Britain’s My Lai? Remembering the Batang Kali massacre in Malaysia
On December 12, 1948, British troops massacred 24 civilians in the village of Batang Kali at the height of communist insurgency, the Malayan Emergency. Some regard it as Britain's My Lai, with the relatives' of those killed continuing their search for the truth to this day
It was May, 2012. Inside a gloomy, oak panelled courtroom in the Royal Courts of Justice in London, a group of bewigged British and Malaysian lawyers confronted a legal team from the British Foreign and Commonwealth office in front of a panel of judges.
Led by John Halford of the Bindmans law firm and Dato Quek Ngee Meng, the legal team was in court to argue the case for a public enquiry into what they called “a grotesque, on-going injustice” committed decades earlier in British Malaya. This was the period of the ‘Emergency’: a war without a name fought in the Malayan jungles against communist insurgents who wanted an immediate end to British rule.
On the other side of the court sat lawyers for the defendants, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. In that rather claustrophobic courtroom, British justice was being asked to make a judgement about history and moral responsibility.
For me as an historian and journalist, it was a highly charged moment. As they spoke, the words of the lawyers seemed to evoke the restless spirits of 24 Chinese workers shot dead in December, 1948 by British soldiers on a plantation close to the Malayan village of Batang Kali.
Just one man was left alive. His name was Chong Hong and he was in his 20s at the time. He had fainted in terror and the British soldiers left him for dead. By 2012, Chong Hong was long dead. But a handful of eye-witnesses remained alive. Loh Ah Choy, just seven when the soldiers rampaged through the plantation; Tham Yong, aged 17. In Court 3 that day in 2012, three of the villagers – now in their late 60s and 70s, who had long ago watched the slaughter of their menfolk – sat apprehensive and rather frail beside their lawyers. I talked briefly to Loh Ah Choy during a break in court proceedings. After so many years, there was still pain in her eyes as she talked about the men who had died.
The ‘Batang Kali massacre’ has sometimes – and not entirely accurately – been called ‘Britain’s My Lai’: referring to a Vietnam War atrocity when ‘Charlie Company’, led by Lt. William Calley, murdered hundreds of unarmed civilians on March 16th, 1968.
Since the killings, successive British governments refused to hold a public enquiry into what had taken place and why the men were killed. At the time, it was claimed that the victims were ‘bandits’. This was baseless. No apology was, it seems, considered by the British. For decades, the relatives of the dead men like Tham Yong and Loh Ah Choy kept their silence. They had been left destitute after the killings – and survival had more meaning to them than a search for justice.
In the end, the legal case failed. The lawyers’ arguments were rejected by the UK Supreme Court in 2015 – but for the British establishment, the Court’s judgement made uncomfortable reading. For Lord Kerr, one of the court’s justices said the “overwhelming preponderance of currently available evidence” showed “wholly innocent men were mercilessly murdered and the failure of the authorities of this state to conduct an effective inquiry into their deaths.”
The problem for the Court was time. The killings may have been unlawful, Lord Neuberger concluded, but they occurred more than 10 years before the critical date when the right of petition to the Strasbourg court of human rights was recognised by the UK and created a duty to investigate.
The traumatic loss of Singapore to a grossly underrated Asian foe Japan shamed and humiliated the British and led many Asians to reassess their former masters
The lawyers generated a great deal of new historically valuable information – not only about what happened in Batang Kali, but about how and why a ‘very British cover up’ was maintained for so long.
It was thanks to the efforts of the legal teams that we now know what happened on that day in British Malaya. There is now no dispute that on December 11th, 1948 a 14-man patrol from the 7th Platoon, G Company, 2nd Battalion Scots Guards, led by two lance-sergeants, Charles Douglas and Thomas Hughes, entered Batang Kali where they encountered 50 or so unarmed villagers.
The tiny settlement was part of the Sungei Remok rubber estate in the state of Selangor, which at the time was a British protectorate. By the time the platoon left the village the following day, 24 men had been shot dead.
The first report of the killings in the Singapore-based Straits Times sounded a shrill note of triumph: ‘Police, Bandits kill 28 [sic] bandits in day … Biggest Success for Forces since Emergency Started’. It would not take long for the official story to unravel.
‘Good news’ like the Batang Kali operation was in short supply at the end of the first year of the Emergency. The roots of the conflict go back to the Japanese occupation of Malaya and Singapore, which began in February 1942. The traumatic loss of Singapore to a grossly underrated Asian foe shamed and humiliated the British and led many Asians to reassess their former masters.
In the first months of the occupation the Japanese slaughtered many thousands of Chinese civilians in Singapore and across Malaya. Japan had been waging a brutal war in mainland China since 1937 and alleged that the Chinese in Malaya were a security risk. Many young Chinese fled into the dense Malayan jungle, where they began to organise guerrilla units to fight back against the Japanese. The Malayan Peoples Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) was dominated by the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) and by the end of the war was backed by the British ‘Force 136’, a branch of the Special Operations Executive. After the Japanese surrender in 1945 the British honoured the MPAJA , awarding its future leader Chin Peng an OBE.
As India moved towards independence the chronically indebted postwar British government clung onto Malaya, with its valuable tin and rubber resources. Although the returning colonial power signalled that independence was on the agenda, it seemed to both a new generation of Malay nationalists and the Communists that it was ‘colonial business as usual’.
This was intolerable. The MPAJA now became the vanguard of anti-British resistance, as the Malayan National Liberation Army (MNLA), turning their British-supplied guns on the returned colonial authorities. The MNLA was backed by a secret army of supporters known as the Min Yuen (People’s Movement). MNLA fighters depended on the Min Yuen and Chinese villagers, willing or unwilling, for essential supplies.
This was the background to the events that unfolded in December 1948. It explains why, to begin with, the British could claim that shooting Chinese civilians on a rubber plantation was a ‘success’: in the eyes of British troops, any Chinese-Malayan villager might be a ‘bandit’ – and so ‘fair game’.
The ‘successful operation’ story crumbled rapidly. A few of the surviving villagers told their story to Li Chen, the Chinese consul-general, who held a press conference on December 21st. The following day the British owner of the Sungei Remok Estate, Thomas Menzies, who had serious clout in the British estate-owners’ community and was dismayed by the loss of 24 workers, publicly stated that his men had a long record of good conduct. By December 24th the Straits Times was calling for a public enquiry.
At the end of January the British Communist MP Philip Piratin demanded that Arthur Creech-Jones, the colonial secretary, explain the actions of the Scots Guards. Creech-Jones replied that an “enquiry by the civil authorities” had concluded that “had the security forces not opened fire, the suspect Chinese would have made good an escape, which had obviously been pre-arranged”. Creech-Jones’ ‘enquiry’ into a “necessary but nasty operation” quashed the debate about the killing.
But then there was an unexpected turn of events. In December 1969, a former National Serviceman called William Cootes confessed his role in the killings to a journalist from the People, then a British Sunday newspaper. Cootes said he was motivated by the furore unleashed by US journalist Seymour Hersh’s revelations about the My Lai massacre the previous year. The scandal provoked a debate about whether British troops would have been capable of committing such an atrocity. Public opinion resisted such slurs, but Cootes knew better. He had been one of the 14 Scots Guardsmen who had entered Batang Kali.
Cootes claimed that his commanding officer, George Ramsay, had briefed his men that they were going to a village and would “wipe out anybody they found there.” Other former members of the platoon also came forward and backed up Cootes’ allegations.
Alan Tuppen testified that: “He [Ramsay] said we were to go out on patrol and that our objective would be to wipe out a particular village and everyone in it because, he said, they were either terrorists themselves or were helping terrorists in that area.”
Tuppen provided shocking new detail about the killings: “Instinctively, we started firing … at the villagers in front of us. The villagers began to fall. One man with bullets in him kept crawling … He was finally killed when a bullet went through his head.” Yet another former guardsman, Victor Remedios, testified that after the platoon returned to base “we were told by a sergeant that if anyone said anything we could get 14 or 15 years in prison.” No one had been shot trying to escape.
In the aftermath of the People story and the media storm that had followed on February 13th, 1970 Denis Healey, the secretary of state for defence, referred the matter to the director of public prosecutions (DPP). At the end of the month, DPP lawyers recommended further enquiries to be conducted by the Metropolitan Police – much to the dismay, as we learnt in court, of the Foreign Office.
All the former members of the Scots Guards platoon who had testified to the People were interviewed again under caution. Plans were made for the British police team to fly to Kuala Lumpur to continue with their enquiries. Then on June 18th, 1970 the Labour government was ousted by the Conservatives – and just weeks later the Batang Kali enquiry was stopped with a view “to uphold the good name of the army.”
The long battle for a public enquiry after determined efforts by the survivors’ legal team collapsed. This legal battle is unlikely to be joined again. Nevertheless, the UK Supreme Court was minded that the killings were unlawful and that “wholly innocent men were mercilessly murdered”. There was another disappointment for historians. When the UK National Archives announced a release of secret colonial papers in 2012, many of us rushed to Kew hoping that some of the reports made just after the killings had survived. There was bad news: it turned out that when the British pulled out of Malaya in 1957, any incriminating evidence about the events of December, 1948 had been destroyed.
For historians of the British Empire and the traumatic process of decolonisation that followed the Second World War, the discovery of new information about the tragedy that unfolded in Batang Kali casts new light on the longest war fought by British troops in the 20th Century, the Malayan Emergency – and the counter- insurgency techniques developed in Southeast Asia that influenced American strategy in Vietnam and impact bitterly contested campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan today.
Christopher Hale is a non-fiction author and documentary producer. His book Massacre in Malaya presented a radical new account of the Malayan Emergency and the decolonisation of Southeast Asia. He has written about the Nazi genocide in Himmler’s Crusade, Hitler’s Foreign Executioners and Deception. He has made numerous award winning documentaries and for some years worked in Malaysia and Singapore. He is currently working on A Brief History of Singapore and Malaysia for publication in 2021.