14 December, 2009

" In Cold blood " - Last Chance for Justice in Malaysia

By JON GORVETT

On the anniversary of the 1948 killing of 24 unarmed workers by British troops on a rubber plantation north of Kuala Lumpur, the victims’ families are once again calling for a full inquiry and compensation.

“We are calling for justice to finally be done,” said Quek Ngee Meng, a lawyer and coordinator of the Batang Kali Massacre Action Committee, a group representing the families. “It is very urgent that justice be done, too, as the survivors are getting old and frail. We are not looking for criminal prosecutions, either, as the survivors can forgive, although they cannot forget.”

The shootings on Dec. 12, 1948, at a settlement of plantation workers by the Batang Kali River, took place during the early days of the conflict known as the Malayan Emergency, when British and Commonwealth troops, along with their Malay allies, fought guerrillas from the Communist Party of Malaya.

The incident was at first praised by the British colonial authorities as a major military victory, with the plantation workers described as terrorists. British troops had been engaged in a weeklong operation in the area after receiving reports of Communist guerrilla activity there. The workers, like many of the Communist guerrillas, were ethnic Chinese, a community widely suspected of Communist sympathies by many in the security forces.

Even at the time, though, the account of a “victory” failed to ring true for many.

“I remember it very clearly when the report first came through that day at brigade intelligence,” said Anthony Short, who was a young soldier serving in Malaya at the time.

“I thought, ‘Christ, this is extraordinary.’ There was no report of prisoners taken or wounded, and no exchange of fire,” said Mr. Short, who later taught history at the University of Malaysia and was commissioned by the post-colonial government to write the official record of the Emergency (“The Communist Insurrection in Malaya, 1948-1960”).

A few weeks after the shootings, a brief inquiry was conducted under the supervision of the colonial attorney general, Sir Stafford Foster Sutton. It found that all the workers who were killed had been unarmed. Most were shot in the back. But it concluded that they had been shot while trying to escape.

Tham Yong remembers it differently, though. Now 78, she is one of the few surviving witnesses to what happened that day at Batang Kali.

“When the soldiers came that day,” she recalled in a recent interview at her home in Ulu Yam Bahru, “they were much more aggressive than we were used to, much more angry.”

When those soldiers left the village the following day, 24 of Tham Yong’s neighbors, family and friends — including her fiancé — lay dead. “I am still angry,” Ms. Tham Yong said. “Why shouldn’t I be? They killed these people. They killed them, and nothing was done.”

The men were separated from the women and children, and both groups were locked into different sides of a partitioned kongsi, or hut, for the night.

“The next day, the soldiers told the women to pack all their belongings and leave, because they were going to torch the village,” she said “They took us and placed us on a truck. Then I saw the men being led down from the other side of the kongsi and divided into three or four groups. The soldiers led them out toward the trees of the rubber plantation. Then I heard the gunshots from five different places. We knew they had all been killed.”

The revelations of U.S. military killings of unarmed Vietnamese civilians at My Lai in 1968 revived interest in Britain in similar episodes in their own earlier counterinsurgency campaign in Southeast Asia.

In 1970, Britain’s Scotland Yard opened another inquiry, after several of the soldiers who had been there that day — all members of the elite Scots Guards regiment — signed sworn testimonies that they had indeed killed unarmed villagers.

Their statements were printed in a now-defunct British tabloid, The People. “Once we started firing we seemed to go mad,” the People article quoted William Cootes, one of the soldiers, as saying in his testimony. “I remember the water turning red with their blood.”

Yet the commander of the patrol, Charles Douglas, a sergeant at the time, continued to deny that a massacre had taken place.

The 1970 inquiry ended, however, when the newly elected Conservative government said there was insufficient evidence to warrant further proceedings. A plan to send investigators to interview Malaysian witnesses was canceled.

Then, in 1992, a BBC TV documentary titled “In Cold Blood” re-examined the case, prompting the Malaysian authorities to open their own investigation.

This time, the Malaysian witnesses were interviewed, but the inquiry was also dropped before Malaysian detectives could travel to Britain to interview the surviving soldiers. The Malaysian attorney general’s office said that insufficient evidence had been found to charge anyone, and in 1997 the case was closed.

“What we want to do now is put the two halves of the puzzle together,” said Mr. Quek, the lawyer. “Half the inquiry has already been done in the U.K., and half in Malaysia.”

His group is petitioning the Malaysian authorities to release their files to Scotland Yard, and vice versa, creating sufficient evidence to warrant a new inquiry.

Rosalind Britton-Elliott, a spokeswoman for the British Ministry of Defense, said in an interview this month that the ministry stood by a statement it made to the families’ lawyers last August. The statement said that while the ministry recognized the seriousness of the allegations made by the Batang Kali Action Committee, “Very little documentary evidence survives and previous investigations identified concerns about the reliability of this evidence.”

The ministry statement said there were no plans to hold an inquiry, but it also noted that a final decision on whether any further action would be taken on the case had yet to be made. No date has been set for that decision, although lawyers for the victims’ families are planning to open legal proceedings in Britain, if the decision is not to their liking.

“There is no doubt in my mind that it was a massacre,” said Mr. Short. “It is also a disgrace that nothing has been done all these years.”

A frail Ms. Tham Yong — now using a wheelchair after a recent fall — agrees.

“I have been through a very difficult life,” she said. “We were not Communists. We didn’t even know what one was. All these people were killed, but we have never even had an apology.”

( Source: "Last Chance for Justic In Malaysia" )

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