Wednesday 21 May 2003

As British as afternoon tea

By imposing regime change in Iraq, Blair is not so much following the US as continuing a national tradition

Iraqis facing an uncertain future in the wake of forcible "regime change" have every reason to fear not only US but also British policy. While past American behaviour in the region is widely criticised, contributing to fears of real US intentions, Britain's role is often regarded as more benign. The reality is that overthrowing governments and backing repressive regimes is as British as afternoon tea.

Fifty years ago, MI6 and the CIA overthrew the popular, nationalist government in Iran, which had threatened British interests by nationalising oil operations. Churchill's government continued covert operations begun by Attlee, to install what foreign secretary Anthony Eden called "a more reliable government". Formerly secret files reveal that our ambassador in Tehran preferred "a dictator" who would "settle the oil question on reasonable terms". The Shah took control and ruled Iran with an iron fist for 25 years, while Britain and the US helped train his secret police.

Britain's invasion of British Guiana in the same year is long forgotten. Democratic elections had resulted in victory for a popular, leftist government committed to reducing poverty. Its plans also threatened the British sugar multinational, Bookers, who pleaded with London to intervene. Britain dispatched warships and 700 troops to overthrow the government, and ruled out elections since "the same party would have been elected again", the colonial secretary stated.

The files also reveal British support for "regime change" in Indonesia in 1965 - one of the worst bloodbaths of the 20th century. "I have never concealed from you my belief that a little shooting in Indonesia would be an essential preliminary to effective change," the ambassador in Jakarta, Sir Andrew Gilchrist, secretly informed the Foreign Office. A million people were killed when the army exterminated the Indonesian Communist Party, PKI.

The Foreign Office stated that "we can hardly go wrong by tacitly backing the generals". London directly aided those engaged in slaughter by conducting covert operations to "blacken the PKI". Britain also delivered secret messages to the army promising not to use its military forces in the region to undermine "the attempts which they now seem to be making to deal with the PKI".

General Suharto removed Sukarno's nationalist government and instigated a brutal military regime, which ruled until 1998, with constant British support.

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