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The London Trial 1

For two days in May, the
restless spirits of 24 men shot dead 64 years ago by members of a platoon of
British soldiers in a Malayan village called Batang Kali haunted Court 3 of the
Royal Courts of Justice in London.
The incident is often
referred to as Britain’s My Lai – referring to the notorious incident during
the Vietnam war when ‘Charlie Company’ led by Lt. William Calley murdered between
307 and 504 unarmed civilians on 16 March 1968.
This year, after a long campaign,
lawyers acting for the relatives of the dead men finally persuaded the British
government to reconsider what they assert  is ‘a grotesque, on-going injustice’. Since
the killings at Batang Kali, more than six decades ago, British government have
refused, time and again, to hold a public enquiry into what took place and why.
The legal purpose of the trial was to examine whether the Secretaries of State
for Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office acted lawfully by refusing
such an enquiry. Although the decision as to whether or not a proper enquiry
will at last be given the go ahead will not be known for some time, the
proceedings in Court 3 unloosed an avalanche of new information – not only
about what happened in Batang Kali but how and why a ‘very British cover up’
was maintained for so long. On two days in May, history was made in Court 3.
There is no dispute that
on 11 December,1948 a 14 man patrol from the 7th Platoon, G Company 2nd
Battalion Scots Guards, led by two Lance Sergeants Charles Douglas and Thomas
Hughes, entered Batang Kali where they encountered 50 or so unarmed villagers.
This tiny village was part of the Sungei Remok rubber estate in the Malayan
state of Selangor, which at the time was a British protectorate. Six months
earlier, in June, a succession of attacks by Communist guerrillas had led the
British authorities to declare an emergency – the beginning of an undeclared
war that was to last 12 years. By the time the platoon left the village the
following day, 24 men had been shot dead. The first report of the killings in The Straits Times sounded a shrill note
of triumph: ‘Police, Bandits kill 28 [sic] bandits in day…Biggest Success for Forces
since Emergency Started’. It would not take long for the official story to
unravel. After this week’s trial,
we now have a better idea of what happened next and how the ‘successful
operation’ story rapidly began to crumble. A small party of surviving villagers
had managed to tell their horrifying story to the Chinese Consul-General Li
Chen, who held a press conference on 21 December. The following day, the
British owner of the Sungei Remok Estate Thomas Menzies – who had serious clout
in the British estate owners community and was no doubt dismayed by the loss of
24 workers – publicly stated that his labourers had a long record of good
conduct. By 24 December, The Straits
Times
was calling for a public enquiry.
Faced with this
escalating disquiet about events at Batang Kali, the British spun a different
story – a narrative that has been maintained in official accounts to the
present day. Now they claimed that the 24 villagers had been ‘shot while trying
to escape’. But whatever the form of words, the British could not completely
smother the increasingly bad odour that hung over the events at Batang Kali. At
the end of January, Communist MP Philip Piratin demanded that the Colonial
Secretary Arthur Creech-Jones explain the actions of the Scots Guards.
Creech-Jones replied that an ‘enquiry by the civil authorities’ had concluded
that ‘had the security forces not opened fire, the suspect Chinese would have
made good an escape, which had obviously been pre-arranged…’ Creech-Jones’
‘enquiry’ into a ‘necessary but nasty operation’ terminated the debate about
the Batang Kali killings – until a bitterly cold day at the beginning of
December 1969 when a former national serviceman called William Cootes made an
astonishing confession to The People
newspaper. Cootes appears to have been motivated by the furore unleashed by
American journalist Seymour Hersh’s revelations about the My Lai massacre the
previous year which had provoked a debate about whether British troops might
have been capable of committing such an atrocity. Public opinion resisted such
slurs – but Cootes knew better.   He had been one of the 14 Scots Guardsmen who
had entered Batang Kali that day in December, 1948. His testimony remains chilling.
He alleged that the platoon commander George Ramsay, who did not accompany the
platoon, had briefed his men that they were going to a village and would ‘wipe
out anybody they found there…’ In other words, none of the male villagers had
been ‘shot trying to escape’; they had been murdered in cold blood. Other
former members of the platoon also came forward and backed up Cootes’ allegations:
Alan Tuppen testified that “He [Ramsay] said we were to go out on patrol and that our objective would be to wipe out a particular village and everyone
in it because, he said, they
were either terrorists
themselves or were helping terrorists in that area.” Tuppen provided shocking
new detail about the killings: “Instinctively, we started firing… at the
villagers in front of us. The villagers began to fall. One man with bullets in him kept crawling…He was finally killed
when a bullet went through his head.” Another former Guardsman Victor Remedios
testified that after the platoon returned to base ‘we were told by a sergeant
that if anyone said anything we could get 14 or 15 years in prison…’ Asked
whether the soldiers had ‘fabricated a story’, Remedios agreed.
In court
this week, the lawyers representing the claimants repeatedly and eloquently
emphasized evidence that pointed to ‘intentional extra judicial execution’.
Witnesses revealed that members of the Scots Guards platoon had been observed
dividing the villagers into groups and escorting them away from the village:
‘they weren’t actually running, but just walking past and away from the
village…’ Evidently, no attempt was ever made to escape. A further grotesque
anomaly is that all the men were
killed: if they had been ‘shot trying to escape’, it doesn’t make any sense
that none survived.
In the
aftermath of The People story, and
the media storm that had followed, on 13 February 1970 the Secretary of State
for Defence Dennis Healey referred the matter to the Director of Public
Prosecutions. At the end of the month, DPP lawyers recommended further
enquiries to be conducted by the Metropolitan Police – much to the dismay, as
we learnt in court, of the Foreign Office. An investigative team was set up under
 DCS Frank Williams, that included a
former Scots Guards serviceman Ron Dowling. All the former members of the Scots
Guards platoon who had testified to The People were interviewed again under
caution – and Williams learnt of other survivors of the operation who remained
alive in what was now independent Malaysia. Plans were made for the British
police team to fly to Kuala Lumpur to continue with their enquiries. Then on 18
June, 1970 the Labour Government was ousted by the Conservatives – and just weeks later the Batang Kali enquiry was aborted with a view,
as we now learn, ‘to upholding the good name of the Army.’
This pattern of fresh revelation
followed by denial and cover up was repeated after the broadcast of a BBC
Inside Story documentary ‘In Cold Blood’ in 1992. This time, a Malaysian police enquiry was launched
and then aborted. Documents referred to in court reveal that the Batang Kali
massacre remained a highly sensitive issue. To this day, the British government
has not changed the story that appears to have been fabricated more than 60
years ago – ‘shot trying to escape’.

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