MI5 in Ceylon - the untold story

Britain's collusion in the Sri Lankan state's violent tactics of repression is finally coming to light. But it's only one part of its long history aiding police brutality across many former colonies - and much more remains unknown.

Phil Miller
5 November 2013

No Fire Zone, broadcast by Channel 4 on Sunday 3rd November, graphically depicted the civilian massacres which took place during Sri Lanka's final offensive against the Tamil rebel-held territory in 2009. If David Cameron attends the Commonwealth summit in Colombo next week, critics say the Prime Minister will endorse the very same government responsible for those war crimes. In fact, Cameron follows a decades-long tradition of British prime ministers supporting repression on the island formerly called Ceylon.

The film covers the final 138 days of the Sri Lankan state's 26-year counter-insurgency campaign against the separatist Tamil Tigers. In February 2009, during Gordon Brown's premiership, Britain deployed two senior Belfast police officers to act as “critical friends” of the Sri Lankan security forces, only days after the PTK hospital was shelled (as featured in the film at 21:35).

This relationship starts long before however, just prior to the major pogrom of Tamils in July 1983 that ignited the conflict, when Sri Lankan police secretly visited the Royal Ulster Constabulary's headquarters “to see at first hand the roles of the police and army in counter-terrorist operations”. Notably, the Sri Lankan police requested Thatcher's help with “para-military [training] for counter-insurgency operations” and “commando operations training”. The FCO replied, “we should like to help the Sri Lankan Government (discreetly) as much as we can with these courses”. Most of the official records from this period remain classified. However, Chris Ryan, the SAS veteran turned author, claims that Sri Lanka's elite police commando unit, the Special Task Force, was “formed in 1983 by a small team of SAS guys”.

This level of co-operation would not be unprecedented. Declassified documents (never before reported) reveal that Tory PM Edward Heath secretly sanctioned MI5 to provide counter-insurgency advice for crushing a left-wing youth uprising on the island in 1971. This experience cemented an Anglo-Lankan security partnership, which was to be the mid-wife of many repressive tactics later used against the Tamils. This untold history puts Cameron's support for Sri Lanka in a disturbing new perspective.

1971: British counter-insurgency experts in Ceylon

In April 1971, an armed rebellion broke out in the former British colony of Ceylon. The island's inexperienced leaders suddenly faced an uprising among thousands of disaffected rural youths, angry about unemployment and food shortages. Police stations were attacked by the JVP (translates as 'People's Liberation Front'), crudely armed with air rifles, shotguns and swords. The Prime Minister of Ceylon, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, panicked and declared a state of emergency. Over the next few months, the JVP rebellion was brutally suppressed. Thousands of rebels and civilians were killed by government forces and many more were captured and detained without trial for months. The torture of suspects was widespread.

Evidence of war crimes was reported in western media at the time. An essay by Fred Halliday in 1971, citing The New York Times and Le Monde notes that:

During the initial government counter-attack in Kegalle, around April 17–20th, the first reports began to appear of summary executions...[A Ceylonese] officer was quoted as saying: ‘Once we are convinced prisoners are insurgents we take them to the cemetery and dispose of them.’ The government subsequently denied this, but in later weeks hundreds of bodies of young men and women were seen floating down the Kelaniya river near Colombo, where they were collected and burnt by soldiers: many were found to have been shot in the back... What is clear is that the police and armed forces launched an indiscriminate attack on the peasant population as a whole[1].

UK government files, held at the national archives in Kew, southwest London show it too was aware that atrocities were taking place. A telegram from the British High Commission in Colombo to the FCO in London on 19th April noted that BBC News:

today carried a report of summary execution of insurgents by firing squad after interrogation. We have no reason to doubt the accuracy of this report which resulted from an interview with the military coordinating officer in Kegalle. Indeed it agrees with earlier reports we had heard of similar incidents.

The High Commission also noted on 20th April that the Ceylonese authorities “seem determined completely to destroy the movement and are prepared to use brutal and violent methods”.

Although several countries supplied Ceylon with weapons to help put down the uprising, the British High Commissioner in Colombo would later proudly reflect in a telegram that “what mattered most, however, were the small arms, ammunition, armoured vehicles and other material supplied by Her Majesty's Government with quite remarkable speed and to decisive effect”. More drastic measures were contemplated, but ruled out for “technical and presentational reasons”. Alec Douglas-Home, then British Foreign Secretary, concluded that, “An alternative to the use of Napalm would be the machine guns supplied with the Bell Helicopters. You can tell this to the Ceylonese”. 

Supplementing these arms deals were the British military, police and intelligence officers who secretly advised the Ceylonese on how to make best use of this equipment. The FCO insisted on a five day advisory mission from 21st April to 28th April. It selected Colonel Roger May, owing to his “experience of insurgency situations in a number of parts of the world” and Michael Macoun, the FCO's Overseas Police Advisor, formerly Commissioner of Police in Uganda. 

This degree of British involvement in Ceylon was obscured in the House of Commons on 6th May 1971. When asked “whether military personnel and advisers are being sent in addition to military equipment”, the defence minister said “The Ceylon Government has not requested the provision of any British military personnel or advisers to support this equipment”. The fact that Whitehall had already despatched two senior security advisers on its own initiative was concealed from the public.

MI5 also gave secret counter-insurgency advice to the Ceylonese authorities throughout the uprising - with Heath's approval. Although MI5's Security Liaison Officer (S.L.O.) in Ceylon had a “close and excellent” relationship with the Inspector General of Police, he seemed unwilling or unable to stop atrocities that they knew were taking place. In fact, Mrs Bandarainke was so impressed by MI5 that she even appointed one of their officers, Jim Patrick, who was stationed in the British High Commission in Colombo, as her government's counter-insurgency expert, to “help train a few of their top Special Branch men”.

I showed these documents to Lord Avebury, who toured Ceylon in 1971 on behalf of Amnesty International. Regarding the UK's covert role in helping to suppress the JVP uprising, Avebury said he “didn't get any inkling of that at the time”[2]. Patrick also advised on the 'rehabilitation' of some 13,600 captured insurgents, who were interned in detention camps which Lord Avebury was refused access to during his visit[3].


Patrick was regarded as suitable for this role because he had ten years experience of Special Branch work during the Malayan Emergency of 1948-1960, in which Britain crushed a Maoist anti-colonial movement. Half a million Chinese squatters had to be forcibly resettled in 500 'new villages' to prevent the Maoist guerillas from living among the local population. Atrocities were widespread, such as the infamous massacre of 24 unarmed villagers by Scots Guards at Batang Kali in 1948, often referred to as 'Britain's My Lai'. Ironically, in 1970 it was Heath's newly elected government that quashed an investigation into the incident, claiming there was insufficient evidence. Decades later it was revealed that those investigating had in fact obtained a confession from a soldier in the platoon, who said that a mass killing had been ordered [4]. The cover-up continued right up until 2012, when the FCO finally declassified files pertaining to the incident.

Special Branch was integral to British counter-insurgency strategy in Malaya, which has chilling implications for the appointment of Jim Patrick as Mrs Bandaranaike's adviser. In his comprehensive book on the Malayan Special Branch, retired officer Leon Comber describes their role as “providing the army with operational intelligence on which counter-insurgency operations could be mounted”[5]. In other words, without Special Branch, the soldiers would have been shooting into the dark, regardless of how well armed they were. Gathering accurate intelligence about the enemy's movements was vital for counter-insurgency campaigns, and Jim Patrick was suitably qualified to tell the Ceylonese exactly how best to do this.

Britain also ensured Ceylon had access to training facilities in Malaysia. Mr Macoun reported soon after his advisory visit to Ceylon that:

All consulted agreed that, once the situation is under control, a combined team of Senior Armed Services and Police officers should pay a work-study visit to Malaysia to examine counter-insurgency techniques... Advantage should also be taken of facilities for Police Riot Action training and Special Branch (Counter-Insurgency Warfare) techniques, likewise available in Malaysia...The Ceylon Police Force will continue to be in need of advice and assistance for some time and the excellent relations between the Inspector-General and his senior staff and the British High Commission (in particular, the Security Liaison Officer) should be sustained. 

A telegram between British diplomats in Colombo and Kuala Lumpur, dated 12th July, shows this experience was actively transferred:

Superintendent Kadigawa, Ceylon Police, will be attending Malaysian Special Branch Senior Basic Course 16 August to 6 November. Ceylon Inspector General would be grateful for facilities for Kadigawa to study all aspects of counter-insurgency after the course is finished, with the object of applying lessons learnt to situation here. 2. Kadigawa would be concerned with the whole field of counter-insurgency including resources for investigation, rehabilitation of detainees and protective security techniques. He would particularly welcome chance to see operations in the field.

The files also show a veritable shopping list that Mr Macoun had passed on to the Ceylonese Police in May 1971 shortly after his visit. It suggests a paramilitary approach to policing and public order, preparing the nascent Republic of Sri Lanka (formed in 1972) for a more uncompromising approach to future unrest.

a). Riot shields, b). Hand grenades, c). Flares, d). Automatic pistols, e). night-vision binoculars, f). arc-lights, g). loudhailer equipment, h). land rovers, I). patrol cars, j). centrifugal water pumps, k). mobile canteens, l) water bowsers

2. They should also like information about the availability and the cost of the following items:

a). Shorland armoured patrol car, b). Bren Machine Gun, c). Greener Mk 3 police gun and webley anti-riot gun, d). night sight trilux foresight, e). L1A1 individual weapons sight…j). lightweight body armour and helmet

Kenya and Bahrain

Britain's colonial crimes in Kenya were also presented to the Ceylonese as a textbook example of successful counter-insurgency strategy. The High Commission in Nairobi sent over a reading list about Britian's defeat of the Mau Mau in Kenya from 1953-1960. Notably, the Nairobi booklist included 'The Hunt for Kimanthi', written by Ian Henderson, who was the Colonial Special Branch officer credited with capturing Kimanthi Dedan, the last surviving Mau Mau leader (he was hung by the British in 1957).

At that time, the British Commander-in-Chief of East Africa commented that “Ian Henderson has probably done more than any single individual to bring the Emergency to an end”. When the Colonial administration withdrew from Nairobi at Independence in 1963, thousands of incriminating files were burnt or dumped in the Indian Ocean. The remaining files lay hidden for years at a Foreign Office building in Hanslope Park, before a court case forced their disclosure in 2012. The FCO have finally agreed to pay £19.9 million pounds in compensation to 5,228 Kenyan claimants who suffered tortured or ill-treatment by the British Colonial forces during the Emergency. On the 6th June 2013, Foreign Secretary William Hague had to admit to the House of Commons what Britain's treatment of the Mau Mau entailed:

Emergency regulations were introduced: political organisations were banned; prohibited areas were created and provisions for detention without trial were enacted. The colonial authorities made unprecedented use of capital punishment and sanctioned harsh prison so-called ‘rehabilitation’ regimes. Many of those detained were never tried and the links of many with the Mau Mau were never proven...The British Government recognises that Kenyans were subject to torture and other forms of ill treatment at the hands of the colonial administration.

However, Henderson's skills were highly valued within the establishment. He was hand-picked by the FCO to lead Bahrain's Police Special Branch in 1966, where he remained their internal security chief until 1998 (Bahrain became independent from Britain in 1971). Henderson earned himself the moniker 'Butcher of Bahrain' among pro-democracy activists who credibly accused him of torture [e.g HRW, AI]. For Whitehall, it was perfectly normal that Sheikh Khalifa of Bahrain should employ a former Kenyan Special Branch officer, just as it was acceptable for Mrs Bandarainke to use a former Malayan Special Branch as her counter-insurgency expert in Ceylon.

Still unknown

Britain's covert intervention in Ceylon's domestic affairs during 1971 was part of a pattern of post-colonial control over the island now called Sri Lanka. After Jim Patrick's spell in Ceylon, an ex-MI5 Director Jack Morton visited Sri Lanka in 1979 to produce the 'Morton report', containing “practical recommendations for the total reorganisation of the intelligence apparatus” which was “at heart of any discussion on Special Branch” (Morton had been Director of Intelligence in Malaya).

The full extent of British counter-insurgency advice for Sri Lanka against the Tamils is still hidden behind the Public Records Act, which conveniently contains a '30-year rule' to firewall from public knowledge much of the small print about British foreign policy since 1983. However, there is enough evidence already available that shows the foundational role Britain played in creating an apparatus of mass repression on the island. This toxic legacy of British spooks in Sri Lanka should haunt David Cameron on his visit to Colombo next week.

[1] Halliday, Fred, pp 84-85, cites New York Times, April 25th 1971, and Le Monde, June 16th 1971.

[2] Email correspondence with author, 24th May 2013

[3] The full extent and precise content of MI5 advice on 'rehabilitation' and counter-insurgency is unavailable. Unlike most other central government departments, which must make their files publicly accessible after 30 years, MI5, (along with MI6, the Special Forces and Police Special Branch) never have to declassify their records. Dr Christopher Andrew, an historian who had access to the MI5 archives, alleges that “the files of SLO reports from New Delhi, as from most of the Empire and Commonwealth, were, alas, later destroyed because of a shortage of space in the Security Service Archives” (Andrews, Christopher, The Defence of the Realm – The Authorized History of MI5, p 947)

[4] Peng, Chin, My Side of History, pp 242-243

[5] Comber, Leon, Malaya's Secret Police 1945-60, The Role of the Special Branch in the Malayan Emergency, p xix

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