Page last updated at 16:31 GMT, Wednesday, 29 April 2009 17:31 UK

Malaysia massacre fight goes on

By Robin Brant
BBC Malaysia correspondent

Wong Kum Sooi who witnessed the massacre
Wong Kum Sooi witnessed the massacre in which his father was killed

The UK government is to review evidence about a massacre of unarmed Malaysian villagers by British troops in 1948.

At the time, Britain was war weary. But in thick, humid jungle at the end of a peninsula near the equator in South-East Asia, British soldiers still faced fierce fighting.

What was then called Malaya was a crucial source of tin and rubber for Britain's crumbling empire.

It was on the rubber estates where an uprising was under way.

Some of the ethnic Chinese were angry at increasing unemployment.

They also resented the way they were being treated by the government of a country where they had led a resistance against the Japanese occupying forces.

An insurgency was born.

They were allied to communists in China who were on the brink of victory in a civil war.

They focused their attacks on tin mines and rubber plantations; the engine of the Malayan economy.

Even though we said we were not communists and we had no weapons - they killed one of the young men in cold blood in front of my eyes
Tham Yong

The Malaya Emergency lasted 12 years. Thousands died in a war which eventually ended when the Communist insurgency was quashed.

The conflict was not formally halted until a peace agreement in 1989.

The British strategy to win the conflict has gone down in the annals of military history. It was cited by advisors working with the US forces in Iraq as it tackled a growing insurgency after 2003.

But in the village of Batang Kali on 11 and 12 December, 1948, that sophisticated combination of military capability and diplomatic skill was nowhere to be seen.

A platoon of Scots Guards raided the village just outside of Kuala Lumpur.

There had been intelligence suggesting 'bandit' activity in the area. The British were reeling from an attack a few days earlier which left three soldiers dead.

The men of the village - unarmed - were separated from the women and children. All were questioned. It is not clear that they were ever identified as insurgents.

It ended with 24 of them being shot dead. Only one man escaped. The village was set on fire. It is claimed some of the victims were beheaded after they had been killed.

Official version

That the men were killed by the British soldiers is not disputed. Why and in exactly what circumstances they were killed is still not clear.

Map showing Malaysia

The official version of events claimed that the patrol of mostly newly-arrived British conscripts had no option but to shoot the men to prevent them fleeing when they tried to run into the jungle.

The unofficial version suggested that the soldiers were ordered to 'wipe out' the villagers. It is also claimed this may have been in retaliation for the murder of three British soldiers a few days earlier.

It was a brutal event which marked the beginning of a long campaign.

It was claimed that there was a military investigation in the immediate aftermath of the killings. All the soldiers were vindicated, but there was never a broader inquiry into any wrongdoing.

Little was known publicly about the events in that tiny village on the edge of a rubber estate until a British newspaper published in 1970 harrowing testimony of some of the soldiers who took part.

Four of the Scots Guards gave sworn testimony, confirming that the shootings took place, confirming that the victims were unarmed.

Britain's defence secretary ordered a police investigation. That investigation was halted after a change of government in a general election later that year.

In 2008, a fresh campaign was launched for a public inquiry into what happened.

Tham Yong is at the forefront of that campaign, as she has been for previous efforts over five decades.

She was 17 when her brother-in-law was among those killed. She witnessed some of the shooting. Her husband was the only man to escape.

Protester portrays massacre scene
A protester, acting as a British soldier, portrays a massacre scene

She wants an independent public inquiry to establish why it happened and to try to clear the names of the dead. Along with relatives of some of those who died, she also wants compensation and an apology from the British government.

Early this year, the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office said there would be no inquiry.

They said there was no new evidence and no need for further investigation beyond what had been carried out both in the days after the attack in 1948/49 and in 1970.

Now Tham Yong and the relatives have turned to the English courts. They want a judicial review of that decision.

As they await the outcome of that process, the government has decided to review all the evidence relating to the shootings.

Mrs Tham is approaching 80 and dying of throat cancer. Her testimony is among those which will be reconsidered by the British government.

Her memory of the event is still vivid. Her resentment of the British soldiers is still strong.


Last year she told the AFP news agency: "The soldiers came in the evening as we were preparing our meal.

"They rounded us all up and we were terrified.

"Even though we said we were not communists and we had no weapons, they killed one of the young men in cold blood in front of my eyes because he had a permit to collect durians, written in Chinese.

"I think the British soldiers must have thought it was a communist document," she said.

"The soldiers then told him to run away but he didn't want to, but they pushed him and when he did run, they shot him from the back."

Tham Yong said the soldiers then locked the men, women and children in a small room overnight.

Wong Kum Sooi who witnessed the massacre
Wong Kum Sui died last week before the review was announced

The women and children were herded into a truck and driven away the next morning. They heard gunshots as they were driven away and knew the men had been killed, she claimed.

"We were kept away for a week and when we returned we found the bloated bodies, half eaten by animals with most of them looking as if they were running away when shot.

"Even today when I think of what happens, it hurts so much."

The British government hopes to conclude its reconsideration of the decision to deny a public inquiry in a few months time.

In a letter sent to Tham Yong's lawyers, it emphasised that the decision to reconsider should "not be taken as any indication, one way or another, whether an inquiry will be established".

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