Interview with Phil Miller
January 6 2021
U Bava Dharani
Phil is an investigative journalist and author of Keenie Meenie: The British Mercenaries Who Got Away With War Crimes (Pluto Press, 2020).
He is a staff reporter for Declassified UK, an investigative journalism organisation published by the Daily Maverick news website in South Africa.
Phil has written articles for media outlets such as: The Times, Guardian, Private Eye, Vice, Mail on Sunday, Independent, Irish Times, Daily Record, iNews, Mirror, openDemocracy, Stabroek News (Guyana), Morning Star, New Humanist and New Internationalist.
How did you come across Keenie Meenie? And could you tell us about your approach?
I first heard about Keenie Meenie in about 2011/2012. I was studying in SOAS University in London and we had a group there that was supporting asylum seekers in immigration detention. We heard that a large number were about to be deported to Sri Lanka after the Civil War. While we were mobilizing around that issue, I met someone who told me about this company that one of his uncles had told him about in Sri Lanka in the 1980s. It was a British company, called Keenie Meenie, that was supplying certain parts of the Sri Lankan Security Forces, which were very brutal against the Tamil community in the North and East of Sri Lanka. I had never heard of the name of this company before. Obviously, the name itself is very mysterious. Over the next few years, I began going to the National Archives and making Freedom of Information requests about a whole range of issues to do with privatisation and outsourcing of private security companies. I was working as a professional investigator for a research group called Corporate Watch. And I just kept checking about what news was being released on Keenie Meenie. We have a law in the UK that after 30 years the government is meant to release files of its activities. Keenie Meenie was active from about 1983/1984 in Sri Lanka, so by about 2013/2014 there was material that was starting to appear in the National Archives, that I was able to access. Things that were not known publicly about this company before for decades started emerging.
Can you tell us more about the methods you used in your research for this book?
I used the archives as a starting point to see which British diplomats had been involved in dealing with Keenie Meenie at that time in the 1980s. Not just ambassadors but also defence attaches. There are people who are senior British military officers, who towards the end of their career are sent to embassies and their job is to deal with that country’s military, generally arm sales but also to have regular meetings with other military officials of the country and make notes about what’s going on. So, from the files I found out that, the defence attache appeared to have many meetings with Keenie Meenie. I wanted to meet one of these senior defence attaches and interview him. I was able to track him down just using phone books and things available online. He was living in Bordeaux, France, so I wrote to him and he was wiling to talk to me. I then went to France to interview him. We also found out that one of the former ambassadors was still alive and living in England. He had recently released a book about being an ambassador in Sri Lanka, which did not mention Keenie Meenie. However, it was an opportunity to reach out to his publisher and arrange an interview.
With the names, it gave us a sense of who was in the command structure of the Sri Lankan side, some of the leaders of the military units in Sri Lanka that Keenie Meenie was either training or in combat with. When my colleagues went to Sri Lanka, they were able to set up meetings with some of them. Also using our contacts from the Tamil community,particularly the Tamil Information Centre (TIC), we were able to find people in parts of the North and East of Sri Lanka who had witnessed some of the massacres that Keenie Meenie were complicit in. So that is how we built the picture, by trying to find sources on the British, Tamil and Sinhalese side, of possible people we could interview.
How do you think academia that engages with conflict studies, and the Tamil conflict particularly would approach this book? Is there a gap between this approach of yours and how academia has approached the conflict?
I am not an academic, I just have a BA in Politics and I went into working as a journalist, researcher and investigator. But the book is being used on university reading lists. I have spoken at three universities since the book came out. At SOAS, at Kings college and Kingston University. There is interest among academics and I think they see it as a valuable teaching tool for their reading lists. There is not much written that is critical about British post-war foreign policy, while there is a lot written about US foreign policy. That too, using archival material.
A lot of academics have said that this book has reminded them to engage more with the archives. Many Masters and doctoral students have said they want to learn how to use the National Archives and also to be more persistent with Freedom of Information requests. Because often when you go the archives you will find parts of the file you are looking at are still censored. And in order to get the full copy, you need to make Freedom of Information requests and sometimes you need to appeal these requests if they have been refused. And I have been quite persistent with the appeals. This has been highlighted to some in academia that it is worth continuing to push, even if initially they are told they cannot look at something. It is worth trying to use what rights we have under the Freedom of Information laws to keep pushing. That has been the response from academics.
But the book is not written in an academic way at all. It is fully referenced, there are about 500 footnotes, most are directed to files at the National Archives. Its academic in that sense. Professor Paul Rogers at the University of Bradford Peace Studies Department did a very positive review of my book for Open Democracy. So I think it is respected by academics, but it is not written as an academic paper. I wanted it to be accessible to a wider audience.
Sometime conflicts and conflict studies tend to get grouped into regional clusters by academics. But your book shows that through following Keenie Meenie, how interconnected the different conflicts were. Could you tell us more about this?
I wanted to show this aspect of world history, post-Empire. This kind of transition from formal British Empire to these more subtle methods of neo-colonialism, across what was the British Empire. In the book there are chapters not just on Sri Lanka, but also Oman (which is of major British interests), Afghanistan and Nicaragua (parts of which were colonised, controlled by the UK). I did want to give that perspective. When I studied International Relations(IR) as part of my Politics degree at SOAS, I was thought by Dr Mark Laffey, who is very good at explaining the world since World War 2, from the perspective of World Empire and showing how Empire made the modern world and how we still are living in that paradigm. There is a lot of material on US Empire but I wanted to show how the British Empire has survived and mutated, from when the mercenaries of the East India Company colonised India, to modern mercenaries who continue to exert significant military influence in parts of South Asia, within living memory. The consequences of which we are still seeing today.
This book highlights the nexus between state vs non-state actors, the public vs private. How do you think this book can be utilised by British Tamils to push for accountability? Was that intention of the book?
Part of what I do is show how there has been no accountability, decades of cover-up, incrementing files have been kept secret for so long and are only declassified after the perpetrators have passed away. But I have also tried to show that there are surviving members of KM against whom, it may appear there is a strong case, for some kind of accountability exercise. I mean just publishing this material, there is an element of accountability there and truth-telling. The book has also been shared with a UN Working Group on mercenaries, with a view that hopefully they will raise some of these issues with the British government and their failure to put mechanisms in place to hold mercenaries to account. Also there might be some kind of efforts, either through the Police,etc.. When the book was published about 11 Tamil Groups wrote to the UK Foreign Office to launch a public inquiry and the Foreign Office responded that this should be a matter for the Police War Crimes Unit. That might be the next step. One of the main mercenaries in the book, this man called Brian Baty passed away months after the book was published. The only accountability he faced was the book being published and being featured in the Daily Mail and him being named in the Daily Mail as someone who was involved in this very nefarious activity in Sri Lanka.
Do you think academic writing centres accountability, the way your approach does? Have you thought about other approaches to this conflict?
I am not a lawyer, if I was approaching this as a lawyer, it would take quite a different approach. Lawyers would probably focus on one massacre and just find witnesses and claimants from that one incident. I try to take a more overall approach and try to show the scale and repetition of these atrocities. I should say, I was helped throughout this process by Dr Rachel Seoighe, who is a criminologist, currently at the University of Kent. I think criminologists are doing quite good work in this field, I often find quite a bit overlap between what I do and what criminologists do. I think that is one area of academia that I think seems to have the flexibility to engage with these issues in an innovative and dynamic way. I have not really found much of the mainstream IR literature particularly helpful, they tend to get locked into these theories rather than going for the archival material, to see what the policymakers were actually doing.
I think theories are fine but we also need to look at what the people are saying in their own words and doing. Also, this area has been understudied. In the SOAS library, there are very few books on Oman for instance, despite the fact that this is a country that has been ruled for half a century by one man who only recently passed away and who came to power in a military coup that was supported by British mercenaries and British Special Forces. This regime was known to be intensively repressive as well. There is only a shelf, maybe half a shelf at the SOAS library of books on Oman.
Some conflicts tend to be over-studied while others are neglected. For example, Britain’s role in Oman, Nicaragua, Afghanistan in 1980s before it became a popular area to study. There are big gaps in research there. And with Sri Lanka, the conflict has been studied very intensely from a regional perspective, but it hasn’t been looked at through an international lens in terms the role of former colonial powers in the conflict, what they were doing in the conflict. Which is what my research tries to do, but there is still plenty more that can be done. A lot of conflict studies looks at conflict studies as very localised affairs between different ethnic groups and neglects the role of big powers in play, in intervening and interfering in these conflicts.
Why do you think certain conflicts get understudied, while others get more attention?
Probably to do with funding. I am more familiar with how the media focuses more on some conflicts at the expense of others. So if we compare the amount of media coverage on the war in Syria versus the war in Yemen, the war in Syria has been mentioned three times as much in the British media. And yet Britain is more heavily involved in the war in Yemen through its support for Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Britain pretty much supplies the entire Saudi Air Force and keep it operating. Whereas in Syria, British influence is much less in terms of military role in the conflict. There is a problem with British journalists, where we tend to be more comfortable looking at other peoples’ problems than our own when it comes to foreign news. It is easier to report on conflicts that we are not as culpable for. Academia tends to be dependant on funding, I can imagine that UK government departments, such as the Ministry of Defence would be more willing to offer funding for academics to write about Syria than writing critically about Saudi Arabia for their role in Yemen. Because of the Ministry of Defence itself has a huge operation In Saudi Arabia. These are some factors in stake in terms of British media and academia. I am more familiar with the media side, which I have analysed.
What are some of the structural challenges you faced when you were pushing to gather research for this book?
Finding a publisher was a long process. We found a small publisher, but the book did surpass our expectations because there was huge interest within the Tamil diaspora as well as the wider society. I think there is an appetite for books such as this, that are objective and critical of British foreign policy because there is just so little of it. People are being starved of this kind of information. There is so much being pumped out by publishers by papers on the merits of British foreign policy, but I think people have started to see through that particularly after the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan. People are more critical then they are being given credit for. When books like this come along, there is an appetite for them. But I think journalists doing this kind of work, generally one of the obstacles we face is that our work is effectively being ignored. Never really given the exposure that perhaps it deserves. If you write about other countries committing war crimes, then your work will often be received much better by the British media. As compared to when you write about British military veterans being involved in war crimes. That dynamic is definitely at play.
Fortunately, I now work for an organisation called Declassified UK, we are published by one of the main news websites in South Africa, which gives us a good platform to publish from. We are able to get our stories out through that way. This has partly been a result of not being able to find British publishers who are not willing to take on these kinds of stories.