Robert Fisk’s World: Malaya 1948: another shameful episode in Britain's colonial past

Some 24 innocent villagers were killed by Scots Guards in a pre-Vietnam My Lai

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Tham Yong died 11 days ago. I bet there's not a single reader who remembers that name, unless they happen to live in Malaysia or, like me this week, happened to be in Kuala Lumpur and to read the disgracefully weak-kneed report of Tham Yong's demise in the capital's equally disgraceful daily newspapers.

A more grovelling, politically neutered, slovenly form of journalism outside Malaysia it would be difficult to discover, and it was typical that The Straits Times, once a serious journal of record (albeit of the colonial variety) decided to report the 78-year-old woman's death from advanced cancer on page 18.

A bit odd. Because Tham Yong was the only surviving adult witness to the massacre of 24 innocent Chinese Malay villagers by 14 soldiers of the Scots Guards during what the British called the "Malayan Emergency". This was when, in one of their very few successes in a guerrilla campaign, the British crushed the fighters of the Communist Party of Malaya who were struggling for 12 years to win what they called the "Anti-British War".

The slaughter at the village of Batang Kali – the victims were rubber tappers and tin mine labourers – took place on 12 December 1948. Our colonial authorities insisted that the unarmed Chinese Malayan men were guerrillas who had tried to escape their captors and, in the giveaway words of a British police officer in Singapore, "the Scots Guards had been well placed, and the bandits just ran into their guns. Everyone was killed".

Not quite. One villager played dead and escaped the massacre, which was described by The Daily Telegraph's staff correspondent at the time as "the biggest success in any one day's operation in one area since the declaration of the emergency". In fact, one villager was executed the night before the murders; on the following morning, the Scots Guards soldiers shot the rest in the back at close range. This little pre-Vietnam My Lai has long been acknowledged. The People broke the story in Britain in 1970. Several soldiers admitted they lied under oath at the original British inquiry – which had dismissed all charges against the Scots Guards.

Ironically, one of the best accounts of the killings comes from Chin Peng, the still living communist Chinese Malay guerrilla commander, who went to London to research British government documents at Kew. In his huge memoirs (My Side of History, published in Singapore), he recalls the extraordinary Second World War resistance movement he ran with British agents – one of them was Spencer Chapman of The Jungle Is Neutral fame – and of how he was turned into the "Butcher of Malaya" by the Brits the moment he turned against his wartime colonial masters.

In Kew, Chin – real name, Ong Boon Hua – diligently unearthed the records of Malcolm MacDonald, Britain's former colonial secretary and son of Ramsay, who turned out to have been quite an unpleasant man, stabbing successive British officials in the back after he became commissioner general for the Malayan Union and Singapore. I interviewed old MacDonald in 1978 – four years before his death – about his pre-Second World War handover of the Irish treaty ports to De Valera, and he seemed a gentle old man (they often do) as he fussed with a large teapot in his Sevenoaks sitting room. Churchill never forgave MacDonald for giving back the ports to the Irish three years before the start of the Battle of the Atlantic, and hated him almost as much for his Arab sympathies in Palestine before the war. At one point, MacDonald glowered at me, waved his finger, and said: "But you are living now in Beirut because I failed."

MacDonald's nemesis in Malaya, it turns out – and Chin's, too, by his own account – was General Sir Gerald Templer, the ruthless, communist-hating British hero of the Second World War – he was wounded in the 6th Armoured Division -- who was appointed to run the anti-insurgency war in Malaya. He was one of the supporters of Britain's outrageous security laws – inherited from his days oppressing the Jews and Arabs of Palestine as the War Office's 1946-48 director of military intelligence. Templer's legacy is Kuala Lumpur's Internal Security Act, which continues to neuter all Malaysian political life to this day.

I was delighted to discover from Chin that one of Templer's greatest hates was Louis Heren, South-east Asia correspondent of The Times, whom Templer slanderously described as "typical of all communist muck" after the brilliant Heren had exposed the humiliating failure of a British military operation in Malaya. Under Templer's poisonous influence, the British government tried to persuade Sir William Haley, editor of The Times, to move Heren – which Haley refused to do. And thank God for that – because more than a quarter of a century later, it was Heren – now foreign editor of The Times – who gave Master Fisk the job of Middle East correspondent on the same paper, encouraging me to accept the post because it would be "a splendid opportunity for you, with good stories, lots of travel and sunshine". I still sometimes tell the ghost of the Great Louis that he was right – especially about the sunshine.

Yes, the shade of Palestine – or "Palestine" as we must call it now – darkens so many of our lives, including, indirectly, Chin Peng. Now 85, he originally fled to China and lives today in exile in Thailand because the Malaysian government, with whom he signed a peace treaty, refuses to allow him home on the grounds that he can't produce his certificate of birth in Malaysia's Perak state; impossible, of course, because – as the Malaysian government well knows – the state's documentation was destroyed in the Second World War. The Internal Security Act, from Palestine to Templer's Malaya to Malaysia, allows the structure of occupation to continue to operate.

Up to 10,000 died in the Malayan "emergency", but even the Brits are still frightened of it. After the BBC took statements in 1992 from British soldiers who acknowledged the massacre at Batang Kali, there were calls for another public inquiry. No hope, of course. When the 15 surviving families of the dead sent the Queen a submission in 2008 – pointing out that the British soldiers' evidence of the massacre has never been disputed – the British high commissioner to Malaysia, Boyd McCleary, replied to them with Blair-like oiliness. "In view of the findings of two previous investigations ... and in the absence of any new (sic) evidence, regrettably we see no reason to reopen or start a fresh investigation." Not much point in Boyd trotting off to chat to old Tham Yong, of course, because she's now in her grave. "Regrettably", indeed!

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