UK Shredding Sri Lankan skeletons in the closet

Britain’s Foreign Office has destroyed hundreds of diplomatic files about its relationship with Sri Lanka from the 1970s and 80s, and plans to shred dozens more. As journalist investigating British complicity in Sri Lanka’s atrocities, I will explain how I uncovered this historical vandalism, the implications its has for researchers like me and ask what can be done about it.

I started visiting the UK National Archives in 2012, to study declassified diplomatic cables about Ceylon/Sri Lanka. By law (The Public Records Act) such papers should be released to the public after 30 years, but the Foreign Office is running behind schedule so the documents are staying classified for longer than this.

By 2017, I noticed that the Foreign Office had only released a handful of files from some time periods (e.g. 3 files from 1978), whereas for other years it had declassified many more (38 files in 1977). At first I assumed this was because some years were more eventful than others, but later I realised that key events were missing from the files altogether.

Mundane topics

This made me suspicious and I used another transparency law, the Freedom of Information Act, to ask the Foreign Office if it had destroyed any files from 1978 to 1980. The department told me it had destroyed 195 files from this three year period. All that survived were a list of file titles, ranging from seemingly mundane topics such as “Sri Lanka: Tour by BBC ‘World About Us’ Film Unit”, to more significant matters.

Records of potential significance from 1978 that were destroyed include, but are not limited to:

- UK Military Assistance to Sri Lanka
- Sri Lankan Police Force
- Sri Lanka: Security Assessment
- Export Licence Applications for Sale of Military Equipment to Sri Lanka
- Sri Lanka: UK Relations
- UK Aid Policy to Sri Lanka

Records of potential significance from 1979 that were destroyed include, but are not limited to:

- Sri Lanka: Secretary of State's Visit
- Sri Lanka: Official Visits from UK
- Sri Lanka: Visit of PUS [Permanent under Secretary, Britain’s top diplomat]
- Sri Lanka: Military Visits to UK
- Sri Lanka: Defence Visits from UK
- Sri Lanka: UK Military Assistance
- Sri Lanka: UK Naval Visits
- Sri Lanka: Non-Proliferation Treaty
- Sri Lanka: Export Licence Applications
- Sri Lanka: UK Sale of Airforce Equipment
- Sri Lanka: Illegal Importation of Arms
- Sri Lanka: UK Aid Policy
- Sri Lanka: Compensation for Nationalisation of Sterling Tea Estates
- Sri Lanka: Mahaweli Ganga Project, Sri Lanka: The Tamil Community
- Sri Lanka: Police Force
- Sri Lanka: Human Rights

Records of potential significance from 1980 that were destroyed include, but are not limited to:

- Sri Lanka/UK relations,
- UK military assistance to Sri Lanka,
- Defence Adviser: Sri Lanka (+ Maldives),
- Sri Lanka: visits of naval ships,
- Sri Lanka: (ELA) export licence applications,
- UK defence sales to Sri Lanka,
- UK aid to Sri Lanka,
- Compensation for nationalisation of Stirling tea estates,
- Compensation for nationalisation of rupee estates in Sri Lanka,
- Compensation for nationalisation of privately owned estates in Sri Lanka,
- Sri Lanka: Mahaweli Ganga project,
- Victoria Dam project,
- Tamil community in Sri Lanka,
- Human rights in Sri Lanka,
- Release of classified information to Sri Lanka
- Police training for Sri Lanka.

It should be recalled that some of the Tamil movement had turned to armed struggle as early as 1978, and as such these files could have shed more light on how Britain responded to that. I found, from British air force files that had survived the shredder, that a senior British intelligence officer made two visits to Sri Lanka in 1979 to advise how to deal with the Tamil militancy. In 1980, a British special forces training team visited Sri Lanka to help set up an army commando unit.

177 files

However the details were scant, and the Foreign Office files would very likely have contained greater detail. It is not 100% clear when these files were destroyed, but it could have been around 2008 and 2010. I was now concerned that this shredding might not have been a one off and could have carried on well into the 1980s. So, I made another Freedom of Information request about destruction of documents from 1981 to 1987, that would cover the first major phase of the conflict. The department then said it has destroyed 177 files on Sri Lanka from 1981 to 1985. The file titles include:

- Training of Sri Lankan armed forces by British personnel
- Defence attaches reports
- Arms sales to Sri Lanka
- Aircraft sales to Sri Lanka
- Export license applications for Sri Lanka
- Tea
- Victoria dam project
- Police training for Sri Lanka
- Applications for political asylum from Sri Lanka
- Sri Lanka interest in Northern Ireland as a military problem
- UK military assistance to Sri Lanka

These files were destroyed between 12 June 2014 and 2 November 2015 – this is significant because in May 2014, the Foreign Office apologised to leading historians for destroying colonial-era files about Britain’s dirty wars during the so-called ‘End of Empire’. Perhaps more alarmingly, I found that the Foreign Office intends to destroy 40 files on Sri Lanka from 1986 to 1987. The file titles include:

- Political asylum applications from Sri Lankans
- UK security assistance to Sri Lanka
- Training of Sri Lankan armed forces in the UK
- Defence attaches reports Sri Lanka
- Export licence applications (i.e. arms sales, 9 files)
- UK aid to Sri Lanka
- Detention of British nationals in Sri Lanka
- Terrorist activity in Sri Lanka against British nationals

As some readers may know, I have previously written or spoken about aspects of Britain’s counter-insurgency support for Sri Lanka that took place in the 70s and 80s. I testified at the second Peoples Tribunal on Sri Lanka, and wrote the pamphlets Britain’s Dirty War and Exporting Police Death Squads. This year I plan to publish far more of my findings, that will also make clear the severity of this destruction – in terms of exactly what British involvement Whitehall wanted to hide.

For now though it seems urgent that the Foreign Office is challenged about its casual attitude towards preserving Tamil history. As a journalist I have exposed the destruction by writing newspaper articles about it, and several people have written to their MPs. However, I am yet to see a single British politician raise this issue in Parliament, or any lawyer try to challenge the legal basis for what some might regard as sheer vandalism. Burning books was the stuff of Nazi bonfires, but shredding history seems to be a very British tradition.☐

Phil Miller



More articles by Phil Miller:

08.08.2013  Vedanta’s oil: The British oil interest in Sri Lanka
14.01.2014   UK let SAS veterans coach Sri Lanka in 1984
16.06.2015  In the Shadow of Military: Sri Lanka’s ‘new democracy’ and Tamil people
25.05.2018  Britain destroys files on military dealings with Sri Lanka

Related external links:

14.01.2014   Britain allowed ex-SAS officers to train Sri Lankans as Tamil Tigers rebelled
31.03.2016  Secret Documents Reveal How Britain Funded Possible War Crimes in Sri Lanka
23.05.2018  Files on Tamil Tigers and MI5 in Sri Lanka erased at Foreign Office
21.01.2019  Foreign Office admits to destroying hundreds of files from the start of Tamil uprising in Sri Lanka