The human face of the Batang Kali Massacre

May 15, 2012

LONDON, May 15 — “It sounded like fireworks,” Lim Ah Yin, 76, said. “As if it was Chinese New Year.”

In fact, it was the terrible sound of automatic weapons’ fire ripping apart the morning. The date was December 12, 1948 and Ah Yin was only 11 years old. She couldn’t see what was happening from her vantage point aboard a lorry surrounded by bigger children and scrambling, wailing women, but the ominous staccatos filled her ears, and followed her even as the lorry started moving, taking the women and children away from their husbands, brothers and fathers who remained on the Sungai Remok rubber estate in Batang Kali — some in sight, some mercifully out of sight. The gunfire lasted just under two minutes.

“When I heard the gun shots, I understood,” Ah Yin said. She didn’t have to wait four days later, when she followed her mother back to the village to collect her father’s body, unrecognisable except for his shirt, to know that all 24 men, young and old, were never coming back.

As the lorry left their dear ones behind, Ah Yin saw flames and smoke rise from the village, where she had lived with her family for years, working and playing alongside other families. The three kongsis — long wooden houses on stilts functioning as living quarters — and the smokehouse, everything on the plantation, would be torched to the ground. The punctured and mutilated bodies of the men would be left to rot where they had fallen, tightly clustered in separate groups where fresh-faced Scots Guards had delivered the death blows — some firing in staunch duty, some in panic, some shooting at the ground, hoping to miss.

This happened more than 60 years ago during the Malayan Emergency — a guerilla war fought between British colonial forces and the military arm of the Malayan Communist Party — and it has never been properly dignified in the annals of history for what it was: a massacre. Despite the voluntary confessions of several of the Scots Guards, corroborated by the survivors’ accounts, that the Batang Kali incident was murder committed in cold blood, the Malaysian and British governments continued to toe the official line (that the men were communist “bandits” or sympathisers trying to escape) in order to refuse repeated requests for a full public investigation.

There were two attempts in 1970 and 1993 to investigate the killings, fuelled largely by journalists and police officials in both countries. But just as they were on the cusp of completion, the investigations were aborted by their respective governments, purportedly because of insufficient evidence, a justification that could not, even then, stand in good faith. John Halford, on behalf of the survivors, said that although the exact sequence of events is disputed, “the evidence is overwhelmingly clear as to what happened.” It is hoped that the judicial review in London last week, which was the culmination of renewed calls for a public inquiry since 2008, will result in a decision that will finally give the survivors the reconciliation they seek.

On the evening of December 11, 1948, 14 Scots Guards of 7 platoon, G Company, 2nd Battalion had crept onto the Sungai Remok plantation and taken the villagers by surprise. They pointed their guns indiscriminately at men, women and children, young and old. A Chinese detective serving as an interpreter for the English troops barked commands and accusations at them. When the adults couldn’t give him the answers he sought, he asked the children if they had seen any communists.

“He was very fierce,” Ah Yin recalled. “But we were so little then. We helped our parents at work, and when we were free we would play. We didn’t know what people were what people. What did we know what communists were?”

None of the villagers were armed, and none exhibited any violence towards the British troops. Still, the soldiers were certain that they were assisting the communists. To terrorise the villagers into talking, the soldiers carried out mock executions.

“They tore my mother away from us and brought her to the stream to interrogate her and started shooting close to the side of her head. They were firing into the air, but I thought my mother had died,” Ah Yin recalled. Her mother was eight months’ pregnant. “All the English soldiers looked so young. Whether you moved or didn’t move, they pointed their guns at you.”

In fact, as Ian Ward and Norma Miraflor revealed in their detailed exposé “Slaughter and Deception at Batang Kali”, 12 of the 14 Scots Guards were in their late teens on National Service. They had been dispatched straight from the British Empire’s royal palaces to the Malayan hinterland to combat communist insurgents during the Emergency, and provided with only rudimentary training.

As such, they were ill equipped for a guerilla war. Sergeant Douglas, who was in charge of the platoon, was an inexperienced 22-year-old who had never killed a man in his life. He was to kill his first at Batang Kali, a 19-year-old named Loh Kit Lin whom the soldiers suspected of supplying durians to the communists simply because they had found a piece of paper on his person permitting him to collect the fruit. Douglas shot him in the stomach, then “turned away and was violently sick.” His second-in-command, Lance-Sergeant Hughes, had to finish the boy off with a shot to the head.

The man’s nephew, Loh Ah Choi, now 71, was seven at the time. He said: “I didn’t see it happen, but I heard it. There were three shots. My uncle was a secondary student in Kuala Lumpur, but he happened to be in Batang Kali that day to visit his grandmother.” He wasn’t even supposed to be there.

Ah Choi worked on a British estate for 10 years after the massacre when he was a teenager. “I don’t hate the British. If I did, I wouldn’t have worked for them for so long. But I hope that they will treat us right. If they don’t, I would be very disappointed,” he said, referring to the judicial review decision the survivors are currently awaiting.

That first night, the soldiers separated the men from the women and children and held them hostage in separate quarters. The Scots Guards planned to lie in wait for the lorry that would arrive in the morning, convinced as they were that it would bring food supplies for the communists. In fact, the lorry came every day, transporting additional workers and food for the resident community.

The next morning, when the villagers were herded out of the kongsi they would see Loh Kit Lin’s body lying face up on the estate road, his intestines spilling out of a gaping hole in his stomach. Soon after, the massacre started.

By their own admission, two Scots Guards decided to fall out, opting to guard the lorry instead. They had orders to shoot if any of the women and children tried to escape, but no harm came to them — at least, none physically. The indelible emotional scars would come later, when they found themselves homeless, possessing only the clothes on their backs; when, having lost the breadwinner of their family, they were reduced to begging on the streets, watching helplessly as their children died of malnutrition; when they were forced to give their little ones away, never to find them again.

“My three-year-old sister was given to another family after my father was killed. A month later, my mother gave birth to another baby and we had to give her away to an orphanage too. I reunited with my younger sister in my teenage years and we are still in touch, but I have lost my baby sister forever,” Ah Yin said.

Chong Koon Ying, 74, has a similar story. When she finally found her younger brother in later years, it saddened her to learn that he had been physically abused as a child.

The women and children were not allowed enough time to collect their belongings before leaving. “We had absolutely nothing, only the clothes we were wearing. But the people in Ulu Yam Baru were kind. They gave us food and clothes. We were so hungry,” Ah Yin recalled.

Koon Ying, who was nine years old at the time, would remember this too — the hunger. They were children; it was the visceral they remembered.

Unbeknownst at the time, one man survived the massacre. Chong Fong, then 22, had fainted and was taken for dead. “The spirits must have pushed me,” he told the BBC for the 1992 documentary “In Cold Blood”. When he came to half an hour later, he didn’t linger. “I ran for my dear life,” he’d said, and hid at his father’s coffeeshop. The authorities never breathed a word, and news of his existence wasn’t published until 1970.

Four days later, official permission was granted to recover the bodies. It took three lorry trips to transport them all to Ulu Yam Baru, where they were buried.

Ah Yin remembers the horror of it all. “Their faces, eyes and mouths were crawling with worms. Their stomachs were bulging and black. Everywhere, there were flies. My father was shot in the chest. The kepala had been beheaded and his head thrown into the river, where it was swept away and never found again. Still, he had a proper coffin. We couldn’t afford one so we used a box made of planks to bury my father. There was blood everywhere, black blood. There was a terrible smell. Why did they die like this?” The Batang Kali massacre has often been compared to the US troops’ murderous rampage at the Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai during the Vietnam War, but for one little mercy — or was it? Unlike at My Lai, the women and children at Batang Kali were spared, but they had to go on living.

The colonial government had said that the objective of the patrol had been to “obtain information, search for arms and ammunition and to detain and bring back to Kuala Kubu Baru [the Scots Guards’ headquarters] for interrogation any suspicious characters.” But if that was the case, why didn’t they use the lorry to transport the men? If the men had indeed tried to escape, why were their bodies found in tight clusters? Why did the Scots Guards confess to murder? Why did the Malayan Attorney-General at the time tell reporters 20 years later that what happened at Batang Kali was a “bona fide mistake”? Why had he lied about the fact that police, military and civil inquiries were carried out in 1949, when in fact there wasn’t any investigation until 1970? There are too many contradictions in the Batang Kali case for it to be written off, even if over six decades has passed. As Ian Ward said: “There is no statute of limitations for morality.”

The remaining survivors still remember what happened in December 1948. It is a story they have told many times, because when the world forgot them, as it often did, telling this story was the only way to keep the memories of their loved ones alive.

As journalists, we ask many questions. We want to know how they felt then, how they feel now. We want a sound bite, a quote, something profound to include in our stories. But it is simple, it is true:

“It’s painful,” Ah Yin said. “Aiyah, it’s just very painful.”

* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the correspondent.

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