Monday, 28 May 2012

Murdered in the Bath

Early on the morning of 2 November, 1875 James Wheeler Woodford Birch, the first British ‘Resident’ of the Malayan state of Perak, chose the wrong time and the wrong place to take a bath. 

For more than a year, Birch, an abrupt cantankerous man, had been struggling to impose his authority on the young state ruler Sultan Abdullah. Birch was under tremendous pressure. Recently widowed and with four young children to support, he was heavily in debt. Although he was building a house in Bandar Bahru fit for a Resident, he was unaware that Governor Sir William Jervois was pondering whether to have him replaced. Birch and the Sultan had clashed repeatedly.  ‘We are unfortunate in the Sultan,’ he wrote to colleagues in Singapore: ‘He riles me awfully. He is so childish.’ Birch deplored Abdullah’s use of opium, and refusal to give up slavery. For his part, the Sultan resisted Birch’s efforts to bring good government to his state or sort out claims by rival rulers. By the beginning of November, the Muslim festival of Hari Raya Puasa, rumours had reached Birch that trouble was brewing. At midnight, on 1 November,  Birch accompanied by a small company of Sepoys, a Lieutenant T.F. Abbott and his interpreter Mat Arshad moored at Pasir Salak on the Perak River. Early the next day, while it was still cool, the Resident moved the ‘Naga’ to the other side of the river and tied up alongside a riverside bath house owned by a Chinese goldsmith. This was a modest affair – a wooden frame sheathed in pam leaves. While Lt. Abbott set off to do some hunting, Birch sent Arshad to post proclamations declaring in no uncertain terms that he was determined to ‘administer the Government of Perak in the name of the Sultan…’. It was now very hot and Birch, after posting a sepoy to stand guard, disappeared inside the little river side bath house. As he set to work nearby, cluctchig an armful of proclamations, Mat Arshad was attacked by a large party of at least 50 Malays, many armed with spears. As the interpreter fled, the Malays surrounded the hut. Birch splashed happily inside. As the men with spears closed in, the sepoy panicked and hurled himself into the river. The Malays thrust their spears through the thin palm leaf walls of the bath house. Birch, taken by surprise, naked and vulnerable, died instantly. His blood gushed into the sluggish waters of the Perak as his assassins hacked another sepoy to death. The other sepoys managed to reach the boats and make their escape as Birch’s bloodied corpse floated past. Wounded, Mat Arshad swam desperately to one of the fleeing boats, was dragged on board, but died soon afterwards. A few days later, Birch’s mutilated corpse was recovered and sent to Bandar Bahru where, on the spot he had planned to build his official residence, he was buried with full military honours. When his son Ernest visited Pasir Salak ten years later, he met many people who said they had known his father. One local man handed over the murdered Resident’s gold watch and gun. 

Friday, 11 May 2012

The London Trial 2

As I walked into the magnificent Gothic entrance to the Royal Courts of Justice in London, it was difficult not to think of Dickens 'Bleak House' and the infamous 'Court of Chancery'. To be sure, the Royal Courts of Justice was built more than twenty years after Dickens published his excoriating account of the foggy world of English law in practice in 1852/3. The splendid building was designed by solicitor turned architect George Edmund Street in the Gothic style no doubt to evoke the historical depth of English justice. In fact Dickens' attack on the murky and fustian world of English 'justice' was judged out of date when he published 'Bleak House' - but the link between the case that underpins his story of 'Jarndyce and Jarndyce' and the struggle to persuade the British government to agree to an enquiry into the Batang Kali massacre is worth pondering. As Ian Ward and Norma Mirafor write in their book' Deception and Slaughter at Batang Kali', this is a 'very British cover up. In the case of Dickens' 'Court of Chancery', it is said: "Suffer any wrong that can be done you rather than come here!" His main satirical complaint is the inordinate length of the proceedings:
'The little plaintiff or defendant who was promised a new rocking-horse when Jarndyce and Jarndyce should be settled has grown up, possessed himself of a real horse, and trotted away into the other world. Fair wards of court have faded into mothers and grandmothers; a long procession of Chancellors has come in and gone out; the legion of bills in the suit have been transformed into mere bills of mortality; there are not three Jarndyces left upon the earth perhaps since old Tom Jarndyce in despair blew his brains out at a coffee-house in Chancery Lane; but Jarndyce and Jarndyce still drags its dreary length before the court, perennially hopeless...'
The Batang Kali case has now 'dragged on' for over six decades. Many of its victims, the women and children left destitute after the massacre in 1948, have died. This week's trial revealed a great deal more about how and why successive British governments have covered up, misrepresented and obfuscated the events that took place on 11/12 December 1948.
The Malaysian government - which stopped a Malaysian police enquiry in the 1990s - is almost equally to blame. In a National Archives file, I discovered copies of telegrams sent by Tunku Abdul Rahman insisting that raking up memories of Batang Kali could serve no useful purpose. This was a war opined The Tunku - bad things happen. As the lawyers for the complaints repeatedly insisted in court this week, the survivors of and witnesses to the massacre have been constantly stigmatised: in one telling document, we find a comment that the witnesses 'were never given an official opportunity to tell their side of the story due to fear of what they would say'. Quite. 
It would be problematic I suspect to comment on the case for the defendants, namely the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. But it was remarkable to hear their lawyers argue that responsibility lay with the Sultan of Selengor, a British protected Malayan state in 1948, not a colony. As their 'skeleton argument' puts it: 
"It is also common ground that the Scots Guards were only present in Selangor in
support of the Ruler of Selangor. As the Claimant accept in their Amended Grounds
[1/A/77, §6], they were deployed “to assist the civilian authorities in maintaining public
order”, and were regarded as part of the local police force and under their control
[2/R/84]. That is, the Scots Guards were not deployed in pursuance of Her Majesty’s
jurisdiction over the external affairs and defence of Selangor, but were deployed by the
local authorities pursuant to their own jurisdiction over internal public order. As the
Claimants themselves point out, it would appear that on the day in question, the
troops formed part of a local police patrol (Skeleton Argument, §2.23): “The patrol
operated in conjunction with the local police. It was guided by a Malay Special Constable, Jaffar bin Taib. It was accompanied by a Detective Sergeant, CP Gopal (Call Sign No. 51) and another Chinese Detective, Chia Kam Who (Call Sign No 182).”
This led to a sharp exchange with one of the judges - the president of the Queen's Bench Division Sir John Thomas. The government barrister appeared confused when pressed on the matter of who was in control of the Scots Guards operation. Was he really suggesting this lay in the hands of the Sultan? Reconstructed from my notes: “We are not satisfied that what you are telling us is right. I am not criticising you: I am criticising those in the Ministry of Defence and Foreign Office who must know what the answer is...' He went on: 'You can’t run an empire without knowing who controls the troops. There must be an answer to this!' The defendants' lawyers repeatedly stressed that any enquiry could serve no useful purpose - since the events took place so long ago, no lesson could possibly learnt.
At the end of the second day, the lawyer representing the complainants made this telling argument: 
“How about a lesson that the truth will out? That even with the lapse of time, something this significant won’t just go away? How about a lesson like that for everyone?”
Let us hope in the interest of both human rights and historical truth telling that the judges recommend a public enquiry. After all, even Jarndyce and Jarndyce was - eventually - concluded:
We asked a gentleman by us if he knew what cause was on. He told us Jarndyce and Jarndyce. We asked him if he knew what was doing in it. He said really, no he did not, nobody ever did, but as well as he could make out, it was over. Over for the day? we asked him. No, he said, over for good. Over for good! When we heard this unaccountable answer, we looked at one another quite lost in amazement. 

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’.

Monday, 7 May 2012

The whys of Batang Kali

London...7 May, 2012
There was an impressive turn out at the Bindmans press conference this morning - it will be interesting to see how the trial, which begins tomorrow morning, is debated. It was good to meet journalists and writers Ian Ward and Norma Miraflor whose book 'Massacre and Deception at Batang Kali' is a pioneering study of the case. After many months of emailing, I was at last able to meet John Halford one of the lawyers at Bindmans who have battled to win justice for the families of the men killed in 1948.
There seems to be little disagreement between the different parties - in legal terms Chang Nyok Keyu and others versus Secretaries of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and Defence - about what happened in the course of two days in December, 1948.Soldiers of the 7th Platoon, G Company, 2nd Battalion Scots Guards entered the plantation village of Batang Kali - by the time their mission had been completed 24 male villagers had been killed. It has been alleged that the platoon was under orders to carry out the fillings.
The questions it seems to me are - why were the Batang Kali villagers targeted? Counter insurgency strategists have often used arbitrary punishment to undermine support for insurgents. Why has the British government refused to sanction a public enquiry into the killing?
There are a number of possible explanations. One might be to protect the reputation of an iconic military establishment - meaning the Scots Guards, of course. We know the Guards remain hostile to discussions of Batang Kali - and their reputation has been defended by former Guards officer Ian Duncan Smith. Was this a prestige operation set in motion at a time the government forces feared they might lose the war? And if so - at what level was it sanctioned? A more complex explanation might be that the Batang Kali massacre undermines the view of the Malayan Emergency - so called  to permit insurance claims by British businesses  - that this was a near perfect counter insurgency war that led smoothly to Malayan independence in 1957. Seen instead through the lens of Batang Kali we can see the outlines of a long and violent conflict that led to an authoritarian half baked democracy. I confess this is hand waving - we need a lot more flesh on these bones.
The trial - we hope - will shed a lot more light on this tragic history.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Announcement of Press Conference, Monday 7 May

This is from the web site of Bindmans

Publication date: 30 April 2012
On 8 and 9 May 2012 the High Court will hear a judicial review test case brought by family members of the 24 unarmed men brutally massacred by British soldiers in 1948 at the village of Batang Kali, Malaya. The family members are seeking a public inquiry or other effective, independent investigation into what happened at Batang Kali, its misrepresentation as lawful and justified by British officials, and the active steps taken to suppress the truth. They will ask the High Court to quash decisions of the Secretaries of State for Defence and Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs refusing both that inquiry and investigation.
There will be a press conference at 10.30 AM next Bank Holiday Monday, 7 May 2012, at Bindmans  LLP, 4th Floor, 236 Gray’s Inn Road, London with several of the surviving family members, including two who were present as children when the massacre began, their Malaysian and UK-based lawyers and the authors of Slaughter and Deception and Batang Kali.
The trial itself begins at 9.30 am on 8 May 2012 in the Royal Courts of Justice, The Strand. Given the importance of the case it will be heard by a Divisional Court (comprising a Lord Justice of Appeal and an experienced High Court Judge).