As Britain’s Foreign Office declassified secret documents, the role of Keenie Meenie Services (KMS) that helped set up the Police commando arm, the Special Task Force (STF) in Sri Lanka, and fought Tiger guerrillas, has been unravelled. In the mid-1980s when this happened, companies such as KMS, were derisively called “mercenary groups.” However, after the [...]


Britain was aware of Jayewardene Govt.’s agreement with KMS: Ranil


Former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe: The KMS role was training

As Britain’s Foreign Office declassified secret documents, the role of Keenie Meenie Services (KMS) that helped set up the Police commando arm, the Special Task Force (STF) in Sri Lanka, and fought Tiger guerrillas, has been unravelled.

In the mid-1980s when this happened, companies such as KMS, were derisively called “mercenary groups.” However, after the America’s Iraq war in 2003, these groups earned respectability as “private military companies” and won battlefield assignments that earned them millions of dollars or sterling pounds.

It was during President J.R. Jayewardene’s tenure that government officials approached Britain’s Defence Ministry for possible assistance to cope with internal security threats – from the once violent Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). A key mover from Colombo was Ravi Jayewardene, son of the late President, an excellent marksman, a captain in the volunteer army, a qualified pilot and one who was knowledgeable in matters military. It was his idea to form a paramilitary group within the Police — the Special Task Force (STF).

It was a public secret at the time that when the Government of Sri Lanka requested the British Government for military assistance, a top British official conveyed to the Sri Lanka Government that they could not help but could guide him in the right direction. And so he did. That was the introduction to KMS and the presence in Sri Lanka of its expert personnel in the fields of intelligence, counter terrorism, commandos, communicators, trainers, and pilots. The men were those retired from the Special Air Services (SAS) – the elite unit of British forces with tremendous achievements to their credit.

President Jayewardene was disappointed that Britain did not officially support his Government defeat terrorism. Overtly, however, Britain under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher funded the entire Victoria dam under the Mahaveli multipurpose development scheme. At the United Nations, when the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) sponsored a resolution against Britain for the invasion of the Malvinas (Falklands islands), President Jayewardene asked his Foreign Minister A.C.S. Hameed to break ranks with NAM and vote with Britain.

Recently, however, Britain was a member of the core group that supported the United States backed resolution against Sri Lanka, now commonly referred to as 30/1. The thrust of that resolution was the accusation that Sri Lanka violated human rights and international humanitarian law. They accused the troops of committing alleged war crimes.

There is a paradox now. The declassified documents include copies of communications from the British High Commission in Colombo on operational and other matters. After the declassified documents were publicised, mostly in a book, the British Metropolitan Police have begun an inquiry about British nationals committing war crimes in Sri Lanka. This comes at a time when there are moves by Britain to move a resolution on Sri Lanka.

KMS men at the STF training academy in Katukurunda around 1985. They are seated with STF commandant Zernie Wijesuriya. (Credit: Sri Lanka Police)

This week, one of the surviving members of the SAS group, Major Brian Baty, died. He was once Officer Commanding the “D” Squadron of the SAS. Records show that he was a former corporal in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and once created a near mutiny. That is when he ordered a group of his men, who had illegally crossed the Irish border, be interrogated by the Special Investigation Department. The other men in the troop protested that they should not be treated like criminals. SAS Director Johnny Watts and the Regiment’s Commanding Officer had to fly out to calm the situation down.

One of the two surviving Minister’s in the J.R. Jayewardene cabinet at that time is former Prime Minister and UNP Leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe. He worked directly under President Jayewardene as Deputy Minister of Manpower Mobilisation during the ‘war years’ of that time. The Sunday Times caught up with him this week to ask some questions on this subject.

Q: How do you see this issue that has resurfaced?

A: “Firstly there is resurgence in UK regarding slavery, mercenaries that’s going on. This (the exposure of British mercenaries in Sri Lanka) seems to be a part of it. Secondly, the author has been working with Tamil asylum seekers for sometimes, but after the war was over, by around 2011, he claims to have visited the North and East, but does not say about the rest of the country. His primary sources seem to be more articles and books, rather than outstanding investigations.

He also seems to be trying to get access to UK Foreign Office records on KMS as they (KMS) worked in many places. They also may be trying to get access to Sri Lankan files through the UK Freedom of Information Act. This seems to be the campaign being carried out now. But, the KMS had nothing to do with the British Government.  This seems to be the background.

He (the author) has recently given an interview to the Tamil Guardian. I found some discrepancies in his book. He talks about pooling information what is in the public domain which means he has not done much research on his own.

I am also concerned about human rights. I have voiced my concerns about human rights.

There has been various allegations. For instance, we got a police officer to look at improving the Police Academy and a proposed University.  This was during the 2015–2019 period under the Law and Order Ministry. They tried to make an issue about this also.  We wanted to start a university.

He refers to two Sri Lankan officers being invited to Belfast, but they went in June 1983. That was on a request from the UK government.  That was for them to see how they can handle the situation without violating human rights.  That had nothing to do with the riots which broke out later, in July 1983. That (programme) had been ongoing for two to three years.

If there are serious, credible allegations (of human rights violations by Sri Lankan Forces) we should investigate it. But there is nothing like that.”

Q: Wasn’t it no secret that KMS was assisting the Sri Lankan Government with the full knowledge of the British Government because the British Government did not want to be seen offending India – which was backing the non-state actor – the LTTE?

A: “The KMS was not a mercenary outfit. They were on contract.  The contract was to provide training.  So to term them as mercenaries is not correct.

A mercenary is someone hired by the Government to fight. The KMS worked at the Katukurunda camp where the STF was trained and then at the Maduru Oya training camp after 1985.  The Army made Maduru Oya available for other services to train. The STF was also trained there. In addition, there was training for some Air Force pilots. They were not in operation.

There have been various allegations in various books. This author has not verified them. That is the issue.

Yes, as far as the British Government is concerned, they were aware of it. But the Sri Lankan Government entered into the agreement on its own. The KMS was a well-known agency. In Britain, there were other agencies like this going out and doing training around the world.  So certainly, the British Government was aware of it. But we did not need the blessings of the British Government, nor did we go to ask for the blessings of the British Government. We worked not only with KMS, but we worked with other groups as well.

Actually the combat persons of the Armed Forces were trained in Pakistan at different establishments. We did have the advice of a very experienced Pakistani groups led by a Special Forced Brigadier. Finally, all these strategies were developed by our own military.  The Joint Operations Command was under Lt. Gen. Tissa Weeratunga and thereafter, under Lt. Gen. Cyril Ranatunga.

Q: But the Pakistani support was from its Government.

A: “Yes, that military support was from the Pakistan Government. We sent people (military personnel) there. They did not come here to train. We had Intelligence support and training even from Israel.  Our Army officers also went to South Africa. We did not get people involved here. The Indian Government’s strategy was to pressure us.  The Indian Government complained to the British saying that they were providing training here. The Indians and we used to argue on that.

I remember what President J.R. Jayewardene told the then Indian Foreign Secretary Romesh Bhandari at my father’s birthday party. He told Mr. Bhandari that if Ms Indira Gandhi had not trained the Sri Lankan terrorists we would not have needed KMS, or anyone else. Those were matters discussed and these were not secrets. The Indians spoke to us (about KMS). We knew what they were telling the British. But we needed the services of KMS. Additionally, we trained our own military. The STF operated only in Batticaloa where they had the Sinhalese and Muslims on their side, and the social structure which gave them a connection to the Tamils.  The police in the North had their own police platoons which defended the Police stations. So there were two different structures. The Army took the bulk of the fighting in the North. And the civilian administration continued to function”.

Q:  President Jayewardene himself had said KMS was supporting Sri Lanka because the British Government refused to help militarily on a Government-to-Government basis.

A: “The British Government did not want to support us militarily due to the pressure and the fact that there were allegations of violations of human rights after the riots.  That was the main issue. That’s why we decided that we need to have a strategy on our own and train our military personnel.  We got arms from China and had the necessary training. We were building our own capacity. Therefore, they (KMS) were not military advisors as such.  They basically came in only for the training”.

Q:  The British MoD (Ministry of Defence) liaised with KMS.

A:  “I don’t know how the British Ministry of Defence liaised with the KMS. Obviously, they would have informed the British High Commission.  But, they were in no way directing any efforts of the KMS. They wanted to keep a distance with KMS. We dealt directly with the British Government as well. There were British officers coming and visiting Sri Lanka. They wanted to know the situation.  Among those who came was General Sir Michale Rose.  He looked at the situation here and used this experience when he was the UN Commander in Bosnia.  He was criticised, but he knew how to balance the use of force.  In my view, he did a successful job (in Bosnia) with the limited number. These are the type of experiences they get. So they use their military power elsewhere as Peace Keeping Forces using the knowledge they receive from different theatres of conflict.

Originally, when we had the Military Academy for cadet officers we started the Kotelawala Defence Academy. As we went higher up we needed military officers and our military staff system was copied from the British. So when we started the Staff College we contacted British officers. There are British officers everywhere. That is nothing new.  When we started the National Defence College we needed high level people. We had links with the British for a long time.

There were complaints that the British supplied us with arms at the time. I was the Prime Minister. Yes, we had an agreement.  The British gave us arms for two reasons.  Under the Ceasefire Agreement, the LTTE agreed that (Under 1.3 in the Agreement) “the Sri Lankan Armed Forces shall continue to perform their legitimate task of safeguarding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka.” So, even the LTTE had agreed to it. Secondly, the LTTE was banned and really targeted after the 9/11 incident in the USA. The British wanted to know why we wanted the arms and we said it was to fill the gap created by the previous military operations where we lost a lot of equipment.  The talk was that the British Army experts gave advice on reorganising the Army. Yes, that was done by me under the Ceasefire Agreement. We wanted to reorganise the Army and the shortcomings we saw in the previous two years.

It seems he (the Author) is trying to get all the information from the British Foreign Ministry which had nothing to do with all of this”.


Q: What then, were the special roles of KMS in Sri Lanka?

A: “The KMS role was training. These questions were answered by the then National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali in Parliament.  It was a contract limited for Training. Today, we call them contractors.  There are contractors who do security duties in Afghanistan and Iraq”.

Q: They were paid handsomely – some Rs. 50 million at the time, because the British Government refused to help a country facing an armed separatist movement.

A: “We had to pay them according to the contract.  They did the job. They made the STF into a police paramilitary group which is now being copied by some other countries.  In these types of insurgencies the Army does not need to intervene.  Lots of countries are being advised to have some force like an STF paramilitary force which is a part of the Police.  There, they are liable under the Police Law.  A complaint can be made against them and it has to be investigated like a complaint against an ordinary police officer.  In a case against the Armed Forces, an inquiry is at their discretion, but in the case of the Police, an inquiry is compulsory”.

Q:  Kicking the dust 35 years later and reopening these files might embarrass the British Government at a time the British Government is co-sponsoring a ‘war crimes’ investigation against Sri Lanka at the UN HRC.

A: “In my view, during armed conflict one should try to observe human rights. I have also taken up some of the violations.  But what we are facing now in Geneva is clearly the investigations into cases which commenced under the Ban Ki-moon agreement in 2009 (when the then Sri Lanka Government agreed to certain requirements by the UN).

In addition to that, they (the UN) had raised certain issues like the inquiry into the murder of the female journalist. They had also wanted an inquiry into the death of Prabhakaran’s son, because of the UN’s focus on children. They were also worried that terrorists some time surrender their  families in the hope of stopping the fighting but if the fate of the families was uncertain it may lead to more fighting.

The third one was the white flag case. The whole thing was brought up in the General Sarath Fonseka case before the High Court.  On the other hand, we had taken action to set up the Office of Missing Persons.  Any issues should be limited to what has been ongoing. Investigations we did were more of the killing and assault of journalists which came up to about 2014. They were not connected to the war issues.

But Britain also has been accused of war crimes and they have investigated and tried some cases. They have given reasons as to why they will not take court action on other cases.  Recently, I saw they said that on a fair number of cases they were not going to courts. They will find a way out. They are capable of handling any issues.  More important would be how they handle the Freedom of Information issue in the British courts.   But Sri Lanka and Britain have had a long relationship.  So there is nothing to it between us, the UK Government and the KMS.

They are trying to revive this issue.  Lord Ahmed (British Minister for South Asia) had sent a letter as a reply to this lobby, as they claim that there is material to be investigated.  If this news item is true, he should as Minister of State for the Commonwealth take the matter up with the Sri Lankan Government. We are all Commonwealth member-states”.

Q: Do you envisage this to be an issue for the incumbent Government of Sri Lanka.

 A:  “The three parties involved in it are no more. Mrs. Margaret Thatcher, President Jayewardene and Capt. Ravi Jayewardene.  Even Indian officials like G. Parthasarathy, Romesh Bhandari who negotiated with us and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi are no longer among the living. I used to attend meetings involving KMS training programmes as Deputy Minister of Manpower Mobilisation. The Minister was President Jayewardene. I knew how the training system worked. After that during President Premadasa’s time I used to go for the Security Council meetings and as Prime Minister I was overseeing things done during President D.B. Wijetunga. In 2002 too I was keeping a tab on it.

I do not think there is a basis to all of this so-called new evidence.  There is no proper research here. I hope the British Government too deals with it that way.

There is good market though for such books, and documentaries however with the Tamil diaspora. Whatever investigations the UNHRC wants are those under the Ban-Ki moon agreement.


Timeline of British military involvement in Sri Lanka

(From British journalist Phil Miller’s book Keenie Meenie: The British Mercenaries Who Got Away With War Crimes)

1983 – Senior Sri Lankan police officers invited to Belfast to “see at first hand the roles of the police and army in counter-terrorist operations”, as well as attending an MI5 confer ence on terrorism and visiting the Metropolitan Police Special branch to discuss Tamil separatists living in the UK. Foreign Office pledges to “discreetly” provide Sri Lankans with para-military training for counter-insurgency operations and commando courses. (See pages 12-13)
1984-1987 – British mercenaries operate in Sri Lanka with “no objection” from the UK Foreign Office. Former SAS soldiers, employed by KMS Ltd. Trained the Sri Lankan Special Task Force (a notorious police commando unit) and instructed helicopter gunship pilots during live missions (See pages 13-16)
1988-1989 – An SAS officer, Major General Richard Clutterbuck allegedly advised the Sri Lankan President on defeating the second JVP uprising. (See page 16)
Early-mid 1990s KMS Role in Sri Lanka
STF Role
Air Force – allegation
Sri Lanka-UK relations in 1983
1997-1998 – British officers played a “crucial role” in setting up Sri Lanka’s new Army Command & Staff College. British Colonel permanently attached to the college. Term three sylla bus focused on counter-insurgency in Sri Lanka.
2001 – Britain bans LTTE under Terrorism Act. Tigers attack Colombo Airport. Tim Spicer and his firm of Special Forces veterans visit Sri Lanka to advise on port security.
(See pages 23-25)
2002 – Ceasefire Agreement signed. Britain begins to advise Sri Lanka on its “defence review”. (See page 28)
GOVT. 2003 – Britain makes substantial arms sales to Sri Lanka (See pages 28-29)
2004 – British defence attaché “instigated comprehensive training and development pro gramme for the Sri Lankan Armed Forces” over the next three years. (See page 30)
2005 – European travel ban imposed on LTTE while Britain held EU presidency. (See page 31)
2006 – Sri Lankan government requested British assistance with “Higher Defence (MOD) Management, Security Policy Development and Intelligence, and Policing”. EU places full terrorism ban on LTTE, under heavy pressure from UK and USA.
(See pages 29-32)
2007 – British consultancy firm, the Libra Advisory Group “enhanced” Sri Lankan intelligence services. (See page 31)
2008 – British security development work ongoing with Sri Lanka (See page 30).

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