonisation of Africa led to conflict over who reigned sovereign in this part of the Sahara. Morocco claimed the territory by proxy as their ‘Southern Provinces’, while the native Sahrawis have resisted in a fight for self-determination. The struggle has defined north-west African politics for the past forty years, and yet is seldom documented in western media. The ambiguity with which the region is labelled on most world maps is symptomatic of the ambivalence in the west’s diplomatic approach, which has been defined by inconsistency with regards to the sovereign rights of peoples and criticism of human rights abuses.

North Africa
Western Sahara as it appears on most world maps, easily mistaken for an independent country.

Dispute over the Western Sahara region, which has a population of 500,000 and is larger than the UK, is largely a hangover of European colonialism in Africa. When Africa was arbitrarily divided between the European powers during the ‘Scramble for Africa’, Spain was granted sovereignty over a patch of desert set west of French Morocco. Spanish Sahara was home to the historic Sahrawi people, who through the brutality of Spain’s colonial administration became acutely aware of the importance of sovereignty and self-determination. When Spain’s languid grip on its colonial possession became known to the world, Spanish Sahara’s neighbours began to eye possession of the territory. Claimed by both Mauritania and Morocco, the world anticipated a division between the two nations. The rights of indigenous Sahrawis were not taken to account, as was often the case during the hurried decolonisation of Africa (see Biafra, Somaliland, and to an extent South Sudan). Provoked by the 1975 Madrid Accords, which sought to grant two thirds of Western Sahara to Morocco and the remainder to Mauritania, the Polisario Front was founded.

The Polisario Front demanded a right to Sahrawi self-determination, and declared the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic in former Spanish Sahara in 1976, sparking the Western Sahara War. Months earlier, 350,000 Moroccan citizens, escorted by 20,000 Moroccan troops, had entered Western Sahara as part of the Green March, announcing to the world the Moroccan intention to annex the territory. Quickly overran by the vastly more powerful Moroccan military, the Sahrawi campaign descended into guerrilla resistance. Morocco would eventually envelop 80% of Western Sahara, leaving Polisario with a sliver of inland desert, bordered by a heavily defended sand berm. That Mauritania sued for peace in 1979 is testament to the effectiveness of the guerrilla campaign, and has removed one of the SADR’s two main obstacles to achieving statehood. Sahrawi rebels have based themselves in exile in Tindouf, Algeria, and garnered a respectable amount of support from that country. A massive Moroccan offensive in the late 1980s led to a 1991 ceasefire, from which point the history of the region has been defined by failed western initiatives.

The ceasefire of 1991 led to international calls for a referendum in the territory regarding sovereignty. These calls stalled due to disputes over voter eligibility; Morocco was keen to avoid any voting demographic they felt would favour Sahrawi independence, while Sahrawis resisted any referendum which enfranchised large numbers of ethnic Moroccans. External designs on a peaceful solution culminated in the Baker Plans of 2001 and 2003, which called for a five-year period of Sahrawi autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty prior to an eventual independence referendum. The Baker Plans, named for UN Envoy to Western Sahara James Baker, failed due to Moroccan resistance despite unexpected co-operation from the Polisario Front. Post-Baker, a tightening of Moroccan relations with the EU and the United States has led to an incoherence and apathy in the west’s approach to Western Sahara.

In 2005, the EU signed a fisheries agreement with Morocco, permitting EU vessels to fish off Moroccan shores. This includes Western Sahara, a policy which some have claimed violates international law. In 2006 Morocco and the United States signed a Free Trade Agreement, and the kingdom forms a large export market for American and French arms. This web of economic alliances has left Western Sahara an inconvenient truth, as the Moroccan occupation undermines the hallmarks of liberalism, human rights, and self-determination which underpin the west’s worldview, particularly that of the EU. The EU is a prisoner of its Moroccan partnership, and as such has no concrete position on WS. Members of the bloc such as The Netherlands or Sweden may from time to time label WS an occupied territory (the latter such case hindered the opening of an IKEA store in Morocco), but the EU cannot decisively act owing to its dependence on Morocco for migration regulation and counter-terrorism. Moreover, Spain relies on a placid Morocco in order to maintain its African territories at Ceuta and Melilla. Perhaps most importantly however is the fact that with regards to North Africa, Morocco is a remarkably stable country, and one which is open to western trade and co-operation. A unanimous call for Sahrawi sovereignty is likely to lead to the loss of a major western ally in a turbulent region.

Morocco remains steadfast in its rejection of Sahrawi independence. In March 2016, following a Ban Ki-Moon visit to Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria, the UN peacekeeping mission MINURSO (Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, present since the 1991 ceasefire) was expelled in protest. Polisario have hinted at a return to conflict as their hopes of a diplomatic resolution wane. The position of the SADR seems fleeting though, as a Moroccan economic scheme has seen millions of dollars of investment pumped into Western Sahara, with the construction of roads and airports, implementation of agricultural and electrical programmes, and the encouragement of tourism legitimising the kingdom’s position in an international sense. This has been supported by an influx of Moroccan workers, who now vastly outnumber the native Sahrawis. As the EU and US renege on their ideological convictions for economic and political convenience, it seems inevitable that soon when one goes to Google and looks at a world map, that space which read Western Sahara will read Morocco.


The United States, Japan, and the Subjugation of Okinawa

The relocation of the United States Marine Corps Base at Futenma, Okinawa, has long-been a controversial subject within Japanese politics. Plans to relocate the base to Camp Schwab, in the island’s far north, have stagnated in recent years as a result of prolonged local protest. Now, following the election of the pro-Tokyo mayoral candidate Taketoyo Toguchi in Okinawa’s Nago City, PM Abe has expressed his relief in finally being at liberty to press ahead with the American relocation. This does not however reveal the full story of Okinawa, former independent Kingdom turned Japan’s poorest prefecture, and their century of subjugation.

Quick Facts Okinawa

Okinawa has a long and vibrant culture. Alongside the remainder of the Ryukyu Island chain Okinawa formed the Ryukyu Kingdom, a major trading post in Medieval Asia. Famous for its porcelain, trade with China resulted in significant Ming Dynasty influence, including widespread immigration from China. Following the 1609 invasion of the Japanese Satsuma Domain, the blend of Chinese and Japanese influence resulted in the emergence of a unique Okinawan culture, complete with its own distinct languages. Local trade evolved into trade with the wider world, with the Ryukyu island ports serving as the only stages within which European traders could access Japanese markets during the period of isolationism.

The relative liberty enjoyed within Ryukyu ended in 1879, when the Empire of Japan formally annexed the archipelago, establishing the Okinawa Prefecture. King Sho Tai was exiled to Tokyo, and with a policy of colonisation which would soon be replicated in Korea and wider Southeast Asia, indigenous Ryukyuan culture and language were systemically repressed. The Japanese language was made standard, and ‘dialect speakers’ were publicly shamed. The intense labour which formed the backbone of the Tokyo-engineered Okinawan economy led to mass emigration, primarily to industrial cities on the mainland such as Osaka. When the Second World War broke out, Okinawans were one of many communities who felt threatened by the expansionist and brutal imperial Japanese regime. Their fears were not misplaced, as the Battle of Okinawa, one of the most significant battles of the Pacific War, saw over a third of the native civilian population killed. Many of these died as a result of Japanese propaganda, which portrayed the Americans as monsters, leading to suicide.

Defeat during the war saw Japanese domination on Okinawa replaced by US military domination. From 1950 until 1972 the US Civil Administration of the Ryuku Islands was the de facto government in Okinawa. The US dollar was the currency, cars drove on the right, and a proliferation of US military installations were installed across the island, cemented by the 1960 Status of Forces Agreement. The US military presence has long been seen as an invasive presence, a disrupter of Okinawan peace, a factor which ties the island and islanders lives to American conflicts such as Korea and Vietnam. The Okinawa Prefecture was returned to Japanese control in 1971, however the US military presence, encompassing 19% of Okinawa, remained. Seen as an amalgamation of American and Japanese oppression, grievances towards the US military presence came to a head in 1995, when three US servicemen were convicted of the rape of a 12-year-old Okinawan girl. The mass protestations prompted suggestions of a reduction in the US military presence, as well as a relocation of the Futenma Air Station. This wasn’t enough for many Okinawans, and rejections of the Camp Schwab relocation made on both environmental and anti-military grounds have resulted in a decades long stagnation of the proposals.

Okinawans continue to be let down by a Tokyo Government which values their military strategic partnership more than the will of its own citizens. Local opposition was signified when in November 2014, the anti-US base candidate Takeshi Onaga was elected as the Okinawan Governor. This hindered any immediate progression of the base relocation. While this may be viewed in stark contrast to the more recent of the pro-relocation mayor in Nago City, it is worth bearing in mind that Okinawa is the poorest Prefecture in Japan. Child poverty stands at 37%, almost three times higher than the national average. When faced with such neglect, candidates stressing their desire for economic growth are bound to be favoured by those affected. Taketoyo Toguchi ran such a campaign. While Shinzo Abe saw this as a greenlight for the long-stagnant relocation project, perhaps the clear cry from Nago’s high poverty rates should have been the overriding message to adhere from the result of the vote. Opposition to the US-military presence is undoubtedly still widespread, however this is offset by the poor economic conditions on the island. While Japan continues to bend to the American will, little will change in Okinawa. The islanders will continue to resist, as they have done for centuries.


Britain’s Paedophile Island: Scandal and Survival on Pitcairn

The story of the Mutiny aboard William Bligh’s HMS Bounty is perhaps the most documented mutiny in naval history. Far-less known however is the story of what became of Fletcher Christian and his fellow mutineers. They, in their bid to evade capture by the Royal Navy, stumbled across an uninhabited island isolated in the expanse of the South Pacific – Pitcairn – where their descendants live to this day. A blend of Old English, Scots and Tahitian – Pitcairn language and culture is a living history. Supplied annually from New Zealand, the islands have a population of around 50, are free of television and cars, and are a three-day-boat journey from the nearest serviced airstrip. The seeming tranquillity of their isolated island home is not reflected in the now 227 year social history of Pitcairn, which has been defined by violence, depopulation, and, more recently, child-sex scandals. Subsidised by taxpayers 14,500km away, this last outpost of the British Empire serves as a social experiment unparalleled on Earth, one which reveals the perils of sustained generational isolation, as well as the ever-changing definition of modern morality and the complications caused when those morals are used to judge communities whose customs have not evolved along the same path.

Pitcairn Location
Pitcairn’s isolated location in the expanse of the Pacific Ocean

When the mutineers arrived on Pitcairn in 1790 they comprised of nine Bounty crewmen, eleven Tahitian women, six Tahitian men, and one baby. Knowing the alternative to refuge in isolation in the far reaches of the Pacific was capture and imprisonment or death at the hands of the Royal Navy, the community embedded itself into Pitcairn, one of four islands which would eventually become the British Pitcairn Island Colony. Previously inhabited by since-departed Polynesian peoples, the island was adept for the sustenance of a small, permanent community. This did not however prevent violence from breaking out amongst the settlers, who, fuelled by ethnic divisions, alcoholism and sexual grievances began warring with one another. The fighting was so intense that within five years, John Adams was the only surviving male in the community. Granted amnesty for his part in the mutiny, the Adams-led purged commune began to flourish, and subsequent to official colonisation by Britain in 1838 the population was recorded at 193. This explosion in population size within such a narrow pool of breeders, within such a short period of time, indicates a culture of inbreeding and underage sex, problems which continue to define Pitcairn and its people. The extended population stretched the island’s resources to the extreme, and under pressure from the crown the islanders agreed to relocation on Norfolk Island, a flax-growing outpost of Australia. However, after a few years, 44 had returned, drawn by their cultural attachment to the rocky Pacific outpost.

Largely left to govern their own affairs throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries, the islands persisted in isolation and obscurity for over a hundred years. The islanders converted to Seventh Day Adventism after a visit from an American sailor, and economic self-sufficiency was achieved through the export of collectible stamps. This all changed in 2004, when following a tip-off made by a young girl to a visiting British Police Officer, a deeply entrenched culture of rape and under-age sex was exposed. Upon investigation during Operation Unique, headed by DI Peter George and Rob Vinson of Kent Police, a number of Pitcairn women revealed that they had frequently been sexually assaulted as children by men in the community. These allegations, which stretched back years, unveiled an archaic paradigm in Pitcairn society – a striking inability to grasp the concept of statutory rape. Girls had been having sex with men as far back as any islander could remember. Testaments made by the men accused- seven on Pitcairn, including the mayor Steve Christian, and six abroad – stressed that in Polynesian culture, girls are seen to mature at an early age, and that this was something a judge representing modern British culture could not fully understand or officiate upon. This was exacerbated by the fact that the islanders had set their own laws throughout the twentieth century, laws which did not explicitly forbid murder or rape. Such activity was seemingly often perpetrated, seldom spoken about, and generally accepted as simply the way things were. The British, represented by a distant governor based in New Zealand, were conflicted in their approach. Should mediation be employed in an appreciation of the peculiarity of Pitcairn custom and in prevention of the imprisonment of a third of the islands male population, or should British law be enacted in full? The latter was opted for, and an official assault trial took place. The men accused helped in the construction of a prison on the island in anticipation of the verdict. Six men were convicted, all of whom were living at home by 2010.

While it is easy to present the sexual assault trial as an imposition of modern values on an archaic culture, something which the men accused stressed, this is contrasted by the testimonies of the brave women who stepped forward. Those women, who while raised in a society which endeavoured to dismiss such crimes as ‘normal’, took their opportunity to end historical sexual injustices within their community. This came despite the implications it would inevitably have in the short-term for men they had lived with in isolation for their entire lives, and who they were often related to in some form. Believed by some to be a conspiracy conjured by the British to depopulate the islands, the trials have left deep divisions between those islanders willing to listen to the testimonies of the outspoken women, and those who outright deny any wrongdoing. More often than not, denial is a refusal to accept that minors cannot consent to sex with an adult. The issue persists: in 2010 Mike Warren, Mayor of Pitcairn, was charged with the possession of indecent images of children. Children aged under 16 must apply for an ‘entry clearance application’ prior to visiting the island, while the Foreign Office forbids any island-based staff to be accompanied by their children. Highlighted at Pitcairn is the need for imposed morality in the face of barbaric practices, whether or not such practices are seen as normal within a given community.

Rocked by the assault trials, the islanders now focus on survival. Emigration of their young, primarily to Australia and New Zealand, is casting doubt over the sustainable future of Pitcairn. Invitations for immigrants have largely gone ignored, despite the creation of a Marine Reservation around the island, fuelling hopes for associated tourism. The costs and distances involved in visiting the island, as well as the negative publicity surrounding the territory, are preventing any such programmes from being significantly profitable. It remains to be seen whether the scandal and incrimination of a third of the communities’ adult men may lead to the extinction of a culture dating back to 1790. Time will tell whether wounds will heal, and tensions are exacerbated by the islands isolation and the entangled nature of Pitcairn community. As a tiny democracy, government will be in the hands of the victims, parents, and the convicted alike. The coming years will reveal whether a community living in such extreme isolation can recover from a culture-changing scandal to build a platform for successive generations of islanders to persevere in the Pacific.


Frontline Gibraltar: The Evacuation of the Rock

Gibraltar is a thriving British Overseas Territory, situated at the gateway to the Mediterranean. The local population are a multicultural blend of Maltese, British, Moroccan, Genoese, Jewish and Spanish cultures, and speak a distinctive dialect known as Llanito. A successful democracy, Gibraltarians enjoy some of the lowest unemployment figures in the world, with infrastructure supported by bunkering and an booming online gambling industry. Students study at universities, primarily within the UK, for free, with much of their living expenses subsidised by the local government. An extensive government housing programme means very few Gibraltarians are homeless. This acute social awareness within Gibraltarian politics and democracy has not evolved as organically throughout the peninsula’s extensive history as it might be assumed. The importance of individual and community rights within Gibraltarian culture can be traced directly to the Second World War, when the territory was almost entirely depopulated by the British to make way for military fortification. The experiences of the evacuated population, who were ferried between three continents throughout the conflict, form the bedrock of modern Gibraltarian culture and politics.

Quick Facts Gibraltar

Having been invaded by the Moors in the Fourteenth Century, surrendered to the British in 1704, and besieged by the Spanish and French in 1782, Gibraltar is no stranger to military conflict. In all of these instances the civilian population endured, with the siege of 1782 on record as the longest in British military history. Gibraltarians were relatively unaffected during the First World War, but the all-encompassing nature of the Second World War did not overlook La Roca. The involvement of Fascist Italy in the conflict meant that the Mediterranean, and control of it, was a key aspect of British strategic policy. This was exacerbated following the Italian invasion of British territory in North Africa. The need for a military staging post in the area led to a declaration by the British in June 1940, that all women, children and elderly of Gibraltar were to be evacuated to French Morocco. The British assessed that the presence of a civilian population would impede the productivity of the base, which was to be expanded for use by the RAF and Royal Navy. Therefore, without significant deliberation, 13,500 Gibraltarians were escorted onto boats away from their homeland.

The situation in Morocco soon became untenable. The capitulation of France, following which French territories in North Africa were governed by the Nazi-collaborating Vichy regime, saw the evacuated Gibraltarians living in enemy territory. This situation turned to hostility following an often documented incident at Mers-el-Kebir, where the British sunk the French Fleet to prevent its use by the Axis powers. The evacuees were forced out of Casablanca as a result, and were herded by rifle-wielding French soldiers onto British ships not equipped with provisions for a large civilian population. Return to Gibraltar was impossible as fortification of the territory was in full swing; the Gibraltar Defence Force were formed, an airfield constructed, and the Rock of Gibraltar itself extensively fortified with miles of tunnels, hospitals, power stations, and barracks built inside. A return of the civilian population would risk the compromising of this extensive strategic development.

As such, despite protests from the fatigued evacuees, the transports navigated the Atlantic war-zone to Britain. Had the transports been attacked, one British Admiral claimed it would have been the worst maritime disaster in history. Most evacuated Gibraltarians remained in London throughout the war, where they would endure the worst of The Blitz within houses rendered empty by occupants who themselves had fled to safer locations in the British countryside. Luckier were those sent to Madeira, who enjoyed a relatively peaceful war. Many more were sent to Jamaica, where they inhabited a camp now comprising part of the University of the West Indies. Exposure to the English language and the western world would profoundly impact the evacuees. Pre-war, the Spanish language was used in education, and also within the most popular newspaper of the day ‘El Capense’. Western exposure, as well as participation in Britain’s war, led to the distinct anglicisation of Gibraltarian culture visible today.

Gib Searchlights
The Rock of Gibraltar, lit by British searchlights during WWII

The success of the 1942 Allied invasion of North Africa, which Gibraltar had been strategically vital in, negated any realistic possibility of invasion or attack at the territory. This prompted calls from evacuees and those who remained in Gibraltar for repatriation. The civilian population was still regarded as a potential nuisance by the British. Gibraltar retained its strategic importance, and Britain saw its dominance of Mediterranean commerce and the associated Suez Canal zone as a lynch-pin in its post-war cling to great power status. Moreover, many homes had been demolished to facilitate militarisation, and an extensive homelessness crisis was feared should the evacuees return too soon. As such, the return was delayed. Many were moved to camps outside of Belfast, within which conditions were said to be appalling. Over 6,000 evacuees remained within camps such as these by the war’s end, with the last Gibraltarian returning home in 1951.

This denial of basic human rights and exodus from their families and homeland led to a heightening of the Gibraltarian social consciousness. Along this vein, the Association for Advancement of Civil Rights was established by Joshua Hassan and Albert Risso. The AACR called for improved working conditions, access to healthcare, and improved working conditions under the slogan ‘with Britain, not under Britain’. It is no coincidence that the rise to prominence of the AACR coincided with the rise of Attlee’s Labour Party in Britain, who were elected on a manifesto broadly comparable to that proposed for Gibraltar. Gibraltarians returning from London had been exposed to the grievances of the British working class and could see these issues reflected within their own society. These demands continue to form the basis of modern Gibraltarian politics, as access to free education, healthcare, and government housing dominating the demands of the territory’s inhabitants. This focus on Gibraltarian rights forms one of two key components of Gibraltarian culture, alongside the commitment to partnership with Britain. This was perhaps best demonstrated in 2002, when 98% of voters rejected the principle of share sovereignty with Spain. These two key aspects of Gibraltarian culture were undoubtedly shaped by the experiences of those evacuated from their homes during the Second World War.

J G Middleton and B Bagu


  • Constantine, S., Community and Identity: The Making of Modern Gibraltar Since 1704



    Finlayson, T.J., Gibraltar and the Spanish Shadow


    Finlayson, T.J., The Fortress Came First: The Story of the Civilian Population of Gibraltar during the Second World War


    Gingell, J., ed Beiso, D, We Thank God and England


    Jackson, W.G.F., and Cantos, F.J., From Fortress to Democracy: The Political Biography of Sir Joshua Hassan

  • Photos; Cover Photo: www.gbc.gi/news/75th-anniversary-wwii-evacuation-be-commemorated-next-month; The Rock Image: WikiCommons

Refugees of the Special Relationship: Chagossians and their struggle to get home

In November 2016, a community of people based in Crawley, West Sussex, travelled to Whitehall in order to protest a government decision which would extend the now fifty year exile from their homeland by twenty years. Almost unheard of within the country they now predominantly reside, Chagossians are a people without a home. Hailing from a group of islands in the geographical centre of the Indian Ocean, they are the enduring reminder of a deplorable decision made in 1966, whereby the British government authorised the expulsion of the inhabitants of the Diego Garcia island group in order to facilitate the construction of an enormous US military base. Their story ever since has been one of abuse, neglect, and an overriding fight for preservation and recognition.

Quick Facts Chagos

The political decisions behind the expulsion of the native Chagos Islanders were heavily influenced by the decline of Empire, The Cold War, and late twentieth century US hegemony. Throughout the 1960s, as the winds of change swept through the old world order and colonialism gave way in the face of rising worldwide national consciousness, the need for the west to preserve some sort of military presence east of Suez was stark. This was exacerbated by the perceived threat of both the Soviet Union and a rising China. To counteract this, the ‘island chain strategy’ was developed, a theory which perceived the containment of communist expansion via the fortification of islands throughout the Pacific and Indian Oceans. To this end, prior to the UK’s granting of Mauritian independence, the US requested that the Chagos Archipelago be annexed, reconstituted as a separate colony labelled the British Indian Ocean Territory, and leased to the United States Navy. The British, assuming their junior role in the special relationship with vigour, accepted. The decision would anger the newly independent Mauritian government, as well as the wider global governance network. The UN immediately passed a resolution which condemned the islands detachment from Mauritius, this was ignored, and US will was adhered to. So too was the demand that any resident islanders were removed to prevent any resistance to the military presence.

The Chagossians can trace their roots back to East African slave labourers transported to islands in the late 18th century by the French. The defeat of France during the Napoleonic Wars saw the islands handed over to the British, who began importing indentured labourers from India subsequent to the 1833 Abolition of Slavery Act. Over generations, the peoples on the island integrated and a distinct Chagossian culture emerged. A unique and peaceful culture persisted on the islands for generations, uninterrupted until men in distant lands decided their slice of paradise was a prime location for a military base. These same men decided that the presence of the islanders would inhibit the functionality of that island base. In order to facilitate their expulsion, the British government endeavoured to deface the Chagossian culture and any generational attachment to the islands. This came despite the fact that the islands had been populated around the same time the white man arrived in Australia, and in similar circumstances. To claim the Chagossians have no rights or connection to the islands is also to deny such rights to those populating the Falkland – rights which Downing Street went to war to protect in the 1980s.  Through the cessation of goods importation as well as intimidation by UK and US military personnel, the Chagossians were compelled to leave to the neighbouring Seychelles and Mauritius. UK aid packages were far from adequate, and islanders often lived as refugees in conditions of abject poverty. More recently, lacklustre efforts have been made by the government to provide islanders with British passports, and many have settled in Crawley, where an exiled community has emerged, however  many Chagossians remain separated from family members as a result of complex British citizenship laws. This does not mean however that a reversal of the expulsion has been likely, and any concessions are rather an admittance of guilt, a guilt which has and always will be overridden by the dependence of the UK upon US military hegemony and its upholding of the western world order.

The vocal exile community based out of Crawley has often raised the issue into the public eye. In 2000 the British High Court judged the eviction of Chagossians as illegal. While this decision was celebrated amongst campaigners, it proved inconsequential, as the Government used a Royal Prerogative to reverse the decision, bypassing Parliament in a manner very rarely seen within 21st century British politics. The islands flirted with the public eye again in 2010, when in a move revealed in leaked memos to have been heavily influenced by the need to undermine the Chagossian repatriation campaign, Foreign Secretary David Miliband created a Marine Protected Area around the archipelago. The practicality of such a reserve was immediately called into question, and the decision gathered criticism from high profile members of the Green Party and Greenpeace.

Heading into 2016 there was hope, as the US lease over the islands was up for renewal. Under Obama, the US had often hinted at its desire to step back from its extensive overseas commitments and return to the dormancy it had enjoyed before the Second World War. Moreover, the return of the islanders would have reflected well upon the Conservative government, both within the eyes of the British public and the international community. However, in November 2016 the Government announced that the US lease would be extended by twenty years, and all requests for the islander’s return were rejected. Some suggested that Chagossians could live on the islands and support the US military presence, supplanting the Filipino workers imported to conduct low-level maintenance tasks. Standing in the way of this however is the reality that native populations often oppose and hinder operations at a number of the 909 overseas facilities administered as part of the US military empire. Local grievances have limited the effectiveness of bases in the Philippines, Japan, and Turkey. As such, Chagossian exile suits American military aims in the Indian Ocean perfectly. The islanders fight on.

One of the main problems facing the islanders, particularly following the November 2016 decision, is the lack of publicity that the struggle gets within the mainstream media. Significant public pressure might be the key to precipitating a reversal of the British Government’s decision, however exposure is needed in order to achieve this. This is well known by the exiles, who endeavour through social media, protests and other mediums to promote their cause. The participation of a Chagos Islands Football Team within the 2016 Confederation of Independent Football Associations (Conifa) World Cup in Abkhazia, Georgia, is testament to this. While the Chagossians were knocked out in the group stages, their real success was the raising of the island’s profile and with it their struggle to return home. The islanders undoubtedly face a significant challenge, as the special relationship shows no signs of strain, even with Donald Trump in the White House. Wider public pressure remains the key to their return to paradise.