Dispatches on the Batang Kali Massacre
Has the British Government acted unlawfully in its continued refusal to order an independent inquiry into the killings?
( the malaysian insider — now offline )
A narrative of the events of December 12, 1948
LONDON, May 15, 2012 — “It sounded like fireworks,” Lim Ah Yin, 76, said. “As if it was Chinese New Year.”
In fact, it was the terrible sound of automatic weapons’ fire ripping apart the morning. The date was December 12, 1948 and Ah Yin was only 11 years old. She couldn’t see what was happening from her vantage point aboard a lorry surrounded by bigger children and scrambling, wailing women, but the ominous staccatos filled her ears, and followed her even as the lorry started moving, taking the women and children away from their husbands, brothers and fathers who remained on the Sungai Remok rubber estate in Batang Kali — some in sight, some mercifully out of sight. The gunfire lasted just under two minutes.
“When I heard the gun shots, I understood,” Ah Yin said. She didn’t have to wait four days later, when she followed her mother back to the village to collect her father’s body, unrecognisable except for his shirt, to know that all 24 men, young and old, were never coming back.
As the lorry left their dear ones behind, Ah Yin saw flames and smoke rise from the village, where she had lived with her family for years, working and playing alongside other families. The three kongsis — long wooden houses on stilts functioning as living quarters — and the smokehouse, everything on the plantation, would be torched to the ground. The punctured and mutilated bodies of the men would be left to rot where they had fallen, tightly clustered in separate groups where fresh-faced Scots Guards had delivered the death blows — some firing in staunch duty, some in panic, some shooting at the ground, hoping to miss.
This happened more than 60 years ago during the Malayan Emergency — a guerilla war fought between British colonial forces and the military arm of the Malayan Communist Party — and it has never been properly dignified in the annals of history for what it was: a massacre. Despite the voluntary confessions of several of the Scots Guards, corroborated by the survivors’ accounts, that the Batang Kali incident was murder committed in cold blood, the Malaysian and British governments continued to toe the official line (that the men were communist “bandits” or sympathisers trying to escape) in order to refuse repeated requests for a full public investigation.
There were two attempts in 1970 and 1993 to investigate the killings, fuelled largely by journalists and police officials in both countries. But just as they were on the cusp of completion, the investigations were aborted by their respective governments, purportedly because of insufficient evidence, a justification that could not, even then, stand in good faith. John Halford, on behalf of the survivors, said that although the exact sequence of events is disputed, “the evidence is overwhelmingly clear as to what happened.” It is hoped that the judicial review in London last week, which was the culmination of renewed calls for a public inquiry since 2008, will result in a decision that will finally give the survivors the reconciliation they seek.
On the evening of December 11, 1948, 14 Scots Guards of 7 platoon, G Company, 2nd Battalion had crept onto the Sungai Remok plantation and taken the villagers by surprise. They pointed their guns indiscriminately at men, women and children, young and old. A Chinese detective serving as an interpreter for the English troops barked commands and accusations at them. When the adults couldn’t give him the answers he sought, he asked the children if they had seen any communists.
“He was very fierce,” Ah Yin recalled. “But we were so little then. We helped our parents at work, and when we were free we would play. We didn’t know what people were what people. What did we know what communists were?”
None of the villagers were armed, and none exhibited any violence towards the British troops. Still, the soldiers were certain that they were assisting the communists. To terrorise the villagers into talking, the soldiers carried out mock executions.
“They tore my mother away from us and brought her to the stream to interrogate her and started shooting close to the side of her head. They were firing into the air, but I thought my mother had died,” Ah Yin recalled. Her mother was eight months’ pregnant. “All the English soldiers looked so young. Whether you moved or didn’t move, they pointed their guns at you.”
In fact, as Ian Ward and Norma Miraflor revealed in their detailed exposé “Slaughter and Deception at Batang Kali”, 12 of the 14 Scots Guards were in their late teens on National Service. They had been dispatched straight from the British Empire’s royal palaces to the Malayan hinterland to combat communist insurgents during the Emergency, and provided with only rudimentary training.
As such, they were ill equipped for a guerilla war. Sergeant Douglas, who was in charge of the platoon, was an inexperienced 22-year-old who had never killed a man in his life. He was to kill his first at Batang Kali, a 19-year-old named Loh Kit Lin whom the soldiers suspected of supplying durians to the communists simply because they had found a piece of paper on his person permitting him to collect the fruit. Douglas shot him in the stomach, then “turned away and was violently sick.” His second-in-command, Lance-Sergeant Hughes, had to finish the boy off with a shot to the head.
The man’s nephew, Loh Ah Choi, now 71, was seven at the time. He said: “I didn’t see it happen, but I heard it. There were three shots. My uncle was a secondary student in Kuala Lumpur, but he happened to be in Batang Kali that day to visit his grandmother.” He wasn’t even supposed to be there.
Ah Choi worked on a British estate for 10 years after the massacre when he was a teenager. “I don’t hate the British. If I did, I wouldn’t have worked for them for so long. But I hope that they will treat us right. If they don’t, I would be very disappointed,” he said, referring to the judicial review decision the survivors are currently awaiting.
That first night, the soldiers separated the men from the women and children and held them hostage in separate quarters. The Scots Guards planned to lie in wait for the lorry that would arrive in the morning, convinced as they were that it would bring food supplies for the communists. In fact, the lorry came every day, transporting additional workers and food for the resident community.
The next morning, when the villagers were herded out of the kongsi they would see Loh Kit Lin’s body lying face up on the estate road, his intestines spilling out of a gaping hole in his stomach. Soon after, the massacre started.
By their own admission, two Scots Guards decided to fall out, opting to guard the lorry instead. They had orders to shoot if any of the women and children tried to escape, but no harm came to them — at least, none physically. The indelible emotional scars would come later, when they found themselves homeless, possessing only the clothes on their backs; when, having lost the breadwinner of their family, they were reduced to begging on the streets, watching helplessly as their children died of malnutrition; when they were forced to give their little ones away, never to find them again.
“My three-year-old sister was given to another family after my father was killed. A month later, my mother gave birth to another baby and we had to give her away to an orphanage too. I reunited with my younger sister in my teenage years and we are still in touch, but I have lost my baby sister forever,” Ah Yin said.
Chong Koon Ying, 74, has a similar story. When she finally found her younger brother in later years, it saddened her to learn that he had been physically abused as a child.
The women and children were not allowed enough time to collect their belongings before leaving. “We had absolutely nothing, only the clothes we were wearing. But the people in Ulu Yam Baru were kind. They gave us food and clothes. We were so hungry,” Ah Yin recalled.
Koon Ying, who was nine years old at the time, would remember this too — the hunger. They were children; it was the visceral they remembered.
Unbeknownst at the time, one man survived the massacre. Chong Fong, then 22, had fainted and was taken for dead. “The spirits must have pushed me,” he told the BBC for the 1992 documentary “In Cold Blood”. When he came to half an hour later, he didn’t linger. “I ran for my dear life,” he’d said, and hid at his father’s coffeeshop. The authorities never breathed a word, and news of his existence wasn’t published until 1970.
Four days later, official permission was granted to recover the bodies. It took three lorry trips to transport them all to Ulu Yam Baru, where they were buried.
Ah Yin remembers the horror of it all. “Their faces, eyes and mouths were crawling with worms. Their stomachs were bulging and black. Everywhere, there were flies. My father was shot in the chest. The kepala had been beheaded and his head thrown into the river, where it was swept away and never found again. Still, he had a proper coffin. We couldn’t afford one so we used a box made of planks to bury my father. There was blood everywhere, black blood. There was a terrible smell. Why did they die like this?” The Batang Kali massacre has often been compared to the US troops’ murderous rampage at the Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai during the Vietnam War, but for one little mercy — or was it? Unlike at My Lai, the women and children at Batang Kali were spared, but they had to go on living.
The colonial government had said that the objective of the patrol had been to “obtain information, search for arms and ammunition and to detain and bring back to Kuala Kubu Baru [the Scots Guards’ headquarters] for interrogation any suspicious characters.” But if that was the case, why didn’t they use the lorry to transport the men? If the men had indeed tried to escape, why were their bodies found in tight clusters? Why did the Scots Guards confess to murder? Why did the Malayan Attorney-General at the time tell reporters 20 years later that what happened at Batang Kali was a “bona fide mistake”? Why had he lied about the fact that police, military and civil inquiries were carried out in 1949, when in fact there wasn’t any investigation until 1970? There are too many contradictions in the Batang Kali case for it to be written off, even if over six decades has passed. As Ian Ward said: “There is no statute of limitations for morality.”
The remaining survivors still remember what happened in December 1948. It is a story they have told many times, because when the world forgot them, as it often did, telling this story was the only way to keep the memories of their loved ones alive.
As journalists, we ask many questions. We want to know how they felt then, how they feel now. We want a sound bite, a quote, something profound to include in our stories. But it is simple, it is true:
“It’s painful,” Ah Yin said. “Aiyah, it’s just very painful.”
Court Dispatch #1
LONDON, May 9, 2012 – Since 1948, the official line on the Batang Kali Massacre during the Malayan Emergency has always been that the 24 men gunned down were communists and “bandits”, or sympathisers, and that it had been necessary to shoot them to prevent their escape.
Consequently, so much attention has focused on trying to ascertain whether the villagers did, in fact, try to escape – it is generally accepted that they did not – that the bigger picture is often missed. No one has stopped to ask, so what if they had tried to escape? Would that make their killings lawful?
John Halford, a solicitor at Bindmans & Partners who is representing the families of the massacre victims, said: “Would it have been legitimate to fatally shoot 24 men, over half of whom were aged 50 or above, on the basis that they were trying to escape custody of British troops, whatever their political sympathies, affiliations and intentions?”
It has been more than 60 years since the massacre and there has never been a full investigation into the events at Batang Kali. Judicial review proceedings commenced yesterday in the High Court in London and will run until Wednesday to decide whether the UK government has acted unlawfully in its continued refusal to order an independent inquiry into the killings.
It is the first time that all the evidence on the case has been gathered together in one place. “This court will be the first body that will have before it the Malaysian investigation and the British investigation and can put them both together and see what really happened,” Halford said.
Michael Fordham QC for the claimants told the court that British troops were deployed to Malaya in aid of the civil power, not in war. Deputised as police officers, they were not fighting a conventional enemy; they were there to keep public order. As such, their powers were essentially the same as the Malayan police, and those powers did not extend to the killing of unarmed civilians to prevent escape.
“The killings never could be lawful,” Halford said. “The evidence is overwhelmingly clear as to what happened.”
What is particularly revealing is how Britain legalised “lethal force” to prevent escape attempts through an amendment to emergency regulations on January 20, 1949, a little more than a month after the massacre. What was more damning, however, was that the regulation covered any act prior to the coming into force of the regulation, clearly “intended to retrospectively immunise killers from the legal consequences of their actions. It’s hard to imagine a greater affront to the rule of law,” said Halford.
If it is found that there was no legal basis for the shootings then the Scots Guards’ actions would amount to murder or manslaughter. In fact, several Scots Guards voluntarily admitted in 1970 that the men at the Sungai Remok rubber estate had been murdered in cold blood without cause.
William Cootes told The People newspaper, “Once we started firing we seemed to go mad... I remember the water turned red with their blood.”
Victor Remedios, another soldier, recalled, “We knew that before we went on patrol that the object was to wipe out the village and those who lived in it.” He also said, “We were told by the sergeant after the incident that if anyone said anything we could get 14 or 15 years in prison.”
George Kidd, another ex-Scots Guard, was more blunt. “It was murder – sheer bloody murder. They were not running way. There was no reason to shoot them.”
Following these admissions in 1970, Scotland Yard commenced an investigation. Of the 11 surviving members of the Scots Guards patrol who were interviewed under caution, six supported the account of a massacre.
Michael Fordham QC told the court yesterday, “The occurrence of revelations like these coming from those directly responsible for a massacre has no precedent in post-1945 British colonial history, nor have there been any comparable admissions concerning a particular historical event since.”
More importantly, the soldiers’ admissions corroborated other accounts that the villagers had been unlawfully killed. Despite these admissions, however, the investigation was dropped the same year when the Conservative Party won the general election, just as it was dropped in 1949 and later in 1997. The official reason given was that the evidence was insufficient, but the head of the investigating team Frank Williams refuted this, stating in an internal police report, “At the outset this matter was politically flavoured.”
Three of the claimants in this case – Loh Ah Choi, Chong Koon Ying and Lim Ah Yin – all of whom are now in their seventies, have travelled a long way from Malaysia to London. It is their first time in the UK. After a whole day in court, Loh said, “I’m tired, but it doesn’t matter.”
They do not seek compensation or the prosecution of the Scots Guards at Batang Kali. All they want is to know what really happened on December 12, 1948 so that the stigma attached to their loved ones, as “bandits” who deserved what they got, can be removed once and for all.
“Hopefully, ultimately, the headlines we’ll get about this case will be the acceptance of responsibility for wrongdoing. We know from Bloody Sunday that the UK government is capable of accepting responsibility and apologising,” Halford said.
This may well be the survivors' last chance to find a way of reconciling with the past.
Court Dispatch #2
LONDON, May 10, 2012 – The UK government has suggested that the Sultan of Selangor was responsible for the actions of British soldiers in what is now known as the Batang Kali Massacre of 24 civilian rubber plantation workers during the Malayan Emergency in 1948.
On December 11 and 12, 14 Scots Guards surrounded and captured the Sungai Remok rubber estate. The women and children were separated from the men, who were shot and killed in a burst of violence. Bodies were mutilated, one beheaded. The village was torched to the ground.
The official line was that the men were communists or sympathisers who were trying to escape, but other accounts have since surfaced depicting a cold-blooded mass killing without cause. Many have called it “Britain’s My Lai”, an allusion to the annihilation of the Vietnamese hamlet by US troops during the Vietnam War.
In the High Court here yesterday during the judicial review of the UK government’s continued refusal to investigate the killings, counsel for the defendants, UK Secretaries of State for Defence and Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs, declared that any claim relating to the incident at Batang Kali should have been litigated in the courts of Selangor under its laws.
“Had proceedings been brought in England against the [Sultan] of Selangor, a plea of sovereign immunity would have succeeded," he said. He also told the court that even if the British government had been responsible for the actions of its Scots Guards in Malaya at the time, all rights, liabilities and obligations passed to the Federation of Malaya when it became independent in 1957.
The defendants maintain that during the Emergency, which lasted from 1948 to 1960, Selangor was a “protected state” of the British government and therefore a “separate legal entity.” As such, the British government’s jurisdiction was limited to Selangor’s external affairs and its defence from external attack; the government had “no direct policy over its internal affairs.”
The claimants and defendants both agree that British troops were deployed to Malaya during the Emergency in aid of the civil power, not in an act of war. Deputised as police officers, these British soldiers were there to keep public order, so their powers were essentially the same as the Malayan police. What they disagree on is the capacity in which these troops were carrying out orders at the Sungai Remok estate.
Mr Justice Treacy put this question to the defendants’ counsel: “British troops in Malaya also had to defend external threats. How do you distinguish when they are operating internally and when they are operating externally?”
The defendants take the position that the Scots Guards at Batang Kali were operating internally and formed part of a local police patrol under the authority of the Sultan of Selangor; they were acting as “agents” of the Sultan. However, their counsel was unable to produce evidence to that effect.
The president of the Queen’s Bench Division, Sir John Thomas, said: “You can’t run an empire without knowing who controls the troops. There must be an answer to this.” He added: “We are not satisfied that what you are telling us is right. I am not criticising you. I am criticising those in the Ministry of Defence and Foreign Office who must know what the answer is.”
The judicial review proceedings concluded yesterday, but further answers on this point will be dealt with in written submissions on May 19. Judgment was reserved and no date has yet been provided.
The defendants’ counsel also said that the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office do not defend the facts of what happened in 1948 but maintain that they were entitled to refuse to hold a public inquiry “notwithstanding the seriousness of what then occurred.”
They maintain that they have exercised their discretion lawfully, taking into reasons such as the costs of conducting an inquiry, the two competing sets of facts, and the difficulty of finding out the truth due to the fact that many witnesses are now deceased and those who are still alive would be unreliable considering that more than six decades have passed.
The defendants pointed out that they have not so much been affirming the official account, as the claimants alleged, as accepting that they cannot be certain about the accuracy of other accounts.
As such, they defend their decisions not to hold a public investigation as “rational” because if they were to simply accept the claimants’ account, they would in effect be “condemning all of the soldiers as murderers without a hearing and publicly expressing the view – contrary to international comity – that acts of murder had been committed on behalf of the Ruler of Selangor and/or that the Malaysian government was now liable for acts which amounted to murder.”
Three out of four of the remaining claimants in this case – Loh Ah Choi, 71, Lim Ah Yin, 76, and Chong Koon Ying, 74 – have travelled a long way from Malaysia to London. They sat in the front row before the two judges and were in attendance for the full duration of the legal proceedings despite being unable to understand English, and despite having been awake since 4am because of jet lag. They were accompanied by Quek Ngee Meng and Firoz Hussein, two Malaysia-based lawyers and co-ordinators of the Action Committee Condemning the Batang Kali Massacre.
Summing up on behalf of the claimants, Michael Fordham QC told the court: “The story simply doesn’t add up. Why was it necessary to shoot to kill, until all 24 men were dead? Why was it subsequently called a ‘mistake’?” He said that "inertia" has characterised the Batang Kali case over the decades, “because there may be an inconvenient truth.” He also suggested that if a public investigation were to be called, former Communist Party of Malaya secretary-general Chin Peng could be a potential witness to offer an insight into the nature of the “banditry” at the time.
Amidst all this, one wonders where the Malaysian government stands.
Ian Ward, a Southeast Asia war correspondent from 1962 to 1987, and Norma Miraflor point out in their book Slaughter and Deception at Batang Kali that the situation in Malaysia mirrors that in the UK: the political will to carry out a full investigation into the incident has been absent. Investigations, such as the 1970 one in Britain and the 1993 one in Malaysia, were fuelled by the police – and in Malaysia’s case, the Malaysian Chinese Association. Both investigations were eventually closed by the countries’ authorities, purportedly because of insufficient evidence.
The defendants’ counsel told the court that a public inquiry would not achieve very much because it would not serve up useful lessons to avoid the repetition of such events since the Batang Kali Massacre happened in a very different time and place, with a different legal and military culture.
Fordham disagreed. “How about a lesson that the truth will out? That even with the lapse of time, something this significant won’t just go away? How about a lesson like that for everyone?”
Court Dispatch #3
LONDON, Sep 4, 2012 – The High Court has upheld the British government’s decision not to hold a public inquiry into the 1948 “massacre” of 24 Malaysian rubber plantation workers by British soldiers at Batang Kali, Malaya, during the “Emergency” period.
This decision follows judicial review proceedings in May, when families of the victims challenged the British government’s continued refusal over the past decades to order an independent inquiry into the killings.
At the time, Malaya was a protectorate of the British Empire. The Malayan Emergency, a guerrilla war between Malayan communists and British soldiers, lasted until 1960.
On 11 December 1948, Scots Guards captured the Sungai Remok rubber estate in Batang Kali. Its inhabitants were not communist terrorists but families, including children, of civilians who wore no uniforms and possessed no weapons.
The soldiers shot a young man dead and subjected the rest of the village to simulated executions to while under interrogation. The men were separated from the women and children, detained in separate huts overnight. The next day, the women and children were taken away in a lorry that had arrived in the morning with rice for the villagers. The patrol set the men free from their hut and started shooting them. Within minutes 23 men were dead. Then the patrol burnt the huts down.
Sir John Thomas, President of the Queens Bench Division, and Mr Justice Treacy said in their written judgement that “there is no evidence, 63 years later, on which any of [these facts] relating to what happened at Batang Kali can seriously be disputed.”
However, they accept that there are two opposing accounts of why 24 men were killed. The official line has always been that the 24 men gunned down were communists and “bandits”, or sympathisers, and that it was necessary to shoot them to prevent their escape. But other accounts—most incriminatingly, the confessions of some of the British soldiers themselves in 1970—have surfaced depicting, in the judges’ words, the “planned and premeditated executions of civilians on the orders of the Sergeants leading the patrol”.
The judges ruled that “[i]t can no longer be permissible to conclude, in our view, on the evidence available at the present time which was before the court, that the 24 men were shot when trying to escape.”
But they also said, “Nor can the conclusion now be reached that that the 24 men were deliberately executed. There is evidence that supports both accounts.”
The judges found that there was no legal duty on the British government to hold a public inquiry, and that the government’s repeated decisions not to hold one “were not unreasonable”. They added, “There are no grounds for disturbing their conclusion.”
One of the claimants, Chong Koon Yin, 74, whose father was killed during the massacre, said today, “The judgement has filled me with a mixture of relief and disappointment. Relief because the stigma attached to my father has been lifted to some extent by the Court’s findings and its rejection of the official account. But I am disappointed with the finding that no inquiry required into the death of my father. There remain many unanswered questions. The truth has not been fully revealed. Without an inquiry or a proper acceptance of fault, the Government held legally responsible for the killing remains unaccountable. That is not fair or right.”
Speaking for the Action Committee Condemning the Batang Kali Massacre, Malaysian lawyer Quek Ngee Meng called today for the British Government to acknowledge and accept its legal responsibility for the killings and apologise to the victims’ families.
He said, “This will be the only graceful and honourable response to the judgment from the Cameron Coalition Government. Any response falls short than that will certainly and continuously haunt the good relationship between the UK and Malaysia.”
Solicitor John Halford, who represents the victims' families, said that the families would appeal the court’s decision.