The government will be challenged in court on Tuesday to investigate the killing by British troops of 24 Malaysian rubber plantation workers more than 60 years ago.
Lawyers representing relatives of those killed at Batang Kali in 1948 claim the alleged massacre has been covered up by successive administrations determined to hide the truth about the UK’s colonial past.
The two-day judicial review of the decision not to hold an official inquiry is due to open at the high court.
“What happened at Batang Kali was an extremely serious human rights abuse,” said John Halford, one of the families’ UK-based lawyers. “It was a massacre of 24 unarmed people who weren’t in any sense combatants, weren’t offering any kind of threat to the British troops who killed them.
“What followed was a cover-up that has lasted the following 60 years, where the British government has denied that anything untoward happened at all.”
The mass killings, involving a platoon of Scots Guards, occurred on 12 December 1948, while British troops were conducting military operations against communist insurgents during the Malayan emergency.
Soldiers rounded up men at Sungai Rimoh in Batang Kali and shot dead 24 of them, then burned their homes. Commentators have described it as “Britain’s My Lai massacre”, comparing the incident to the infamous destruction of a village by US troops in Vietnam.
The official British account of what happened at Batang Kali was that victims were attempting to escape when they were shot.
Halford said: “The truth is that these people were killed ruthlessly in a series of what can only be described as executions by British troops, probably in reprisal for things that had happened earlier on in the Malayan emergency, even though those killed weren’t responsible in any way for that.
“What’s happened ever since is that officials – essentially British officials – have conspired to maintain the official account and suppress that very basic truth that these killings were unlawful and could never be justified.”
The former defence secretary Denis Healey instructed Scotland Yard to investigate the killings, but an incoming Conservative government dropped the inquiry in 1970.
Halford said the reason for the termination would be revealed in the high court hearing. Colonial-era files long hidden in a secret Foreign Office depository have been released for the case.
Lim Ah Yin, 76, a survivor who has travelled to London for the case, said soldiers carried out a mock execution on her mother as they demanded information about communists.
Lim, who was 11 at the time, heard the gunfire that killed her father. She said: “Even as I recall the memory I still feel angry how these people were killed. There was no reason.”
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.”
Chong Koon Ying, 74, said: “The British soldiers didn’t allow us to take our money and belongings. We were told to go on to the lorry. We had nothing. Only one set of clothes.”
A Foreign Office spokeswoman said: “It is very unlikely that a public inquiry could come up with recommendations which would help to prevent any recurrence.”
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