Skeletons rattle in cupboards. What do you do? Block your ears? Play some loud music to drown out the sound? Or gingerly open the cupboard to see what it is that is disturbing you?
The cupboards of history are full of such skeletons – some rattling more violently than others and some coming to life again after many years.
One example is the 1948 Batang Kali massacre in the central Malayan (now Malaysian) state of Selangor in which it is alleged that the British army’s Scots Guards Regiment shot 25 unarmed Chinese males.
A renewed campaign is underway in Malaysia – perhaps inspired by demands in recent years by Malaysian Indians to have Britain pay compensation for exploitation under colonialism – to have a thorough disclosure of the event and for compensation to be paid.
Will the ex-colonial subjects ever keep quiet, conservative commentators wonder aloud?
What is at stake here is historical truth and the right to have it established and put on the public record.
This particular episode provides a good example of how some skeletons are in the habit of reviving their rattling periodically.
In 1968, for example, several ex-Scots Guards went public and revealed how they had been members of the patrol that had entered the village. They said the Chinese had not been trying to escape when they were shot, as the official account had it.
A Labour government was in office at this time – just as one had been in 1948 when the Emergency during which the massacre took place was declared. Renewed public interest pressured Labour into setting up an official inquiry to be conducted by Scotland Yard.
The Tories returned to office two years later and, in the time-honoured manner of the British establishment, they had the matter dropped. There were too many of these skeletons in British colonial cupboards and the din they might make would be fearful.
One such skeleton was the 1952 publication in British newspapers of sensationalist photographs showing Royal Marine commandos holding the severed heads of Malayan “terrorists” – which the authorities claimed were to be used for “identification purposes”.
To open up that cupboard again would invite greater scrutiny of the British military’s conduct not only then but in the ongoing campaign in Northern Ireland. It would invite investigation of the darker goings-on in the anti-Mau Mau campaign in Kenya and the anti-independence campaign in Cyprus.
It might even invite public interest in whether or not General Grivas, the Cypriot guerrilla leader who fought the British in the island’s “dirty war” in the 1950s was the same Grivas who had fought with the British in the 1940s against the Greek left. In this campaign right-wing death squads were freely deployed.
A renewed look at British rule in Malaya might also reveal the great exploitation on which it was based.
If we consider the matter of the Malayan Indians and their role in the colonial plantation economy it is easy to see the source of their historic grievances.
Patrick O’Donovan of the the Observer wrote revealingly on 10 October 1948, “Several times I have been shown with pride the lines [of accommodation] on plantations that a kennelman would not tolerate for his hounds… there is little consciousness amongst the plantation owners of the poverty and illiteracy that exists in this country.
“And too often it is a foul, degrading, urine-tainted poverty, a thing of old grey rags and scraps of rice, made tolerable only by the sun.”
O’Donovan may well have been shocked had he known that the same poverty would still stalk the plantations of Malaysia more than 50 years later. The Malaysian press still report periodically on Tamil women on the estates taking their lives through drinking the notorious weedkiller Paraquat.
The rubber industry was so essential to the colonial system – and by extension to the British economy – that it became one of the major focuses of the British military administration that took over Malaya from the Japanese in 1945.
When the Hindu Rights Action Force took to the streets of Malaysia in November 2007 this was the kind of thing that their historical memory had held on to.
It was patently absurd that they should address their grievances to “Queen Elizabeth, Queen of Justice”, but their sense of having been sorely used in the past and marginalised in the present was entirely just.
The skeletons of Batang Kali and the rubber plantations rattle on. Which will be the next to rouse us? As the Czech novelist Milan Kundera has wisely said, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
David Jardine is the author of Foreign Fields Forever: Britain’s Forgotten War In Indonesia 1945-46, which is available from [email protected] or from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, phone 020 7637 1848 » www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk
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