In 2009, as the Sri Lankan civil war reached its bloody conclusion, David Miliband touched down in Colombo to appeal for peace. “Now is the time for the fighting to stop,” Miliband warned. “Protection of civilians is absolutely paramount in our minds.”
However, Miliband’s public plea stood in direct contrast to what his department was doing in private, secret Foreign Office documents seen by VICE can reveal. British aid to Sri Lanka helped set up a vigilante network that supplied police with intelligence at the height of a bloody government crack down. The documents show that the UK was aware of the risk of human rights abuses but continued nonetheless. This raises questions of British complicity in war crimes.
In 2008, the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence “merged” a community policing project, that was being delivered by UK advisers, with civil defence activities which “involved forming unarmed youth vigilance groups to report on any suspicious items/people”.
At that time, Sri Lankan police were silencing government critics through assassinations, disappearances and torture, as the military carried out a massive offensive against Tamil rebels in the north, shelling schools and hospitals inside civilian safe zones.
As many as 146,000 Tamils disappeared in the final stages of the conflict, which become known as a “war without witnesses”, as media access was denied and outspoken Sri Lankan journalists were eliminated.
Although Britain has backed a UN investigation into credible allegations of war crimes committed during the civil war, the Foreign Office has spent years battling against Freedom of Information requests for details of British police assistance given to their Sri Lankan counterparts at the height of the dirty war against rebels and political opponents in 2008 and 2009.
First, the government told a court that no such documents existed. Then it released heavily censored copies, before accidentally sending out the original versions, revealing the details it had tried to cover up. VICE can now reveal these files for the first time.
“A veneer of community based policing being used to cover less palatable behaviour.”
They contain a string of reports from the shadowy Security Sector Development Advisory Team, a joint FCO, MOD and DFID unit, setting out plans to help Sri Lanka set up a form of “community based policing”.
At the time, Sri Lanka’s police were overseen by the President’s brother, defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. According to the documents, he decided around July 2008 that “civil defence and longer term community based policing activities would need to be ‘merged’. The civil defence activities involved forming unarmed youth vigilance groups to report on any suspicious items/people and work closely with the Sri Lankan Police.”
The Foreign Office realised that British aid was being manipulated, noting that the Sri Lankan defence department “clearly consider that there is an overlap between the activities comprising civil defence and those which they view as community based policing”. However, the police aid project continued despite UK concerns about “a veneer of community based policing being used to cover less palatable behaviour”.
Sri Lanka’s defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa (fourth from left) with police chiefs. The sign reads “The meeting of Civil Defence Committees” (Photo via Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence)
“The Civil Defence Committees (CDC) were a mass intelligence network, which effectively converted the Sinhala civilian population into state spies.”
Thousands of Civil Defence Committees or CDCs, comprised of local people, provided intelligence to the police. Sri Lankan media later reported the Defence Secretary as saying that “the modern ‘community police’ concept was introduced to Sri Lanka as CDCs [which] were used effectively particularly during the final phase of the war to enhance vigilance among communities.” Although he claimed the vigilantes foiled bomb plots in the capital, several journalists including an Associated Press photographer complained of harassment from Civil Defence Committees members as early as February 2008.
“Community police” initiatives may sound fairly benign, but not in this context: at the time, Sri Lanka was a war-torn country where the majority Sinhalese population was carrying out a genocidal assault on the minority Tamil people. “In every respect, the Civil Defence Committees (CDC) were a mass intelligence network, which effectively converted the Sinhala civilian population into state spies. The true objective of the plan was to re-organise the civilians as vigilance groups that can function parallel to the official state intelligence bodies”, said Bashana Abeywardane, an exiled Sri Lankan journalist who now coordinates the press freedom group Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka.
By mid-2008, the Foreign Office noted that there were “increasing restrictions on freedom of expression, including abductions and disappearances”, referring to the escalating attacks on journalists in Sri Lanka. The files said that these activities “are claimed to be linked to the Secretary of Defence”, the man who controlled the police force that Britain was aiding. The Foreign Office originally tried to censor this comment, probably because it shows they knowingly continued to work with people they suspected of being rights abusers.
The UK carried on its community policing project in Sri Lanka even after the outspoken editor of the Sunday Leader newspaper, Lasantha Wickrematunge, was assassinated by unidentified gunmen in January 2009. His murder muzzled other critics of the government’s war and highlighted the dire state of press freedom in Sri Lanka, as the fighting in the north climaxed.
Abeywardene said that people arrested as a result of intelligence gathered by CDC members were routinely tortured, raising serious questions about British complicity. “The Sri Lankan government expected CDC members to spy on their neighbours and report back to police, which included the powers to carry out random ID checks in their neighbourhoods. If someone considered as suspicious was reported or handed over to the police by the CDC, he or she will be taken into Terrorism Investigation Division custody where they would be detained and tortured.”
How VICE reported the conflict at the time:
The UK Foreign Office was well aware that it risked working with human rights abusers; however, it did not rule out using one of the island’s most violent paramilitary groups as a source of recruits for community policing. A censored part of one document shows British officials felt that “the suggestion of employing ex-TMVP combatants as policemen in the East remains contentious and would require sophisticated vetting mechanisms to avoid those against whom there are allegations of human rights abuses being sent to promote community based policing.” The TMVP was a government-backed militia, led by a renegade Tamil colonel, that was accused of killings and abductions.
The documents don’t give any indication as to why Britain would want to support this genocidal regime. However, a speech by then UK defence secretary Liam Fox in 2011 could give us a clue. “Sri Lanka has a role to play in maintaining the international stability and security that, as an open, trading nation, Britain’s national interest requires”, Liam Fox told an audience in Colombo. “Sri Lanka is located in a pivotal position in the Indian Ocean with major international shipping routes between the Far East and the Gulf within 25 miles of your coast”.
Our investigation has also found that Britain continued to work with Sri Lanka’s police chief, Jayantha Wickramaratna, advising his officers about intelligence-gathering techniques, even though the Foreign Office did not trust him. One document reveals that UK advisers “congratulated the new [Inspector General of Police] on his appointment”, but they tried to censor the fact that they had a “lack of confidence in his trustworthiness”. Wickramaratna, who was appointed head of police in 2008, was well known to British authorities. He had previously visited Scotland for the first stage of the community policing project in 2007.
Staff from the Scottish Police College travelled to Sri Lanka to continue the work with Wickramaratna and his colleagues. David Garbutt, a former director of the Scottish Police College, told VICE that the training he delivered to Sri Lankan officers was “based on the National Intelligence Model (NIM), which provides community data to support the principles of community policing.”
The National Intelligence Model is used by British police forces for gathering vast amounts of information on criminal suspects, crimes and communities at local, regional and national levels. Dr Robin Fletcher, an ex-Metropolitan police Detective Superintendent, says that the model “always has the potential to be misused” in the wrong hands. “It gathers masses and masses of intelligence…for example where did he go shopping? Who did he meet?” This information was being used by a police force that was tracking down critical journalists and anyone who sheltered them.
To reiterate, just because it was called “community policing” doesn’t mean the British government was training Sri Lankan cops in stuff like fines for littering or shutting down noisy parties. One British adviser noted ominously that the term Community Based Policing was “being used for all manner of activities”. The Foreign Office itself was concerned that Sri Lankan police might be receiving too much intelligence training from UK staff. One report, written by a Foreign Office adviser, claims that Garbutt promised to train the Sri Lankan police in using powerful i2 intelligence software. This technology allows authorities to build sophisticated databases of suspects and their associates. A senior Sri Lankan police officer, who had previously served in a notorious counter-terrorism unit, “was particularly interested in training to use the i2 software, which I understand had been promised to them by David Garbutt”, according to the document.
The Foreign Office adviser commented that, “Whilst intelligence-led policing is a key component of a preventive approach, thought should be given as to whether this might be used for political aims and consequently whether HMG [Her Majesty’s Government] would wish to be associated with such assistance.” However Garbutt told VICE that although he discussed the i2 product with the Sri Lankans, he did not offer to deliver them i2 training.
Another document shows that some staff teaching community policing did have significant experience in intelligence. An email written by Britain’s defence attaché in Colombo reveals that the British instructors included “some excellent ex-Special Branch” officers, whose visit to Sri Lanka “tied into work done by the Scottish Police College and other consultants on the theme of Community Policing”. Home Office guidelines say that “the primary function of Special Branch is covert intelligence work in relation to national security”. The defence attaché wanted a highly experienced officer to visit Sri Lanka, saying that “we tried for Ronnie Flanagan but couldn’t get him”. Flanagan was a former Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and head of its Special Branch in Northern Ireland during the British state’s war against the IRA.
An “Intelligence and Security Adviser” was also among the British staff who visited Sri Lanka in 2009, raising further questions about the extent of intelligence advice given to Sri Lanka during its crackdown. The adviser, Peter Wilson, ran a private security consultancy and claims that his “early career was with the British Diplomatic Service, specialising in national security matters.” Wilson met with Sanjaya Colonne, head of the Office of Strategic Affairs in Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Defence, who reported to the defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. According to the files, Wilson “pursued the possibility of meetings” for Colonne with MI5 in London at the end of the war.
Sanjaya Colonne attending a drinks party at the British High Commission in Colombo, 2011 (Photo via ukinsrilanka)
Wilson was among British staff who secretly met Sanjaya Colonne in Sri Lanka in February 2009, when Tamil rebels were almost defeated and the UN was warning that hundreds of thousands of civilians were trapped and under fire. While the FCO had admitted the possibility of working with human rights abusers, the minutes of this meeting barely comment on the atrocities that have shocked the international community, simply noting that the Sri Lankan government “continue to make military progress against the LTTE [Tamil Tiger rebels].”
As civilians fleeing the conflict zone were herded into barbed wire internment camps, minutes from the meeting with Colonne note that the Sri Lankan authorities were “very much alive to the problem of administering the territories they had gained.”
During this meeting, the British advisers “discussed the possibility of sharing UK experience on policing and governance in post-conflict areas.” Later that month, a pair of senior Northern Irish police commanders were sent to Sri Lanka as “critical friends”, ostensibly to help with the community policing project. However, both officers had extensive counter-terrorism expertise and VICE has now learnt that they actually undertook some work in relation to public order provision (i.e. riot control) in Sri Lanka.
These revelations stand in stark contrast to the public position of the British government at the time of the war.
The then-Foreign Secretary David Miliband visited Sri Lanka in April 2009 and called for an immediate ceasefire to protect civilians at risk from shelling. The secret files show an alarming level of clandestine UK support for the Sri Lankan authorities. British security advisers continued to visit Sri Lanka during the final fortnight of fighting in May 2009 when civilian casualties climaxed at around a thousand deaths a day. Even at that point, the files show that extra UK security cooperation was arranged, despite the FCO noting that there was “sustained harassment of the media.”
Underlining just how cosy the relationship was, weeks after the war ended, UK civil servants paid for flights and accommodation for Colonne and his wife to come to London. They were even taken out for dinner in London at taxpayer’s expense.
However, the Foreign Office still insists that British aid improved human rights in Sri Lanka. Responding to our investigation, an FCO spokesperson said:
“We are committed to improving human rights in Sri Lanka and continue to fund a range of projects including on issues such as women’s rights and police training and reform.
“UK experts provided advice and training to the Sri Lankan Police to improve human rights through a project in 2008 and have continued with this work since then.
“The Prime Minister has recently announced a further £6.6million of funding to support further work in Sri Lanka, promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights.”