Friday, 29 March 2013

What could Julie Sherry have said instead ?

SWP Central Committee Member Julie Sherry offered a response to charges of mishandling rape allegations in the Guardian . This was kind of a step forward, because she actually addressed the issue rather than writing a long essay about Lenin . It was also good that she said  Nor do we accuse those who raise criticisms "of being 'bourgeois media stooges' or, worse, police informants", as I am neither.

But  it was hard to imagine her statement making much difference to the SWP’s ability to build, to recover influence, to recruit new members. A current SWP member asked me  “What should Julie Sherry’s article have said” on Facebook. This was my answer – his version was actually much stronger on admitting faults and offering concrete changes, so this is the soft version of the minimum necessary change :-

"The Socialist Workers Party isn’t a party of the mainstream . Because the mainstream is rotten. When all the “respectable” parties and mainstream commentators said the Iraq and Afghan wars were a great idea, we knew they were lying, and put all our energy into building the anti war movement. When “sensible” political leaders like Ed Miliband say people should ignore demos by the right wing EDL and hope they go away, we know he is wrong, and build counter-demonstrations, so we can beat the far right like we have done before. When Labour talk about the danger of the Coalition cuts, but say they will just make kinder cuts , we don’t just nod and smile: We are for a movement that will overturn the bedroom tax now , not just ‘reform’ it in a few years time. We fought and won battles against “workfare”, but the mainstream Labour leadership  voted against giving  forced workers the back pay they deserve.
When it comes to Women’s rights we are not in the mainstream either, because the mainstream is rotten there as well : We don’t have a “sidebar of shame” like the Mail. We haven’t used our newspapers or hacked ‘phones to harass women about how they look or their private lives. We don’t think abortion rights are a ‘private issue’ for a free vote: They are something we defend on the streets. We’ve marched for abortion rights, were proud too join “Slutwalk” marches, and have fought for better childcare and pay for women for the entire history of our party.
But we all make mistakes. Rape allegations between our members were the most difficult issue. We took them very seriously. We didn’t hide them away , we debated the issue among all our conference delegates – twice, with passionate, concerned arguments. But we made the wrong decision. And because not being in the mainstream means you have to be strong willed – maybe even sometimes a bit pig-headed – it has taken us too long to get to the right answer. It didn’t help having all kinds of hypocrites – the sexist slime of the Mail, the journalists who argued for wars that led to untold bloodshed and vast numbers of assaults on women – jumping on the bandwagon and adding their misinformation to a genuine problem. But we’ve listened to our members. We’ve listened to our friends on the Left. We have thought hard and decided to make a change.
We can’t go back over the past, but we can make things better for the future : the leading member who was accused of rape has agreed to step aside from party roles for a few years while we look at our procedures . It doesn’t mean we think he is guilty, it means he thinks that having the space to look again at this issue is more important than his role. We have invited the women who were involved in any related complaints to talk to us about how we can improve our internal systems, and to offer them an apology if we dropped any of our standards . We are going to have a proper review of our disputes procedures. We are going to invite any member who was so angry about this issue that they felt they had to resign to rejoin right away.The four members who were expelled for the way they discussed this issue will also be reinstated.  If members think our leadership made mistakes, they will be up for re election at the end of the year .
We aren’t a mainstream party, we are a fighting party, and we are proud of our tradition. But sometimes you can pick the wrong fight, and need to make a change. We hope we have started to make that change, and look forward to joining people on the fight against austerity "

Now I am pretty sure that would buy the SWP a lot of breathing space, both internally and externally. It would I suppose weaken the authority of the current Central Committee a bit – but they could either win that authority back, or get replaced at the next conference. It’s so simple that you wonder why the current CC  don’t do it: I can only assume that they value the ability to enforce their  personal authority within the (smaller) SWP than the SWP’s authority in the labour movement.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Batang Kali

(My piece from the Morning Star, 27-1-12)

The Haditha prosection fizzled out with a suspended sentence for one US marine implicated in slaying 24 innocent Iraqi civilians in 2005.

It follows the pattern of cover-ups  and ineffective prosecutions following imperial massacres.

Last month  the Information Commissioner told me he was backing the Metropolitan Police , and  keeping secret  papers from an  investigation into a sixty year old massacre by British troops.

In 1948 Scots Guards  killed 24 Malayans in a village called Batang Kali.  One of the soldiers, Robert Brownrigg called it “a needless killing that was like murder under orders”

It was during the  Malayan “emergency” : The communist-led Malayan National Liberation Army were fighting for independence.  Britain responded to the mostly Chinese-Malayan freedom fighters by sending troops to defend  rubber plantations against the rebels.

During the emergency, the Morning Star exposed the atrocities in Malaya, unlike most of the press. But years later, in  1970 The People  newspaper investigated this  massacre. The People’s  shocking telling of the story spurred  the  Labour Government to start a Metropolitian Police  investigation. But a Tory government  elected  in 1970 stopped the investigation , burying  the issue.

I asked the Metropolitan Police for the papers from their 1970 Batang Kali investigation. They said “no” . I appealed , but the  Information Commissioner said the need for secrecy  “narrowly outweighs the public interest in disclosure” because exposure  might discourage witnesses in other investigations.

The Police did send me testimonies soldiers made to The People newspaper: This  was  helpful, although the Police  also wanted   to show the Information Commissioner they were not purely obstructive  to head off a   forced disclosure of their  investigation. These testimonies are publicly available in the National Archives, but deserve a wider audience.

The official record says the massacred men were  prisoners  who were shot during a “mass escape 

The soldiers say otherwise. Troops interviewed by The People in 1970 spoke with bravery and  shame about what happened.

They were primed for massacre by their commanding officers. Guardsman Victor Remedious, says their Captain  told us that the villagers were feeding terrorists and that every one of them should be killed

National Serviceman William Cootes  recalled arriving at Batang Kali, a village housing about 80 people in large stilted huts.

Cootes recalled one sergeant sending a  young villager  down a path. “He ran down the path, looking over his shoulder as he did so. I think he must have known he was going to get shot. When he had gone about 15 years, [Sergeant] Douglas dropped to one knee, aimed his rifle and shot the youth in the back”

I am quite sure this youth was not trying to escape. I clearly saw, and clearly remember, Douglas motioning the youth to go down the path ahead of him, I could see the youth on the path on his back and his stomach was ripped open by the shot”

The wounded youth was finished off with a bullet to the head from a sergeant's Sten Gun

The troops then held the villagers in their huts overnight. Cootes says

by this time It was clear that the intentions of the sergeants where that we were going to wipe out the whole village including women and children”. A lorry came in the morning  to take village  workers to the nearby plantation, but the troops made them take the women and children instead.

One sergeant “told the rest of us that we were going to shoot the 28 men left. He warned us that anybody who didn’t shoot would be shot by him. None of us protested. I think we were glad we had got away without having to shoot the women. We were well trained to obey orders”.

The Troops were divided into four groups and the villagers – “their ages raged from about 16 to 80 years”  - were brought from  their huts in  groups of seven. Cootes squad  encouraged their group of seven to run, so that they could fire on them, but the villagers stayed mostly still.

“Then we heard shooting from one of the other groups, so instinctively almost, we opened fire on the men.  Once we started firing we seemed to go mad. The old man died immediately from one bullet. The one that was furthest away at the time took about seven bullets before he stopped crawling”.

Cootes says  they all regrouped after the shoooting “some of the men were excited, some were delighted, some of us stayed quiet. It struck me we must be all out of our minds do do a thing like we had just done. The man with the Bren [Gun],  I can’t remember his name , boasted he had cut one of the Chinese in half with his bullets. Other members of the patrol were shouting about what they had done. Myself, I was feeling sick and just wanted to get away”

They burned down the village, leaving the dead where they lay

As soon as the killing ended, the cover-up began. According to Remedious in a day or so they were called to a military inquiry

I remember that Sgt. Douglas told us as we stood around in a barrack room that we would all be in serious trouble if the truth came out and that when we attended the inqury we should say that the men where shot as they tried to escape”. Cootes was  warned they would “ face 14 years in prison for the truth.”

According to Cootes, even though officials questioned them – about why all the bodies of the dead were found in groups – “I just repeated the story that I had already told him and I clearly remember his last words to me. he said he hoped we got away with it” adding “I remember reading about the incident in the Daily Mirror a few days later. The report told the story as we agreed it should be told, but we knew it was lies”.

It is a familiar warning from history . On one side , Imperial adventure reduced to massacres. Cover up by the officials. Lies in the newspapers. On the other, campaigners and newspapers who opposed the war and it’s attendant atrocities. Despite repeated attempts to bury the truth on Batang Kali , it keeps returning : Bindman’s solicitors are currently fighting for a judicial review over the current and previous government’s refusal to hold an  inquiry into the massacre.