Lawyers for relatives of victims of an alleged massacre by British troops in colonial Malaya have demanded immediate release of all relevant documents that may be held in the Government’s secret archive at Hanslope Park.
Last week the Foreign and Commonwealth Office admitted that the Government had routinely removed sensitive files from former colonies before independence, and pledged to release 8,800 files from 37 former colonies and dependent territories, including Malaya.
The killings at Batang Kali took place at the height of the Malayan Emergency in 1948, when Malaya (now Malaysia) was a British protectorate facing a major communist insurgency. British troops were deployed to help the colonial authorities to keep order.
The Malaysians’ complaint, filed this year, alleges that 24 villagers, all of them unarmed, were shot and killed by troops of the Scots Guards between December 11 and 12, 1948. According to some reports, some of the bodies were also mutilated. Those who were not killed, mainly women and children, were then taken away by lorry and the village burnt to the ground.
Lawyers representing the claimants sent a letter to the Treasury Solicitor’s department yesterday asking to be given immediate access to any files in the hitherto secret archive relating to the incident. “Our concerns about the improper withholding of documents have greatly intensified over the last few days with the publication in The Times and other newspapers that an archive exists at Hanslope Park of secret and sensitive material,” Bindmans LLP wrote. “Press reporting states that one of the countries to which the archived documents relate is Malaya.” The letter is the first sign of what may be a wave of legal complaints over the hidden archive.
Bindmans also noted that although it had asked the government to provide all relevant archival material over the last two and half years “these secret and sensitive documents are not mentioned” in any correspondence.
“Judging by the nature of the material that has come to light in relation to Kenya, it seems at least likely that similar material is held in relation to Batang Kali.” The lawyers demanded to know whether and when the archive had been searched and, if any material had been found there, why it had not been disclosed. “If no searches were undertaken, why not?”
William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, has promised to release the entire archive, but the letter asks for immediate answers: “We would expect to be given physical access, or copies, early next week.”
Unlike the complainants in the Mau Mau case, the Malaysians are not seeking damages but a judicial review into why the British Government has refused to hold a public inquiry into the incident. The defendants are named as the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and the Secretary of State for Defence.
Among the documents that may be in the Foreign Office archives is a report of an investigation carried out after the incident by the AttorneyGeneral, Sir Stafford Foster-Sutton, which has never been released. It was later alleged that statements made by the soldiers for this inquiry were written for them and they were required to sign them. The official version of events, made public at the time, is that the killings were justified by the character and actions of the villagers. A statement by the Colonial Secretary in 1949 stated that the men had opened fire to prevent suspected Chinese communist guerrillas from escaping.
In a television interview in 1970, however, the Attorney-General said he was “absolutely satisfied that a bona fide mistake was made”. An undated memo written during the Emergency also noted that the Attorney-General held the personal view that “there was something to be said for public executions”.
This Government’s first response to the claim was a letter on March 18 from the Treasury Solicitor stating that the Government would seek legal costs from the Malaysians, amounting to at least £200,000, “if their claim is unsuccessful”.
In 1970 Denis Healey, the Defence Secretary, instructed Scotland Yard to investigate the matter, but the inquiry was later dropped, citing lack of evidence. In 1993 the Foreign Office stated that “no new evidence has been uncovered by the British authorities to warrant the setting up of another official inquiry into the alleged massacre of 24 villagers in Batang Kali”.
Last November the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence decided not to arrange a public inquiry into the Batang Kali incident. On Tuesday night, Lord Howell of Guildford, the Foreign Office minister, acknowledged for the first time that it was “general practice for the colonial administration to transfer to the United Kingdom, shortly before independence, selected documents which were not appropriate to hand on to the successor government”.
Lord Howell said that the release might take “years”. But the Bindmans letter suggests that many litigants will want far swifter answers. “We would like to have sight immediately … of the contents of the archives of secret and sensitive material that has any bearing on the Batang Kali killings.”
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