Will the release of secret documents allow the real story of the Batang Kali massacre to be told?

Malaya, 1948. In one of the most controversial incidents in British military history, 24 unarmed civilians were killed by a platoon of Scots Guards. Now the release of secret documents means the real story may be told at last

In her recurring nightmare Tham Yong's fiancé is calling her from the spirit world to go back to the river to look for survivors. She can see the pained expression on his face and his outstretched arms beckoning her to return to the scene of a massacre that wiped out every adult male in their village.

The images which still haunt the 78-year-old grandmother are as vivid now as they were when Britain's colonial war in Malaya first broke upon this small settlement of Chinese rubber-tree tappers, 45 miles north-west of the capital, Kuala Lumpur. "I have other bad dreams too," says Tham Yong. "I dream that the British want to kill me. I tell them that we are good people, we are all innocent, but the soldiers just keep repeating that we must be bad people and we must die."

Just three years after the end of the Second World War, Commonwealth forces were again heavily engaged in a bitter jungle war – this time against a small army of Chinese communists whose attacks on Britain's industry and rubber-tree plantations threatened to overthrow colonial rule.

Sixty-one years later, Tham Yong says she cannot forget the night a patrol of 16 Scots Guards crept into her village in search of an elusive enemy whose hit-and-run tactics had won them early successes over the much larger British forces. Acting on military and local intelligence, the patrol had been briefed that settlements around Batang Kali were being used as a "bandit" supply centre. When the soldiers left the village on the afternoon of 12 December 1948, 24 Chinese civilians, including Tham Yong's fiancé, were dead. All were unarmed and all had been shot while trying to escape. There were no wounded and it was thought that there had been no survivors.

These facts were largely undisputed at the original inquiry. But the circumstances in which the Guardsmen opened fire with such devastating results remain hotly contested. The British Army has always maintained that the soldiers fired when the men ran away.

But there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that the shootings at Batang Kali were in fact a pre-planned massacre carried out in cold blood either as part of a covert shoot-to-kill policy or out of a determination to take revenge for the killing of three British soldiers executed during a communist ambush a few days earlier. Two unsatisfactory investigations, one in 1948 and a second in 1970, have failed to settle these two very different accounts.

Now secret documents uncovered by lawyers acting for the families of the victims of Balang Kali have prompted the British Government to take a fresh look at the possibility of opening a third and full inquiry into the alleged massacre. One set of papers reveals that the British authorities in Malaya in 1948 had considered a proposal for introducing a policy of mass executions to deter Chinese civilians from aiding the insurgents. A second batch of correspondence shows how an attempt in 1970 by Scotland Yard to investigate Batang Kali was undermined by Foreign Office advice given to the then Director of Public Prosecutions which warned that any Chinese witnesses would be unreliable and likely to make up accounts to support claims for compensation.

Today, the site of the killing – a 15-acre clearing in the forest – has changed radically. The rubber trees which fringed the settlement have been replaced by more profitable palm oil plantations and there is no trace of the kongsis [traditional meeting halls]. A new development of luxury housing overlooks the area. But the river and the British-built bridge are as they were when the soldiers arrived at the village 61 years ago.

Tham Yong still lives close to Batang Kali, where she enjoys the company of her grandchildren, many of whom have gathered in her simple four-room bungalow to celebrate the recent engagement of her grandson. But it is with mixed emotions that she approaches this family occasion – for her own betrothal to Zhang Shi, a young rubber-tree tapper, was brutally cut short when British soldiers gunned him down along with 23 other men in the attack on Batang Kali.

Her anger seems as raw today as it was 61 years ago, when as a 17-year-old she found herself being questioned by British soldiers about her alleged involvement in the communist insurgency. Now crippled and confined to a wheelchair, it is evident that life has not been easy for her. Lifting a plaster covering a small hole in her throat, she explains that her croaky voice is the result of an 18-year battle with oesophageal cancer.

"I can still see the faces of the British soldiers. When I heard the shots I knew none of the village men would survive. The way in which they were killed was so pitiful. I don't think there has been a day since the soldiers came that I have not thought about what they did to him."

Tham Yong was born in Gaozhou, in China's Guang-Dong Province, in 1931. When she was four her family sent her to Malaya – now part of Malaysia – to live with relatives working in the profitable rubber plantations which were helping to prop up the British Empire just before the start of the Second World War.

Under Chinese custom, when Tham Yong reached the age of 14, she was sold to the family of Zhang Shi as his fiancé. A few months before the end of the war Zhang Shi and his extended family moved to the Sungai Rimoh Rubber Estate, which was located in Batang Kali in the district of Selangor. The plantation was owned by a well-known British planter, Thomas Menzies, who provided Chinese rubber tappers and their families with a place to sleep, food and a meagre wage in return for working on his 650-acre estate. In those days, the simple accommodation for the Chinese tappers at Batang Kali was arranged around three communal huts. Working conditions were tough, especially for the women, who were expected to do their fair share of rubber tapping as well as to clean and cook and bring up their children.

In the early evening of 11 December 1948, Tham Yong was chopping firewood in one of the huts. She remembers how the peace was shattered by the arrival of the British patrol: "The British soldiers came into the kongsi with two Chinese detectives and a Malay detective. The detectives were also armed. One of the Chinese detectives shouted at us to stop what we were doing and go outside. The soldiers were pointing their guns at us ... They pushed us outside."

Later that evening the huts were full of women and children. "My mother-in-law and I were forcibly herded by the British soldiers to another kongsi," she recalls.

Ominously, the British soldiers had separated the men and held them in another hut. Tham Yong says she started to cry, prompting an exchange with one of the detectives. "Don't cry, I'm not arresting you," the Chinese detective told her, trying to calm the women. Tham Yong asked: "If you are not arresting us, why are you dragging us out? You ask me whether I have seen any communists – I don't even know what they look like. Even if you kill me, I can't tell you anything because I haven't seen them. You said that there are many communists in the area. But I haven't seen any – I've just seen rubber tapping."

As she stood outside, she says she overheard a conversation between Luo Hui-Nan, one of the male tappers, and a detective. She claims that when the soldiers discovered he was in possession of a permit to collect durian, the distinctive Malay fruit with a pungent smell, they automatically assumed he must be using it secretly to supply the communists.

"One of the British soldiers said he was a bad man. 'Take him away and shoot him,' he said. 'Tell him to go over by the wood pile and tell him to stand up straight.' When he stood up straight he was shot in the back. They left his body on the road just in front of me."

Next the soldiers turned their attention to Chong Foong, the brother of Tham Yong's fiancé, who was standing over the body. One of the Chinese detectives demanded to know whether he knew Luo Hui-Nan. When Foong said he did know him, the detective took his revolver and fired three shots close to his head to try to scare him. Chong Foong fainted and collapsed on the ground. An attempt to bring him round by pouring cold water over him failed, so he was carried back into the kongsi and slung over a wooden bench.

Chong Foong later attributed the fact that his life was saved to his loss of consciousness. He was the only tapper among the 25 men rounded up by the Scots Guards that night to survive the killings.

Early the next morning, Tham Yong remembers British soldiers ordering her fiancé and the other men locked inside the other hut to move down the stairs and assemble outside. She recalls: "They were all unarmed, and dressed in their working clothes. They were walking, and not running away at all. I saw the men being led out into different groups and all of a sudden I heard gunshots from about five different places nearby. After the firing stopped, the soldiers set fire to all three kongsis. They poured kerosene on the wooden parts of the huts and then fired shots at them to start the fire. We were then driven away from the village."

Wong Then Loy, now 69, was only nine years old when he was told by his father, the local gravedigger, to accompany him to Batang Kali. It was a week after the shooting and the scene confronting the father-and-son gravediggers was deeply shocking. This is the first time Wong Then Loy has told his story.

"The police had given us some cloth treated with chemicals to put over our faces, so we knew whatever we found was going to be bad," he recalls. "When we got there I remember the stench of the flesh. There were three bodies across the other side of the river, then another three on our side. The others were scattered over the site. All the bodies had started to decompose and some of them had been badly burnt. They were in such a bad state that it was impossible to say how they had been killed."

One of the corpses was grotesquely disfigured. Wong Then Loy says the body of the rubber tappers' supervisor, Lin Tian Shui, was missing his head. "We were told to go and look for his head downstream ... but after a few hours of looking, we couldn't find it."

Wong Then Loy's account of a decapitated body corroborates stories of a grim method employed by British patrols hunting Chinese communist fighters at this time. Because the soldiers had to march deep into the jungle to engage the enemy, it was difficult to carry the bodies back for identification. Instead they got used to bringing back the severed heads of communist suspects. Jungle warfare in Malaya was a brutal business and years spent fighting the Japanese deep inside Malaya's interior had left elements of the British army desensitised to such violence.

It was during the war against the Japanese that Britain had helped to train and arm the Chinese guerrilla units as part of its desperate struggle against an enemy which had swept through Burma, Borneo and Malaya. Their successes had earnt them medals handed out by the grateful and beleaguered British forces. But once the military pendulum had swung back in favour of the Commonwealth forces and Japan's imperial armies had been defeated in the east, Malaya fell back into British hands.

Before the war, Malaya had proved its worth as a colony rich in copper and rubber. But five years of fighting had drained Britain of its own resources and had left the country close to bankruptcy. The newly elected Labour Government under Clement Attlee had conceded that while the sun may have already set on many of the conquered colonies of the British empire, Malaya was too valuable an economic jewel in the East to let go. Crucially, Attlee was supported by America's President Truman, who feared the rise of communism in South-east Asia.

But Britain dithered, and for the first few months after the war, Malaya was left to manage its own affairs. This vacuum encouraged the three million Chinese-Malay, who had been discriminated against under British rule, to believe that they would at last win the right to self-determination – and they began to organise themselves into a strong political force.

The returning British had no interest in working with their former allies, and so, when confronted by the nascent Chinese-Malay independence movement, London ordered its forces to crush the rebellion before it could get properly established. The Chinese communists were driven out of the towns and back into the jungles where they had launched their offensives against the Japanese. Under the charismatic leadership of Chin Peng, the communists now directed their insurgency against British colonial rule, targeting the rubber plantations and tin mines.

It was the killing of three British rubber planters in June 1948 that triggered Britain's decision to declare the conflict an "Emergency" and put the colony on a war footing. But in war-weary Britain, a new conflict in the Far East was very unpopular. The élite jungle-fighting units deployed against the Japanese had largely been wound down, requiring the bulk of the army to be reinforced with inexperienced conscripts.

Thus it was that the platoon of 16 Scots Guards which set out from its 2nd battalion's advanced headquarters at Kuala Kubu on 11 December consisted almost entirely of National Servicemen. Their orders were to advance to the remote settlement of Sungei Remok Estate, Batang Kali, where intelligence suggested there was a communist presence. What else was said about the mission has not been disclosed. But all the soldiers would have been acutely aware of the murder of three Hussars, ambushed that week by insurgents who poured petrol over the men and burned them alive.

Unusually, the Batang Kali patrol was not led by an officer but a 22-year-old Lance-Sergeant, supported by a much older Sergeant who had seen action during the Second World War, fighting the German army in Greece. These two were the only professional soldiers among the platoon. Since none of the men spoke Cantonese or Mandarin, a Chinese and a Malay detective accompanied the patrol.

The soldiers told an inquiry established a few weeks after the killings that they had arrived at the village in the early hours of the evening in the expectation of encountering enemy "bandits". But the scene they encountered was something much more mundane. The heavy rains that week meant the Chinese rubber tappers had not been able to work on the plantations and collect any more valuable latex from the trees. When the soldiers arrived they found the villagers busy gathering wood for the fires needed to cook the evening meal. This tranquil scene was shattered when the soldiers burst in and took control of the village. They separated the men from the women and with the help of their Chinese translator conducted interviews with all the villagers. According to the 1948 inquiry, conducted by Sir Stafford Foster-Sutton, the Chinese men were all detained as potential sources of intelligence, rather than combatants. They were kept as prisoners while the Sergeants decided what to do with them next. The Foster-Sutton inquiry concluded that the deaths were the result of a mass escape by the Chinese who had tried to flee into the jungle.

It was not until 22 years later – in 1970 – that the official account of how 24 unarmed men had been killed by British gunfire began to unravel. The war in Vietnam was dominating the headlines in the British media and led to liberal commentators calling into question the UK military's role in its own "Vietnam" in Malaya. A number of the Scots Guards, haunted by their own experiences during the Emergency, had given statements to a Sunday newspaper suggesting that the deaths at Batang Kali were not the result of a failed break-out but were cold-blooded executions. Headlines compared the killings to the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, where American soldiers had slaughtered somewhere between 347 and 504 unarmed citizens in the south of the country, all of them civilians – mostly women, children and elderly people. There were calls for an official explanation of the Batang Kali killings, and the Labour government agreed to set up an inquiry headed by a senior Scotland Yard detective.

Detective Chief Superintendent Frank Williams was well known to the public as the policeman who had hunted down the "Great Train Robbers". Now he and his team were given the job of exploring the events of 11 and 12 December 1948. This would involve tracing all the members of the Scots Guards platoon and taking fresh statements from them. Some of the Guardsmen, now civilians and free from the constraints of military discipline, had changed their accounts of what happened at Batang Kali. At least one of the soldiers turned the official version of the shootings on its head and told the detectives that the platoon had been ordered to shoot the Chinese.

Williams now concluded that the investigation could only be properly completed after a visit to the site of the killings and interviews taken from the Malaysian witnesses. He told the office of the then Director of Public Prosecutions that it was his intention to go to Malaysia as soon as possible. But political events intervened. In the 1970 General Election, Harold Wilson's Government was ousted from power and replaced by a new Tory administration led by Edward Heath. The Tories were less enthusiastic about digging up alleged atrocities from Britain's colonial past that might shame the nation. Williams was asked to make his report without further delay and without collecting the vital witness testimonies from the villagers. Shortly afterwards, the Attorney General, Sir Peter Rawlinson, made an announcement to Parliament saying that there was "no reasonable likelihood of obtaining sufficient evidence to warrant criminal proceedings". The case was therefore closed.

What Rawlinson meant by his assertion about the state of the evidence has never been made clear. After all, Williams, the detective heading the investigation, regarded his work as unfinished business.

It has taken almost 40 more years for ministers to look at the case again. The London law firm Bindman & Partners has unearthed vital new documents that suggest the Heath Government may have been prejudiced by their officials who had advised them in the case.

A letter written by a senior official in the Foreign Office to the Director of Public Prosecutions shows why the Attorney General thought there was "no reasonable likelihood of obtaining sufficient evidence". The correspondence reads: "When the Batang Kali allegations were made public earlier this year, they formed headline news in Malaysia for several days. If the presence of a British investigating team now became known, the Malaysian press would be sure to give its activities close, and, possibly embarrassing, attention. In theory it might be feasible to limit publicity by avoiding public announcements. But it would be virtually impossible if the team wished to take evidence in the area of Batang Kali itself."

The High Commission in Malaysia was also concerned over "local difficulties" which they said "might complicate the normal problems" connected with taking eye-witness statements 22 years after the event. The official wrote: "In making enquiries among Malaysian villagers the team may find it difficult to establish with certainty the credentials of witnesses claiming first-hand knowledge. In addition, the number of first-hand accounts could multiply if there were any suggestion that possible compensation claims might have some chance of success. Furthermore, villagers' powers of recall are rarely accurate."

Successive British Governments have partly been able to quell interest in further inquiries because there has been so little support for an investigation in Malaysia. The Malaysian Government has also tended to treat the claims

made by survivors and the families of Batang Kali as something of an embarrassment. Many Malaysians supported the Emergency and actively assisted in crushing the minority Chinese rebellion. When reports first emerged of the shooting of 24 Chinese communists at Batang Kali, most Malays celebrated it as an important victory in the conflict. After Malaysia was granted independence in 1957, Malayan ministers, who owe their own positions of power to the legacy of colonial rule, have been reluctant to open an inquiry into the killings.

But now a group of Chinese-Malay businessmen and lawyers, some of whom were badly treated during the Emergency, are funding a legal case which is being prepared for the High Court in London on behalf of the families of those killed at Batang Kali.

In the face of this legal action the Foreign Office has agreed to reconsider its decision not to hold a full inquiry into the alleged massacre. And last week, Foreign Office officials met representatives from the Chinese-Malay community and British lawyers to discuss how to take their grievances further.

But for the survivors and witnesses of Batang Kali, time is running out – and any inquiry may soon come too late. Tham Yong's husband, Chong Foong, whose brother (and her finacé) Zhang Shi had been killed at Batang Kali, was the only male living in the village to survive the attack. He died last year, leaving Tham Yong as the only adult witness to the events of Batang Kali.

Since her husband's death last year Tham Yong has begun wondering how differently her life would have turned out if her fiancé had survived the killings. What might have happened if the soldiers had let Zhang Shi live and the couple had married as their families had intended?

"After the shooting we survivors were left without clothing, a home or any money. We had nothing and had to rely on others for support. We were very sad because all these people who had been killed were innocent. They were not communists, nor had they seen any communists, yet they were killed."

One week after the alleged massacre, the police allowed the women to return to the plantation estate to identify and claim the corpses. "I found the body of my fiancé with that of many others. We took him away and buried him. One of the corpses was Lin Tian Shui, who had been beheaded. I later heard that a Malay lady saw his head and threw it into the river. The head was swept away by the current of the river."

Tham Yong finally married Chong Foong in 1951. "It has not been easy for me, not easy at all. What I have always wanted, and all I have ever wanted, is for the British Government to admit to this massacre, to say sorry and pay me some compensation."

And what of the British soldiers who carried out the killing? "Are they alive?" she asks. When told that eight of them are living out their peaceful retirements in Britain, Tham Yong says: "I have no hostility towards them. They know what they did. But now is the time for them to ask their Government to do the right thing."

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