Just imagine, in decades to come, if not sooner thanks to vital leaks, both the US and UK will have to face history’s glare for ongoing colonial policies in the “war on terror”.
In April 1957, five unmarked lorries left the British High Commission in Kuala Lumpur and drove to a Royal Navy base in Singapore with their cargo of files detailing the secrets of Britain’s rule in Malaya. Their destination was, in the words of one official, a “splendid incinerator”.
This “discreet” mission in the closing days of British rule over what became Malaysia was one of hundreds of similar operations. As the sun finally set on the Empire, diplomats scurried to repatriate or destroy hundreds of thousands “dirty” documents containing evidence that London had decided should never see the light of day. Some 50 years later, the sheer scale of the operation to hide the secrets of British rule overseas – including details of atrocities committed during the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya – is revealed in documents released today by the National Archives in Kew, west London.
The so-called “migrated archive” details the extraordinary lengths to which the Colonial Office went to withhold information from its former subjects in at least 23 countries and territories in the 1950s and 1960s.
Among the documents is a memo from London that required all secret documents held abroad to be vetted by a Special Branch or MI5 liaison officer to ensure that any papers which might “embarrass” Britain or show “racial prejudice or religious bias” were destroyed or sent home.
The ramifications of the operation to conceal the resulting archive of 8,800 files – a closely guarded Whitehall secret until the Government recently lost high-profile court cases – are still being felt in compensation claims for victims of atrocities committed under British rule from Kenya to Malaya.
Relatives of 24 Malayan rubber plantation workers allegedly murdered by British soldiers in the Malayan village of Batang Kali in 1948 returned to the Court of Appeal this week to try to overturn a ruling that the British government cannot be held responsible for the massacre.