MALAYA, 1948. in One of the Most Controversial Incidents in British Military History, 24 UNARMED CIVILIANS Were Killed by a Platoon of ScotsGuards. Now the Release of SECRET DOCUMENTS Means the Real Story May Be Told at Last

By Verkaik, Robert | The Independent (London, England), July 11, 2009 | Go to article overview
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MALAYA, 1948. in One of the Most Controversial Incidents in British Military History, 24 UNARMED CIVILIANS Were Killed by a Platoon of ScotsGuards. Now the Release of SECRET DOCUMENTS Means the Real Story May Be Told at Last


Verkaik, Robert, The Independent (London, England)


WHAT HAPPENED AT BATANG KALI?

In her recurring nightmare Tham Yong's fiance is calling her from the spirit world to go back to the river to look for survivors. She can see the pained expression on his face and his outstretched arms beckoning her to return to the scene of a massacre that wiped out every adult male in their village.

The images which still haunt the 78-year-old grandmother are as vivid now as they were when Britain's colonial war in Malaya first broke upon this small settlement of Chinese rubber-tree tappers, 45 miles north-west of the capital, Kuala Lumpur. "I have other bad dreams too," says Tham Yong. "I dream that the British want to kill me. I tell them that we are good people, we are all innocent, but the soldiers just keep repeating that we must be bad people and we must die."

Just three years after the end of the Second World War, Commonwealth forces were again heavily engaged in a bitter jungle war - this time against a small army of Chinese communists whose attacks on Britain's industry and rubber-tree plantations threatened to overthrow colonial rule.

Sixty-one years later, Tham Yong says she cannot forget the night a patrol of 16 Scots Guards crept into her village in search of an elusive enemy whose hit-and-run tactics had won them early successes over the much larger British forces. Acting on military and local intelligence, the patrol had been briefed that settlements around Batang Kali were being used as a "bandit" supply centre. When the soldiers left the village on the afternoon of 12 December 1948, 24 Chinese civilians, including Tham Yong's fiance, were dead. All were unarmed and all had been shot while trying to escape. There were no wounded and it was thought that there had been no survivors.

These facts were largely undisputed at the original inquiry. But the circumstances in which the Guardsmen opened fire with such devastating results remain hotly contested. The British Army has always maintained that the soldiers fired when the men ran away.

But there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that the shootings at Batang Kali were in fact a pre-planned massacre carried out in cold blood either as part of a covert shoot-to-kill policy or out of a determination to take revenge for the killing of three British soldiers executed during a communist ambush a few days earlier. Two unsatisfactory investigations, one in 1948 and a second in 1970, have failed to settle these two very different accounts.

Now secret documents uncovered by lawyers acting for the families of the victims of Balang Kali have prompted the British Government to take a fresh look at the possibility of opening a third and full inquiry into the alleged massacre. One set of papers reveals that the British authorities in Malaya in 1948 had considered a proposal for introducing a policy of mass executions to deter Chinese civilians from aiding the insurgents. A second batch of correspondence shows how an attempt in 1970 by Scotland Yard to investigate Batang Kali was undermined by Foreign Office advice given to the then Director of Public Prosecutions which warned that any Chinese witnesses would be unreliable and likely to make up accounts to support claims for compensation.

Today, the site of the killing - a 15-acre clearing in the forest - has changed radically. The rubber trees which fringed the settlement have been replaced by more profitable palm oil plantations and there is no trace of the kongsis [traditional meeting halls]. A new development of luxury housing overlooks the area. But the river and the British-built bridge are as they were when the soldiers arrived at the village 61 years ago.

Tham Yong still lives close to Batang Kali, where she enjoys the company of her grandchildren, many of whom have gathered in her simple four-room bungalow to celebrate the recent engagement of her grandson.

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MALAYA, 1948. in One of the Most Controversial Incidents in British Military History, 24 UNARMED CIVILIANS Were Killed by a Platoon of ScotsGuards. Now the Release of SECRET DOCUMENTS Means the Real Story May Be Told at Last
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