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19 December 2023

Batang Kali massacre families await Foreign Secretary’s response to new call for apology

4 mins

75 years ago, British troops massacred 24 unarmed villagers in Malaya. Despite the UK and Strasbourg courts deciding that they were not entitled to a public inquiry, the families of those killed have renewed their call for acceptance of responsibility by the UK and an apology in a memorandum presented to the British High Commission in Kuala Lumpur.

On 11 December 1948, British troops entered and took control of the rubber tapping plantation village of Batang Kali, Selangor, in what was then Malaya. They separated the women and men and, after shooting one man, began a series of interrogations to establish whether the remaining villagers were supporting Communist insurgents. Many villagers were subjected to mock executions. The following morning the women, children and one man were put on a truck. The troops then escorted 23 of the men out from the longhut where they had been held overnight and, within minutes, every one had been shot dead. This incident is known as the Batang Kali Massacre (or ‘the British My Lai’). No one has ever been prosecuted for it. The British government has never apologised, acknowledged fault or made any form of reparations. When challenged, it denied legal responsibility for the killings, despite Malaya then being a British Protected State, all Malayan nationals being British subjects and the troops involved being British, deployed on the instructions of the British Cabinet to protect British interests in the rubber trade.

The killings were portrayed as a military victory at the time, but in 1970, six of the soldiers involved presented themselves, first to the press and then to the Metropolitan Police, to confess that they had murdered the male villagers. The resulting police investigation was terminated prematurely by the government against the wishes of the officers involved who described the reasons as ‘political’. The bodies were not exhumed and those in command at Batang Kali were never interviewed as that had been planned as the final stage of the investigation. In 1993, a Malaysian police investigation began, but was also blocked by the British government.

Legal action was taken families in the UK when the then Foreign Secretary refused a public inquiry in 2010, despite new evidence coming to light (R (Keyu and others) v Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and another). The claim ultimately refused by the Supreme Court on 25 November 2015 and an application to the European Court of Human Rights was also refused.

However, the families of those killed have renewed their call for acceptance of responsibility and an apology this week, pointing in their memorandum to Lord Kerr’s comments in the Supreme Court’s ruling, that the:  

Overwhelming preponderance of currently available evidence [showed] wholly innocent men were mercilessly murdered and the failure of the authorities of this state to conduct an effective inquiry into their deaths.

Lord Kerr added:

The law has proved itself unable to respond positively to the demand that there be redress for the historical wrong that the appellants so passionately believe has been perpetrated on them and their relatives. That may reflect a deficiency in our system of law.’ (204 and 285)

Dato Quek Ngee Meng who co-ordinated the Malaysian Action Committee on the massacre said:

We strongly believe that our fight for justice should not stop: the law may not demand a remedy because of the shortcomings Lord Kerr highlighted, but morality still does. The gravity of this incident cannot be overstated, as it represents a dark chapter in our shared history as a former British colony – one that necessitates acknowledgment, understanding, and reconciliation.

John Halford, Bindmans partner who handles the UK and Strasbourg litigation, said:

Neither history nor the Courts have been sympathetic to the Government’s evasiveness and prevarication over this massacre. Honest acceptance that there was a massacre and an apology are 75 years overdue. We hope that they will now be forthcoming.

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