Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Batang Kali massacre by the British: justice for the dead!

More than 60 years after British troops killed 24 villagers at Batang Kali, Selangor, the case against the soldiers is going to be heard in the British courts today. 

IN 1948, the Malayan Emergency was just heating up. The country may have been weary of four brutal years of Japanese occupation during World War II, but the brief post-War dominance of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) was clearly at odds with the desire of the British authorities to reclaim a territory whose raw materials would help rebuild Britain itself.

By 1948, this had erupted into an undeclared war that would be waged until 1960. British forces sought to subdue the Communists, who had gained a degree of popularity for their resistance towards the Japanese. It didn’t help that in China, Mao’s Communist Party was on the verge of defeating the Kuomintang nationalist party.

Uneasy lie the dead: This cemetery in Batang Kali, Selangor, is where about half of the massacred victims were buried.
 
It was against this backdrop that the 7th Platoon of G Company, of the second battalion of Scots Guards unit of the British Army, belied its centuries-long reputation for honour. On Dec 12, 1948, under the leadership of Sgt Charles Douglas, the Guards surrounded a rubber estate near Batang Kali, Selangor. Looking for Communist guerillas who habitually moved in and out of the local population, they shot and killed 24 ethnic Chinese villagers before razing the village.

The next day, The Straits Times carried a report stating “Scots Guards and Police were today reported to have shot dead 25 out of 26 bandits during a wide-scale operation in North Selangor.” It called the killings the “biggest success as yet achieved in one operation in Malaya since the Emergency began.”

It was a bold-faced lie. The troops may have been acting on false information or may have panicked but there is little doubt that many innocent people were killed. Worse still, the incident was hushed up, only surviving as whispers through time.

There were, however, some survivors. One man fainted and was presumed dead, while some women and children of the men killed lived to tell the tale. According to them the Scots Guards had separated the men to be interrogated before the situation turned into a rampage of indiscriminate shooting.

This lush green spot is where dark deeds took place 64 years ago today.
 
“At the time we didn’t hear much,” recalls Prof Emeritus Tan Sri Dr Khoo Kay Kim. “We just heard some rumours. I would not call it the norm, but no doubt there was tension. What happened at Batang Kali was part of the complexity of society which can lead to such tragic situations. It is almost unavoidable in times of conflict and when there is hatred between ethnic and territorial groups. I see it as a conflict of cultures.

“From what I understand, they were innocent men. But the Chinese may well have reacted in a peculiar way that would have seemed suspicious to the British, who were paranoid and ignorant of local ways. The British always had problems with the Chinese community.

“That is why Governor Sir Shenton Thomas tried to come up with a programme to Anglicise the Chinese, but they were not easily controlled. At that point (in 1948) the Chinese were under the influence of the leftists and the secret societies. They were themselves enemies and in some ways it mirrored the conflict in China between the Kuomintang and the Communist Party.”

Prof Datuk Dr Shamsul Amri Baharuddin laments the tragic loss of life. “At the time the British would have had their own people on the ground. But informers can make the biggest mistakes, sometimes even on purpose. It is possible that the informer didn’t like these people. In this case, it is likely that the British acted on wrong information.

This is apparently the tombstone of the first victim, Luo Wei-Nan.>
 
“It is difficult to be an informer/undercover agent because both sides will crucify you. In fact in the 1940s, the leader of the Communists, Loi Tak, was a triple agent, a Vietnamese who worked for the Japanese and the British while leading the CPM!

“The conditions of war generates different dynamics, which we can still see today in Afghanistan and Iraq where there are many vendetta killings and economic killings done under falsified circumstances.”

Leon Comber played a critical role in the formative years of the Malaysian police force’s Special Branch and spent many years countering the Communist insurgency. The author of Malaya’s Secret Police, 1945-1960: The Role Of The Special Branch In The Malayan Emergency has no light to shed on the Batang Kali incident but does concede that, at the time, there was much mistrust between the Chinese community and the British.

Comber had come over to Malaya as part of the re-occupying forces that took over as the Japanese surrendered. In 1946 he was appointed to the police force in Malaya. He served as OCPD (Officer in Charge of Police District) KL South; at that time KL was divided into north and south zones for policing.

The Emergency was a savage war in which an estimated 12,000 people died. Did Comber ever have to do anything he was ashamed of?

File photo from May last year when four claimants, (from right) Wooi Kum Thai, Loh Ah Choi, Lim Kok and Chong Nyok Keyu announced that they had been granted funds by the United Kingdom Legal Service Commission to take their case to British courts. Today, the four are in London for the beginning of their case.
 
“Personally I didn’t, nor did I order any men under my command to do so. But I certainly heard rumours about dubious interrogation techniques. Apparently the head of the Special Branch, Richard Craig, issued a pamphlet which referred to undesirable methods of obtaining information. I was taken aback when I heard that. But if my fellow colleagues knew anything, they kept it to themselves.”

Indeed, secrecy was very much the order of the day as the colonial government maintained strict control over the media to ensure that only their viewpoint got through to the people. Little was known at the time of the Malayan Emergency’s many flash points like the standoff in Bukit Kepong, Johor, on Feb 23, 1950, between police officers and Communist guerillas that ended with more than 20 fatalities on each side. Across the pond, on Dec 3, 1949, the British governor of Sarawak, Sir Duncan Stewart, was stabbed to death by teenage Malay nationalist Rosli Dhobi.

A few years after the Batang Kali massacre, the Briggs Plan was put in place to win the hearts and minds of the local population. Devised by General Sir Harold Briggs shortly after his appointment in 1950 as the Emergency’s director of operations, the plan comprised the forced resettlement of rural Chinese population into “New Villages” where education, health services and homes with water and electricity were provided. Even as the Emergency continued and news remained tightly controlled, the Batang Kali massacre reared its ugly head from time to time. Soon after the incident, in 1949, an investigation by the Attorney General, Sir Stafford Foster-Sutton, concluded that the villagers would have escaped with their lives if not for the soldiers opening fire – yet, no action was taken.

In fact, only the soldiers themselves were questioned as witnesses; no villager was asked for testimony. The cover-up echoed that of another British colonial massacre in Amritsar, India, in 1919 when Colonel Reginald Dyer ordered the shooting deaths of hundreds of unarmed Indian civilians.

Following the My Lai massacre in the late 1960s during the Vietnam War, when US troops unable to distinguish friend from foe slaughtered all the villagers in My Lai, the Batang Kali incident was revisited by British newspaper The People. Then British Secretary of State for Defence (from 1964 to 1970) Denis Healey set up a team to investigate the incident. But the case was soon dropped for “lack of evidence”, despite statements made from former members of the patrol that made it clear they had been ordered to lie about the killings during the 1949 investigation.

Still later, in 1992, In Cold Blood, a BBC documentary was aired about the killings, making it obvious that a travesty had occurred, not just with the killings but with the cover-up that followed. Journalists Ian Ward and Norma Miraflor also painstakingly put together Slaughter And Deception At Batang Kali (Media Masters, 2009), another work that endorses this viewpoint.

MCA Public Services and Complaints Department head Datuk Seri Michael Chong became involved with the case during the filming of In Cold Blood.

“It is not only me who is fighting this case,” he says. “Over the years many fought it. Even (Malaysia’s first Prime Minister) Tunku Abdul Rahman fought it before independence. But when I came to it in 1992 it had been forgotten. All the time there had been a ding-dong and finally after a change of government in the UK, the case was closed.

“In late 1992, a group of BBC journalists came down with a few ex-Scot Guards who were all in their 70s or 80s. They were not involved in the massacre but had been asked by their Commanding Officer to help with the post-massacre clean-up. They came and asked the villagers to remove the bodies. After so many years they felt bad.”

Chong was outraged by the injustice and decided to act. “Along with the lawyers Vincent Lim and Datuk Lim Choon Kin, I took an interest. We went to see the place and met the survivors. In 1993 we called a press conference and, with the victims’ descendants, we lodged a police report in Batang Kali.

“After that, we drafted a letter to Her Majesty the Queen to investigate this old case and seek for justice. We went to see the then High Commissioner, H.C. White, and were given assurances that the letter would be passed to her. Meanwhile, we also worked with the police. I was cautioned by the Malaysian police not to stir up this sentiment.

“To be very frank, some leaders also asked me why I wanted to bring up this old matter. They neither supported me or were against me at first. But later on they gave me their moral support.

“For me, this has never been about the publicity. I just want justice for the victims. I want the British Government to recognise and admit that such an incident happened. They were all shot in the back of the head from a close distance. This is cold-blooded murder. They were never Communists, but simple rubber-tappers. They were not even sympathisers.”

Eventually, through the perseverance of people like Chong, the British Government relented and agreed to hear the case.

Lawyer Quek Ngee Meng is part of a new generation of Malaysians who feel that there is no statute of limitations on justice.

“Back in 2004 my father, the late Quek Cheng Taik, used to visit the hot springs in Ulu Yam near Batang Kali to treat an illness. He used to go from Serdang to that area and eventually bought a house in Ulu Yam. He listened to the stories of villagers.

“It is still a talked-about topic there more than 60 years on. Those killed were from Ulu Yam. If you go there you won’t miss the cemetery. Every Qing Ming (a day to pay respect to one’s ancestors) they go back.

“They still feel it. It is still a stigma. The official account says they were suspected of being bandits. When we followed the case, we found a lot of cover-ups.”

But what can be accomplished after so many years?

“I think the first thing is an admission and an apology” says Quek. “The victim’s families also lost their bread-winners so we are also seeking compensation.

“Over here there are still about five witnesses to what happened. In Britain some soldiers are still alive. I think there are more than 10 on the British side. There are many who have passed away in Malaysia, most recently Tham Yong in 2010. But we documented their testimony.

“When pursuing this case, the famous human rights law firm Bindmans backed us and were willing to procure legal aid. Before they (the United Kingdom Legal Service Commission) granted us that aid, though, they checked that we needed the funds. They also checked if there was any merit in the case. Their estimate is a 50% to 60% chance,” says Quek.

Today and tomorrow, the team in London will be applying for a judicial review to quash the earlier decision by the British Government not to investigate the tragedy.

Quek says incidents like Batang Kali were not necessarily unique at the time. “There are many other cases of injustice during the Emergency. You must understand, this was at a time when the British thought all Chinese were Communists. The Chinese had to prove they were not Communists.

“But even in such circumstances you must follow the rule of law. If they are identified by informers they should have been detained and questioned. But they were not.”

Quek makes a final point about the upcoming trial. “We made a lot of progress with the (British) Labour Government, but since the Conservative-led coalition took power, they have not been so straightforward with us.

“They have made a lot of representations using technical points trying to claim that it was the Selangor Government who had jurisdiction and we should take action against the Sultan instead of them!

He adds that, “This is a landmark case with an individual suing the British Government, and I am looking forward to the trial.”

It remains to be seen if justice will indeed finally be served.

By MARTIN VENGADESAN and LIM CHIA YING
star2@thestar.com.my


Related articles/Posts: