Immediately after the killings, military and colonial authorities were quick to release a story that the rubber tappers were suspected of supplying the "Communist Terrorists" and were shot whilst trying to escape. Thus began a cover-up campaign that goes on to this day.
In 1949, Malaya was Britain's most lucrative remaining colony. Saddled with war debt and the blow to their colonial pride occasioned by India's messy independence, the British were not keen to lose Malaya to the independence-seeking guerrillas. Although there was never a declared war, Commonwealth troops fought alongside Malayan forces from 1947-1960 using arms and propaganda against the "CTs". As Chin Peng, the leader of the communist guerrillas, pointed out in his autobiography, it's the prerogative of the winner to label the losing side "terrorists".
The incident at Batang Kali has never entirely gone quiet. A few members of the Scots Guards patrol came forward to the British press in the late 1960s and issued signed statements acknowledging that the killing had simply been a massacre. Guilt and nightmares had tormented them since 1949, and they were ready to get the weight off their chests. A Scotland Yard investigation followed, and the investigators seemed on the verge of agreeing that it had in fact been unwarranted killing. They were about to fly to Malaysia to interview witnesses when a Conservative Government was voted in, and their investigation was abruptly closed.
In the 1990s, Malaysian investigators began their own inquiry. They had completed their interviews with everyone they could find in Malaysia and were preparing to fly to Britain to interview people there. In a move eerily similar to that which ended the Scotland Yard investigation, the Malaysian Attorney General declared the investigation closed.
In both cases, the Attorneys General gave this reason: It seems unlikely that any prosecutions will follow from this investigation.
Instead, Britain has sealed and destroyed many records. The Scots Guards hierarchy has staunchly defended the honour of their fighting force. The British and Malaysian investigators were both stalled before interviewing witnesses in the opposing countries.
I agree with the authors that no one came through this tragedy unscathed. At the time of the massacre, the Scots Guards soldiers were shockingly inexperienced. The leader of the patrol was a 19 year-old sergeant who had never seen combat before. They were barely out of their teens, new to the tropics, spoke none of Malaya's languages and so depended upon local interpreters. They were, to put it simply, greener than grass, and their later confessions prove their own psychological trauma. Parallels between these young men and the equally young American GIs thrown into jungle guerrilla warfare in Vietnam are unavoidable. We must concede that horrors against civilians do happen in wars, but even if no individual soldiers face court martial, the Governments who sent them should still have the dignity and decency to apologise, or at the very least, permit the truth to come to light.
Postscript: This appeared in The Malaysian Star, 9 September 2011:
KUALA LUMPUR: Family members of 24 unarmed Malaysian ethnic Chinese workers, allegedly shot dead by British troops in a massacre more than six decades ago, won a significant court battle in Britain that will give hope that the incident will be formally investigated, their lawyers said Thursday.
The British High court ruled on Aug 31 in favour of the family members for a review of a decision by the British government to refuse to investigate the massacre, in which the unarmed rubber plantation workers in Batang Kali, a remote town in Selangor state, were killed after being accused as terrorists trying to escape during the Malayan Emergency.
The court granted the judicial review as it deemed the case "raises arguable issues of importance", reported China's news agency Xinhua.
The lawyers said a full hearing would begin in early 2012.