Last month The Guardian reported that the British Foreign Office, which heads up the UK’s international affairs, destroyed nearly 200 files in what many consider to be a coverup. The files detailed Britain’s involvement in Sri Lanka’s domestic political upheaval prior to the brutal 26-year civil war that ended in 2009 and left a projected 80,000 to 100,000 civilians dead. But destroying records that might incriminate or at least upset The Crown isn’t particularly new. In fact, it’s something of a British national pastime.
The British Security Service (known as MI5) and the Special Air Service (SAS) secretly advised the Sri Lankan government on how to handle the uprising of the militant separatist organization Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and the Foreign Office destroyed 195 files detailing the training of Sri Lankan forces by the Services from 1978-1980, the years leading up to the start of the war. And if the British were possibly funding war crimes in Sri Lanka towards the end of the war in 2008, it’s hard to imagine their involvement prior to the war was a humanitarian effort. But now, as in so many colonialist rewritings of history, whether the UK or America, or any other country with a shameful past, we may never know for sure.
By law, these files should have been turned over to the Public Records Office and made available, but when asked about what happened to them, not only did the Foreign Office refuse to disclose when, where, or how exactly the files were destroyed but claimed they weren’t “required to preserve” the documents, stating they may be “of a policy nature but might also be administrative or ephemeral.”
This is, as the British might say, total poppycock. The British don’t disappear crucial information on how they contributed to a former colony’s deadly civil war, one rife with alleged human rights abuses—like an enormous amount of civilian deaths, shelling of “safe zones,” extra-judicial killings, enforced disappearances, and child recruitment, among other things —because the information was either boring or trivial. They hide and erase these truths in a desperate attempt to flee culpability of what they did and preemptively absolve themselves of the British cardinal sin of, what else, “embarrassment.”
See, this isn’t the first time the Foreign Office has been caught hiding and/or destroying evidence of their discomfiting roles in imperial violence. In fact, it was policy. In 1961, then Secretary of State for the Colonies Iain Macleod issued a memo advising the Foreign Office to “migrate” files about former colonies that gained independence back to Britain. The criteria for migration included things that:
“a) might embarrass HMG (Her Majesty’s Government in Britain) or other governments; b) might embarrass members of the police, military forces, public servants or others eg police informers; c) might compromise sources of intelligence information; d) might be used unethically by ministers in the successor Government.”
Considering the fact that the brutal subjugation and division of countless largely brown and black people is a sizable embarrassment, there was a lot to cover up, and documents from 37 former colonies and protectorates were shipped back to the UK. In 2013, it was discovered that the Foreign Office had secretly and unlawfully hidden over one million files spanning several decades, presumably an extension of Macleod’s directive.
So what are some of the things the British Foreign Office didn’t want the rest of the world to know they did?
- The torture and murder of members of the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (commonly referred to as the Mau Mau rebellion) in Kenya in the 1950s
- The “elimination” (murder) of pro-independence Malayan insurgents in what was then British Malaya, also in the 1950s
- An inquiry into the alleged strip search and abuse of Malay women from a specific village—the results of the inquiry were not included
- The 1948 Batang Kali massacre, in which 24 unarmed Malay villagers were rounded up and murdered by Scots Guards.
- The 1971 forced removal of the inhabitants of Diego Garcia, the largest island the Chagos Archipelago, which was part of the British Indian Ocean Territories—the British had leased the island to the United States so they could build an air base.
And this is from just a few of the hundreds of thousands of files that were kept secret. It should be noted that while the British did employ barbaric violence, particularly when it came to British Malay, that force came hand-in-hand with a less violent but equally imperialist “hearts and minds” approach to counter-insurgency. And lest we forget, the British do have a well-documented history of war crimes that weren’t necessarily hidden in the giant trove including forced resettlements and establishing concentration camps in South Africa during the Second Boer War as well as numerous crimes committed during both World Wars.
For the Foreign Office to go to such lengths to avoid “embarassment” and maintain a veneer of decency when their empire is founded on expansive brutalization is truly twisted. Not every file in the vault has to outline a mass murder for it to be an essential component as former colonies attempt to piece their histories together, but it’s unlikely the British were thinking of that. And the FO has somehow managed to keep other documents about Singapore, Northern Cameroons (now a region of Nigeria), and “1950 file about the ‘indoctrination of Malay Chinese’ travelling to China” sealed for another decade at least!
Rewriting history in your favor isn’t just a British problem. It is of course one of the hallmarks of imperialism, like America’s attempt to erase the invasion and genocide of first nations people, the massacre of thousands of Filipino people including children, and that whole Lost Cause of the South thing, among others.
Still, for the UK to deny nations that were manipulated by British colonial forces crucial information about their own pasts, under the guise of saving some old lady in a giant palace surrounded by corgis embarrassment—well, it’s very British, isn’t it.