The Malay files

Malaysian villagers fight for justice as secret files reveal new evidence of how their relatives were butchered by British troops 60 years ago.

Proletarian writers

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The details of a 1948 massacre, carried out by the Scots Guards in Malaya, in 1948, when an imperialist Labour government was busily engaged in drowning the communist-led national-liberation struggle of the Malayan people in blood, have been heard recently in London’s high court.

Twenty-four ethnic Chinese rubber plantation workers from the village of Batang Kali were shot, although not one of them was in any way connected to the liberation struggle. However, the Labour government and its armed forces considered all Chinese in Malaya to be ‘communists unless proven otherwise’ and were determined to do whatever it took, to commit any atrocity, to hold on to Malaya’s vast natural wealth, which was considered essential for Britain’s post-war reconstruction, and above all for imperialist superprofits.

Last month, the High Court finally heard that the soldiers admitted unlawfully killing the villagers and then covering it up way back in 1970, when the then government ordered an enquiry, which was abruptly curtailed after the June 1970 general election.

Six of the eight soldiers interviewed under caution by detectives at that time corroborated accounts that the villagers had been unlawfully killed, Michael Fordham QC, counsel for relatives of some of those slain, told the court.

One member of the Scots Guards platoon, Alan Tuppen, said that a sergeant had said beforehand: “The (villagers) were going to be shot and we could fall in or fall out.”

William Cootes, another soldier, told detectives that he saw another sergeant “motion to (a) youth to run and then he shot him”.

George Kydd, also a member of the Scots Guards patrol, recalled in 1970 that: “The bandits (imperialist parlance for the liberation fighters – Ed) were then shot, but I’m sorry I must tell you the truth, they were not running away.

“There was an inquiry later on and I’ve got to go along with this, we were told before going in to tell the same story, that is that the bandits were running away when they were shot … I don’t remember who told us to tell this story but it was a member of the army.”

The police investigation was launched after a newspaper carried some of the soldiers’ accounts of what had happened 22 years earlier. The People newspaper quoted one of the soldiers as saying: “Once we started firing we seemed to go mad … I remember the water turning red with their blood.”

Of the 24 rubber tappers, who accounted for all but two of the adult males in the village, one was shot on the first night, after the men had been separated off from the women and children, who were sent to concentration camps, known euphemistically as ‘protected villages’, and rendered destitute, while the remaining 23 were killed the next day. No weapons were ever found. Many of the victims’ bodies were mutilated and left where they lay to decompose. One body was found beheaded. The village itself was burned to the ground.

“What happened at Batang Kali was an extremely serious human-rights abuse,” lawyer John Halford told the court. “It was a massacre of 24 unarmed people who weren’t in any sense combatants; weren’t offering any kind of threat to the British troops who killed them.”

“What followed was a cover-up that has lasted the following 60 years, where the British government has denied that anything untoward happened at all.”

Lim Ah Yin, 76, a survivor who travelled to London for the case, said soldiers carried out a mock execution on her mother as they demanded information about communists.

Lim, who was 11 at the time, heard the gunfire that killed her father. She said: “Even as I recall the memory I still feel angry how these people were killed. There was no reason.”

Loh Ah Choi, 71, heard his uncle being shot three times. “I would like the British government to apologise,” he said. “I was seven years old.”

Chong Koon Ying, 74, said: “The British soldiers didn’t allow us to take our money and belongings. We were told to go on to the lorry. We had nothing. Only one set of clothes.”

On 6 May, the Observer newspaper revealed that senior British officials introduced an extraordinary ‘licence to kill’ law in an attempt to legalise the massacre retrospectively. It empowered troops in the country to use “lethal force” to prevent escape attempts.

According to papers recovered from previously secret Foreign Office archives at Hanslope Park, Buckinghamshire, Regulation 27A was unveiled on 20 January 1949 by Sir Alec Newboult, chief colonial secretary in Malaya, little more than a month after the massacre. They show that Newboult’s command authorised “the use of lethal weapons” to “prevent the escape from arrest”, so long as a warning was issued first. The law was applicable to any British military officer serving in Malaya.

Tellingly, the regulation had retrospective power, specifying that any “act or thing done before the coming into force of this regulation” should be covered by the command.

Although this particular edict has now been uncovered, it was revealed in April that documents relating to the events at Batang Kali appear to be among the thousands from Britain’s sordid colonial history that have been mysteriously ‘lost’, including the first testimonies of the soldiers involved in the killings.

In The War in Malaya, 1948-60, historian Mark Curtis wrote:

At Batang Kali in December 1948 the British army slaughtered 24 Chinese, before burning the village. The British government initially claimed that the villagers were guerrillas, and then that they were trying to escape, neither of which was true. A Scotland Yard inquiry into the massacre was called off by the Heath government in 1970 and the full details have never been officially investigated.

Decapitation of insurgents [as occurred in Batang Kali – Ed] was a little more unusual – intended as a way of identifying dead guerrillas when it was not possible to bring their corpses in from the jungle.

A photograph of a Marine Commando holding two insurgents’ heads caused a public outcry in April 1952. [When it was published in the Daily Worker – Ed] The Colonial Office privately noted that ‘there is no doubt that under international law a similar case in wartime would be a war crime’. (Britain always denied it was technically at ‘war’ in Malaya, hence use of the term ‘emergency’.)

Dyak headhunters from Borneo worked alongside the British forces. High Commissioner (Field Marshall Sir Gerald) Templer suggested that Dyaks should be used not only for tracking ‘but in their traditional role as head-hunters’.

Templer ‘thinks it is essential that the practice (decapitation) should continue’, although this would only be necessary ‘in very rare cases’, the Colonial Office observed. It also noted that, because of the recent outcry over this issue, ‘it would be well to delay any public statement on this matter for some months’.

At time of writing, the high court has asked the British government to submit further evidence. Perversely, the British government is trying to claim that responsibility for the massacre rests with the local Malay government in Selangor.

“The court was unconvinced by the British government’s reasoning that the massacre was carried out under the jurisdiction of the Selangor government, by virtue of Selangor being a protected state in 1948,” said Action Committee Condemning the Batang Kali Massacre coordinator Quek Ngee Meng.

“The High Court was dissatisfied with the British government’s attempt to distinguish between a protected state and a colonised state.

“The government had earlier submitted just one book to establish the difference, and even so, the president of the Queen’s Bench Division Sir John Thomas said one can’t run an empire without knowing who controls the troops.”

He added that after a reply is sent to the British government’s submission, the judgement could take six to eight weeks.

At a time when we are being inundated with nauseating ‘jubilee’ propaganda glorifying the parasite Elizabeth Windsor, it is worth noting that the Batang Kali relatives have twice, to no avail, petitioned the Queen for redress.

The court also heard that a 1990s Malaysian police enquiry was aborted after strenuous objections from the UK foreign office.

Showing very considerably greater magnanimity than was shown to their loved ones, and despite the fact that a number of the Scots Guardsmen involved in the atrocity are still alive, the victims’ families are not seeking criminal prosecutions.

But solicitor John Halford said: “There is an overwhelming case for a proper investigation, along with an immediate apology and reparation.”

A Foreign Office spokeswoman said: “It is very unlikely that a public inquiry could come up with recommendations which would help to prevent any recurrence.”

And, in such weasel words, we may glimpse the real reason why the British state is so loath to admit the truth, even more than six decades on. The imperialist leopard has not changed its spots. It is still perpetrating genocidal atrocities in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and elsewhere, and will do so as long as it has a single rotten tooth left in its mangy body; until such time as the British working class joins the oppressed people of the world to send it to where it should long since have been consigned – six feet under.