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Review: ‘Keenie Meenie: Britain’s Private Army’

Phil Miler’s explosive new documentary, “Keenie Meenie: Britain’s Private Army”, provides detailed insight into how a private British company went on to effectively set up one of Sri Lanka’s most notorious military units and sheds light on the United Kingdom's long-standing complicity in Sri Lanka's atrocities against Tamils.

Following up from Miller's detailed and well-researched book, the documentary brings hard-hitting analysis of Britain’s willingness to aid Keenie Meenie Services (KMS) as it contributed to Sri Lanka's massacres. Through securing interviews with Sri Lanka’s military and intelligence leaders, as well as former British officials and Special Air Service (SAS) officers turned mercenaries, the film documents Britain's long history of military co-operation with Sri Lanka that continues to this day.

Meeting the STF

The documentary adds to Miller's previous work and, interestingly, hears from those who directly received training from British mercenaries as they set up the Special Task Force in the 1980s. Interviews with senior Sri Lankan officials are coupled with surreal moments where STF soldiers demonstrate their prowess to choreographed routines set to classic western hits from to Michael Jackson to Queen.

A particularly telling moment was Dr Rachel Seioghe’s interview with Merril Gunaratne, the former head of Sri Lanka’s military intelligence and a man complicit in the massacre of thousands of Tamil civilians. The interview begins with him drawing attention to a framed photo of his deceased cat. “I am exceptionally attached to my animals," he says. "It looks to me wrong to pet with one hand and to kill and eat with the other.”

Miller goes on to draw on accounts of gruesome torture methods deployed by Sri Lankan soldiers and details how villages were burned down, people summarily executed, with their bodies chopped into pieces and burned alongside tyes. These accounts are all the more harrowing given the direct witness testimonies told by Tamil victims and refugees.

Gunarante though compartmentalises his deeds and beams with pride when discussing the STF - as do other Sri Lankan personnel throughout the film. This aspect of the Sri Lankan narrative of denial, which continues to deny justice for atrocities to this day, is demonstrated powerfully throughout the film.

A cover up

The desire to downplay accusations made against Sri Lanka’s STF was also present within British military officials. As the documentary highlights, though senior British officials remained aware of the atrocities being committed against Tamils, many incidents were dismissed as "propaganda".

Miller is able to deftly cut to the truth of the matter, documenting testimony from victims and even speaking to Richard Holoworthy, the then defence advisor for the British High Commission in Sri Lanka, during which he confessed that the STF was involved in the slaughter of Tamil civilians. “They killed people […] locked them away without any habeas corpus," said Holworthy. "People disappeared, there's no doubt about that”.

British intelligence was not only well informed on what was going on in Sri Lanka but, as Miller later shows, was actively trying to hide this information from the public. These attempts to conceal the true extent of British involvement lie at the heart of this documentary.

Whilst Sri Lankan officials remain proud of the training that they received from KMS, and continue to receive from the UK, Britain is less willing to speak about its relationship publicly. Undercover footage captured by Miller reveals how the military relationship between the two governments has not only continued but is one that the British are trying to hide from the public eye. Indeed the film raises important questions as to why training for units such as Sri Lanka's STF, entirely funded by the British taxpayer, is allowed to continue unchecked. 

The film's keen-eyed analysis of Britain’s involvement, however, does not fully cover the shifting dynamics of the Tamil genocide or the current political and socio-economic context Tamils find themselves in. Sri Lanka's current president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who oversaw the slaughter of tens of thousands of Tamil civilians in 2009, has appointed notable accused war criminals to his cabinet, including the new Defence Secretary Kamal Gunaratne. In May of this year, Gunaratne announced that the STF will have a greater responsibility in countering religious extremism and drug mafia - a grave threat given the STF's well-documented history of abuses. Nor does the film touch on the role of other international actors from the USA to India and China for example, and their roles in the decades of armed conflict. Indeed, Sri Lanka continues to rely on several international actors for economic, military and political support, of which it is currently receiving plenty.

Miller’s documentary does though, raises serious questions for the British government as it continues to pursue a close relationship with Sri Lanka and will strengthen campaign efforts to hold both Britain and Sri Lanka accountable. In the film, this is best highlighted by former SAS official and KMS mercenary Ryan Horsfall, who tells the camera, 

“There has been a terrible genocide that taken place in Sri Lanka and now the Tamils are a very tiny minority, a frightened minority which still exist in the country, under fear, and I’m frightened that there’s eventually going to be no Tamils in Sri Lanka at all”. 

The film is most certainly an insightful documentary into a deeply concerning military relationship and a must-watch for those interested in both the politics and history of the island. It also comes at a time when Britain's international relationships are under intense scrutiny. As the film highlights, not only does the UK have to reckon for its torturous past in Sri Lanka, but if further rights abuses on the island are to be prevented, it must also re-examine how it currently engages with Colombo. This powerful documentary demonstrates exactly why.

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Yardstick Films will be launching "Keenie Meenie: Britain's Private Army" through a live stream on Declassified UK.

To register for the event click here and to access the live stream click here.

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