Batang Kali massacre a lesson for British Army's murderers, and all others... the truth will out in end
The massacre of two dozen Malayan rubber plantation workers by soldiers almost 70 years ago could yet return to haunt stalled attempts at 'truth recovery' in Northern Ireland, writes Malachi O'Doherty
Nearly 70 years after a mass shooting by British soldiers, families of the dead are getting an answer to their demand for an inquiry. And the answer is No.
In 1948, the year Peter Robinson and Gerry Adams were born, soldiers of the Scots Guards gunned down 24 unarmed civilians in the village of Batang Kali in Selangor, Malaya (now Malaysia). At the time the region was part of a British "protected area".
Families of the dead men heard a Supreme Court ruling last week that they are not entitled to an inquiry into the killings, but the court did leave a shocking record of what had actually happened.
Before the Second World War Malaya was a British colony. During the war it was invaded by the Japanese and, after the defeat of Japan in 1945, the communists who had fought the Japanese continued their fight to get the British out.
On July 12, 1948, a state of emergency was declared by the colonial secretary. London sent troops - many of them National Servicemen, that is conscripts with little military training.
Part of the brigade sent included men of the second battalion of the Scots Guards. Some of these men would carry out the massacre in Batang Kali.
The report to the Supreme Court says the conscripts had only three weeks' training near Kuala Lumpur before they were sent to a rubber plantation owned by a Scotsman called Thomas Menzies. Their task there was to intercept communist insurgents.
The British soldiers arrested 50 unarmed civilians in Batang Kali and separated the men from the women and children.
Through the night, while they were waiting for the expected insurgents to turn up, they interrogated and abused the civilians. They staged mock executions to scare the wits out of them. That first evening they shot and killed one young man.
All of this information is contained in the Supreme Court judgment.
During interrogations of the villagers some admitted that insurgents would come to the village for food. In the morning a delivery of rice arrived. The soldiers detained the man who brought it. They took away the women and children and herded 23 men into a hut and, knowing they were unarmed and defenceless, shot them all dead. They then burnt down the hut.
This was worse than any single atrocity the British Army ever committed in Northern Ireland, though the cumulative effect of criminal actions by soldiers here was greater. And there are clear resonances between how British soldiers behaved in Northern Ireland and how they behaved in Malaya.
The mock executions are similar to the treatment given to early internees in Northern Ireland in 1971. The initial obfuscation and lies around the killings remind one not just of the Widgery Report into Bloody Sunday, but of several other cases in which the victim was initially said to be armed, or to have pointed a gun when no gun was found.
The Scots Guards, for instance, is the same regiment that produced the murderers of Peter McBride in 1992.
As with the soldiers in Malaya, guardsmen Fisher and Wright were treated by the Army and much of the media as the victims of the whole affair. They were released early from prison by then Secretary of State Mo Mowlam.
The killings in Batang Kali were immediately misrepresented in despatches and media reports as the killing of "bandits" who were trying to escape. A pretence was made that weapons and explosives had been found.
The lies did not pass unchallenged. The Chinese Government protested that the men killed were innocent and had been massacred.
The plantation owner, Menzies, said they were all of good character. The Straits Times newspaper called for an inquiry.
Sir Stafford Foster-Sutton, the Attorney General of the Federation, and a federal counsel, Mr Shields, conducted an inquiry. Its report was lost, but Sir Stafford later told the media that he had been "absolutely satisfied a bona fide mistake had been made".
Foster-Sutton had been "satisfied of the bona fides of the patrol and there had not been anything that would have justified criminal proceedings".
A telegram from the High Commissioner to the Colonial Office said: "We feel that it is most damaging to the morale of the security forces to feel that every action of theirs, after the event, is going to be examined with the most meticulous care."
Yet, in 1969, after Malaysian independence, some of the soldiers confessed, making statements that they had been ordered to shoot unarmed men dead and had even been given the option of not participating in the massacre.
A year later, with the Tories taking office, a decision was made that no viable prosecution was now possible.
The detail about this long process of cover-up and resistance to inquiry is the most surprising thing to come out of the Supreme Court last week. On the one hand, the court ruled that the Government was under no legal onus to inquire into the massacre of Batang Kali; on the other, it left no doubt that a massacre had taken place and that the British authorities and the Army had for decades tried to hide that fact.
The ruling of the Supreme Court has roused considerable interest in Northern Ireland. The grounds on which an inquiry was refused are being interpreted by the Pat Finucane Centre and others as obliging the Government to hold inquiries into disputed killings here, because of the date at which the European Convention on Human Rights became applicable; after the Batang Kali massacre, but before the Northern Ireland Troubles.
But even without an inquiry, much detail about the Batang Kali massacre has been unearthed. The world now knows that British conscripted soldiers were ordered to murder two dozen innocent men, that the whole military establishment lied afterwards to cover it up and that successive British Governments deflected efforts away from the truth.
Those with blood on their hands, from any party, who seek to bury the past here can take little comfort from it.