The Lie of Benevolence

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Review of 'Web of Deceit', Mark Curtis,
Vintage £7.99

Three years after the end of the Second World War, Britain declared an 'emergency' in its colony of Malaya and began a 12-year war to defeat mainly marginalised Chinese insurgents. Declassified files have revealed that Britain resorted to very brutal measures in the war, including widespread aerial bombing, which later became commonplace during the Vietnam War. Britain also set up a 'resettlement' programme, using draconian police measures to move hundreds of thousands of people. Those who refused to cooperate were shown the true face of British imperialism - at Batang Kali in December 1948, for example, the British army slaughtered 24 Chinese peasants, before burning the village. The reasoning behind the war? 'In defence of [the] rubber industry' and to protect the 'greatest material prize in South East Asia'. Britain achieved its main aims in Malaya - the insurgents were defeated, and with Malayan independence in 1957, British business interests were preserved.

Mark Curtis's brilliant and yet disturbing book Web of Deceit is an in-depth analysis of Britain's historical and contemporary role as a 'rogue state' - a violator of international law, a condoner of human rights abuses, and a key ally of many repressive regimes. At a time when many people see through the Bush gang's excuses for an unprovoked war on Iraq, Curtis's book comes as a stark reminder of the ever widening gulf between New Labour's professed commitment to upholding moral values and the reality of current policies.

Like Curtis's previous works, The Ambiguities of Power and The Great Deception, his latest offering is an assembly of uncovered truths, told largely from official records. He illuminates the fact that, far from changing course post 11 September, British policies are partly responsible for the continuation and deepening of global poverty and inequality, while its arms exports and nuclear policies are making the world a more dangerous place. In his long list of 'unpeople' - the victims of this global order, Curtis places the million or so Indonesians who were slaughtered during General Suharto's bloody seizure of power in 1965. Declassified documents show British complicity in the killings - the then Labour government supplied Suharto with warships, logistics and intelligence, as well as secret messages of support.

No less distressing is the 'removal' of 1,500 Illois from their homeland in the Chagos island group in the Indian Ocean in 1966. 'The subject of systematic lying by seven British governments over nearly four decades,' this ruthless dispossession was executed so that the largest Island, Diego Garcia, could be handed over to the US military.

Other chapters expose British immorality in Afghanistan, Kosovo, British Guiana; effective support for repressive state policies in Israel, Russia, Turkey and the Gulf states; and acquiescence in the Rwandan genocide and the poverty-increasing policies of the World Trade Organisation. The examples contained within this book simply do not fit the glorious image of benign states wielding power in defence of 'all who believe in progress and pluralism, tolerance and freedom' (Bush), or in order to uphold 'values of justice, tolerance and respect for all regardless of race, religion or creed' (Blair).

And running throughout these chapters is an illumination of 'the mass production of ignorance' through the mass media, a censorship by omission that 'promotes one key concept...the idea of Britain's basic benevolence'. And yet where other writers may have succumbed to a bout of depression, Curtis has hope for the future. 'A popular people's movement', he writes, 'has arisen in recent years...[and is] united first in opposing the control of the planet by big business and second in seeking a world where justice and rights are respected for all.'

Curtis's book reveals a picture of Britain's real role in the world, a picture long obscured by a web of deceit. In Mark Curtis, we have a precious voice of dissent, and in his book, we have the fruits of that dissent.