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Last Updated: Saturday, 17 July, 2004, 15:20 GMT 16:20 UK
Past lessons for occupying forces

By Jonathan Kent
BBC, Kuala Lumpur

History is not short on examples of how occupying forces have failed to win the hearts and minds of civilians by using military force alone. As coalition forces in Iraq battle to gain the trust of Iraqis, Malaysian survivors of the British crackdown on communist insurgents in 1948 offer one such lesson.

Chong Hong
Chong Hong returns to Batang Kali where 25 civilians were killed

Chong Hong was not in a good mood. "I cannot remember," he says.

I try again. "Did the soldiers bring you outside all at once or in groups?"

"I cannot remember, I fainted. The spirits pushed me. They shot us."

Chong Hong's eyes fill with tears. He is an old man now, in his 70s, his skin shiny and brittle like cellophane, the ends of his toes blackened and broken.

He has not been well and could go at any time, he insists.

But he has come with us back to the spot where, 55 years ago, the spirits saved him from the volley of bullets that left 24 of his fellow workers dead.

The rubber trees that the dead men tapped were, like them, felled long ago. Only concrete stumps remain of the "kong see", the hostels where they lived.

Soon they will build houses here and they will be bought by young families who know nothing of the massacre that took place almost a lifetime ago.

Mutilated bodies

Tham Yong
I wanted to stay and die with the men
Tham Yong

Age and illness may have dulled Chong Hong's memory but not that of his wife.

Tham Yong has throat cancer. She can eat only un-spiced fish and vegetables and she fidgets constantly with a cloth drawn around her neck.

Her ghostly blue eyes, uncommon in a Chinese woman, focus in the far distance as she recounts her version of the events of 11 and 12 December 1948.

The soldiers came in trucks, she says, and accused the villagers of helping the communist insurgents.

The men and the women were separated. One man, who had a receipt for fruit, was singled out.

"They said he was supplying them [communists] with food," she says, pointing a shaking finger to the small of her back.

"They shot him here."

1942-45 - Japanese occupation
1948 - British-ruled Malayan territories unified under Federation of Malaya
1948-60 - State of emergency declared to counter local communist insurgency
1957 - Federation of Malaya becomes independent from Britain

In the morning the women were loaded onto trucks to be taken away.

She asked where the men were. The soldiers told her they would have to kill them.

"I wanted to stay and die with them," she says.

Instead, she remembers watching as the men were led out in groups of four and five, told to turn around by the waiting troops and shot in the back.

When, after two days, she came back to look for her fiance, the bodies had been mutilated, heads hacked off and genitals smashed. All laid out before Tham Yong's 16-year-old eyes.

Gruelling campaign

Another eyewitness I spoke to was Foo Moi, who was, even in 1948, a grown woman.

She is now 89 and can hardly hear or see me. Indeed I am not sure that she is entirely aware I am there.

Map of Malaysia

But, prompted by the translator and swaying in her wheelchair, she gives her account with that clarity the old seem to muster for the events of the distant past.

She recalls seeing her husband, the estate supervisor, led out and shot in cold blood with the others.

There is a cheap painting of Foo Moi in her house done some five years later. The artist must have seen a hard and bitter face, but now Foo Moi simply seems overwhelmingly sad.

The scene could have come from any one of countless conflicts during a century of wars.

But the soldiers who turned Batang Kali into a killing field that day were not the half-trained thugs of some despotic regime. They were British; Scots Guards to be precise.

And December 1948 was just six months into a gruelling 12-year campaign to crush the largely ethnic Chinese communists, who were trying to drive the British colonialists out of what was then Malaya.

So cruel those British... so cruel
Foo Moi

The official account of the incident is that the villagers tried to escape into the jungle having been warned that they would be shot if they ran.

But the official version of what was initially trumpeted as a great victory over the communists changed subtly over the weeks that followed.

The first reports said the dead ran into the soldiers' guns; later ones that the soldiers gave chase and opened fire.

But no one now disputes the dead were civilians and unarmed. "So cruel those British," Foo Moi keeps repeating, "so cruel."


Chong Hong praying at the grave of those who died
Chong Hong pays his respects to his fellow countrymen

Late last year Sir Jeremy Greenstock - then Britain's top man in Baghdad - called for the coalition to go beyond military power and to reach out to the Iraqis.

The British view of the situation in Iraq was both practical and pessimistic, he said, having dealt with insurgencies before in Northern Ireland, Kenya and in Malaysia.

And there are lessons from Malaysia worth learning.

Until the early 1950s, the British struggled to gain the upper hand. The brutality of some Commonwealth troops drove many Malaysians - in particular the ethnic Chinese - into the arms of the communists.

If there is another lesson to be learned from Malaysia, it is that the truth can take a long time to come out

The tide turned decisively only when British Director of Operations Sir Harold Briggs, and later the High Commissioner, Sir Gerald Templer, set out to cut off the insurgents from the wider population.

Those who supported the communists were literally fenced in, those who opposed them were co-opted and their communities offered proper protection, medical supplies and food. The guerrillas were basically starved out of the jungle.

It was Templer who first coined the phrase "hearts and minds".

If there is another lesson to be learned from Malaysia, it is that the truth can take a long time to come out.

Fifty-five years after that bloody morning at Batang Kali, some of the files relating to the incident are still classified. The UK Ministry of Defence says simply that the incident was thoroughly investigated by Scotland Yard in 1970 and that no British serviceman has ever been charged.

However, that police investigation was halted before it was completed and Scotland Yard now tell me that they are now unable to find any records.

Cynics might say that although Batang Kali might be called a "war crime", with few exceptions it is only the losers who are held to account for their actions.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 10 July, 2004 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: Malaysia
15 Jun 04  |  Country profiles

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