Friday, 15 March 2013

Batang Kali

(My piece from the Morning Star, 27-1-12)

The Haditha prosection fizzled out with a suspended sentence for one US marine implicated in slaying 24 innocent Iraqi civilians in 2005.

It follows the pattern of cover-ups  and ineffective prosecutions following imperial massacres.

Last month  the Information Commissioner told me he was backing the Metropolitan Police , and  keeping secret  papers from an  investigation into a sixty year old massacre by British troops.

In 1948 Scots Guards  killed 24 Malayans in a village called Batang Kali.  One of the soldiers, Robert Brownrigg called it “a needless killing that was like murder under orders”

It was during the  Malayan “emergency” : The communist-led Malayan National Liberation Army were fighting for independence.  Britain responded to the mostly Chinese-Malayan freedom fighters by sending troops to defend  rubber plantations against the rebels.

During the emergency, the Morning Star exposed the atrocities in Malaya, unlike most of the press. But years later, in  1970 The People  newspaper investigated this  massacre. The People’s  shocking telling of the story spurred  the  Labour Government to start a Metropolitian Police  investigation. But a Tory government  elected  in 1970 stopped the investigation , burying  the issue.

I asked the Metropolitan Police for the papers from their 1970 Batang Kali investigation. They said “no” . I appealed , but the  Information Commissioner said the need for secrecy  “narrowly outweighs the public interest in disclosure” because exposure  might discourage witnesses in other investigations.

The Police did send me testimonies soldiers made to The People newspaper: This  was  helpful, although the Police  also wanted   to show the Information Commissioner they were not purely obstructive  to head off a   forced disclosure of their  investigation. These testimonies are publicly available in the National Archives, but deserve a wider audience.

The official record says the massacred men were  prisoners  who were shot during a “mass escape 

The soldiers say otherwise. Troops interviewed by The People in 1970 spoke with bravery and  shame about what happened.

They were primed for massacre by their commanding officers. Guardsman Victor Remedious, says their Captain  told us that the villagers were feeding terrorists and that every one of them should be killed

National Serviceman William Cootes  recalled arriving at Batang Kali, a village housing about 80 people in large stilted huts.

Cootes recalled one sergeant sending a  young villager  down a path. “He ran down the path, looking over his shoulder as he did so. I think he must have known he was going to get shot. When he had gone about 15 years, [Sergeant] Douglas dropped to one knee, aimed his rifle and shot the youth in the back”

I am quite sure this youth was not trying to escape. I clearly saw, and clearly remember, Douglas motioning the youth to go down the path ahead of him, I could see the youth on the path on his back and his stomach was ripped open by the shot”

The wounded youth was finished off with a bullet to the head from a sergeant's Sten Gun

The troops then held the villagers in their huts overnight. Cootes says

by this time It was clear that the intentions of the sergeants where that we were going to wipe out the whole village including women and children”. A lorry came in the morning  to take village  workers to the nearby plantation, but the troops made them take the women and children instead.

One sergeant “told the rest of us that we were going to shoot the 28 men left. He warned us that anybody who didn’t shoot would be shot by him. None of us protested. I think we were glad we had got away without having to shoot the women. We were well trained to obey orders”.

The Troops were divided into four groups and the villagers – “their ages raged from about 16 to 80 years”  - were brought from  their huts in  groups of seven. Cootes squad  encouraged their group of seven to run, so that they could fire on them, but the villagers stayed mostly still.

“Then we heard shooting from one of the other groups, so instinctively almost, we opened fire on the men.  Once we started firing we seemed to go mad. The old man died immediately from one bullet. The one that was furthest away at the time took about seven bullets before he stopped crawling”.

Cootes says  they all regrouped after the shoooting “some of the men were excited, some were delighted, some of us stayed quiet. It struck me we must be all out of our minds do do a thing like we had just done. The man with the Bren [Gun],  I can’t remember his name , boasted he had cut one of the Chinese in half with his bullets. Other members of the patrol were shouting about what they had done. Myself, I was feeling sick and just wanted to get away”

They burned down the village, leaving the dead where they lay

As soon as the killing ended, the cover-up began. According to Remedious in a day or so they were called to a military inquiry

I remember that Sgt. Douglas told us as we stood around in a barrack room that we would all be in serious trouble if the truth came out and that when we attended the inqury we should say that the men where shot as they tried to escape”. Cootes was  warned they would “ face 14 years in prison for the truth.”

According to Cootes, even though officials questioned them – about why all the bodies of the dead were found in groups – “I just repeated the story that I had already told him and I clearly remember his last words to me. he said he hoped we got away with it” adding “I remember reading about the incident in the Daily Mirror a few days later. The report told the story as we agreed it should be told, but we knew it was lies”.

It is a familiar warning from history . On one side , Imperial adventure reduced to massacres. Cover up by the officials. Lies in the newspapers. On the other, campaigners and newspapers who opposed the war and it’s attendant atrocities. Despite repeated attempts to bury the truth on Batang Kali , it keeps returning : Bindman’s solicitors are currently fighting for a judicial review over the current and previous government’s refusal to hold an  inquiry into the massacre.

1 comment: