Will the release of secret documents allow the real story of the Batang Kali massacre to be told?

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 fiancé, 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. But it is with
mixed emotions that she approaches this family occasion ? for her own
betrothal to Zhang Shi, a young rubber-tree tapper, was brutally cut short
when British soldiers gunned him down along with 23 other men in the attack
on Batang Kali.

Her anger seems as raw today as it was 61 years ago, when as a 17-year-old she
found herself being questioned by British soldiers about her alleged
involvement in the communist insurgency. Now crippled and confined to a
wheelchair, it is evident that life has not been easy for her. Lifting a
plaster covering a small hole in her throat, she explains that her croaky
voice is the result of an 18-year battle with oesophageal cancer.

“I can still see the faces of the British soldiers. When I heard the
shots I knew none of the village men would survive. The way in which they
were killed was so pitiful. I don’t think there has been a day since the
soldiers came that I have not thought about what they did to him.”

Tham Yong was born in Gaozhou, in China’s Guang-Dong Province, in 1931. When
she was four her family sent her to Malaya ? now part of Malaysia ? to live
with relatives working in the profitable rubber plantations which were
helping to prop up the British Empire just before the start of the Second
World War.

Under Chinese custom, when Tham Yong reached the age of 14, she was sold to
the family of Zhang Shi as his fiancé. A few months before the end of the
war Zhang Shi and his extended family moved to the Sungai Rimoh Rubber
Estate, which was located in Batang Kali in the district of Selangor. The
plantation was owned by a well-known British planter, Thomas Menzies, who
provided Chinese rubber tappers and their families with a place to sleep,
food and a meagre wage in return for working on his 650-acre estate. In
those days, the simple accommodation for the Chinese tappers at Batang Kali
was arranged around three communal huts. Working conditions were tough,
especially for the women, who were expected to do their fair share of rubber
tapping as well as to clean and cook and bring up their children.

In the early evening of 11 December 1948, Tham Yong was chopping firewood in
one of the huts. She remembers how the peace was shattered by the arrival of
the British patrol: “The British soldiers came into the kongsi with two
Chinese detectives and a Malay detective. The detectives were also armed.
One of the Chinese detectives shouted at us to stop what we were doing and
go outside. The soldiers were pointing their guns at us … They pushed us
outside.”

Later that evening the huts were full of women and children. “My
mother-in-law and I were forcibly herded by the British soldiers to another
kongsi,” she recalls.

Ominously, the British soldiers had separated the men and held them in another
hut. Tham Yong says she started to cry, prompting an exchange with one of
the detectives. “Don’t cry, I’m not arresting you,” the Chinese
detective told her, trying to calm the women. Tham Yong asked: “If you
are not arresting us, why are you dragging us out? You ask me whether I have
seen any communists ? I don’t even know what they look like. Even if you
kill me, I can’t tell you anything because I haven’t seen them. You said
that there are many communists in the area. But I haven’t seen any ? I’ve
just seen rubber tapping.”

As she stood outside, she says she overheard a conversation between Luo
Hui-Nan, one of the male tappers, and a detective. She claims that when the
soldiers discovered he was in possession of a permit to collect durian, the
distinctive Malay fruit with a pungent smell, they automatically assumed he
must be using it secretly to supply the communists.

“One of the British soldiers said he was a bad man. ‘Take him away and
shoot him,’ he said. ‘Tell him to go over by the wood pile and tell him to
stand up straight.’ When he stood up straight he was shot in the back. They
left his body on the road just in front of me.”

Next the soldiers turned their attention to Chong Foong, the brother of Tham
Yong’s fiancé, who was standing over the body. One of the Chinese detectives
demanded to know whether he knew Luo Hui-Nan. When Foong said he did know
him, the detective took his revolver and fired three shots close to his head
to try to scare him. Chong Foong fainted and collapsed on the ground. An
attempt to bring him round by pouring cold water over him failed, so he was
carried back into the kongsi and slung over a wooden bench.

Chong Foong later attributed the fact that his life was saved to his loss of
consciousness. He was the only tapper among the 25 men rounded up by the
Scots Guards that night to survive the killings.

Early the next morning, Tham Yong remembers British soldiers ordering her
fiancé and the other men locked inside the other hut to move down the stairs
and assemble outside. She recalls: “They were all unarmed, and dressed
in their working clothes. They were walking, and not running away at all. I
saw the men being led out into different groups and all of a sudden I heard
gunshots from about five different places nearby. After the firing stopped,
the soldiers set fire to all three kongsis. They poured kerosene on the
wooden parts of the huts and then fired shots at them to start the fire. We
were then driven away from the village.”

Wong Then Loy, now 69, was only nine years old when he was told by his father,
the local gravedigger, to accompany him to Batang Kali. It was a week after
the shooting and the scene confronting the father-and-son gravediggers was
deeply shocking. This is the first time Wong Then Loy has told his story.

“The police had given us some cloth treated with chemicals to put over
our faces, so we knew whatever we found was going to be bad,” he
recalls. “When we got there I remember the stench of the flesh. There
were three bodies across the other side of the river, then another three on
our side. The others were scattered over the site. All the bodies had
started to decompose and some of them had been badly burnt. They were in
such a bad state that it was impossible to say how they had been killed.”

One of the corpses was grotesquely disfigured. Wong Then Loy says the body of
the rubber tappers’ supervisor, Lin Tian Shui, was missing his head. “We
were told to go and look for his head downstream … but after a few hours
of looking, we couldn’t find it.”

Wong Then Loy’s account of a decapitated body corroborates stories of a grim
method employed by British patrols hunting Chinese communist fighters at
this time. Because the soldiers had to march deep into the jungle to engage
the enemy, it was difficult to carry the bodies back for identification.
Instead they got used to bringing back the severed heads of communist
suspects. Jungle warfare in Malaya was a brutal business and years spent
fighting the Japanese deep inside Malaya’s interior had left elements of the
British army desensitised to such violence.

It was during the war against the Japanese that Britain had helped to train
and arm the Chinese guerrilla units as part of its desperate struggle
against an enemy which had swept through Burma, Borneo and Malaya. Their
successes had earnt them medals handed out by the grateful and beleaguered
British forces. But once the military pendulum had swung back in favour of
the Commonwealth forces and Japan’s imperial armies had been defeated in the
east, Malaya fell back into British hands.

Before the war, Malaya had proved its worth as a colony rich in copper and
rubber. But five years of fighting had drained Britain of its own resources
and had left the country close to bankruptcy. The newly elected Labour
Government under Clement Attlee had conceded that while the sun may have
already set on many of the conquered colonies of the British empire, Malaya
was too valuable an economic jewel in the East to let go. Crucially, Attlee
was supported by America’s President Truman, who feared the rise of
communism in South-east Asia.

But Britain dithered, and for the first few months after the war, Malaya was
left to manage its own affairs. This vacuum encouraged the three million
Chinese-Malay, who had been discriminated against under British rule, to
believe that they would at last win the right to self-determination ? and
they began to organise themselves into a strong political force.

The returning British had no interest in working with their former allies, and
so, when confronted by the nascent Chinese-Malay independence movement,
London ordered its forces to crush the rebellion before it could get
properly established. The Chinese communists were driven out of the towns
and back into the jungles where they had launched their offensives against
the Japanese. Under the charismatic leadership of Chin Peng, the communists
now directed their insurgency against British colonial rule, targeting the
rubber plantations and tin mines.

It was the killing of three British rubber planters in June 1948 that
triggered Britain’s decision to declare the conflict an “Emergency”
and put the colony on a war footing. But in war-weary Britain, a new
conflict in the Far East was very unpopular. The élite jungle-fighting units
deployed against the Japanese had largely been wound down, requiring the
bulk of the army to be reinforced with inexperienced conscripts.

Thus it was that the platoon of 16 Scots Guards which set out from its 2nd
battalion’s advanced headquarters at Kuala Kubu on 11 December consisted
almost entirely of National Servicemen. Their orders were to advance to the
remote settlement of Sungei Remok Estate, Batang Kali, where intelligence
suggested there was a communist presence. What else was said about the
mission has not been disclosed. But all the soldiers would have been acutely
aware of the murder of three Hussars, ambushed that week by insurgents who
poured petrol over the men and burned them alive.

Unusually, the Batang Kali patrol was not led by an officer but a 22-year-old
Lance-Sergeant, supported by a much older Sergeant who had seen action
during the Second World War, fighting the German army in Greece. These two
were the only professional soldiers among the platoon. Since none of the men
spoke Cantonese or Mandarin, a Chinese and a Malay detective accompanied the
patrol.

The soldiers told an inquiry established a few weeks after the killings that
they had arrived at the village in the early hours of the evening in the
expectation of encountering enemy “bandits”. But the scene they
encountered was something much more mundane. The heavy rains that week meant
the Chinese rubber tappers had not been able to work on the plantations and
collect any more valuable latex from the trees. When the soldiers arrived
they found the villagers busy gathering wood for the fires needed to cook
the evening meal. This tranquil scene was shattered when the soldiers burst
in and took control of the village. They separated the men from the women
and with the help of their Chinese translator conducted interviews with all
the villagers. According to the 1948 inquiry, conducted by Sir Stafford
Foster-Sutton, the Chinese men were all detained as potential sources of
intelligence, rather than combatants. They were kept as prisoners while the
Sergeants decided what to do with them next. The Foster-Sutton inquiry
concluded that the deaths were the result of a mass escape by the Chinese
who had tried to flee into the jungle.

It was not until 22 years later ? in 1970 ? that the official account of how
24 unarmed men had been killed by British gunfire began to unravel. The war
in Vietnam was dominating the headlines in the British media and led to
liberal commentators calling into question the UK military’s role in its own “Vietnam”
in Malaya. A number of the Scots Guards, haunted by their own experiences
during the Emergency, had given statements to a Sunday newspaper suggesting
that the deaths at Batang Kali were not the result of a failed break-out but
were cold-blooded executions. Headlines compared the killings to the My Lai
massacre in Vietnam, where American soldiers had slaughtered somewhere
between 347 and 504 unarmed citizens in the south of the country, all of
them civilians ? mostly women, children and elderly people. There were calls
for an official explanation of the Batang Kali killings, and the Labour
government agreed to set up an inquiry headed by a senior Scotland Yard
detective.

Detective Chief Superintendent Frank Williams was well known to the public as
the policeman who had hunted down the “Great Train Robbers”. Now
he and his team were given the job of exploring the events of 11 and 12
December 1948. This would involve tracing all the members of the Scots
Guards platoon and taking fresh statements from them. Some of the Guardsmen,
now civilians and free from the constraints of military discipline, had
changed their accounts of what happened at Batang Kali. At least one of the
soldiers turned the official version of the shootings on its head and told
the detectives that the platoon had been ordered to shoot the Chinese.

Williams now concluded that the investigation could only be properly completed
after a visit to the site of the killings and interviews taken from the
Malaysian witnesses. He told the office of the then Director of Public
Prosecutions that it was his intention to go to Malaysia as soon as
possible. But political events intervened. In the 1970 General Election,
Harold Wilson’s Government was ousted from power and replaced by a new Tory
administration led by Edward Heath. The Tories were less enthusiastic about
digging up alleged atrocities from Britain’s colonial past that might shame
the nation. Williams was asked to make his report without further delay and
without collecting the vital witness testimonies from the villagers. Shortly
afterwards, the Attorney General, Sir Peter Rawlinson, made an announcement
to Parliament saying that there was “no reasonable likelihood of
obtaining sufficient evidence to warrant criminal proceedings”. The
case was therefore closed.

What Rawlinson meant by his assertion about the state of the evidence has
never been made clear. After all, Williams, the detective heading the
investigation, regarded his work as unfinished business.

It has taken almost 40 more years for ministers to look at the case again. The
London law firm Bindman & Partners has unearthed vital new documents
that suggest the Heath Government may have been prejudiced by their
officials who had advised them in the case.

A letter written by a senior official in the Foreign Office to the Director of
Public Prosecutions shows why the Attorney General thought there was “no
reasonable likelihood of obtaining sufficient evidence”. The
correspondence reads: “When the Batang Kali allegations were made
public earlier this year, they formed headline news in Malaysia for several
days. If the presence of a British investigating team now became known, the
Malaysian press would be sure to give its activities close, and, possibly
embarrassing, attention. In theory it might be feasible to limit publicity
by avoiding public announcements. But it would be virtually impossible if
the team wished to take evidence in the area of Batang Kali itself.”

The High Commission in Malaysia was also concerned over “local
difficulties” which they said “might complicate the normal problems”
connected with taking eye-witness statements 22 years after the event. The
official wrote: “In making enquiries among Malaysian villagers the team
may find it difficult to establish with certainty the credentials of
witnesses claiming first-hand knowledge. In addition, the number of
first-hand accounts could multiply if there were any suggestion that
possible compensation claims might have some chance of success. Furthermore,
villagers’ powers of recall are rarely accurate.”

Successive British Governments have partly been able to quell interest in
further inquiries because there has been so little support for an
investigation in Malaysia. The Malaysian Government has also tended to treat
the claims

made by survivors and the families of Batang Kali as something of an
embarrassment. Many Malaysians supported the Emergency and actively assisted
in crushing the minority Chinese rebellion. When reports first emerged of
the shooting of 24 Chinese communists at Batang Kali, most Malays celebrated
it as an important victory in the conflict. After Malaysia was granted
independence in 1957, Malayan ministers, who owe their own positions of
power to the legacy of colonial rule, have been reluctant to open an inquiry
into the killings.

But now a group of Chinese-Malay businessmen and lawyers, some of whom were
badly treated during the Emergency, are funding a legal case which is being
prepared for the High Court in London on behalf of the families of those
killed at Batang Kali.

In the face of this legal action the Foreign Office has agreed to reconsider
its decision not to hold a full inquiry into the alleged massacre. And last
week, Foreign Office officials met representatives from the Chinese-Malay
community and British lawyers to discuss how to take their grievances
further.

But for the survivors and witnesses of Batang Kali, time is running out ? and
any inquiry may soon come too late. Tham Yong’s husband, Chong Foong, whose
brother (and her finacé) Zhang Shi had been killed at Batang Kali, was the
only male living in the village to survive the attack. He died last year,
leaving Tham Yong as the only adult witness to the events of Batang Kali.

Since her husband’s death last year Tham Yong has begun wondering how
differently her life would have turned out if her fiancé had survived the
killings. What might have happened if the soldiers had let Zhang Shi live
and the couple had married as their families had intended?

“After the shooting we survivors were left without clothing, a home or
any money. We had nothing and had to rely on others for support. We were
very sad because all these people who had been killed were innocent. They
were not communists, nor had they seen any communists, yet they were killed.”

One week after the alleged massacre, the police allowed the women to return to
the plantation estate to identify and claim the corpses. “I found the
body of my fiancé with that of many others. We took him away and buried him.
One of the corpses was Lin Tian Shui, who had been beheaded. I later heard
that a Malay lady saw his head and threw it into the river. The head was
swept away by the current of the river.”

Tham Yong finally married Chong Foong in 1951. “It has not been easy for
me, not easy at all. What I have always wanted, and all I have ever wanted,
is for the British Government to admit to this massacre, to say sorry and
pay me some compensation.”

And what of the British soldiers who carried out the killing? “Are they
alive?” she asks. When told that eight of them are living out their
peaceful retirements in Britain, Tham Yong says: “I have no hostility
towards them. They know what they did. But now is the time for them to ask
their Government to do the right thing.”

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