Britain destroys files on military dealings with Sri Lanka

By Phil Miller

Britain’s Foreign Office destroyed almost 200 files on Sri Lanka from the start of the Tamil uprising when UK intelligence and special forces secretly advised the country's security forces, it has emerged.

The destruction raises fresh concerns about the Foreign Office’s attitude towards handling historic files on sensitive subjects. An official review in 2012 found that the department had destroyed thousands of documents detailing British counter-insurgency operations in Kenya and other colonies at the end of Empire.

The Foreign Office has now confirmed that it destroyed 195 files on Sri Lanka, dating from 1978 to 1980 - three decades after the country became independent from Britain. The department will not say exactly when, where or how the destruction occurred.

“Files not selected for permanent preservation would have been destroyed offsite by the company contracted by the FCO for this purpose," it said.

"We understand the files would have been destroyed in line with the FCO’s paper and file destruction contract in force at the time.”

However, the news has caused concern. Dr Rachel Seoighe, a criminologist and Sri Lanka expert at Middlesex University, said “This discovery is very concerning given the lack of public information available about British involvement in Sri Lankan security practices at the beginning of the civil war.” She has filed a complaint with UNESCO, the international body that protects world heritage.

“We know from other contexts such as Kenya that official files have been deliberately destroyed to conceal and deny abuse. The public has a right to know the extent to which Britain ‘assisted’ Sri Lankan preparations for a war that was defined by disappearances, torture and mass atrocity.”

'Tamils horrified'

The Foreign Office kept a list of file titles, showing that the destroyed papers would have covered a range of important subjects, from security co-operation and arms sales, to foreign aid and "requests for political asylum in the UK".

The scale of destruction is such that, for example, only three files have survived from 1978, compared to 38 files from the previous year.

The loss of these records is a blow for Tamil historians, who struggled to safeguard records throughout the Sri Lankan civil war. The famous Jaffna library was burnt down in 1981 by anti-Tamil groups, incinerating almost 100,000 documents including irreplaceable ancient texts.

“The Tamil community is taking strenuous efforts to collect and preserve records on history and the human rights situation in post-independence Sri Lanka," said Vairamuttu Varadakumar, executive secretary of the Tamil Information Centre in Kingston, London.

“We are horrified to learn that the UK’s Foreign Office has destroyed vital information on the British government’s training and arming of Sri Lankan security forces, which were involved in widespread human rights violations against the Tamils.”

Under the Public Records Act 1958, government departments are obliged to preserve historic records. However, in a letter sent from their secure facility at Hanslope Park, the Foreign Office denied breaching the Act and claimed that it was not required to have kept the files.

An official claimed that the content of the destroyed files “may be of a policy nature but might also be administrative or ephemeral.”

This claim has caused dismay among Tamil experts. Varadakumar said “It is improper for the UK government to deceive the public who have the right to know. It appears that the Foreign Office's action is designed to cover-up the involvement of the SAS and MI5 in the training of Sri Lankan security forces that might be potentially embarrassing to Her Majesty’s Government”.

SAS and MI5

The Special Air Service  (SAS) visit to Sri Lanka is only mentioned in a handful of surviving files at the National Archives, which were preserved by the Ministry of Defence (MOD). Their contents have never been reported before.

One MOD file reveals that in late 1978, Sri Lanka’s right-wing President, Junius Richard Jayewardene, asked the Foreign Office for a British security expert to visit his country to help counter Tamil militants who demanded an independent state of their own. [Click the image 'Destroyed file list - 1978']

However, a Foreign Office file called ‘Sri Lanka: Security Assessment 1978’, which could shed more light on President’s request, was destroyed.

From the surviving defence files, it emerges that a director at British spy agency MI5, who held racist views, then made two advisory visits to Sri Lanka in 1979, under both Jim Callaghan’s Labour government and Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative administration. [Click the image Destroyed file list - 1979]

Again, the full facts of these visits are hard to establish because the Foreign Office destroyed a 1979 file named ‘Sri Lanka: Defence Visits from UK’.

The MI5 officer was John Percival Morton CMG OBE, better known as Jack Morton, a former colonial police chief in India who had spied on the independence movement there.

In his memoirs, he wrote that, over time, “it dawned upon me, and became deeply ingrained, that the British were the rulers of India and that the Indians were a sort of immature, backward and needy people whom it was the natural British function to govern and administer.

“Correspondingly, it also seemed the natural place of the Indians to serve their masters, the Sahibs, and show deference and respect towards them.”

Reflecting on the British Empire, Morton commented that: “It was inspiring to realise that I was born into this splendid heritage and that to be British was to be a superior sort of person.”

Morton later became a director at MI5 and held various security positions inside Whitehall.

According to a defence file, it was at Morton’s recommendation that an SAS team visited Sri Lanka in 1980 to train a new army commando unit. Among the files destroyed by the Foreign Office is one titled ‘UK military assistance to Sri Lanka, 1980’. [Click the image 'Destroyed file list - 1980']

The visit occurred weeks after Britain’s premier special forces regiment staged the famous Iranian Embassy siege. For the next four months, the SAS team secretly trained Sri Lankan army commandos, selecting 60 members to form an elite anti-terrorist force.

Although the SAS and MI5 helped prepare Sri Lankan forces to fight the Tamil Tigers, it would be another 20 years before the UK government designated the group as a terrorist organisation.

Britain’s Defence Attaché to Sri Lanka in 1978, Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth Reynolds, estimated that the Tamil militants only numbered about 20 “poorly trained young men”.

He referred to them as “the Tiger Liberation Movement” and remarked that the “terrorists are possibly little more than a gang of militarily untrained thugs.”

However, he was concerned by their “broadsheet containing some overtly Marxist undertones”, and was worried about the security of RAF flights that refuelled daily at Colombo airport en route to Hong Kong, then a British colony.

A Foreign and Commonwealth Office spokesperson said:“The FCO, as with all government departments, reviews all its files in line with the requirements of the Public Records Act before making a decision o n permanent preservation.

“The FCO’s recommendations for the preservation or destruction of records take place under the guidance and supervision of The National Archives. FCO decisions are informed by The National Archive’s records collection policy and existing FCO policy.”



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.