Last year I travelled to Sri Lanka as a journalist to see if a new President was making life any better after years of civil war. I travelled throughout the north of the country, which was under an oppressive military presence following the defeat of the Tamil Tiger insurrection. I saw secret police spying on priests, the navy running hotels and military bases in every town – the Tamil minority were living under what felt like an occupation.
That same year, a delegation from the British Army went on a study trip to Sri Lanka and decided that going to the north would be less comfortable than the tourist attractions in the south. The closest the officers got to the war-torn areas was a 45-minute talk with two Tamil politicians at the capital's plushest hotel, hundreds of kilometres away.
Last year alone, almost a hundred officers went on similar trips. There were half a dozen three-week-long "overseas study tours" to various locations with nights in luxury hotels. The Ministry of Defence sent officers cruising down the Nile, whale watching in Sri Lanka and on safari in Kenya. The bill for flights and accommodation came close to three quarters of a million pounds.
Trip attendees also held meetings with some controversial and authoritarian regimes, arms dealers and fossil fuel concerns. The trips are run every year for British and foreign military officers by the prestigious Royal College of Defence Studies. The elegant Georgian building in Belgravia – London's diplomatic neighbourhood – seems to be a staging post for expeditions that involve a mixture or luxury tourism and militaristic meetings. Freedom of Information requests made by VICE reveal what appears to be a neo-colonial lads-on-tour agency.
The week in Sri Lanka provides an example of what attendees experienced. The trip had to be approved by ministers, because of post-war sensitivities. "Confirmation that we can go to Sri Lanka, it went quite high up in the FCO [Foreign and Commonwealth Office]," one email to the college's commandant said.
The officers were supposed to: "Assess the extent of the Sri Lankan military presence in the north and, if seen as too large, how might the Sri Lankan government reduce and balance this military presence without compromising genuine concerns about national security, while simultaneously managing mainstream public reactions?"
Britain supported a UN investigation into war crimes allegedly committed at the end of the civil war against Tamil rebels in 2009. Embarrassingly, tour documents show that General Sarath Fonseka, who commanded the army's deadly final offensive, had studied at Britain's Royal College of Defence Studies, back in 2001. He is included on a list of alumni that students could turn to for advice.
The minister who gave permission for the trip "noted the need for the group to ask pertinent questions i.e. avoid being sold an inaccurate picture of the country and its challenges".
And they certainly asked pertinent questions. One officer told British diplomats that, "Whilst we are coming to learn, we are also keen (me especially) to fit in as many and as varied cultural items as possible... for example, turtles at Rekawa whilst on coast road temple trip? And a national park somewhere (for elephants and leopards?)".
That wasn't the only hard-hitting question. High Commission staff told the delegation, which was led by a Major General, that "there is a whale watching safari that you can do in the afternoon as an option from turtles?"
One of the officers replied in a Blackberry message, "Whales or turtles – wonderful you are providing everything!"
The embassy staff also arranged a safari for the tour, telling them that, "In the park, which is vast there are Sri Lankan leopards (don't get your hopes up), Elephants, Ceylon spotted deer, sloth bear and lots more." The final Sri Lanka itinerary confirms that whale-watching, turtle-hatching and safari were all included.
On another tour, officers were treated to a Kenyan safari in Nairobi national park and visited a giraffe sanctuary. In Uganda, they stayed at the Sheraton hotel in Kampala and were taken for a "game drive".
Other itineraries reveal that officers touring Beijing visited the Great Wall of China and the Forbidden City. For a South American tour, Brazil's famous Sugarloaf mountain was a must see, plus two nights in an Amazonian eco-resort. In Chile, officers checked out a vineyard for a tour of the wine cellar. Cheers!
Officers saw some of the Middle East's top tourist attractions: Egypt's pyramids, a felucca boat ride on the Nile, Jordan's famous archaeological site at Petra plus a jolly to the Dead Sea. A trip to India included the Taj Mahal.
But there were more serious sessions, too. In Jordan they had an audience with His Majesty King Abdullah II, and considered the impact of a post-Assad Syria on Jordan. Egypt's ultra-powerful defence ministry was also visited for a briefing session. One group went to Belarus, Europe's last dictatorship, and checked out the military's propaganda agency.
And following VICE's revelations that officers had a business meeting with a controversial British mining company in South Africa, we have also found that a tour to Chile included a stop at a copper mine run by British firm Anglo American, who have faced criticism from workers spanning three continents. A visit to India involved a reception hosted by UK arms manufacturer BAE systems; and a trip to Uganda took in a briefing at British energy company Tullow Oil, which is involved in a controversial oil drill under Lake Albert.
A Ministry of Defence spokesperson was keen to underscore how the trips are not a holiday: "Overseas Study Tours are an integral part of the Royal College of Defence Studies course to study prospects for security, stability and prosperity in different regions. Any cultural elements are a minimal part of the overall programme which is funded to a significant extent by overseas nations."
"The country visits should be rigorous and demanding – it certainly is not designed to be a holiday".
Nevertheless, only the best accommodation was considered suitable. One British military official emailed that, "In India, which is visited most years, we stay in the 5* Taj Palace hotels which might give a comparator for the standard."
The group was provided with shopping advice by British diplomats via Foreign Office email accounts: "Levis jeans are really cheap in India if you wanted to take any home as gifts (£20 a pair of 501). There is a big department store... Indiany/ethnic wear which is beautiful!"
A defence college member replied: "Thanks for the shopping suggestions I'll see what I can fit in. I'm especially interested in fabric by the meter to take home and patchwork, the Delhi market had great designs but already made into clothes or bedspreads."
Reading the documents, it's almost difficult not to be envious at the level of luxury the Royal College of Defence Studies has indulged in, and to wonder whether it's really appropriate. But any jealously gets quickly overshadowed by concerns over their meetings with dictatorial regimes and controversial multi-national corporations. It all raises the question – what sort of society are they being trained to protect?
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