UK let SAS veterans coach Sri Lanka in 1984

Phil Miller provides JDS with an extended version of his article published in the Guardian newspaper today, including memos from Margaret Thatcher's 1979-1984 file on Sri Lanka, just made publicly available at the UK National Archives in London.

The British government had “no objection” to retired SAS officers training security forces in Sri Lanka three months after India's 1984 Golden Temple massacre, recently released government papers show.

The disclosure comes days after documents emerged that an SAS officer advised India on a plan to storm the temple in Amritsar, the Sikh religion's holiest site.

It widens the debate over Britain's role in the Golden Temple raid, revealing how Downing Street allowed former and serving special forces soldiers to help counter separatist movements across south Asia.

Outrage among British Sikhs this week forced David Cameron to order an investigation into possible SAS collusion in the 1984 massacre.

The new documents show that in September 1984 Peter Ricketts, an aide to foreign secretary Geoffrey Howe, wrote to Margaret Thatcher's private secretary approving a request from British company Falconstar Ltd, directed by an ex-SAS captain, to provide senior counter-insurgency consultants for Sri Lanka.

At the time the Sri Lankan government was trying to defeat an uprising by the Tamil Tigers and other groups in the north and east of the island.

Ricketts wrote: "The Sri Lankan government have engaged another British company, KMS Ltd, to provide training in counter-terrorist techniques… The presence of KMS employees, including some ex-SAS personnel, in Sri Lanka, has aroused controversy and the Indian government have expressed concern to us about the firm's involvement.

"We have made it clear that this is a purely commercial matter and that HMG [Her Majesty's Government] are not involved." Both firms were allowed to continue working in Sri Lanka.

KMS Ltd was founded in 1974 by an ex-SAS Major, David Walker, and a former deputy head of SAS Group Intelligence Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Nightingale. The company's work in Sri Lanka involved training a new Police commando unit called the Special Task Force (STF), as noted on the unit's official website.

The STF became notorious for its brutality against the Tamil population, a reputation which was already emerging during these discussions.

Three days before Downing Street gave tacit approval for Falconstar to work in Sri Lanka, Whitehall planners had noted that “ten civilians were shot dead by police commandos [STF]”, in what a Tamil rights monitor NESOHR records as the Point Pedro - Thikkam massacre of September 1984.

Despite this evidence that a British trained unit had already carried out atrocities, the Foreign Office decided: “Although we have little knowledge of Falconstar Ltd's capabilities in counter-insurgency or police training, we would have no objection to their seeking to obtain business in Sri Lanka”. Thatcher's private secretary then sent a “non-committal” response to Falconstar days after the Point Pedro massacre, saying “it was good of you to let us know of your interest in Sri Lanka.”

The full extent of Falconstar's business in Sri Lanka is unclear from the files, but author Dr N. Malathy commented that "Tamils who are old enough to remember the media reports of that time recall this as an outfit made up of ex-British-military persons who advised Sri Lanka on military matters".

A secret British government file obtained last year by Corporate Watch found the Foreign Office intended in May 1983 to help the Sri Lankan government “discreetly” with training courses on counter-insurgency, para-military and commando operations. These latest files confirm that such assistance was being delivered by private companies with no objection from Downing Street by August 1984, on the basis that, as Ricketts wrote, “If the firm succeed in their bid to secure a consultancy it is important for us to be able to maintain that any contract between Falconstar Ltd and the Sri Lankan Government is a purely commercial arrangement with which HMG has no connexion.”

Tim Smith, who was employed by KMS Ltd to work in Sri Lanka during the 1980s, wrote in his memoirs The Reluctant Mercenary that “the whole KMS setup … provided an excellent firewall between themselves, the contract and the British Government”.

Lead photo: Foreign military officer training STF Commandos in 1980s - JDS Library



Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

  • JDS is the Sri Lankan partner organization of international media rights group, Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The launching of this website was made possible by the EU’s European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), of which Reporters Without Borders is a beneficiary.