Reportage: Truth still denied

The Batang Kali Massacre

The Griffith Review 29

SOMETIME IN 1990, I was driving with Mary Maguire, a long-time British resident of Malaysia, in her bright-yellow VW Beetle along a beautiful winding road towards the town of Kuala Kubu Baru, north of Kuala Lumpur. When we passed a road sign that said ‘Batang Kali’, Mary turned to me. ‘You know Bernice, there was a massacre here during the Malayan Emergency. Innocent people were killed and the British government did bloody nothing.’ I uttered an expletive and returned my gaze to the plantations. The tall rubber trees suddenly seemed stony, silent.

A massacre on Malayan soil? By British soldiers? Why wasn’t this in our history books? Why wasn’t this part of our national consciousness? And why, in 1990, was there still no apology or compensation from the British government? I had many questions. Now, almost seventy years after the massacre, the event still looms, unresolved.

On 11 December 1948, a troop of British soldiers from the 7th Platoon, G Company of the 2nd Battalion Scots Guards, arrived in Sungai Remok, near Batang Kali, and started interrogating its inhabitants. They were searching for ‘enemy bandits’, or communist insurgents supposedly hiding in the area. The people they questioned were Chinese rubber tappers who lived in a kongsi, a communal dwelling of sorts. Many had spouses, parents and young children. By the next morning, twenty-four men had been shot dead, their homes and property burned, women widowed and children orphaned. This event, known as one of the most controversial and definitive incidents in modern British military history, came to be known as Britain’s ‘My Lai’ on account of a similar atrocity perpetrated by Americans in Vietnam some twenty years later.

TO GIVE THE matter more perspective, and to contextualise the British colonial presence in our nation’s history, a diversion is needed. The Sultan of Kedah ceded Penang, in exchange for military protection, to the British East India Company in 1786. Captain Francis Light, known as the founder of Penang, hoisted the Union Jack on 11 August of that year, taking formal possession and renaming Penang ‘Prince of Wales Island’. British influence gradually spread throughout the peninsula, which was rich in tin and rubber. In 1867, Penang, Malacca, Dinding and Singapore – collectively known as the Straits Settlements – became a Crown colony. By 1895, the Federated Malay States (Perak, Selangor, Negeri Sembilan, and Pahang), though technically independent, were placed under a Resident-General, making them British colonies in all but name. The Unfederated Malay States (Johor, Kedah, Kelantan, Perlis and Terengganu) had a slightly larger degree of independence. (Johor’s sultan had the right to appoint his own Cabinet, but he was generally careful to consult the British first.) By the early twentieth century, the peninsula, loosely known as British Malaya, was the richest in the British Empire. In 1946, Malaya brought Britain’s treasury £118 million; the rest of the Empire yielded only £37 million.

The Japanese invaded Malaya on 8 December 1941. They landed in Kuala Pak Aurat in Kota Bharu on the east coast of Malaya, twenty-five minutes after midnight – ninety minutes earlier than the assault on Pearl Harbor. Forty-five days later, after the British had been pushed into Singapore, General Percival surrendered to General Yamashita. On 15 February 1942, the Japanese occupation of Malaya began. The Japanese army advanced into the towns, villages and jungles of Malaya on bicycles. They created a reign of terror and cruelty which was to scar many of that generation. The Japanese systematically persecuted the Chinese through the sook ching, or a purging of hostile elements, leaving tens of thousands dead.

The Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA), which operated from 1942 until 1945, was composed mainly of Chinese guerrilla fighters and was the biggest anti-Japanese resistance group in Malaya. It was part of a combined effort by the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), the British colonial government and various anti-Japanese groups to resist the occupation of the peninsula. The MPAJA and the MCP were different organisations, but many saw the MPAJA as a de facto armed wing of the MCP due to its Chinese leadership. Many communists, armed and trained by the British, were rewarded handsomely after the end of the war, including Chin Peng, the party leader, who was decorated with an Order of the British Empire.

Less than three weeks after the Japanese Occupation came to an end in 1945, the British returned to reoccupy Malaya. They tried to instil a sense of normality, with the policy they knew best: divide and rule. The Malay rulers were coerced into signing away their rights, many of them accused of collusion and collaboration with the Japanese. A new state, the short-lived Malayan Union, was formed in 1946 under the British-appointed Governor Sir Edward Gent. The descendants of Chinese and Indian workers, who numbered in the hundreds of thousands, were granted citizenship. In opposition to this threat to Malay sovereignty, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) was formed and stoked the growing fires of nationalism. The communists, meanwhile, felt both left out of the consultations between the Malay rulers and betrayed by the British who wanted nothing more than to restore the economy. Malaya was, after all, still fuelling the British Empire. The British had promised the MCP that they would be part of this new alliance, but all promises came to nought. The MCP was seen as royally screwed by the British, and by UMNO.

Nevertheless, the MCP was still the largest political force in Malaya: the Chinese and Indian labourers in the tin mines and rubber plantations wielded considerable power over their employers and there was growing resistance among them to colonial rule. The British tried to ban the unions after more than three-hundred strikes in 1947. The communists were now perceived as a real and viable threat, not the allies they were previously. With increasing industrial unrest, the MCP readied itself. Its members dug up weapons they had hidden in the jungles during the Japanese occupation. Chin Peng was no longer regarded as a hero but as a bandit, a terrorist, and became the ‘most wanted man in the British Empire’.

After two years of prolonged Malay opposition, the Malayan Union was dissolved and the Federation of Malaya formed on 1 February 1948. In early June, three planters were killed by communists in Sungai Siput, Perak, and on 16 June 1948, the Malayan Emergency was declared. The British fought back.

The twelve years that followed came became known as ‘the undeclared war’, the longest war waged by British and Commonwealth forces in one of its most beloved of colonies. It was an era of terror and counter-terror. British soldiers ventured into the thick, harsh Malayan jungles to weed out communists and communist sympathisers, then kill and decapitate them – acts condoned by their superiors. The British soldiers, some as young as eighteen and nineteen, had no idea of the jungle terrain and were fighting an unknown enemy. The Batang Kali massacre would become one of the darkest and most defining incidents of that time.

So, what happened on 11 and 12 December 1948?

IN 1992, MY friend Mary Maguire, with whom I’d shared that car ride two years earlier, was asked to be a researcher and local fixer for a BBC film crew commissioned to make a documentary about the massacre. The subsequent film, In Cold Blood, was shown as part of the BBC’s signature investigative series Inside Story. It involved, in part, bringing back to Sungai Remok three of the British soldiers who had been part of the 7th Platoon, but who weren’t involved in the shooting. The documentary included interviews with survivors and eyewitnesses, and followed the three ex-soldiers back to the scene of the crime. It was broadcast in the UK – only – in 1993.

The facts are recounted again and again throughout the film: British soldiers entered the village in a military truck in the late afternoon, around 4 or 5 pm, according to eyewitnesses. They questioned the plantation workers and then separated the men from the women and children, put them on a lorry and drove them away. Soon after, there was the sound of rapid gunfire and, later, twenty-four dead bodies were found. The soldiers then shot into the air victoriously and burnt all property. The surviving villagers fled, returning days later to find the decomposing bodies of their husbands, brothers and sons.

In 1970, London Metropolitan Police investigator Frank Williams conducted the first enquiry into the incident, which included sworn statements from six of the soldiers who had presented themselves, first to the press and then to the police, to confess that they had murdered the men. In one scene from In Cold Blood, the statements are re-enacted:

‘One of the sergeants gave the order. I shot to the ground. I remember this because someone (another soldier) said – what are you trying to do? Shoot me instead of them?’

‘Were they running away?’

‘No, they weren’t running away’

The sergeant who gave the order was Charles Douglas, who was found by the film crew in Edinburgh, but refused interviews. He referred the production team to the Ministry of Defence, which also declined to assist. The enquiry closed, citing a statement from the Attorney-General, Sir Peter Rawlinson, who said that there was no reasonable likelihood of obtaining sufficient evidence to warrant any criminal proceedings.

In an emotional scene, the three ex-Scots Guards shake the hand of one of the female eyewitness, named Foo Moi, already in her seventies. They follow her to the river’s edge, where she lights joss sticks for the dead. In another interview, a male eyewitness says, ‘We were afraid, we were all afraid, but now I am angry, angry because nobody deserved to die like that.’ At a coffee shop he again asks the ex-soldiers via an interpreter, ‘Why would you shoot people?’

One soldier replies, ‘This was an emergency, this was a war, there are totally different rules in a war.’

‘What laws were you applying?’ the eyewitness asks.

‘This was a war.’ The soldier repeats. ‘There were laws that applied at the time, as it was an emergency.’

The eyewitness, unrelenting, asks again, ‘What laws were there in place that day – we knew that if you ran, the soldiers would shoot, that the shooting was legal, it was accepted, but if they didn’t run and they were shot, was that legal?’

‘In my opinion, they must have run,’ one soldier responds. ‘I can’t understand why they would have been killed, irregardlessly [sic], they must have run away. Something must have happened for them to be killed.’

The eyewitness is adamant. ‘Yes, if they had run, then it’s understood, but if they didn’t run, is that illegal?’

The soldier nods. ‘Yes, it would have been illegal.’

The eyewitness turned to the interpreter and said in Cantonese, ‘If they had not run and they were shot, that means it was a massacre.’

The only survivor of the massacre, Chong Hong, gave his account. ‘We were so scared. No, we didn’t run, no one ran. The soldiers were behind us, and then they opened fire. I fainted and passed out and when I came to, I saw that the soldiers had left and I was surrounded by dead bodies. I got up and ran, terrified.’

Wong Ying, another eyewitness, then already blind, gives her account. ‘We were separated, men and women. We all suffered so much. This is still so bitter. I cannot accept what happened.’ She then pleads, ‘Sirs, do you hear me? Why do you question my truth?’

AFTER IN COLD Blood was shown in Britain, the documentary became a pivotal point for renewed interest in the massacre and gave the survivors and their families the impetus to campaign for an official investigation led by Malaysian authorities. This was blocked by the British government. Fifteen years later, in 2008, a campaign began in Malaysia to press for a British public inquiry into Batang Kali and its blatant cover-up. This too was blocked by the British government. In 2010, a judicial review request brought by families of the victims was also refused.

In 2013, British television producer and writer Christopher Hale published his book, Massacre in Malaya: Exposing Britain’s My Lai (The History Press). At the top of the preface, this quote appears:

‘Once we started firing, we seemed to go mad […] I remember the water turned red with their blood.’ William Cootes, Scots Guard

The book is an in-depth account of the massacre, which includes the ‘migrated archives’ – sensitive and incriminating documents from former colonial governments, eyewitness accounts from both sides. The book is a comprehensive and valiant effort to portray the Malayan Emergency as a discriminatory war. British tactics, not just in Malaya, but also in Kenya at the time, were a powerful, covert influence on what would later transpire during the Vietnam War. Hale notes that following the My Lai massacre, the US platoon leader William Calley claimed: ‘I was ordered to go in there and destroy the enemy. That was my job that day. That was the mission I was given.’ 

In 1969, George Brown, the former British Foreign Secretary and deputy leader of the Labour Party, was quizzed about the revelations of the Calley trial. When asked if Britain had similar crimes, he replied, ‘I hope not, but I just don’t know…people when they are fighting, when they are frightened do terrible things… I suspect there are a lot of spectres in our cupboard too.’ His remarks were deemed an offence to British soldiers. The headline story in the Sunday newspaper The People on 30 November 1969 was ‘Where’s the evidence, George?’

William Cootes, then living in Manchester, read that story and made a decision that would forever change the account of what happened in Batang Kali. Two days later, he walked into the Manchester office of The People and said he had a story to tell. He stated that on the morning of 11 December 1948, he was in a platoon ordered to a small settlement of Chinese rubber tappers on the Sungai Remok estate close to the village of Batang Kali. An officer called George Ramsay had given explicit orders to ‘wipe out anybody they found there’. The following day, the Scots Guards divided the male villagers into groups, led them to the bank of the river and shot them all in cold blood. The newspaper’s editor, Robert Edwards, who wrote Cootes’s story, decided to commit his resources to a proper investigation. Two months later, with other Scots Guards corroborating Cootes’s statements, he came to the conclusion that British troops had indeed committed a massacre in Sungai Remok on 12 December 1948. This ‘evidence’ would later become the basis of Frank William’s investigation in 1970.

Since then, there have been more investigations, inquiries, documentaries and articles, all ending with government refusals to investigate – until 2012. Then, a Malaysian lawyer, Quek Ngee Meng, and his legal team flew to London with their frail clients, the last surviving eyewitnesses, and met with British legal counterparts John Halford and Danny Friedman for a two-day trial at the Royal Courts of Justice. The request was simple: to overturn the British government’s refusal to investigate, to make the incident public, to acknowledge it and have the British government apologise.

John Halford told the court: ‘On 12 December 1948, British soldiers left the bodies of twenty-four innocent, unarmed men riddled with bullets and the British government left their families without a credible explanation.’ He maintained the courts had denied the families an explanation and acknowledged ‘the innocence of those killed, the failures to investigate and the overwhelming evidence of mass murder’. Halford said the UK had been found responsible and should now apologise, ‘withdraw the false account given to parliament’ and address the issue, ‘including by funding a memorial’.

The lawyers argued that ‘this case is about truth and reconciliation which concerns a continuing injustice of deeply troubling proportions’. The court ruled against the Malaysian legal team.

In November 2015, a judicial review was taken to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the British government was not obliged to hold a public inquiry into the massacre, because the atrocity occurred too long ago. The majority decision by the judges of the United Kingdom’s highest court stated that the duty to investigate dates only to a ten-year grace period before 1966, when the right of individual petition to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) was introduced.

Since then, nothing has happened – not even after an order by the ECHR to seek an amicable settlement and submit a written explanation on the merits of the massacre.

Why has the British government maintained its silence for almost seventy years? Was it because they ‘won’ the war in Malaya? That it was unlike the horror of the Partition of India, or the catastrophe of Palestine? Was it to preserve one possible vestige of colonial pride?

SPEAKING TO MY friend Mary again, twenty-five years after In Cold Blood was released, she said, ‘The British government’s stubborn reluctance to come clean about the massacre – even after seventy years – is very sad indeed. All the survivors wanted was an apology from the government, for killing their loved ones and smearing their reputations by claiming they were communist sympathisers. It also saddens me that the women, whose menfolk were killed, didn’t get their wish before they died.’

The Emergency was a war created to root out, kill and destroy the very people who had helped the British fight the Japanese. Chin Peng was ousted and then exiled, his OBE stripped. The MCP was crippled and the last communists were hounded, killed and shamed.

The British took pride in giving the Federation of Malaya a bloodless independence in 1957. The blight of colonial succession in Malaya was negotiated between gentlemen in expensive suits. It was civilised, and it was done. Two hundred years of colonialism remains in the blueprint of our public, parliamentary, judicial and educational institutions, in the revered architecture, and in an eloquent canon which remains crucial in the cultural and socio-political understanding of who we are.

And so, perhaps it is this. Perhaps as Malaysians, we are told we should be grateful and continue to believe in the myth of British benevolence, that we should continue the cover-up of Britain’s cowardly history, that we should be glad we have been independent now for sixty years. We are meant to be compliant and complicit in the whitewash of our history, in the convenience of colonial amnesia and its glaring omissions. This continued silence exists like a shadow, still unknown to many Malaysians, adding to the list of other silences that hang over the nation’s conscience, sixty years after independence.

The UN Declaration of Human Rights was adopted on 10 December 1948, spearheaded by Eleanor Roosevelt, a testament to honouring the human condition in all forms. Two days later, that declaration was violated on Malayan soil.

The Malayan Emergency was a war, a real war, and should have been acknowledged as such. The Scots Guards who returned to Batang Kali called it war, where crimes were committed, and the British governments’ – past and present – refusal to admit to this massacre is an affront, a denial of truth. The victims, and their families who now survive, have a right to the truth and the healing that is so desperately needed.

Link to article:

With thanks to Taipei Artist Village; Ministry of Culture of the ROC (Republic of China), Taiwan; Mary Maguire; Christopher Hale; and Loh Kah Seng.