Speaking to Sputnik News, Professor Jude Lal Fernando, from Trinity College Dublin, illustrates that Britain’s complicity in Sri Lankan war crimes was not incidental, nor the actions of a few rogue actors, but rather part of a broader mission which was seen as safeguarding its “imperial interests”.
The unitary state and colonial rule
During this interview, Professor Fernando exposes how the roots of British colonialism influenced contemporary Sinhala nationalism, particularly with the notion of a unitary state.
The unitary structure of Sri Lanka, Fernando notes, was brought about in 1833 under British rule as the colonial rulers unified the Sinhala and Tamil national formations. This, Fernando states, provided the Sinhalese, who were more numerous, a basis to rule over the Tamils.
Fernando further stated that this was done as the Tamil homeland, of the north and east, were of strategic importance to British geopolitical and military interests. Harbours in Trincomalee were valued as a means of controlling India however could only be secured “under a unitary political structure that is controlled by the Sinhalese”. Tamils, he argued, were not trusted as they were “politically more tuned to the Indian independence movement”. Under this framework, the Tamil homeland would remain under the control of the British “so long as the Sinhalese were loyal to the British”.
To ensure Sinhalese complicity with British interests, Fernando maintains, that they were “groomed by the British in so many ways as the ‘true heirs’ of the whole island with a sense of racial supremacy”. In contrast, “Tamils were portrayed as invaders from India”.
The island became also strategically valued as “the UK/USA-led wars in the Middle East unfolded and as a move to contain China’s sphere of influence in the Indian Ocean”.
Commenting on the current relationship between the British and Sinhala supremacists, Fernando states:
“This nexus between the unitary state, Sinhala supremacist politics and British control continues to this day – albeit Britain is now playing second fiddle to its ally, the USA”
The British role in Sri Lankan war crimes
During the interview, Fernando also discusses the early development of the war, during which he notes how counter-insurgency strategies adopted by the British against the Irish were similarly implemented against the Tamils.
Just a month before the Black July pogroms of 1983, during which thousands of Tamils were slaughtered by racist mobs with the support of Sri Lanka’s security forces, Sri Lankan police officers had toured Belfast to study counter-insurgency operations and attended the ‘international conference on terrorist device and methods’ organised by MI5 in London.
This training of Sri Lankan forces was further continued by the Keenie Meenie Services (KMS), a British mercenary organisation, who trained “the most notorious para-military wing of the Sri Lankan police, the Special Task Force (STF), from the beginning of the war against the Tamils”. The STF, Fernando notes, “is known to have massacred, abducted and tortured scores of Tamils, particularly in the Eastern Province. They were also responsible for the massacres in the Sinhala south”.
KMS was involved in training the STF “forming riot squads, firing, handling explosives and weapons, particularly M16 Automatic Rifle, Counter-Terrorism Search” and helicopter gun piloting. In Phil Miller’s book, he also documents how a former British helicopter pilot claimed he was personally involved in the killing of 152 LTTE members.
“Some newspapers in the UK claimed that the British mercenaries were leading ground and aerial attacks against the Tamils which caused a massive amount of deaths and destruction”, Fernando further stated.
The British role outside of KMS
Fernando cautions against a fixation on KMS as he argues that it provides “credible deniability” to the British state.
He maintains that KMS could “operate only within the interests of the British state and as part of the state. The British state needs them to do the kind of things that it cannot do openly. The British state is one of the most securitized states on earth which constantly seeks to secure its imperial interests in the world. Nothing can happen in the Sri Lankan security sector without the full knowledge of the British state”.
Focusing on KMS excludes the role the British state played in directly arming the Sri Lankan security forces. As well as the banning of the LTTE in 2001, when the LTTE had called for greater political negotiations before declaring a unilateral ceasefire. The UK would then lead an EU ban on the LTTE in 2006, just as the “LTTE had entered into a ceasefire agreement with the Sri Lankan state”. This was as the UK held the EU chair.
Fernando maintains that the role played by the British state further emboldened Sri Lanka which would massacre thousands of Tamils during the final phases of the war from 2007-2009. The UN estimate notes that over 70,000 people were killed during this period.
British investigations into war crimes
Responding to a question on the Metropolitan police’s investigation into British war crimes in Sri Lanka, Fernando expressed some concern over the independence of the investigation.
“Can an institute that comes under a state that is complicit in a crime investigate the crime? For me this is nonsensical. It is like entrusting the US authorities to investigate the Blackwater operations in Afghanistan and Iraq as if the US government has no link whatsoever with the world’s most powerful mercenary army.”
He further claimed that there were ulterior motives for this investigation.
“Opening up the investigations against Keenie Meenie will make the British state appear impartial, victim-friendly and democratic whereby the real political relationship between the Sri Lankan state and the British state is not scrutinized. In concrete terms, the British governments want to distance themselves from the actual crimes committed against the Tamil people in Sri Lanka while strongly supporting the Sri Lankan unitary state. Legally the British state can say that Keenie Meenie is not a state entity, but it is an absolute lie politically”.
He further stated that:
“There is a coordinated move by the powers who are complicit in the war against the Tamils to reduce the violation of collective rights of the Tamil people to mere individual rights. For me, these investigations are geared towards that end”.
“For these powers, the most disturbing demand is the Tamil collective right to a homeland in the north and east of the country where lies the Trincomalee harbour. Even if arrests are made and prosecutions proceed against the individuals of Keenie Meenie the deep structural relationship between the Sri Lankan and the British state, which is the main reason behind the genocide of Tamils, will not be impaired. Instead, it will be concealed from our public consciousness”.
A message to Tamil activists
Fernando notes that since the end of the war Tamils have faced immense pressure to “to trade off political justice with criminal justice” but notes that “there is no independent entity that has been set up to deliver criminal justice”. “This means neither criminal justice nor political justice”, he added.
He calls on Tamil activists to not “expect the powers who are complicit to help them”.
“They should expose not simply the individuals who were involved in a range of crimes committed against them, but also the political entities that directly and indirectly orchestrated these crimes” Fernando stated.
Read the full interview