Malaya inquiry to hear from survivors of Batang Kali shootings by British troops

From: The Guardian

Supreme court to hear case over deaths of 24 unarmed villagers at hands of Scots Guards in 1948, during communist uprising in UK protectorate

Lim Ah Yin, relative of a massacre victim, in 2012 (AFP/Getty)

Lim Ah Yin, relative of a massacre victim, in 2012 (AFP/Getty)

Lim Ah Yin last saw her father alive on her 11th birthday. A British soldier, pointing a rifle, was telling him to shut up. A week later, she followed her heavily pregnant mother back to the Malayan rubber plantation and discovered his bloated body amid a swarm of flies. There was a bullet hole in his chest.

On Wednesday, Lim, now 78, will take a seat in the supreme court in London, to witness a legal battle over the government’s responsibility to hold inquiries into allegations of historical atrocities.

The judicial review challenge, brought by the relatives of 24 unarmed men killed by Scots Guards at Batang Kali on 12 December 1948, has broadened out into a dispute over the vanishing point of when unresolved claims of injustice are allowed to disappear into the past.

Northern Ireland’s attorney general, John Larkin QC, and several Northern Irish human rights groups have intervened on different sides in the case because of the precedent it will set for the official duty to investigate legacy cases from the Troubles. Larkin is expected to argue that the obligation to investigate is limited; the human rights groups will say that even historical cases deserve justice.

Lim’s heartbreaking journey to the UK’s highest court began more than 60 years ago. She was living with her parents near Batang Kali, a rubber estate in Selangor, then part of the British-protected Federation of Malaya. It was the height of the communist insurgency. On the morning of 11 December 1948, she followed her parents out to the paddy fields to harvest rice. On their way back they met British troops and saw the body of Loh Kit Lin, the first of the villagers to die.
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“A soldier pointed at my father,” Lim told the Guardian. “They checked the rice and pushed him into a hut. Then one of the soldiers pulled my mother’s arms. She was eight months’ pregnant. I and my sister tried to stop them taking her away but she was pushed down to the river. We heard gun shots and thought my mother had been killed.”

There were mock executions to persuade villagers to hand over information about “bandits”. Later that evening her mother was brought back to the hut. “I realised she had survived. Women and children were ordered to go upstairs. In the morning, we came downstairs and I heard my father’s voice. We had been ordered to go out to a lorry that was waiting.

“He [Lim’s father] said I should follow the adults. I told him mother was alive but a British soldier with a gun opened the door and told him to shut up. We climbed into the lorry and as it moved away we heard gunshots, sounding like firecrackers. As we looked back, we saw smoke come up from the [burning] houses.”

A week later Lim and her mother returned to Batang Kali on a truck carrying plywood coffins. “It was very smelly,” she recalled. “The bodies were covered in flies. They were bloated and swollen, lying in groups of three or four. Finally I found my father. He had been shot in the chest. That day, December 12th, had been my birthday.
New documents reveal cover-up of 1948 British ‘massacre’ of villagers in Malaya
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“My mother cried almost every day. She brought me and my sister up. When the baby was born she gave it away for adoption. She only stopped crying when I married and her granddaughter was born. She was 92 when she died.”

Lim is one of seven living survivors who can recall what happened in Batang Kali. The official British account was that victims were attempting to escape when they were shot. In the years that followed there were two abortive criminal investigations by Malaysian and British police. Both were prevented from reaching a conclusion because of official opposition to interviewing witnesses.

In 1969, several of the Scots Guards on the patrol that day gave interviews to The People newspaper, alleging that they had been ordered to massacre villagers in Batang Kali. Two sergeants, however, insisted that the men had been shot because they tried to escape.

John Halford, a solicitor at the law firm Bindmans who represents the Malaysian survivors, said: “The bullets that killed half the inhabitants of Batang Kali can never return to their barrels and the time has long since passed when any soldiers who fired them might be prosecuted.

Police with locals under suspicion of collaborating with communist bandits during the Malayan emergency. Photograph: Bert Hardy/Getty Images

Police with locals under suspicion of collaborating with communist bandits during the Malayan emergency. Photograph: Bert Hardy/Getty Images

“But when six of them have confessed to murder, eyewitnesses remain alive and forensic tests can confirm the killings were close-range executions, the law should demand an answer from the state. After all, those killed were British subjects living in a British protected state. They and their families have a right to meaningful justice.”

Prof Sue Black, a forensic anthropologist who has carried out excavations on mass graves in Kosovo and Rwanda, has advised Halford’s legal team that evidence could still be obtained from the victims’ bodies.

In the past the Foreign Office has resisted holding an inquiry, saying: “It is very unlikely that a public inquiry could come up with recommendations which would help to prevent any recurrence.” The government has also argued that any responsibility for an inquiry passed to Malaysia when the former colony became independent in 1957.

In a statement, the Ministry of Defence said: “This was a deeply regrettable incident. The case will be heard in the supreme court on 22 and 23 April. It would not be appropriate to comment further whilst legal proceedings are ongoing.”

Yasmine Ahmed, director of Rights Watch UK, one of the groups involved, said: “The outcome of this case will have considerable implications in Northern Ireland, where many of the deaths that occurred during the Troubles happened before the enactment of the Human Rights Act in 1998.”

Sara Duddy, a caseworker with the Pat Finucane Centre in Derry, said: “Dealing with the past, whether through inquests or investigations, continues to be a battleground where the UK government seeks to deny families the right to truth. The Batang Kali massacre is proof that the past will always come back to haunt us if it isn’t dealt with.”

After recounting her experiences, Lim said: “I hope the British government can give my family justice for all the suffering they have been through.”

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