By Evelyn Khor
The Lunar Year of the Rabbit this year was welcomed with much revelry – perhaps to make up for the restricted celebrations over the last two years because of the Covid lockdowns and movement control order.
Many commented that this time around, the sound of firecrackers going off in some neighbourhoods seemed to be never-ending, the usual stillness of the night interrupted by the noise and smell of burnt fireworks wafting in through windows.
That racket may have rudely awakened some of us, but it also reminded us that a new year had begun – bringing with it hopes for a better year, more successful ventures, new relationships and perhaps the perennial wish of winning the lottery.
However, for the survivors of the Batang Kali landslide, just over a month before the Lunar New Year, being woken up by the din of firecrackers could have triggered memories of the early hours of 16 December 2022.
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The stillness of that fateful night was broken by the tremendous noise created by the movement of nearly half a million cubic metres of soil sliding down the slopes from the edge of the Batang Kali-Genting Highlands trunk road towards the campsite surrounding the Father’s Organic Farm.
The lucky ones who survived the landslide ran from their tents before a second landslide came crashing down onto the campsite. Others narrowly escaped death by digging their way out in total darkness with their bare hands. However, 31 people perished, crushed under tons of damp earth.
For the families and relatives of these 31, the silent empty seats around the table for the traditional reunion dinner this year would have reignited their grief.
For the close-knit community of Machap Baru New Village, the atmosphere in the village during the new year celebrations was sombre and tinged with deep sorrow, as missing from their village was a family of four who had perished in the landslide.
Tragedy that time forgot
For Lim Ah Yin, the burst of fireworks during the Lunar New Year would trigger memories of the sounds she heard on the morning of 12 December 1948 in Sungai Remok Estate.
The noise was soon followed by the sight of smoke rising from her village and the wailing of women and children as they witnessed their village being burnt to the ground from the back of a lorry.
However, the sounds that she heard that morning were not from fireworks but gunshots fired at 24 men – employees of the British-owned Sungai Remok Estate in Batang Kali who had lived there with their families in wooden living quarters provided by the management.
The incident took place during the Malayan “Emergency”, and the unarmed men were killed not by marauding communist guerrillas but by British colonial forces on the unfounded suspicion that they were members or sympathisers of the Malayan Communist Party.
The women and children were spared the horror of seeing their loved ones shot because they were forcibly separated from the men just before the shooting.
However, they were not spared the sight of bloated decomposing bodies when they returned to retrieve the bodies of their loved ones for burial in the early hours of December 1948 – four days after the massacre.
The loss of the breadwinners meant that the surviving family members, who had been forcibly taken away with only the clothes on their backs, would live in abject poverty for a greater part of their lives, their memories forever scarred by the tragedy.
The press reported the killings as a victory against communist insurgents. The Straits Times of 17 December 1948 provided an official account of the incident: a 16-man patrol of Scots Guards had discovered large quantities of ammunition concealed in the mattresses of the villagers, and those shot had been trying to escape.
Following appeals for help from the families of the deceased and reports in the Chinese press that what happened at the estate was nothing short of a massacre, the attorney general’s office in the federation conducted an investigation.
But for reasons unknown, the file and matters related to the inquiry were mysteriously destroyed in 1966.
Breaking the silence
While history books barely mention, if at all, the Batang Kali massacre, for the survivors and the remaining relatives of the victims, their story needs to be told and an independent inquiry conducted. This would enable a sense of closure, and the label that their loved ones were “bandits”, “communists” or “guerrillas” could be finally erased.
However, despite repeated requests over the years by representatives of the Action Committee Condemning the Batang Kali Massacre to investigate the reasons for the killings, no inquiry was held. Both the Malaysian and British governments stoically adhered to the official press statement that those who were killed were bandits or communist guerrillas attempting to escape.
In 1969 hopes for a proper investigation were revived when in an interview with the press, four members of the patrol who were involved confessed they had been ordered to shoot the villagers who were unarmed but were then advised to adhere to the official press statement.
Disappointingly, despite the public admissions by the four Scots Guards, repeated requests for an official investigation were dropped in 1970 and 1997 on the grounds of insufficient evidence and the long passage of time since the incident.
It was also argued that the killings were justified because Foreign Office archives showed that a regulation had been drafted on 20 January 1949 (just over a month after the killing) authorising the use of lethal weapons on individuals resisting arrest or attempting to escape.
The regulation applied to any such acts that occurred before it was enforced. So not only did the regulation try to justify the killings at Batang Kali, it also provided immunity for those involved in the killings.
Closure and hope
Following the landslide at Batang Kali in December 2022, investigations revealed that the landslide was not due to soil disturbances caused by farming activities or development around the area. Satellite pictures of the farm showed it was surrounded by jungle.
Soil inspections concluded that heavy rainfalls had resulted in an accumulation of water beneath the campsite, thus loosening the soil structure and causing the soil to give way.
Although there were also claims that a river had been diverted when the land was cleared for development thus causing water to accumulate, the claims have not been substantiated.
So far, nobody has been held responsible for the landslide deaths as the only apparent villain was the heavy rainfalls resulting in the insidious movement of silent streams deep beneath the surface of the soil.
Families of the victims of the Batang Kali landslide found some closure through funeral rites, prayers and ceremonies to remember their loved ones.
Sadly, for the surviving relatives of those killed in the 1948 Batang Kali massacre, a final closure has eluded them.
Over 70 years have passed since the mass killing of the villagers at Sungai Remok Estate in Batang Kali. The number of survivors who can stand as witnesses has dwindled.
Their relentless pursuit of a full investigation and legal action against the British government from 2008 did not bear fruit. The High Court in London on 4 September 2012 upheld the decision by the British government not to hold a public inquiry into the 1948 killings because it happened too long ago – even though the incident could have been a war crime.
On 4 October 2018 the European Court of Human Rights upheld the British government’s decision not to hold a public inquiry, thus extinguishing all hopes for justice.
The decision by the High Court in London meant that the survivors would not be given the apology they rightfully deserved, and the stigma attached to their loved ones as “guerrillas”, “sympathisers” or “communists” would not be erased.
That said, perhaps there is still a glimmer of hope that justice will prevail even though all avenues for legal action no longer seem possible for the representatives of the Action Committee Condemning the Batang Kali Massacre.
On 8 February 2023, a case of a crime against humanity hit world headlines when a South Korean court ruled that the government should pay reparations to a Vietnamese woman, Nguyen Thi Thanh, who survived the killing of civilians by Korean troops who entered her village on 12 February 1968.
The decision has been hailed as a landmark ruling and has forced the South Korean government to admit to the killings committed by South Korean soldiers who fought alongside the US and South Vietnam against North Vietnam during the Vietnam War.
This long-awaited victory would not have been possible were it not for the efforts of activists both in South Korea and Vietnam who had relentlessly pursued the case for decades. They had to fight against the allegations by the South Korean government that the statute of limitations had long since passed and therefore the government was not obliged to make financial reparations.
Although the relatives of the victims of the Batang Kali killings are not seeking reparations, the recent historic victory scored by Nguyen Thi Thanh would hopefully reignite their determination to pursue the fight for justice and pressure the Malaysian and British governments to hold a full inquiry so that they and the remaining survivors would find a reconciliation with the past and closure.
Honouring those who died
On 31 December 2022 the Mun Choong Chinese National-type Primary School held a memorial service for those from their school who perished in the 16 December 2022 landslide.
Six teachers, a canteen operator, a canteen worker and two children from the school were among the 31 victims who died in the Batang Kali landslide.
Schoolchildren, staff, friends and relatives who attended wrote messages of gratitude on cards. These were pinned on boards, next to stories written by students about their teachers and friends who had perished in the landslide.
These written narratives, which were read and shared by those who attended, honoured the memory of those who had at one time been among them. These stories helped bring about much-needed healing for the school, which was reeling from the shock of the tragedy.
For the survivors of the 1948 Batang Kali killings, their long battle for justice ended on 4 October 2018.
Although the decision by the European Court of Human Rights meant that there would be no public inquiry, the narratives of the events on that fateful morning need to be given their rightful place in the history of the Malayan Emergency. In this way, posterity will be able to remember the innocent who were caught and inevitably suffered in a conflict that they probably did not fully comprehend.
The survivors of the massacre may have failed in their attempts to receive an official apology from the British government. But in embarking on that decade-long journey for justice all the way to the High Court in London, they have honoured the memory of the 24 who died in 1948.
Dr Evelyn Khor, an Aliran member, was a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Languages and Linguistics of the University of Malaya and later served as the university’s director of international and corporate relations. A qualified microbiologist whose second love is language, she is involved in outreach programmes for refugees and the homeless as well as with a community garden at Taman Tun Dr Ismail
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