By Nivriti Sewtohul
Mauritius is one of those rare countries which have chosen not to go for a standing army on either land, sea and air. Luxembourg in Europe is another example, but with a population of around one thousand only. One reason put forward is that our island has no common frontier with any other country. Yet there are good reasons for us to set up armed forces. On land, our police forces are enough to maintain law and order.
It is the two million km2 of ocean that have to be policed. On the world map, Mauritius is but a tiny dot, but together with its territorial waters, it is larger than Germany. A former Commissioner of Police once said that there were more sharks on the surface of the waters than underneath. Drug traffickers, arms dealers, spies, illegal fishing trawlers and other obscure creatures are roaming the Indian Ocean constantly. Luckily for us, Somalian pirates have spared Mauritius up to now, but potential dangers are obviously looming large on our horizons.
The Seychelles have set up a naval force to watch over its territorial waters. Mauritius has successfully resisted this temptation for decades. In fact, around 1967, when the independence of our country was imminent, the question of an army was raised with Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam from certain concerned quarters. The latter was outright against the idea. In his view, armies with generals, admirals, etc., were a curse to nations, especially budding ones. In our ocean itself, Madagascar, the Comoros Islands, the Seychelles, and the Maldives, have all suffered coups d’Etat engineered by their military forces. Ironically, they represent instability instead of stability in countries where the central government is weak, and they gain an upper hand over the nation with a few gun shots. With hindsight, we realize today that Sir Seewoosagur’s decision has proved sound. In any case, Mauritius could never afford to turn hostile to Japan, Russia, Norway, and several other countries whose trawlers have been pillaging fish in our territorial waters. Instead the Mauritian government encouraged Japan to set up a canning factory near Port Louis Harbour. Employment was thus created for the local people, and tuna came from our own waters. The other decision taken was to issue fishing permits on an international basis and bide for time till the day Mauritians themselves would exploit all their marine resources.
Keeping watch over such a wide area of ocean waters was the question mooted in the 1960s, and it had become a thorn by the side of our independence. One solution of Sir Seewoosagur was to obtain from airplanes travelling to Plaisance airport information relayed to the control tower about any suspicious presence of fishing ships in our waters. He then tackled the problem diplomatically through the Mauritian embassies and international institutions of which Mauritius was a member. The good name of our country and that of SSR himself did the rest. Besides, Mauritius had maintained military links with Great Britain about to its defence after independence. The presence of the Indian navy in the Indian Ocean with the objective, amongst others, of looking after our interests, as forcefully voiced out by Indian prime ministers, has helped consolidate our stand as a non-military nation.
Mauritius has no enemy. Its population has rights guaranteed by its constitution. It enjoys good relations with all countries near and far. This is reinforced by the varied composition of its population which has been converted into a productive asset rather than a hindrance. Over the years, our reputation of peaceful co-existence, mutual understanding and racial brotherhood has gone beyond our frontiers. Social, cultural, religious and economic barriers are disappearing fast. The Mauritian is familiar with all cultures and creeds. He moves from the one to the other freely. Foreign nations view us with admiration in the way we are progressing. The surveillance of our land and ocean territories will be taken care of if we continue to maintain good diplomatic relations with all nations. The Indian Ocean Commission has joined the bandwagon in the meantime with shared responsibilities between the partners so that better control is exercised. Satellite surveillance has been roped in to better police the ocean and catch offenders who even seem to be caught unawares.
The billions of rupees thus saved from non-military expenditure means that more resources are made available for improving the lot of our people. Less than 2% of our national budget is allocated to the police sector. Free education, medicine, transport, pensions of all kinds, and other benefits are at the disposal of one and all. The military is a wasteful sector where salaries have to be paid and all the very costly paraphernalia provided and renewed perpetually.
The decision of Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam has had very far-reaching effects. Friendly nations are learning quite a few things from us. This is one more achievement that could open their eyes further, and thus avoid genocides provoked and worsened by arms dealers who have large stocks of unused weapons to dispose of, and newer ones to produce in order to maintain jobs in their own countries. Mauritius is lucky not to be a pawn in this game of life and death.
* Published in print edition on 28 September 2012