Tarnishing Success Stories with Uncomfortable Truths?

The BBC recently reported on the efforts of family members of 24 men who were shot dead in the Malaya Emergency on 11 and 12 December 1948 to petition for an inquiry by the British Government. This has many resonances with Northern Ireland’s ‘dealing with the past’ debate.

The story details how the efforts of the families have been stymied over the years, and recognises the ‘stigma’ that they bear because those who were killed are painted as Communist terrorists.

If anything, stories like this illustrate that Northern Ireland is not really all that unusual. It is only expected that like in Malaysia, some people in Northern Ireland – usually victims, survivors and the families of victims – desire to have some sort of public truth-telling processes.

Those desires just don’t go away, even after many years.

The families in the Malaysia case favour an inquiry. Northern Ireland has taken the inquiry route in some high-profile cases but this is probably financially unsustainable and unlikely to be popular across the wider population.

Northern Ireland’s Consultative Group on the Past floated some creative proposals such as a Legacy Commission and a Reconciliation Forum, which I think would be much more effective in our context than a series of public inquiries.

But these options seem to be being moved to the back burner with Owen Paterson’s recent comments about leaving the past to historians to sort out.

The BBC’s reporter Alastair Leithead seems doubtful that the Malaysian relatives will get their inquiry, especially since the Malaya Emergency, which lasted 12 years, ‘is still considered one of the few successful counter-insurgency campaigns.’

Indeed, he writes that:

British troops study the strategy and tactics used in Malaya before going to Afghanistan and commanders see it as an important part of today’s counter-insurgency approach in Helmand province.

And who wants to tarnish a ‘success story’ with some uncomfortable truths?