- Hardcover: 432 pages
- Publisher: The History Press (1 Oct. 2013)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0752487019
- ISBN-13: 978-0752487014
- Product Dimensions: 15.9 x 4.4 x 23.5 cm
- Average Customer Review: 6 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 800,591 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Massacre in Malaya: Exposing Britain's My Lai Hardcover – 1 Oct 2013
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About the Author
Christopher Hale is a former BBC television producer and the author of "Hitler's Foreign Exectioners "and "Himmler's Crusade," which won the prestigious Guiseppe Mazzotti "Premio Gambrinus" Prize. In 2007, he lived and worked in Malaysia making a documentary for National Geographic, and began researching the history of Britain's longest 20th century war.
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In his book, Hale investigates the history and the events leading up to the killing of 24 villagers by British troops near Batang Kali, Malaysia, in December 1948. It's an incident that has been shrouded in mystery and cover-up, and only now is the real truth becoming known.
Christopher Hale also works in a detailed history of the area and how, over a period of two hundred years, Imperial powers of various European nations used the people and resources of the Far East for their own profitable ends.
It's a remarkable and enlightening work, shining a light on an incident that many, at the time, and since, would rather have left forgotten. For the sake of justice, and historical record, it's a book that should be widely read.
On 11 December 1948, a Scots Guards officer, Captain George Ramsay, took his platoon to a small settlement of Chinese rubber tappers near the village of Batang Kali and ordered the soldiers to ‘wipe out anybody they found there’. In 1969, Ramsay commented, “Up to that day our bag of terrorists had been very poor indeed.”
Hale writes, “The secret history of British Malaya and the making of modern Malaysia was, from the very beginning, founded on chicanery and violence, on skulduggery and conquest.”
He points to the “emergence of a globalised economy that had an insatiable appetite for cheap labour. As one British Royal Commissioner put it: ‘Every consideration of humanity […] must concur with a due regard for the interests of property …’”
In March 1948, the colonial government proposed a new law to clamp down on trade unions. Hale comments that in May, “Chin Peng had indeed taken a decisive step in the direction of armed revolt. The party had been pushed in this direction not so much by Moscow ‘directives’, but by the aggressive plans of the colonial government. … Violence, in other words, was a logical rejoinder to the avaricious new imperialism pursued by the British government after the war. The exploitation of Malayan resources was enforced through violence. It was British troops who fired the first lethal shots in Sungai Siput and Taiping in October 1945.”
Hale sums up, “The Emergency War in Malaya was a nasty and brutal business that had unintended consequences which punish and divide the people of Southeast Asia to this day. Violence was integral to ‘the British way in counter insurgency’. To be sure, counter-insurgent violence had different forms. It did not only mean shooting down unarmed villagers and burning their villages. In Malaya, the British undertook the forced transfer of more than half a million Chinese civilians and their incarceration behind barbed wire.’” In all, the colonial government forced 1.2 million civilians, a seventh of the population, into ‘concentration camps’. “British Malaya became a police state.”
In 1970, the attorney general Sir Peter Rawlinson halted the enquiry into the Batang Kali massacre ‘with a view to upholding the good name of the Army’. In September 2012, the High Court rejected the Malayan claimants’ demand for a new public enquiry. However, the Court agreed that “there is evidence that supports a deliberate execution of the 24 civilians at Batang Kali.”
Almost 300 pages of the book have passed before Hale reaches the Batang Kali massacre, which itself takes up only about 25 pages. Providing this broad historical context actually serves to diminish the impact of the incident itself. Was this really worse than the forced resettlement and interment of well over a million Chinese farmers in atrocious conditions? The bombing of remote and isolated orang asli villages in the forest? The brutal treatment of the resistance movement in Sarawak? If anything, by the end of the book one is left feeling that in this region alone the British did many worse things in the name of Empire.
As a history of the formation of the modern state of Malaysia, however, the book is excellent, though primarily written from the perspective of colonial administrators rather than the native inhabitants. There is a certain style of old-fashioned writing in places, where dramatis personae are introduced by their public school and Oxbridge college, as if this conveys important context for understanding their later actions. Nevertheless, as a survey of how the British viewed the Malay peninsula and its inhabitants, it proves to be a fine account, and has drawn on archives which have only recently become available. In this sense it is an impressive work of scholarship, doubly so for being written in an accessible style.
Where it falls down is the limited input from local voices. Hale does not speak bahasa Malaysia; this much is clear from the numerous typos, mistranslations and infelicities in the expression of cultural concepts. Some input from a Malay-speaking proof-reader would have dealt with many of these, and they are of little relevance to the detail of the story, but they serve to highlight the deficit implicit in only consulting English-language sources or those available in translation.
Still, this is a lot to ask of an international writer, and Malaysia awaits a truly synthetic history which incorporates the perspectives of all its constituent peoples. A striking feature of modern Malaysia is that each ethnic group has its own account of their experience of the road to independence, each with their own heroes and villains, triumphs and outstanding grudges. Not all are mutually consistent. This is a nation which substitutes vigorous waving of the Jalur Gemilang (national flag) for genuine harmony. As Hale sagely notes towards the end, it is an ethnic melting pot which has yet to melt. Hale's account will not do anything to resolve this, nor should anyone expect it to. What it does achieve is to demonstrate how the contingent decisions of a declining Empire had unintended consequences for the structure of the new country to which it eventually yielded. The outstanding mystery for me, as a British native who has an enduring fascination with Malaysia, is why they still seem to regard us so fondly.
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