by Channa Wickremesekera, Groundviews, Colombo, May 19, 2020
Book Review – Phil Miller, Keenie Meenie: The British Mercenaries Who got away with War Crimes, (Pluto Press, 2020)
Eleven years ago, in May 2009, the Sri Lankan security forces decisively defeated the military forces of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE). The LTTE’s leadership and the vast majority of its cadres were killed. It was a clear victory for the Sri Lankan state, but only in the military field. A political victory over the North and the East of the island still eludes the state. Eleven years on, Tamils are no closer to accepting the Sri Lankan state than they were before the end of the military conflict. At every election they vote overwhelmingly for their leaders or the Sinhalese leaders who oppose the Rajapaksa regime, knowing quite well that their vote will deliver little to them except some dignity. It is a defiant statement from a beaten people using the only weapon they feel they have been left with.
The political defeat of the Sri Lankan state began long before the war ended. In the 1980s, when the Tamil militants began their armed struggle, the state security forces responded with a brutality that convinced many in the North and the East of Sri Lanka that the Sri Lankan state considered Tamil lives to be of little value. To many Tamils, it was merely a reaffirmation of what they had felt for a long time, that the state was the agent of the majority Sinhalese community, and the state security forces the enforces of the will of the Sinhalese. As the security forces detained, tortured and killed thousands, tens of thousands of young men and women were turned into rebels and Tamil Diaspora was born. The widened gulf between the state and the Tamils continued more or less throughout the war and has endured after the end of the military conflict in May 2009.
The Sri Lankan state security forces could not have managed their war of repression without external help. Even though Sri Lanka’s Western allies were reluctant to help the cash-strapped state for fear of alienating India, there were plenty of other sources of help. Weapons, vehicles and training came from Pakistan, South Africa and several other countries while Israel stepped in with specialised training n urban fighting. There was also a shadowy outfit called KMS, a ‘security organisation’ that supplied trainers for the Sri Lankan forces, notably the police commandos, better known as the Special Task Force (STF). The acronym KMS stood for Keenie Meenie Services, a mysterious name the origins of which still remains unclear. The presence of the KMS in Sri Lanka has never been a secret. Even though all the official and semi-official histories of the Sri Lankan security forces are silent on their role, they were mentioned several rimes in the local media at the time while India and Tamil political parties raised the issue of their presence on a few instances. A key accusation levelled at the KMS by India and Tamil politicians was that they were flying aircrafts for the Sri Lankan Air Force. The government did not deny their presence but maintained that they were only employed in training security forces. Then in 2001, one of the KMS operatives in Sri Lanka, Tim Smith brought out his memoirs exposing the extent of KMS involvement which included not simply training flying aircraft but flying them in combat missions which often involved the wholesale massacre of civilians. Smith’s book however, received little attention outside the circles of those interested in the military aspects of the war in Sri Lanka. To date it remains little known and even less read.
Phil Miler’s recent book, Keenie Meenie: How British Mercenaries Got Away with War Crimes, exposes the role of the KMS in Sri Lanka unlike any of these reports and recounts. Written by an accomplished investigative journalist with access to recently declassified British government documents, and based on interviews with former KMS personnel as well as some Sri Lankan security forces personnel, it demonstrates the alarming extent of the involvement of KMS in what were clearly war crimes, and the complicity of the British government in them. It is as shocking as it is damning.
KMS was a shadowy security firm founded by ex-SAS officers and employing mostly ex-SAS personnel. Their first contracts involved providing armed bodyguards for British diplomats in the 1970s. Their operations took a more sinister turn later when they became involved in supporting the ‘Contra’ guerrillas in Nicaragua. In Sri Lanka, KMS began its operations in 1984 by helping the Sri Lankan police set up an elite unit of commandos called the Special Task Force (STF). This followed appeals by the Sri Lankan government for British help in combating the burgeoning Tamil insurgency in Sri Lanka. The British government was not keen to provide overt assistance for fear of alienating India but was happy to allow a group of private security consultants headed by Major General (retired) Richard Clutterbuck to guide the Sri Lankans in counter-terrorism. In the meantime the Sri Lankan government had made contact with KMS on their own. While Clutterbuck remained in England, a team of KMS advisers arrived in Sri Lanka and soon began work. The Special Task Force was set up. KMS gradually expanded its role to training soldiers of the Sri Lankan Army, eventually providing pilots for the Sri Lankan Air Force’s fleet of helicopters.
It is generally accepted that under their tutelage the STF improved its performance as a paramilitary force but what is clearer is that the men trained by the KMS often went berserk killing dozens of civilians. In the sky, the helicopter pilots made a more evident contribution to performance, facilitating SLAF operations against Tamil militants by inducting and extracting troops, and flying missions against the militants. The helicopter sorties were an asset to the security forces’ operations but they also involved indiscriminate strafing of civilians leading to the death of dozens. The killing was so frequent that it would be fair to say that the pilots were facilitating mass murder.
.The great strength of Miller’s work lies in the meticulous research that has brought to light the British establishment’s attitude to and handling of KMS. The British government’s attitude to the employment of KMS personnel by the Sri Lankan government was underlined by the desire to keep its hands clean. Indecisiveness and ambivalence seemed to have marked their every step. They had no objection to KMS training Sri Lankan forces as long as they didn’t court any controversy that would cause embarrassment to Her Majesty’s Government. Whitehall’s response to the news of KMS’ employment typifies this disingenuity. They feigned only a vague knowledge of the outfit (which had provided armed bodyguards to British diplomats for years) but had noting against them being employed by Sri Lanka. But when news of SL forces running rampant reached Britain, Whitehall became alarmed. Still they made little more than feeble attempts to reign in the mercenaries. The British government was now having reservations about KMS working in Sri Lanka but there was no legal basis to prevent them from doing so. A committee appointed in 1976, in the wake of the atrocities perpetrated by some British mercenaries in Angola to find ways to ban British citizens taking service with foreign countries and armies had foundered against opposition from within Whitehall. There was a concern in some influential quarters that such legislation might hamper the work of individuals and firms whose work was useful to Britain.
Whitehall now had to content itself with the admonition that while it was acceptable for the KMS to train Sri Lankan security personnel the firm was to refrain from playing any combat role. This was a time of horrendous carnage in the north with the militants going on the offensive and the security forces retaliating with the wholesale massacre of civilians. The British government did not wish to see KMS sucked in to this. KMS too, at least at this stage, seemed to have shared this view. However, curiously, Whitehall was happy for the KMS to expand its role into training the SLA. They changed their minds later but again found it difficult to restrain the mercenaries who had now come to realise the full scope of the opportunities available to them on this embattled island. In any case, Whitehall was still not making a resolute effort to clip the KMS’ wings. Their efforts did not extend further than verbal messages of disapproval.
In reality there appears to have been considerable toleration for the work of the company. Even the feeble objections were made more in order to distance Whitehall from the KMS than to restrain them. One of the reasons given against legislation to ban mercenaries was that it would interfere with the work of people and companies who could be used to carry out ‘deniable’ operations in the interest of Britain. Now, as the lack of legal grounds to prevent KMS began to dog Whitehall, they took refuge in this ‘deniability.’ So they made feeble objections in order to be able to ‘make clear in parliament if necessary that we had done all we could to dissuade the company from becoming involved in military training given the likelihood that the military situation in Sri Lanka would continue to worsen and the real possibility of further killings of civilians by the Sri Lankan Army.’
Even when the violence escalated in the East where the STF was stationed, and reports of torture and massacres by the men of the STF poured in, British officials and diplomats chose to downplay or ignore the atrocities that were being committed by the charges of the KMS, focusing instead on the effectiveness of the Company’s training. The fact that the Sri Lankan government seemed impressed by the contribution of the KMS also swayed the opinions of these men. (Interestingly, the Sri Lankan National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali is said to have been a keen proponent of the KMS expanding its role to training the regular army). Furthermore, Cold War concerns about preventing Soviet or Chinese military trainers replacing the KMS personnel also weighed on their minds.
When KMS started flying helicopters Whitehall became alarmed. Now there was a real chance of British citizens being shot down or held captive turning the whole KMS adventure into a public relations and diplomatic nightmare for the British government But still, little action was taken other than admonishing the company not to play and active role in combat, a futile exercise considering how deeply the KMS was now involved in the defence affairs of Sri Lanka. The company had the ears of the highest authorities in the island and its top men in Sri Lanka were even treated to a private dinner party with the president. At the same time, the lack of legal avenues continued to hamper the British government.
When the British government finally tried to be assertive and made a feeble attempt to threaten the KMS personnel with a seizure of their passports the company let it be known than their operations have received the nod form no lesser person than Prime Minister Thatcher. But after continuing damning reports about the atrocities committed by the Sri Lankan forces, Whitehall managed to persuade KMS to gradually withdraw their pilots from Palaly in the north. The last KMS pilot was withdrawn from Jaffna in November 1987 and later, KMS rebranded itself as Saladin Security. But before they departed Sri Lanka they made one final noteworthy contribution to the war. As the Indian Peace Keeping Force battled the Tigers for control of Jaffna KMS pilots flew helicopter sorties in support of Indian forces. The Indian government which had been vociferous in calling out the mercenaries when the Sri Lankan security forces were fighting the Tigers now apparently had no compunctions about the SLAF using them when the Tigers were fighting the IPKF.
This is no doubt a damning indictment of British complicity in war crimes. Throughout the unsavoury involvement of KMS personnel with Sri Lankan military forces the British diplomats and officials show little resoluteness in reigning in their countrymen despite overwhelming evidence to show that their charges in Sri Lanka were committing what amounted to war crimes. It is only the involvement of the helicopter pilots that make them finally step in, even that in a lethargic manner. The main concern continued to be damage control and how best to wash their hands off the whole sordid affair, especially now that the possibility of KMS personnel being killed or captured had become very real.
One may argue that the hands of Whitehall were tied, but Miller’s research suggests that it was more a case of ambivalence than a lack of avenues to control the mercenaries. As the involvement of the KMS deepened it was becoming increasingly clear that the company and Whitehall were not as detached as the latter would have liked the world to believe. What is most alarming is the suggestion that people at the highest level of the British government may have had a stake in the affairs of the company, making it difficult to curtail their activities. This would not come as a surprise considering the wide network of known personal and professional ties of key KMS personnel as revealed by Miller. These included powerful people in the armed forces as well as the British government. This was not a rag-tag group f adventurers but an outfit that operated with the knowledge and indirect blessing of powerful elements within the British state. It was even believed in some official quarters that KMS was an unofficial arm of the British government. The KMS operated in a grey area between legality and illegality but this seemed to have suited Whitehall as well as the Company. KMS could conduct its affairs more or less freely while the British government could always deny it had no connection with the mercenaries while allowing their mates to continue making money. “If asked by journalists about KMS the foreign office spokesman would solemnly say: ‘We have no powers to intervene. Understand some personnel are British. They are not mercenaries.’” It was not the horrible carnage in Sri Lanka that moved Whitehall but the likelihood of being exposed.
One may be forgiven for thinking that the attitude of the British government and the mercenaries smacks of thinly veiled racism. In the whole horrendous saga of the KMS what mattered least were the lives of the Tamil civilians that were being massacred. The mindset of many British public servants and military officers was still stuck in the days of the Empire and to many of them, the lives of Black and Brown people were still very cheap. They may not have been directly involved in killing them, but they were certainly willing to look the other way when one’s actions (or inaction)was causing their deaths. This is what the British government did and this was probably the attitude of the KMS trainers as well. It is unlikely that the KMS tried to reign in the STF or the Sri Lankan Army, at least not forcefully. If Tim Smith’s behaviour is any indication the response was to sigh and look away in disgust but continue to plod on because the money was good. They also had to keep their mates in Whitehall out of trouble so that they could continue making money. So the main approach was to downplay the atrocities and emphasize the progress they were making. The lives of a few thousand brown people were not allowed to hinder their business. The British have always been polite colonial masters.
However, Miller’s work suffers from a major weakness. In focusing on exposing the roles of the KMS and the British government, Miller seems to be taking a simplistic view of the conflict. He seems to consider that KMS pilots were largely responsible for preventing the Tigers from achieving their goal of independence. This is to overestimate the contribution of the KMS and underestimate the resourcefulness and the brutality of the Sri Lankan state that made a victory for the militants far from a foregone conclusion without the KMS. It is true that the militants had the Sri Lankan security forces with their backs to the wall by mid-1985, perhaps the apogee of their struggle in political, military and moral terms. The ceasefire put an end to this giving the security forces a breathing space. The major contribution of KMS, the flying of helicopters, came during this period, in early 1986 when the ceasefire had almost collapsed. The KMS expertise was one of many boosts Sri Lankan security forces received at this time, particularly in the second half of 1985. Sri Lanka received weapons and equipment from diverse sources, including South Africa and Pakistan and these included RPGs, heavy artillery, armoured vehicles and fixed wing ground attack aircrafts. Many of the helicopters that the KMS pilots were to fly also arrived during this time and were already airborne when the KMS pilots arrived. It was an extraordinary effort from a cash-strapped government that was also lacking powerful allies. Air power, boosted by KMS pilots was one of the ways in which the capability of the Sri Lankan security forces was improved. There is no question that KMS lifted the performance of the troops they trained, and, air cover, boosted by KMS expertise, was a crucial factor in preventing the Tigers from gaining the upper hand. But whether the Sri Lanka war effort would have collapsed without KMS pilots is a moot point. The SLAF would have functioned without KMS support though perhaps not as effectively as they would have done with KMS support. But whether this would have made a decisive difference is arguable. There were helicopter pilots before KMS came and the Sri Lankan government would have found other sources. Pakistan would have been only too happy to provide assistance, given General Zia’s support for the Sri Lankan government. There was also Israel, already active in Sri Lanka and soon to provide expertise with training in urban warfare.
The atrocities committed by the Sri Lankan forces were also part of an endemic problem in Sri Lankan security forces. The complicity of KMS with their brutalities probably lies in looking the other way rather than in encouraging this, even though the fanning of Tamil-Muslim violence in the East may have been at least partly their handiwork. Sri Lankan security forces did not need anybody’s coaxing to go on the rampage. They had shown what they were capable of when faced by a guerrilla enemy in1971. From early on in the conflict in the North too, they showed a tendency to take out their frustrations on the civilians when things went wrong. Despite being in uniform and trained and equipped like a western force the soldiers’ mentality remained largely civilian, or dare I say, tribal. They responded to attacks on one of them the way they responded in civilian life – by going on the rampage with one’s mates. The early history of the Sri Lankan Army in the Ealam wars is full of such incidents. As Miller himself acknowledges the British defence attaché in Colombo at the time was probably close to the truth when he declared that the Sri Lankan security forces’ ‘indiscipline cannot be corrected – however much training they received.’ Their discipline improved considerably in the later stages of the conflict but at this stage the Sri Lankan security forces could easily degenerate into bands of heavily armed marauders when under pressure. As suggested earlier the mercenaries may have looked away in disgust but whether they could have done anything to stop it is not clear. The desire to downplay the cost to civilians and appease Whitehall may have been born out of helplessness as much as greed.
True, the focus of Miller’s work is the KMS, not the conflict, but lack of attention to these factors hampers a proper appraisal of the contribution and role of the KMS. One also feels that the book is quite thin on research into the Sri Lankan side of the transaction. We hear the perspective of one former STF commander, who is glowing in his praise of the KMS but very little else. This is understandable, considering that there is a great reluctance among ex-Sri Lankan security forces personnel to speak about the war unless it is about the glorious deeds of the security forces. A subject like the KMS would be extremely touchy. Even with regards to the British involvement, Miller has depended overwhelmingly on released documents rather than face to face interviews, which again, may have been extremely difficult to obtain, as shown by his summary eviction by Brian Baty, the top KMS man in Sri Lanka. This is understandable, but it also prevents the reader from getting a more complete picture of the events.
Miller also completely ignores what was the most crucial factor in the war – India. India was sympathetic towards the Tamil struggle but only in so far as it satisfied its own interests. India did not wish to have Sri Lanka shifting closer to the US and the Tamil rebels were used as leverage. In return India was happy for the Tamils to receive a degree of autonomy but never complete self-determination. That would have been ominous for India wary of separatist tendencies springing within its own Tamil population in the south. This is why India’s support never amounted to more than helping the militants fight the Sri Lankan state to a standstill rather than to overcome it. And it was India that goaded the Tamils to Thimpu for talks in 1985 when the militants seemed poised to overwhelm the poorly trained and equipped Sri Lankan forces. India was a much bigger factor than the KMS or the resourcefulness and brutality of the Sri Lankan security forces in stymieing the Tamil liberation struggle at this stage.
Miller’s ignoring of these complexities and focusing on the skulduggery of the KMS and Whitehall appears to be also coloured by his attitude to the Tamil struggle. Miller appears to be disappointed that the Tamil struggle failed and this attitude seems to be driven by his belief that this was the only acceptable outcome to the national question in Sri Lanka. There may be ideological reasons for this attitude and one can appreciate that, but whether complete independence was realistic is arguable. The involvement of India and the brutal determination of the Sri Lankan government showed that a military victory was not only impossible but also very costly in terms of lives. The LTTE also contributed to the impasse, another aspect of the complexity of the conflict that Miller overlooks. They showed little enthusiasm for anything less than complete independence and were little concerned about the suffering their intransigence brought to the people they were striving to liberate. The Tigers had little time for politics or the people. In the words of the authors of The Broken Palmyra the politics of the LTTE ‘ascribed a marginal role for the people, and if they mobilized the people, it was at a basic emotion level so as to only advance the narrow cause of their movement.’
This systemic weakness locked the LTTE and the Tamil people into a struggle with a brutal state that was unwinnable. The government as well as the Tamil militants were responsible for the break-up of the Thimpu Talks. Surely the government cannot expect the militants to give up the struggle when they were so close to victory? Miller questions rhetorically but the Thimpu talks was a telling reminder of the futility of going against India’s wishes. The talks were destined to fail but continuing the struggle with only complete independence in mind pushed the Tamils deeper into the bloodletting. Ignoring this also enables Miller to further prop up the KMS as the main villain of the piece standing between the Tamils and their independence. But the British mercenaries were in fact just one group of villains making life miserable for the people in the North and the East.
Notwithstanding these shortcomings, Keenie Meenie offers us a rare and damning insight into a dark episode in British-Sri Lankan relations after Sri Lanka gained Independence from Britain. Through inaction and self-interest, the British allowed a group of mercenaries to cash in on a terrible conflict, caring more about their image and reputation than the horrendous carnage they were facilitating. It is a timely reminder of what some governments who claim to be the leaders of the civilized world do when they think they can get away with it. The KMS were not the first modern mercenaries and they will certainly not be the last, but knowing what they were allowed to get away with might help in making it harder for governments to collude with unscrupulous ‘businessmen’ to profit from wars in poor countries. It is also a timely reminder to never underestimate the resourcefulness and deviousness of repressive states and their allies.