Marine A-Style Killings Have Always Been a Feature of Britain's Dirty Wars - Ever Heard of Batang Kali?

Last week, a Royal Marine was given a life sentence for murder. Such killings are framed as exceptions which do not reflect the "values and standards" of military service. In truth, war crimes carried out by British soldiers are not unusual.

Last week, a Royal Marine was given a life sentence for murder. Such killings are framed as exceptions which do not reflect the "values and standards" of military service. In truth, war crimes carried out by British soldiers are not unusual.

Around 150 cases of Iraqi civilian deaths, allegedly involving British soldiers, are under investigation by the UK Ministry of Defence at the direction of the High Court.

The prospect of those cases being aired has raised objections from political and military figures. Colonel Tim Collins, a former British Army officer who served in Iraq, suggested that the cases reflected a claims culture which would usher in a "bean-feast" for "ambulance-chasing lawyers".

A recent BBC documentary raised the issue of the Military Reaction Force, or MRF, a covert British military unit deployed to North Ireland in the 1960s. When interviewed, several former members of the unit appeared to indicate that extrajudicial killings were a normal part of their work.

While bargaining with the US for a leading role in counter-insurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the British pointed to expertise derived from Northern Ireland and Malaya. The Malayan Emergency is still held up in military circles as "totemic" and "well handled" despite a history of violent excess.

This week is the anniversary of an atrocity. Over course of the 11 and 12 December 1948, twenty four workers from a rubber plantation near the Batang Kali river in Malaya were gathered by soldiers of the Scots Guards, separated from the women and children present, and killed. The incident is sometimes referred to as the British "My Lai", after a similar massacre by US troops in Vietnam. No British soldier was ever prosecuted.

The British government has since tried to retrospectively legalise the killings at Batang Kali in what lawyers have called "a clumsy bid" to avoid potential prosecution.

Interviewed by police in 1970, when the case was re-examined, one of the soldiers involved said that he and his comrades had been briefed, " tell the same story. That is that the bandits were running away when they were shot ... I don't remember who told us to tell this story but it was a member of the army".

Repeated appeals for justice by victim's relatives have been thwarted at the highest levels. The police officer heading the 1970 investigation felt that the sudden choice to close the case was "due to a political change of view"

It recently emerged that thousands of files concerning the period were burned to prevent them embarrassing the government. However, witnesses to the conduct of the war remain.

Now eighty two, Walter Heaton was seventeen when he boarded a troop ship for Malaya. He had been too young for WW2, but volunteered for the Coldstream Guards before conscription came into effect..

He boarded a troop ship for Malaya in 1948 and once in-country spent two hard years sleeping "under canvas" and patrolling in some of "the worst jungle in the world".

Walter was originally told he'd be fighting terrorists. He tells me about the Dunlop Rubber Company. At that time much of Britain's rubber was produced in Malaya and the company had serious influence in government.

An appeal lodged on behalf of victim's relatives in January of this year supports Walter's view, stating that it was the rubber economy, rather than the threat of communist terrorism, which made "...holding on to Malaya a matter of the highest priority to the United Kingdom Government".

The jungle which Walter soldiered through was riddled with snakes, sand-flies and traps. Tripwires attached to grenades were strung between trees - primitive forerunners of the Improvised Explosive Devices used against occupying troops in Afghanistan today.

The men stooped and scrabbled through the undergrowth for weeks at a time. The platoon towered over the tiny Dayak trackers brought in from Borneo to guide them.

Walter was privy to the daily excesses which accompany counter-insurgency warfare it. The decapitated head of an insurgent earned the Dayaks a government bounty, Walter explained, and British officers "turned a blind eye" to this practice.

Years later, the emergence of a photo of a smiling Royal Marine holding up two severed heads was one of the catalysts for renewed interest in Malayan atrocities.

When not on jungle patrol, Walter's platoon took part in clearance operations. He and his comrades would climb into trucks and drive out into the forested hills. The policy of the day was to remove the local population from the land, shipping them to camps. The process was known as "concentration".

The theory was that after such relocation, anybody still roaming must be an insurgent. This method was also used in the Boer War, where it helped to put down the anti-colonial struggle, albeit at significant cost to civilians.

After burning the peasant's lean-to shelters and destroying their food, Walter and his comrades would round them up into waiting trucks and relocate them to the barbed wire confines of the camps.

The British military's conduct in Malaya is largely forgotten. But far from being rare, war crimes are as much of a fixture in British military history as marching bands and pomp

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