BRITAIN rushed in new rules empowering troops to use “lethal force” in Malaysia just weeks after the massacre of 24 villagers in a remote jungle community by UK soldiers, campaigners have claimed.
Secret Foreign Office papers have been uncovered ahead of a High Court bid this week to secure a public inquiry into the 1948 Batang Kali killings.
Campaigners say they reveal that the emergency law, which could be applied retrospectively, was approved by Sir Alec Newboult, chief secretary of what was then Malaya, to “immunise those involved in the killings”.
The massacre by a platoon of Scots Guards took place on 12 December 1948 while British troops were conducting military operations to combat the post-Second World War Communist insurgency of the Malayan Emergency. Soldiers surrounded the rubber estate at Sungai Rimoh in Batang Kali and shot dead 24 villagers before setting light to the village.
The UK government’s refusal to hold a formal investigation into the killings will be challenged during a two-day judicial review hearing.
Family members of the victims will ask the court to quash the 2010 decision against an inquiry by the defence and foreign secretaries. But the relatives are not asking the court to award them compensation, it is understood.
The case will be heard tomorrow and Wednesday.
However, ahead of the hearing, campaigners yesterday said the secret papers were introduced on 20 January, 1949, less than a month after the massacre, and allowed troops to use “lethal weapons”, with the regulation including the power to cover previous incidents.
Solicitor John Halford, representing families of the victims, said: “This law was carefully crafted to immunise those involved in the killings from the legal consequences of their actions.
“It was an attempt to use the statute book to excuse and legitimise an atrocity.”
Commentators have described the massacre as one of the most controversial incidents in British military history. It has also been dubbed “Britain’s My Lai massacre”, a reference to the infamous murders by US forces in Vietnam.
Former defence secretary Denis Healey instructed Scotland Yard to set up a task team to investigate the matter while Labour was in power, but an incoming Conservative government dropped it in 1970 due to an ostensible lack of evidence.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has argued it cannot be held legally liable and that legal responsibility was transferred upon independence in 1963.
An FCO spokeswoman said: “This event happened over 60 years ago. Accounts of what happened conflict and virtually all the witnesses are dead.
“The families of those who died have chosen to take legal action to challenge this decision and so it would be inappropriate to comment further now legal proceedings are under way.”
The hearing marks the latest example of Britain’s colonial past returning to haunt it.
Last July, the High Court gave the go-ahead for an action brought by four elderly Kenyans over alleged British atrocities committed during the Mau Mau uprising.