Nearly seventy years ago, on December 12, 1948, soldiers of the British army carried out one of the most infamous acts of terrorism in living memory, the massacre of 24 unarmed workers in Batang Kali, a village in the Selangor area of Malaya, today Malaysia. This heinous crime carried out under the Labour government of the day was only the first of many crimes carried out by British state and its governments since. There have been continual official attempts to cover up this crime in the many years following the Batang Kali Massacre. These culminated in the judgment reached by Britain’s Supreme Court at the end of last year when, by a majority verdict, it was decided that the families of those slaughtered had no right to any enquiry into their loved ones’ deaths, no right to an official apology and no right to any form of reparation.
The Batang Kali Massacre occurred in the period following World War II when the Labour government re-established control of the colony of Malaya. During the war British and allied forces had fought alongside the Malayan Peoples Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA), led by the Communist Party of Malaya, but as soon as the common enemy had been defeated, just as in Greece and elsewhere, the British army turned its guns on its former allies. In the case of Malaya, Britain had fought to remove Japanese colonial occupation only to replace it with British colonial rule, in order to lay claim to Malaya’s resources, especially its rubber and tin the biggest currency earners in the Empire. In 1948 in response to the anti-colonial struggles breaking out in Malaya and the growing influence of the Communist Party, the British colonial authorities declared a “State of Emergency”, in effect launching an all out war in defence of colonial rule and in order to remove the threat to this rule posed by the Malayan people’s struggle to determine their own destiny.
During the colonial war that followed, the British forces introduced many of the same strategies that would later be used by US imperialism in Vietnam: carpet bombing, including the use of cluster bombs, the use of defoliants, the herding of the population into “strategic hamlets”, the use of state terrorism against civilians, etc. In the Batang Kali Massacre the unarmed men of the village were simply shot in order to terrorise others as part of the overall objectives pursued by the British government of the day. What is evident from all the legal wrangling that has ensued since is that it is the British state and successive government that should be held to account, not just the soldiers who were sent to carry out the crime.
The massacre was immediately covered up by the Labour government and the armed forces which referred to those massacred as “bandits”, a term used for all those in Malaya who opposed Britain’s colonial rule, before the term “communist terrorists” or “CTs” was employed. An official War Office report in 1948 referred to the massacre as a “very successful action”. Nevertheless, the families of those massacred, their employer and others in Malaya, including the local press, immediately demanded an inquiry. Although the colonial authorities quickly concluded that the massacre had been justified what is significant is that even material relating to these early enquiries was destroyed along with evidence about many other crimes carried out during this period. An official statement by the Labour Colonial Secretary in Parliament concluded that those massacred had simply been shot while trying to escape, in language which is reminiscent of that used by the Nazis. Nevertheless, demands were still made for a public inquiry but were rejected by the government.
The massacre was publicly debated again in Britain in 1969, twelve years after Malaysia gained formal political independence, when the media issued statements from four British soldiers who confirmed that they had been ordered to carry out a massacre and to falsely claim that those killed had been shot whilst trying to escape. Two of those involved even appeared on television. As a result, the Director of Public Prosecutions under the Labour government of the day began an investigation, although the evidence suggests this was done with the hope and expectation that no criminal case would be brought. In 1970 when the Conservative government took office the investigation was dropped altogether. In 1992, a BBC documentary again focused on the massacre and interviewed those who had witnessed it. In response the Crown Prosecution Service reviewed the case and reached the conclusion that the time that had elapsed since the massacre and the termination of the investigation in 1970 constituted a “prejudicial delay”. Nevertheless, in 1993 the wife of one of those who had been shot and a survivor of the massacre filed a petition to the Queen, requesting that an investigation be carried out, prosecutions brought and reparation made. No response was ever issued by the Palace. Around the same time the Malaysian police made their own investigation and requested assistance from their British counterparts but the Metropolitan Police War Crimes Unit did not send the information requested. In 2008, two further petitions were sent to the Queen and legal representations made to the government, including the submission of new evidence and the request for an investigation and inquiry. In 2010, the government’s solicitor made it clear that no investigation would be carried out and in response the families of those massacred applied to the Court of Appeal and finally the Supreme Court for a judicial review to force the government to investigate the massacre.
Although the final judgments of the Supreme Court are presented in the most dispassionate legal terms, what they could not cover up was the fact that a massacre, a war crime, had been committed by the British army in a British colony under the authority and direction of the British government.
Since that time for nearly seventy years every effort has been made by the British state, the police, courts, civil servants, and governments of all the major parties to make sure that this crime is ignored, covered up, that nobody is held to account and that no reparation is made to the families of the men massacred in Batang Kali. While some politicians at Westminster like to preach about “British values”, the ruling elite’s approach to this massacre is a graphic example of the nature of those values, which have remained unchanging for some seventy years. They maintain the same racist and colonialist logic that considers that the lives of people in Malaysia, and the working people of other countries, don’t matter. Those who boast of their defence of the rule of law and their opposition to all forms of “terrorism” stand exposed and condemned before the world’s people. Indeed, the case shows how the law itself, the Human Rights Act, the European Convention of Human Rights can be ignored or manipulated by the state and its governments according to their interests.
The Batang Kali massacre is a crime that like many others cries out for a just settlement, for the criminals to be held to account and for reparation to be made. It therefore raises the question of how this can be brought about, how the British state can be held to account for all the crimes committed during colonial rule as well as for the crime of colonialism itself? What is required is a society and state that places the people at the centre as the decision makers. What is required is an anti-war government of the people and for the people that will hold all the war criminals and their system to account, make reparation for all the crimes of the past and prevent future crimes from being perpetrated.
Workers’ Weekly Internet Edition, Volume 46 Number 4, February 13-27, 2016
Weekly On Line Newspaper of the Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist)
– See more at: http://www.rcpbml.org.uk/wwie-16/ww16-04.htm#fourth
Facts about the ‘Batang Kali Massacre’
From Greater Malaysia
1948, the aftermath of World War 2. As Malaya frees itself from the clutches of Emperor Hirohito, an old colonial power returns to restore order and governance.
However for some, anarchy begets anarchy. Forces funded by the Queen to fight against the Japanese ignored orders to disband and turned their rifles to British soldiers instead. These groups became the groundwork into what became the Communist insurgency.
In response to the escalating threat from Malaya’s own Marxists, the British declared an “emergency” that gave them huge discretionary powers. They adopted a zero tolerance policy against communist sympathisers. This, coupled with the lack of sensitivity training on the local populace makes for a volatile situation.
As Raymond Burdett of the Suffolk Regiment puts it:
The trainers sought to get us to follow instructions, not to question commands.
Basic training for these troops focused on infantry skills, not their ability to judge the appropriateness of orders in the context of international law.
That fire was ignited in the December of 1948 when 7th Platoon, G Company, 2nd Scots Guards rounded up civilians for interrogation at Batang Kali, Selangor.
The process did not end well and led to the massacre of 24 civilians. Not content to stop there, their houses were burnt to the ground, leaving their relatives destitute and lost all source of income.
The official story was that the victims escaped from custody, prompting the soldiers to shoot the supposedly fleeing men. There was no mention of the battalion going rogue.
The case was however recently reopened and Britain’s highest court will be hearing the case on April 22nd.
In memory of the victims and in honour of the new inquiry, here are a few facts on the upcoming judicial review challenge for the Batang Kali massacre and its impacts.
The slaughter did not eliminate all eyewitnesses. The spouses and relatives of those murdered managed to escape the onslaught only to see their dead relatives. The only adult eyewitness was a man named Chong Hong, who was in his 20s during the massacre.
One notable eyewitness was Lim Ah Yin, who was 11 when her father was murdered. According to The Guardian, she will be heard in the British Supreme Court for a judicial review challenge.
In a Guardian interview, she was quoted describing the atrocity:
A soldier pointed at my father. They checked the rice and pushed him into a hut.
Then one of the soldiers pulled my mother’s arms. She was eight months pregnant. I and my sister tried to stop them taking her away, but she was pushed down to the river.
We heard gun shots and thought my mother had been killed.
A week after the incident, Lim returned to her village with her mother. The sight she saw was not a positive homecoming.
The bodies were covered in flies. They were bloated and swollen, lying in groups of three or four.
Finally I found my father. He had been shot in the chest. That day, December 12th, had been my birthday.
2. The aborted investigations
Prior to this judicial review, there were two aborted investigations. The first investigation was made by Scotland Yard in the 1960s.
In a Central Officer’s Special Report from the Criminal Investigation Department, New Scotland Yard dated 30th of July 1970, it was stated that the case was closed at the order of the Director of Public Prosecution.
The report claimed that the investigations were “politically motivated.” This was sensitive as the Conservatives just formed the government and enforced their political stance. The expose made by the The People newspaper that obtained testimonies from soldiers was dubbed a “publicity stunt”.
At one point, the Liberal Party president claimed that Bob Edwards, the then-editor of The People should be charged with criminal libel for his actions.
In 1993, the BBC produced an expose on the murders in their documentary series, In Cold Blood.
The shocking video ignited political will to open up investigations on the case. This led to the 2nd investigation led by the Royal Malaysian Police. The investigation, like the former was also aborted.
In the case of Keyu & Others v Secretary of State For Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs & ANR, there was an internal memorandum that claims that there is no specific need to provide rapid assistance to the Royal Malaysian Police.
The investigation required information from the Chief Pathologist that has examined the bodies and the names of the Scots Guard involved. However, all information was delayed.
In fact, it took a full year for the names of the Scot Guards to reach the Malaysian Police.
3. Admission to murder
When American journalist Seymour Hersh covered the Vietnamese My Lai massacre, the debate on soldiers committing atrocities went beyond the Atlantic Ocean. Inspired by the expose, former serviceman William Cootes confessed to being part of the Batang Kali massacre.
Contrary to the official version of the story, he explained that his platoon commander, George Ramsay briefed his men to wipe out anybody in the area. This meant that the men shot were not running away from custody but victims of a war crime.
His confession became a domino effect and led the rest to admit their part in the killings. Below is an extraction from the same Metro Police report used prior:
However, doubts were raised on their confession. The police claimed that the confessions were made with questionable conduct.
4. Forensic evidence was still obtainable
A common trope that has been played out as the story unfolds is that evidence has not been sufficient.
In the first Scotland Yard investigation, the then-Attorney General, Sir Peter Rawlinson claimed that there was a low probability of obtaining sufficient evidence. It was concluded that the investigation needs to be terminated.
In response to the an inquiry made by the ” Action Committee Condemning the Batang Kali Massacre” to the Foreign Secretary in December 2008, the high commissioner responded:
In view of the findings of the two previous investigations that there was insufficient evidence to pursue prosecutions in this case, and in the absence of new evidence, regrettably we see no reason to re-open or start a fresh investigation.
However, Prof Sue Black, a forensic adviser informed The Guardian that evidence was still obtainable. According to her experience in Kosovo and Rwanda, evidence is still obtainable from the victim’s bodies.
Obtaining such evidence would refute the High Commissioner’s reply.
5. Impact to the Northern Irish conflict
Lawyers for the families of the victims argued that Britain has a duty to commission an independent inquiry under the European Convention on Human Rights. However, the convention came only into effect in 1998.
Because this applies a convention retrospectively, this would affect other situations that the British has been involved in the past. This is especially of concern for family members that still seek for reparations.
One issue that has been brought up are the allegations thrown to the Brits during the Northern Irish conflict, also known as the troubles.
In an interview with the Guardian, Yasmine Ahmed, director of Rights Watch UK was quoted saying:
The outcome of this case will have considerable implications in Northern Ireland, where many of the deaths that occurred during the Troubles happened before the enactment of the Human Rights Act in 1998.
. . .