Timeline of British Intervention in Sri Lanka

1979

A former director of the UK security service MI5, Jack Morton, visited Sri Lanka and made “practical recommendations for the total reorganisation of the intelligence apparatus”. His report described “the depressing picture of apparatus and morale in the security forces tackling the Tamil problem”.

1983

Senior Sri Lankan police officers invited to Belfast to “see at first hand the roles of the police and army in counter-terrorist operations”, as well as attending an MI5 conference on terrorism and visiting the Metropolitan Police Special Branch to discuss Tamil separatists living in the UK. Foreign Office pledges to “discreetly” provide Sri Lankans with para-military training for counter-insurgency operations and commando courses.

1984-87             

British mercenaries operate in Sri Lanka with “no objection” from the UK Foreign Office. Former SAS soldiers, employed by KMS Ltd, trained the Sri Lankan Special Task Force (a notorious police commando unit) and instructed helicopter gunship pilots during live missions.

1988-89

An SAS officer, who had advised the Indian military on raiding the Golden Temple in Amritsar, also allegedly visited Sri Lanka to advise the Indian Peace Keeping Force. British counter-insurgency expert Major General Richard Clutterbuck allegedly advised the Sri Lankan President on defeating the second JVP uprising.

Early mid-1990s

KMS Ltd was rebranded as Saladin Security and allegedly continued to work in Sri Lanka. Top tier of Sri Lankan army’s officer corps trained in the UK. British defence attaché in Colombo reported to be a counter-insurgency expert, with “first-hand experience in Ireland and Oman” and a protégé of General Frank Kitson.

1997-98

British officers played a “crucial role” in setting up Sri Lanka’s new Army Command & Staff College. British Colonel permanently attached to the college. Term three syllabus focused on counter-insurgency in Sri Lanka. First batch of students included Kamal Gunaratne, who would go on to be a commander in the killing fields a decade later.

2001

Britain bans LTTE under Terrorism Act. Tigers attack Colombo Airport. Tim Spicer and his firm of Special Forces veterans visit Sri Lanka to advise on port security.

2002

Ceasefire Agreement signed. Britain begins to advise Sri Lanka on its “defence review”

2003

Britain makes substantial arms sales to Sri Lanka.

2004

British defence attaché “instigated a comprehensive training and development programme for the Sri Lankan Armed Forces” over the next three years.

2005

European travel ban imposed on LTTE while Britain held EU presidency.

2006

Sri Lankan government requested British assistance with “Higher Defence (MOD) Management, Security Policy Development and Intelligence, and Policing”. EU places full terrorism ban on LTTE, under heavy pressure from UK and USA.

2007

British consultancy firm, the Libra Advisory Group, “enhanced” Sri Lankan intelligence services.

2008

British security development work ongoing with Sri Lanka.

2009

Top UK diplomat maintained that Sri Lanka should not be on the UN Security Council’s agenda. Foreign Office sends senior Northern Ireland policemen to Colombo as “critical friends”.

When Prime Minister David Cameron travelled to Sri Lanka in November 2013, his visit to the northern city of Jaffna was widely seen as British support for the island’s Tamil population against persecution from the Sinhalese-majority government. This perception gained further credibility in March 2014, when Britain played a key role in passing a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council, which called for an investigation into war crimes committed during the civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the insurgent Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). These recent developments have obscured the fact that successive British governments have helped the Sri Lankan state to suppress the Tamil independence movement since its inception.

Is this current British administration really any different? A Scottish police officer is still stationed in Colombo. His role is to design a new National Police Academy for Sri Lanka, not to investigate war crimes. Just before the fanfare of the latest UN Human Rights Council session, the British government had quietly dispatched its lawyers to a European Court of Justice hearing in Luxembourg, where they argued that the EU-wide terrorism ban must remain on the LTTE. Indeed Whitehall has opposed the LTTE from the very beginning and had provided Sri Lanka with counter-insurgency assistance accordingly – over two decades before it was banned as a terrorist organisation in the UK.

This article traces the contours of British collusion with Sri Lankan security forces throughout the thirty years of genocidal counter-insurgency warfare waged against those Tamils who struggled for an independent state. This relationship has taken various forms, including: black operations by British mercenaries, overt training by UK military officers, supply of sophisticated weaponry, the passing of anti-terror laws and deliberate inaction at the UN Security Council. At every stage, British officials had choices to make. The cumulative outcome of those decisions is evident in Sri Lanka’s brazen mass killings of Tamils on the beaches of Mullivaikal in 2009. But it is a record of those choices that follows here.

Phil Miller is a researcher for Corporate Watch. This article is part of the document, published by the International Human Rights Association Bremen, Germany is an updated version of the evidence Phil gave to the Peoples’ Tribunal on Sri Lanka. Phil’s expert evidence on ‘British State complicity in genocide of the Tamil people’ concentrated on the post-colonial period.

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