60 years on, Malaya 'massacre' by British troops to be investigated

Ministers have bowed to legal action and agreed to reinvestigate the alleged massacre of 24 unarmed villagers by British soldiers in Malaya more than 60 years ago.

The inquiry will focus on secret Whitehall files and startling new testimony from a key witness to the killings. Ministers have written to Tham Yong, 78, one of a handful of survivors of the massacre, confirming that they intend to reconsider a case for a public inquiry after she claimed to have witnessed her fiancé and other villagers being shot in cold blood by a 12-man patrol of Scots Guards during the so called Malayan emergency.

The move follows pioneering legal action begun by Mrs Tham and other Malaysians over Britain's failure to properly investigate the events surrounding the killings. The incident took place on 12 December 1948, six months into a 12-year campaign to crush the largely ethnic Chinese communists, who were trying to drive out British colonialists.

Official accounts describe villagers being killed as they attempted a mass escape into the jungle, having been warned they would be shot if they tried. However, survivors recall victims being led out of their homes and shot in the back. Following the killings, the bodies of many of the dead were mutilated and trophy photos taken, eyewitnesses claimed. Their village was then burned to the ground.

Secret papers uncovered by Mrs Tham's solicitors, Bindmans, now show that the colonial Attorney General who exonerated the British troops of any wrongdoing at the time privately believed that mass public executions might deter other insurgents. A second document reveals that officials the British High Commission in Kuala Lumpur had briefed ministers that there was little point in Scotland Yard officers interviewing eyewitnesses in the 1970s because Malaysian villagers were untrustworthy, motivated by compensation and it was "doubtful" they could recall events 22 years earlier.

Responding to a 30 page letter explaining the basis of Mrs Tham's legal claim, the Government says that it had overturned a previous decision not to hold an inquiry or investigate the deaths: "In light of the matters raised in that letter, the Secretary of State for Defence and the Secretary of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have decided to reconsider the decision communicated to you in January of this year that no inquiry would be established of other investigation undertaken into the incident at Batang Kali in 1948."

The letter adds: "It is clear from your letter that you have done considerable research into the incident and the evidence now available about it. It would speed up the reconsideration process if you were able to make available to me the material you have collected."

Tham Yong later married the brother of her dead fiancé. He was the only male survivor of the killings.

Batang Kali committee member Quek Ngee Meng said: "There is an absolute urgency on this matter as most of the witnesses may not be able to wait for the justice to be restored. For example, one of the eye witnesses, Wong Kum Sooi, who was 11 at time of killings, passed away on last Friday.

He was the eldest son of Huang Ren and nephew to Huang De-Feng, both of whom were killed by the British Army on 12 December 1948 at Batang Kali. In the circumstances, the Committee urges the Secretaries of State involved to agree to the request of the surviving families for an inquiry consistent with international humanitarian standards."

Mrs Tham is represented by John Halford, a partner at Bindmans solicitors. He commented "Over sixty years on, the underlying reason why 24 unarmed men were killed at Batang Kali is unknown. There has been no apology, much less compensation. The closest thing we have to a meaningful official explanation is the off hand comment by a senior colonial official that an 'honest mistake' was made. The government's response to the threat of a legal challenge to this manifest injustice is a tiny step in the right direction, but what is called for is something rather more decisive and principled. Mrs Tham and others who are directly affected, including the surviving soldiers, are now in limbo because the government's solicitors have suggested a 'few months' will be spent deciding what to do next. We say that basic legal and moral standards demand that an independent inquiry be established immediately."

Mr Halford added that "the confidential government records we have unearthed reveal that when this matter was reported in the 1970s, there was a gulf between the public presentation of the issue and the concerns being expressed behind closed ministry and barrack doors. Officials accepted that the DPP's decision against prosecution might not quell public unease and that an independent inquiry might well be the only way forward, yet this appears to have been given no further consideration.

Disturbingly, efforts were made to dissuade an elite team of British detectives from interviewing to Malaysian eyewitnesses because officials believed they had inherently unreliable memories. These detectives were likewise deprived of the opportunity to interview key witnesses in the UK. The oldest of the files reveal that the very person charged in 1948 with investigating the killings believed that there was something to be said for public executions as a legitimate means to demoralise those involved in the insurgency."