Sixty years on, last witness to British massacre in Malaysia speaks out

Telegraph (15/12/2008) : The Asia File

by Ben Bland

The Batang Kali massacre, in which 24 unarmed Chinese villagers were gunned down by Scots Guards in extremely questionable circumstances at the height of the Malayan Emergency in 1948, has been largely forgotten in Britain. It has never attracted the level of coverage accorded to the American outrages carried out at My Lai, Vietnam in 1968 and Haditha, Iraq in 2005.

But, 60 years after the incident that occurred at Batang Kali village, near Kuala Lumpur, on December 11-12, the last surviving witness in Malaysia is once again repeating her call for justice.

77-year-old Tham Yong, who is dying of throat cancer, has spent decades fighting for a full public enquiry, an apology from the British government and compensation. She told AFP that “after so much time, it still hurts me every time I talk about it, I remember it just like yesterday”.

“I’m still angry because these were innocent persons but labelled as bandits and communists, when all they were doing was collecting durians and not supplying food to the communists,” she said. “My advanced cancer means I will not around much longer, but I hope people remember what happened here so that those who were killed here are never forgotten.”

A group of politicians and activists, which is continuing the campaign for justice, delivered a note to the British High Commission in Kuala Lumpur last week, calling on the British government to close the matter once and for all by holding a public enquiry. But the government has in the past always resisted such requests.

Like so many similar incidents, the exact details of what happened at the village of Batang Kali on those two days are clouded by the fog of war and remain sketchy. Perhaps the best recent account is contained in the excellent Forgotten Wars by Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper (who I studied under at university). Originally it was claimed that the men, who were rubber tappers suspected of helping supply communist insurgents, had been shot while trying to run away.

But this version of events was blown out of the water by a front-page story in the People newspaper in February 1970 entitled “Horror in a nameless village”, in which men from the Scots Guards claimed that the men had not been trying to run away and had been shut in cold blood. These allegations were repeated in a 1993 BBC documentary called “In Cold Blood”.

However, British army officials – both at the time and since – have always defended the actions of the 14 inexperienced Scots Guards (who had mostly been in Malaya for just a few weeks and were without an officer), insisting that the deaths were an unavoidable mistake.

The acting head of the Malayan government at the time, Sir Alex Newboult summed up this reluctance to condemn the methods used by soldiers fighting a counter-insurgency operation in a communiqué to the Colonial Office (quoted in Bayly and Harper’s account):

It is an easy matter from one’s office and home to criticize action taken by the security forces in the heat of operations and working under jungle conditions but not so easy to do the job oneself. Rightly or wrongly we feel here that we must be conservative in our criticism of the men who are undoubtedly carrying out a most arduous and dangerous job.

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