Thursday, September 06, 2012

Taking Rubber to History


CONSERVATIVE politicians say schools should teach our glorious history. Their favourite historian, Niall Ferguson, says there is nothing to be ashamed of in our colonial past. On the contrary we should be proud.

This week two judges in the high court heard from surviving witnesses of one episode in that history, and decided it was a chapter best left closed. They dismissed an attempt by families of victims of a massacre in Malaya more than 63 years ago to have a public inquiry held.

The court heard how. during the so-called Emergency (so called because the Labour government did not want to admit it was waging a war), British troops killed 24 plantation workers in a village called Batang Kali, subjected their families to simulated executions, and rounded up women and children, then setting the village on fire.

There is little doubt what happened, though successive British governments tried to cover it up. But Sir John Thomas – president of the high court's Queen's bench division – and Mr Justice Treacy ruled that it would be "very difficult at this point in time" to establish whether the shootings were "deliberate executions".

Lawyers for the families said they would appeal.

In 1970 soldiers came forward to say there had been a "deliberate execution of the men and it was 'covered up' by the Scots Guards and British army". The judges acknowledged: "This is a very serious allegation though one which can properly be made on the evidence."

But they ruled: "The first matter in relation to the purpose of inquiry is to consider whether it can establish the facts. There are obviously enormous difficulties in conducting an inquiry into a matter that happened over 63 years ago. Most of the contemporary documents are missing and most of those who were engaged are dead. Nor, in our view, would it be any easier to determine whether the use of force was reasonable or proportionate."

The judges analysed three investigations into the Batang Kali killings – in the late 1940s, the early 1970s and the mid-1990s. They said victims' relatives had alleged a cover-up in relation to investigations in 1948 and 1970.

It was on 11 December 1948 that a patrol of Scots Guards surrounded and entered Batang Kali, a village north of the capital, Kuala Lumpur. The male villagers were separated. That evening one of the men was shot by soldiers; the next day a further 23 died. None of the victims was armed and no weapons were found before the killings.

Some of the background to what happened is recalled today by Solomon Hughes in the Morning Star.

"During World War II the Communist Party in Malaya had led resistance to the Japanese.

A grateful Britain awarded its leader Chin Peng an OBE.

Chin's comrades expected the newly elected British Labour Party to also grant Malayan independence as a reward.

But the British wanted to hang on to Malaya's lucrative rubber industry.

The Labour government unleashed a wave of repression to stop the independence movement, interning thousands and hanging hundreds of trade unionists and communists.

The communists formed a National Liberation Army (NLA) to fight for independence.

The British responded by imprisoning Malayans in "barbed wire villages" and by torture and murder.

The army did not believe the Batang Kali villagers were NLA fighters, but did believe they had given them food.

So they rounded up all the men in the village and killed them."

In 1970 the People newspaper looked into this massacre, and some of the soldiers who had been there came forward to give sworn statements. Sir John Thomas has said it was too hard "to determine whether the use of force was reasonable or proportionate" or if these were "executions."

But the 1970 statements are clear.

One guardsman says his captain "told us that the villagers were feeding terrorists and that every one of them should be killed."

Another soldier called it "a needless killing that was like murder under orders." The men's testimony makes clear the villagers were not shot while trying to escape - the official story - but instead were deliberately murdered.

One man recalled: "We opened fire on the men. Once we started firing we seemed to go mad."

Another said: "It struck me we must all be out of our minds to do a thing like we had just done.

"The man with the Bren [light machine-gun], I can't remember his name, boasted he had cut one of the Chinese in half with his bullets."

Which suggests the shooting wasn't "reasonable and proportionate."

Before the first official inquiry soldiers were ordered to lie about what had happened.

One soldier remembers his sergeant telling them in the barracks "that we would all be in serious trouble if the truth came out and that when we attended the inqury we should say that the men where shot as they tried to escape."

Another was warned he would "face 14 years in prison for the truth."

Following The People's published articles exposing the massacre in 1970, incoming Labour Defence Secretary Denis Healeyment ordered another inquiry. But this inquiry was cancelled by the succeeding Tory government.

There are surviving witnesses of the Batang Kali massacre, and they wanted an inquiry to hear the truth. At a press conference earlier this year in London Lim Ah Yin, 76, spoke of how the troops carried out a mock execution on her mother as they demanded information about the location of Communists.

Mrs Lim, who was 11 years old, also heard the gunfire which killed her father.

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

After this weeks hearing the relatives felt let down, but were not giving up.

Lim Kok, whose father, Lim Tian Shui, was found beheaded, said: "Though the court found the government did not need to hold an inquiry on technical grounds, the fact is that the Scots Guards shot innocent civilians, my father included."

Chong Koon Yin, whose father Chong Voon was also killed during the massacre, said: "The truth has not been fully revealed. Without a proper inquiry or a proper acceptance of fault, the government held legally responsible for the killing remains unaccountable."

I was six years old when this massacre happened. Up the street my pal Stuart was proud of his Uncle Les who was serving in Malaya, and sent presents home. Later Les came back on leave, tall and bronzed, and vowing revenge against the communists "who killed my mate". He was taking tea in our house. I did not ask how many he and his mate had killed, but I did ask why our troops were there. I had seen a newsreel which, perhaps unusually for the time, reminded cinema audiences how Malaya's Chinese communists had fought the Japanese, and expected independence after the war. That seemed reasonable to me. But I was only a kid, and not supposed to ask our visitor impertinent questions about things I did not understand, and I knew nothing about massacres anyway.

Later still I asked my Dad about reports that the planters' clubs in Malaya had signs saying "No soldiers, no Chinese". He being an Old Sweat who had served in India said they could not be expected to let a "Rough Soldiery" in. I was not sure how to take him sometimes.

The point I was naievely trying to make was that the soldiers were in Malaya to defend the plantation owners, who were being snobbish towards them. But of course the soldiers were in Malaya to defend something much bigger, colonial rule and the supply of strategic as well as profitable raw materials. And being brutalised by the harsh and murderous methods they were expected to carry out.

Only some of these soldiers, unlike the governments who sent them there, have been prepared to talk about it and tell the truth about what went on. It is the same truth some of the surviving villagers have wanted an inquiry to bring out.

But as new generations here grow up and go to school where they are supposed to learn about the history before their time that is supposed to have made Great Britain great, it is not the kind of truth that our rulers want us to be told.

See also, Owen Jones' article:

PS The Malayan war was too recent to make our school history syllabus. But the school Geographic Society of which I was a proud member did feature a fairly new master advertised to speak on his military service "Fighting Bandits in Malaya". Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, I was unable to attend that evening.

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