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Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) : You, Mr. Speaker, may have noted that when my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Grant) said that he hoped that the Minister would give us more information on this issue, and with greater frankness than in the past, the Minister cheerfully shouted, "I certainly shan't." That summarises the attitude taken by a succession of Ministers towards Parliament and towards the taxpayers whose money they have been spending on nefarious projects. It also tells us that we are not likely to hear much from the Minister tonight other than the bluster and diversion that has become standard in such debates.
I pay tribute to John Pilger, David Munro and Central Television for a succession of programmes that have done
Column 867more to bring this issue before the public in Britain and throughout the world than has been achieved by anybody else who has taken an interest in the matter. I was a journalist in my previous incarnation. Inquiring journalism is a dying trade in this country, and those who practise it expect to be vilified. I framed some of the better attacks on me and they hang on my wall--"Loony MP backs bomb gang", "Mr. Odious", "Twenty things you didn't know about crackpot Chris", and so on. None of that surprised me, and I note that a number of similar articles are appearing about John Pilger. I am sure that he and Central Television will not be intimidated.
I regret that Mr. Colvin, a senior civil servant in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, is not here. He has taken a detailed interest in this subject over a long period. He has more knowledge and shoulders more responsibility for our policy than any of the 10 Ministers who have been responsible for it in the past decade. I notice that Mr. Colvin has started to circulate some of these articles. Such action from a civil servant is reprehensible, and I hope that it will stop.
Mr. Mullin : The hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to speak later. He represents interests that are quite different from mine, and not necessarily just those of the Conservative party. I know which version of events I prefer--that told over the past decade or so by Mr. Pilger, Mr. Munro and Central Television. When the history of this unhappy little episode is written, they will be entirely vindicated.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham said, on 25 June the Government admitted what some of us had been alleging for the past three years. They did so rather quietly in a planted written answer buried in Hansard, which confirmed that, from 1983 to 1989, British soldiers based in Thailand had been training Khmer terrorists. That allegation has been repeatedly put to Ministers over the years and they have always answered with bluster saying how much they hate the Khmer Rouge and how wicked and terrible the Khmer Rouge are. They have never faced the issue that terrorists are people who plant bombs in public places. If it is wrong for the Irish Republican Army to do that, it is wrong for people who happen to be "friendly" terrorists. Thousands of people in Cambodia would not find it as easy as the Minister does to distinguish between terrorists of the Khmer People's National Liberation Front and the Khmer Rouge, to which they are so closely allied.
All those points have been put to Ministers. Parliament has been misled over a long period. On 13 March 1989, my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), the shadow Foreign Secretary, said to the right hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Waldegrave), then briefly the custodian of Government policy on Cambodia :
"If the Government want to avoid a protracted civil war in Cambodia, why are they providing special forces training to one of the participants in that war?"
The Minister replied :
"As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I will give no answer".--[ Official Report, 13 March 1989 ; Vol. 160,c. 49.]
The subject came up repeatedly in our debate on this subject on 26 October 1990. The Minister--happily, the
Column 868hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Mr. Lennox-Boyd), who has record tenure in justifying Government policy on Cambodia--said : "I am personally completely satisfied that the explanations that I have been given are comprehensive and accurate."
He declined to share those explanations with the House and said : "I cannot say more than I have said I must place it clearly on record that the British Government, of course, utterly and clearly refute the allegations made by the hon. Member for Sunderland, South and by Mr. Pilger in his programme."--[ 0fficial Report, 26 October 1990 ; Vol. 178, c. 692.]
The burden of the allegations was that British soldiers based in Thailand, funded by British taxpayers' money, were training terrorists. Such reports did not originate with Mr. Pilger ; there is a wealth of other material on the subject, some of it from unlikely sources. On 24 September 1989, The Sunday Telegraph reported : "British Army teams--almost certainly from the SAS--have been training guerrillas of the Sihanoukist National Army of Cambodia at a secret training base in Thailand for the past two years."
"the creation of a 250-man KPNLF sabotage battalion prepared by four Cambodian instructors The latter were graduates of the UK-led courses, though this was not noted at the time"--
in the previous report--
"members of the sabotage battalion were taught how to attack installations such as bridges, railway lines, radar stations, power lines and substations Small group tactics and use of improvised explosives were also covered."
Jeremy Stone in The New York Times, in an article in November 1989, said :
"The US is waging a secret war in Cambodia against the Hun Sen Government-- knowing full well that none other than the genocidal Khmer Rouge"--
I hope that the Minister is listening to this--
"are likely to be the ultimate beneficiaries. Even as White House officials shed crocodile tears over signs of the growing military strength of the Khmer Rouge, they are continuing to use US financial and intelligence resources to weaken the Vietnamese-installed Hun Sen Government, the only faction capable of preventing a military takeover of the Khmer Rouge."
It then goes on to describe a secret organisation set up in Bangkok called the Cambodian working group, through which all aid for the various terrorist factions was to be funneled. It says : "The United States pays $24 million annually"
that is in 1989--
"to support the resistance, and the Son Sann group is getting $150, 000 a month for operating expenses alone Through a Thai intelligence entity called 838, the Cambodian guerrillas receive weapons, food and other support."
Jeremy Stone goes on to say :
"So the irony is exquisite. We are redoubling our efforts to overthrow Hun Sen even while we announce that such a result would produce a Khmer Rouge takeover From every objective point of view we are allied with the genocidal Khmer Rouge."
Those are not allegations made by Mr. Pilger, the hon. Member for Sunderland, South or any other hon. Member ; that is The New York Times . It has been widely remarked upon. It is clear that the non-Khmer Rouge factions of the so-called phoney alliance are almost entirely the creation of a handful of western Governments, principally the United States, but by no means entirely the
Column 869United States. Britain has had a part to play in that operation. I think that the French have had a part to play in it. The Thais have had a large part to play in harbouring all three factions. It is a matter of record that the Khmer Rouge themselves have a large number of facilities on Thai Government soil.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham said, over the years successive British Ministers, from the Prime Minister downwards, have misled the country and the House on the issue. As my hon. Friend said, the Prime Minister wrote to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition on 17 October 1990 saying :
"I confirm that there is no British Government involvement of any kind in training, equipping or co-operating with the Khmer Rouge forces or those allied to them."
That may have been true on 9 October 1990, but what the Prime Minister omitted to say was that we had been training them up to a year before that. The phrase--the wording is always identical-- "or those allied to them"
appeared in a succession of ministerial letters around that time. The Foreign Secretary and various other Ministers wrote that, and they all did so in the knowledge that the training had been going on and had stopped only just before that. That is being rather economical with the truth.
Mr. Mullin : I am prepared for the possibility that the House might have been inadvertantly misled, but misled it certainly was. I look down the long list of Ministers who, during the past decade or so, have had responsibility for this disastrous little venture, and I wonder which of them was in charge at the time of this particular training scheme--a rather unfortunate expression--at the time the Special Air Services were introduced into the Thai border. As I look down the list, my eye lights on the name of the right hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) who was, between August 1982 and February 1983, the Minister responsible for Cambodia. This was exactly the sort of crazy scheme with which one might expect him to be associated. It was what is known in the parlance as a "touch of the Cranley Onslows". Perhaps he was not the one, however. The Minister responsible between August 1983 and November 1985--for over two years--was none other than the present Foreign Secretary. All those people must have known at the time--they must have been consulted when the scheme came into operation-- yet they chose not to tell the truth.
We are told that, when he became Foreign Secretary, the present Foreign Secretary found out about all this and decided to do away with it immediately. If so, I am grateful to him for that, but he was responsible for these matters for two whole years earlier on, while the SAS were actively training the terrorists in Cambodia.
Column 870The statement that we were given in the planted written answer on 25 June was far from the whole truth. It failed to tell us what kind of training was provided. Taxpayers are entitled to know that. My information is that it included planting sophisticated, delayed-action mines of the sort that were certainly responsible for many of the hideous injuries inflicted on military and civilian personnel in Cambodia.
I read in The Independent last week that two little girls fishing in a river in Kampot hooked a floating mine which blew their arms off. I do not know whether it was a Khmer Rouge mine, or a KPNLF mine. I do not know whether we trained the terrorists or whether someone else did ; but as the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) pointed out, 20,000 people in Cambodia have had limbs blown off by mines. The whole west of the country is a vast minefield, and I have no doubt that some of the mines were planted as a result of training received by the terrorists from British soldiers.
It is more than tragic that the good people of Oxfam and the Red Cross should be attempting in Cambodia to repair the damage and run hospitals to provide the amputees with some means of survival, while on the other side of the border, people employed by Her Majesty's Government are attempting to destroy those same civilians. The statement of 25 June did not tell us the location either. My information is that some of the training occurred at the border in a camp known as site B. Some of it took place in Malaysia, too. We first started training Cambodians in Malaysia in 1970, shortly after Prince Sihanouk was overthrown in the coup organised and inspired by the United States. When the United States and British Governments tell us how urgent it is that the prince should be back in Cambodia, it is worth recalling that we helped to overthrow him in the first place and that we celebrated his overthrow and exploited it. I am told that a gentleman who until 1989 was based in the British embassy in Bangkok, a Mr. Dennis Galwey, was responsible for overseeing the British role in military training in Thailand. In The Spectator of 4 May, Derek Tonkin--the British ambassador to Thailand until 1989 and thus in place while much of all this was going on, and whom I had challenged to deny that British soldiers based in Thailand had been training Khmer terrorists--wrote :
"Mr. Mullin invites me to deny it. I deny it."
How does that compare with the Government's answer of 25 June? Did operations really cease in 1989? The Government say that they did, but they have told us all sorts of things over the years. Perhaps the matter was privatised, because such operations, when they become embarrassing, have a long history of being put out to people who call themselves ex-SAS or ex- this or ex-that. There are many bogus airlines in south-east Asia which operate for the Central Intelligence Agency. Bird Air was the big one in Cambodia, but Air America is the most famous in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. I do not know and do not allege that the operation was privatised, but if it was a good idea before the autumn of 1989 and remained a good idea for six or seven years, why did it suddenly stop being a good idea? If the Minister intends to shed light on anything, perhaps he will at least say why the operation was wound up, because that is a
Column 871puzzling question. If the truth was leaking out, that may have been a motive for stopping, but I suppose that the Minister will have a more sophisticated explanation.
Exactly what is still being covered up? I have a letter from the Treasury Solicitor which was addressed to the defendants in a recent libel case involving two shadowy figures whom my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) and the hon. Member for Broxstowe (Mr. Lester) ran into in Cambodia in September 1989. The letter states :
"It is the Crown's view that the public interest"
public interest, my foot--
" requires that only certain information can be disclosed in court. That information is contained in a statement made this afternoon to the House of Commons by means of a written answer." That is the answer of 25 June to which I have referred. "The text of that answer is attached to this letter. It is accepted that this information, but no more, may be made public without damage to the public interest. Any further information would attract a claim for public interest immunity."
That is not exactly the level playing field that we have come to expect from the Government. It seems that one side in that recent libel case was playing with its arms tied behind its back, while the other side had at its disposal the full resources of the British state. I have here an affidavit sworn by the Secretary of State which also became available for the purposes of the libel action. It states :
"As will be seen in the statement to which I have referred" that is, the answer of 25 June--
"it contains no details of the training given to the armed forces of the Cambodian non-communist resistance. The statement has been carefully limited so as to disclose no more than can in the considered opinion of the Crown be disclosed without injury to the public interest. In my opinion the making of any further disclosure whether or not by evidence given by any person orally or by reference to any documents concerning the involvement of specialist Crown personnel in any covert activities or security operations or as to their nature, method, circumstances or the identity of any person engaged in them would cause damage to the public interest for the reasons set out below. It is my judgment that any such further disclosure would cause unquantifiable damage to the Crown's ability to conduct any such activities or operations currently or in the future."
The affidavit goes on to say that the information would be of value to foreign powers.
I am unable to see how British people learning about the activities of British soldiers based in Thailand, some 8,000 miles from here, could possibly be a threat to national security. What are the Government trying to hide? We shall shortly hear a great deal of bluster from the Minister. The Government cannot have much confidence in their case when they have to issue affidavits of that nature in an attempt to gag witnesses and fix the outcome of the case. I regret that that case was settled, because if a jury had found out the truth about what was going on, the outcome might have been somewhat different.
If the past is anything to go by, the Minister will be at pains to assure us that the Government have not supported the Khmer Rouge. He will even generate a little synthetic indignation at that suggestion. He is deluding himself. It is a matter of record that the organisations that we have been supporting--the KPNLF and the Army of Sihanouk--are closely allied to the Khmer Rouge.
I have here a report from The Sunday Correspondent of 5 November 1989. It speaks of Prince Norodom
Column 872Ranariddh, who is the son of Prince Sihanouk. Those of us who have met him know that he is a chip off the old block and can bullshit in about four languages. It says :
"Prince Norodom Ranariddh, the son of the nominal leader of the resistance coalition, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, said last week that links between the non-Communist groups and the Khmer Rouge were closer than ever. Combat co- operation was total he said, and the Sihanoukists celebrated Khmer Rouge victories as their own." So much for funding the non-Khmer Rouge elements.
I know that, a couple of months ago, there was a meeting at the Foreign Office between Lord Caithness and the former Prime Minister of Thailand, who was recently overthrown in a military coup, and some of his close advisers. Mr. Colvin of the Foreign Office was also present. One of the advisers said that, in the field, the Khmer Rouge is in command of all three factions. All those there said nothing--they just sat there and nodded. The Government cannot say that they do not know.
Secondly, as the Minister knows, between 1979 and 1982, the British representative to the United Nations supported the seating of a Government formed solely by the Khmer Rouge. The fraudulent coalition did not come about until 1982-83. The Minister cannot say that we did not support the Khmer Rouge, because we did. For the following seven or eight years, we supported the fraudulent coalition, which was dominated by the Khmer Rouge. The Cambodian representative in the UN was Mr. Thioun Prasith, whose brothers occupied three of the top 10 posts in the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979.
Thirdly, we provided food aid, through the UN border operation, much of which found its way into the terrorist resistance. Film has been shown of Khmer Rouge porters carrying that food away. Pol Pot was once housed in the Erawan hotel in Bangkok, although the Khmer Rouge leaders now stay at the Sheraton. All this went on quite openly, under the noses of many people over a long time.
The Government have got themselves into a sad and embarrassing situation. The hon. Member for Battersea said that we should look forward and not backwards, and I am inclined to agree with him--but before one can look forward, one must first face the truth. It is therefore necessary for the Minister to face the truth. So long as he cannot do that, he must not be surprised that there will be those of us who attempt forcibly to draw his attention to the truth. 11.18 pm
Mr. Rupert Allason (Torbay) : In my aborted intervention, I wanted to ask the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), when he spoke about his work as a researcher and investigative journalist and drew parallels between it and that of John Pilger, whether he had ever got his facts wrong, whether they had been challenged in the courts, and whether he had been forced to withdraw and apologise. I have followed his career with interest. He is an assiduous researcher and a doughty campaigner. I do not recall his ever having had to do that.
Having listened to the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Grant), I cannot believe that this proposition was based on an action that was lost in the High Court. The plaintiffs won, and received an apology. If such remarks were made outside the Chamber, another action for defamation would be brought.
I do not believe that there is a parallel between the hon. Gentleman and John Pilger. I think that the hon. Gentleman is being immodest. He says that he is sorry that
Column 873the case was settled. I know something about the laws of defamation, having been on the receiving end of a libel case in the not too distant past. Indeed, I am in a rather difficult position : on that occasion, I appealed to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under- Secretary of State, who will be answering tonight's debate. There is a parallel here, in that my case involved someone who had lied--and whom I knew to have lied--about his military record during the second world war. With the greatest regret, Ministers said that a precedent was involved in relation to public immunity. I subpoenaed people to give evidence for me. The issue concerned events that had taken place years before--before 1963, and, in the case of the war record, before 1945--but it was not aired in court, because of a certificate issued by the Secretary of State.
The John Pilger programme, which I watched, was built on supposition and innuendo. It contained no concrete facts. As a journalist, I was somewhat ashamed, and hoped that rather more facts existed to back up what I saw on the screen. After the programme, I asked my hon. Friend categorically whether SAS personnel were deployed in Cambodia. I was given a categorical assurance that they were not.
Let us consider what has taken place in court recently. John Pilger was challenged by the people whom he identified. It was not a question of any kind of settlement ; he agreed that he had been wrong, and apologised--as did a Member of the European Parliament who had made similar baseless allegations. The two individuals concerned were British observers.
I have followed the aftermath of the case. Bearing in mind what William Shawcross wrote in the Sunday Telegraph last week, I am surprised that John Pilger has the temerity to continue to pursue the matter--and, indeed, that the hon. Member for Tottenham should be prepared to do so. The answer has been given.
I do not think that any hon. Member would support the Government for a moment if he believed that the Khmer Rouge were receiving support, or that children's limbs were being blown off, because specialist SAS personnel were training the Khmer Rouge. Certainly I would not do so. I simply do not believe that that is happening, and I accepted my hon. Friend's word when he gave me an assurance in the House. It is common knowledge that training was given from a base in Thailand, but the proposition, or conspiracy theory--constructed on the basis of an acknowledgement in a written answer- -that all sorts of nefarious activities have taken place in Cambodia, and are continuing to take place, defies belief.
Both the hon. Member for Sunderland, South and the hon. Member for Tottenham have done themselves a disservice. When they look back on this episode, I very much hope that they will see that it is a case study of a left-wing ideologue, John Pilger, who has simply got it wrong. He was also proved to have got it wrong. He admitted that he had got it wrong. He apologised to the persons concerned for getting it wrong. Now it is being produced once again. I very much regret it.
I hope that I shall be allowed to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) in urging the House to look to the future. By trade, I am a historian. I believe that what took place in the past is of enormous importance
Column 874--it rightly influences our current perceptions and our future behaviour. But the hope, surely, for that tragic, war-torn country in south-east Asia is that it should return to peace as soon as possible. I very much hope that the Minister will be able to give us that assurance.
Mr. Campbell-Savours : He agreed that he had got it wrong. There is a difference between the two phrases which perhaps the hon. Gentleman-- knowing the detail into which he invariably goes--will wish to consider.
The programme "The Betayal" lasted, I understand, some 30 or 40 minutes. The greater part of it was correct and will be proven to be correct. It may be that part of the programme contained an error. Mr. Pilger and his colleague, Mr. Munro, have apologised. The hon. Member for Torbay should view the whole programme in the context of its overall message. He should not allow himself to be influenced by a particular part of it, about which there is some controversy. In the course of the libel action, which began on 2 July and ended on 5 July, John Pilger and David Munro argued that reference to these two men was not meant, in the film they produced, to suggest that they themselves were involved in training the Khmer Rouge. It was the judge who ruled that, in his judgment, he was satisfied that the words used in the film were capable of the interpretation that Mr. Geidt and Mr. de Normann placed upon them--that they were involved in military training.
The trial was abandoned after an out-of-court settlement was agreed between the parties. The hon. Member for Torbay should recognise why it was agreed : because the judge ruled that certain evidence was inadmissible in the trial. I agree with the judge that, as the law stands, that evidence was inadmissible. I disagree with Mr. Pilger, as he would tell the hon. Member for Torbay, if he were to meet him. He should not seek to misrepresent what happened, which was that an out-of-court settlement was arrived at because Mr. Pilger and Mr. Munro were unable in any way to put their evidence, which they believed would have influenced the jury if it had been heard. Following the trial, Mr. Pilger and Mr. Munro issued a press statement which stated :
"It should be made clear that these two men"--
"who sued us played no part in guerilla training."
Since December last, I have always argued that, as absolute evidence did not exist proving their involvement, Geidt and de Normann would win their action. Indeed, because of that, I argued in favour of an out-of-court settlement. But Mr. Pilger and Mr. Munro have always sought to argue that they never alleged such involvement, and that on such a premise they would base their whole defence. I want to deal with what happened in that trial and its bearing on British foreign policy on Cambodia. My hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Balley (Mrs. Clwyd) first met Geidt and de Normann in Phnom Penh in September 1989, in the company of the hon. Member for Broxtowe
Column 875(Mr. Lester). The Foreign Office Minister, the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Mr. Lennox-Boyd), told the House : "Those two men did not visit Indochina at our behest or as representatives of the Government. They went privately, at the invitation of the Institute for International Relations at Hanoi Through the institute, they were introduced to the Phnom Penh authorities. Those authorities then invited them to witness the withdrawal of Vietnamese troops from Cambodia".--[ Official Report, 26 October 1990 ; Vol. 178, c. 691.]
The public should be aware that much argument surrounds the activities of those two men, but it is argument that they have brought upon themselves because of the way in which they conducted themselves and because of the statements that they made. Their public statements have been most unconvincing. Nevertheless, I agree with the statement that Mr. Pilger and Mr. Munro made. Those two men made highly unconvincing statements, and I hope that the hon. Member for Torbay will research what they said.
In a covering letter to the Vietnamese embassy, de Normann was listed as a personal assistant to Geidt, as if he was from the Royal United Services Institute. That was untrue. I challenge Mr. de Normann and Mr. Geidt to question what I am saying.
In the same letter, Geidt said that he was part of an official two-man delegation. That was untrue. Group Captain David Bolton, director of the RUSI, denied that they were representing the RUSI. It was not an official delegation.
Geidt referred to himself in his letter to the Vietnamese and Cambodians as assistant director of RUSI. That was not true and had never been so. He was an assistant to the director--a very different role indeed. They both contended, as did the Foreign Secretary, that they were invited by the Hanoi Institute and the Phnom Penh Government. That was not true. They sought to be invited by the respective authorities, and evidence exists to show that. In a letter to Central Television, lawyers for Geidt said that he was not military. That was not true. Mr. Geidt had links with military intelligence and had served in the regular Army. Why did they make these statements if they were not true? Has not it dawned on them that, when such statements are made and people subsequently find out the truth, they begin to question the identity of those involved, from which was born much of the programme "The Betrayal". If they had been truthful in everything they had said to the appropriate authorities, there would have been no reference to that in the programme. In many ways, they were responsible for what happened.
It is not surprising, with the truth so easily denied on such a scale, that Central Television felt it prudent to spend what is rumoured to be £350,000 defending Pilger and Munro in a libel trial. Notwithstanding such errors fact, when the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Mr. Hamilton), was asked about contacts between Geidt, de Normann and the Ministry of Defence, he stated :
"The only contact with the Ministry of Defence in relation to the visit that has been traced was a routine inquiry by Mr. de Normann prior to departure to check on the regulations governing visits by ex-service personnel to communist countries."--[ Official Report, 18 October 1990 ; Vol. 177, c. 923. ]
Column 876That was a perfectly acceptable request to make. But what happened? That answer was quickly amended when it was realised that the libel trial was proceeding. On 13 May, the story changed. The MOD, out of the blue, wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) :
"More recently it has come to light that Mr. Mackenzie Geidt had an informal discussion"--
the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Allason) knows all about such discussions and he has written many books about them--
"with an MOD officer in October 1989 on his return from Indochina" Cambodia --
"during which he passed on some impressions he had gained about the political and military position in Cambodia which he thought would be of general interest to the Department."
Perhaps the hon. Member for Torbay can tell me what that means. I think that I know what it means. The hon. Gentleman has written many books on such subjects, and I am sure that he could extrapolate within the remit of fact.