LONDON – Relatives of 24 rubber-plantation workers killed in Malaysia in 1948 by British troops will press their decades-old demand for a public inquiry in Britain’s highest court on Wednesday, lawyers said.
The December 12, 1948 incident, dubbed the Batang Kali massacre, occurred during the so-called Malayan Emergency, when Commonwealth forces fought a communist-inspired revolt in the British colony.
The case has potential ramifications for Britain’s duty to investigate historical cases involving its troops, including during the Northern Ireland conflict known as The Troubles.
Lawyers for the families will argue that Britain has a responsibility to commission an independent inquiry under the European Convention on Human Rights, even though the convention was signed after the incident took place.
“I have traveled here to stand before the most senior judges in (the) UK. I want to let them know the struggle and hardship that my beloved mother suffered after the death of my Dad during the massacre,” Lim Ah Yin, who was 11 years old at the time, said in a statement.
“I am 78 years old and I am determined to see the long overdue justice be done for my beloved father.”
The ethnic Chinese laborers were killed after British soldiers entered the Batang Kali rubber plantation about 30 kilometers north of Kuala Lumpur, rounding up and interrogating villagers.
The communist rebels in what was then called Malaya were predominantly ethnic Chinese.
Chinese had begun arriving in Malaya in the early 20th century to work as laborers.
The British government at the time said that the villagers were suspected insurgents and were shot when they tried to escape, but lawyers for the families argue the men may have been deliberately executed.
Tham Yong, a Batang Kali resident who died in 2010 at the age of 78, previously told reporters she saw at least one of the victims shot in cold blood and that troops pressured another to flee before shooting him in the back.
She denied that the villagers were communists or were aiding the insurgents in any way.
The killings have been referred to as “Britain’s My Lai” after the infamous Vietnam War massacre by U.S. troops.
Relatives have fought for years for a public inquiry but have been denied by British courts.
Britain’s Ministry of Defence has called the killings a “deeply regrettable incident,” but critics have argued against applying European human rights law to military operations.
In a letter to London-based newspaper The Times this month, seven former chiefs of defense staff criticized “the creeping legal expansion on to the battlefield,” arguing that “war demands different norms and laws than the rest of human activity.”
Nevertheless, a lawyer for the families said it was not too late for the law to “demand answers from the state.”
“Plainly, the bullets that killed half the inhabitants of Batang Kali can never return to their barrels and the time has long since passed when any soldier who fired them might be prosecuted,” said John Halford of Bindmans LLP.
“After all, those killed were British subjects living in a British Protected State. They, and their families, have a right to meaningful British justice.”
Brushed aside by Malayan authorities in 1948, the massacre was largely forgotten until 1970 when a British newspaper ran an explosive account of the killings, publishing sworn affidavits by soldiers admitting they had killed in cold blood.
The revelations triggered an uproar in Britain but investigations were never pursued.
The guerrilla war left thousands dead and only formally ended with the signing of a 1989 peace treaty with the Malayan Communist Party.