Friday, April 4, 2014, 09:56
Malaysia’s quiet remembrance
By ELAINE TAN in Kuala Lumpur / Asia Weekly

Malaysia’s quiet remembrance
A memorial to those killed in Yu Lang Lang, a small farming village around 70km from Kuala Lumpur, is located in the Chinese cemetery in the nearby town of Titi. Its construction was funded by a Chinese tycoon in 1979. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY ASIA WEEKLY)
If Europe’s World War II horror is the Jewish holocaust, then Southeast Asia’s is the Sook Ching (meaning to purge through cleansing) massacres.

From February to July 1942, the Japanese military went on a rampage to systematically exterminate hostile threats — first in Singapore and then quickly extending to Malaya (present day peninsular Malaysia) as well.

In just five short months, an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 Chinese people were killed for, among others: Sympathizing with China or Britain; contributing to relief funds for China; being members of the Overseas Chinese Anti-Japanese Volunteer Army; or just for having tattoos and so perceived to be triad members, who were generally anti-Japanese. Many others were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Azhar Mad Aros, a lecturer of Japanese history and international relations at Universiti Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, explains that the roots of the massacre can be found in an earlier conflict.

“Overseas Chinese had contributed generously for the fight against the Japanese in China from the time of the occupation of Manchuria in 1931 until the Second Sino-Japanese War,” he says. “And aided by these funds, China did have some success holding back the enemy. So even before the Japanese military landed in Southeast Asia, a purge had already been planned. It was … revenge.”

Siow Meow Yan, 76, was 4 years old when a Japanese army of about 100 arrived at Yu Lang Lang, a small farming village 71 kilometers from Kuala Lumpur, on March 18, 1942. “My parents put us into baskets they used to carry vegetables from the farm, and ran into the nearby jungles to hide,” he recalls.

When his family and other villagers emerged three days later, they were greeted by the gruesome sight and stench of rotting bodies. The river ran red from the bloodshed and the whole village had been razed to the ground.

“The Japanese had gathered the villagers at the school on the pretext of conducting identity checks. After they finished, the crowd was told they could go home. But instead the soldiers divided them into small groups and led them to isolated spots where they were stabbed to death with bayonets,” says Siow, who is president of the Association of Historical Artifacts Research in Titi, Negeri Sembilan.

The jungle around Yu Lang Lang was a strategic meeting point of the borders of the three Malaysian states of Selangor, Pahang and Negeri Sembilan. This made it ideal as an operation center and hideout for pro-Communist forces. Siow says there were rumors that they even had a 20-acre farm in the jungle to supply their food needs in anticipation of a protracted war.

Guerilla tactics

The Japanese military had come to annihilate this threat, but unaccustomed to the jungle and guerilla warfare tactics used by the Communists, the invading soldiers made little headway hunting down the enemy. Instead, the innocent villagers bore the brunt of their anger.

On that day, 1,474 men, women and children were killed; only 35 lived to tell about the culling. The dead were hurriedly buried in mass graves dug on the spot where the killings happened because there were too many rotting bodies to move.

The Yu Lang Lang massacre records one of the highest single-day casualties in Malaya. But such butchery was common in towns and Chinese villages across Malaya. In the states of Penang and Johor, thousands more were killed.

Many of these deaths may have passed without account if not for development projects in the 1960s and 1970s. Builders working at the Rifle Range flats in Penang made the macabre discovery of huge piles of bones; while at Yu Lang Lang, miners stumbled upon the mass grave during the mining boom.

“The skulls and bones were dug up and just dumped aside. I was a journalist stringing for several Chinese newspapers then so I decided to write about the massacre,” Siow recounts. His story led to a sizeable donation from a Chinese tycoon to build a memorial in Titi (the nearest town to Yu Lang Lang), which was completed in 1979.

The exhumed remains were finally laid to rest behind the Yu Lang Lang massacre memorial located in the grounds of the local Chinese cemetery.

But the Japanese military atrocities did not stop at mass slayings. Suspected hostile threats who were not swiftly killed were taken as prisoners — a fate that for some was worse than a quick death.

“Common information says they treated prisoners harshly and brutally,” Azhar from Universiti Malaya says. “They would force-feed POWs (prisoners of war) soap and water, then they put a plank on the stomach and jump on it so that water would burst out from every orifice.” Other torture methods include pulling out nails with pliers, beatings, sexual harassment, sleep deprivation, gorging out eyes and cutting off noses.

“These were mostly to elicit confessions but sometimes the soldiers did it for their enjoyment or entertainment. For example, they made prisoners fight each other to the death.”

Women were raped and forced into prostitution as comfort women. Young men were sent as forced laborers to Thailand and Burma (now Myanmar) to build the Burma Railway. Also known as the Death Railway, the project resulted in the deaths of over 90,000 Asian civilians.

There were, however, accounts of uncommon kindness as well. Azhar recalls reading about Japanese doctors who treated locals and even entered the jungle to give medical care to the Chinese. “The war was, after all, a military and political campaign. Regular Japanese people were actually against it.”

Forgive and forget

And for some, like Khoo Boon Siang, 83, the Japanese occupation barely affected him even though he was living in Penang where some of the most brutal killings had happened.

“I dropped out of school to work in a factory. But apart from that, nothing changed,” he says. “I was still able to go for pictures and go out at night. My family and neighbors did not suffer at all.”

But war memorials continue to bear quiet witness to the atrocities and sufferings — although Malaysia seems to prefer to forgive and forget, drawing little attention to the fallen. The Sook Ching massacres are not even mentioned in school textbooks.

“There probably should be a day of remembrance. But as I see it, there was too much hatred between the races after the war. The Chinese fought so hard for survival while the other races were mostly spared. Some even supported the Japanese and gave information about their Chinese neighbors,” explains Azhar.

The lecturer says between the departure of the Japanese and return of the British, Chinese civilians had hunted down those whom they thought were Japanese sympathizers and informants. “So perhaps, in the interest of avoiding lingering racial tension after the war, there isn’t any commemoration,” he reasons.

At Titi though, local community leaders still pay their respects at the memorial every August in a simple prayer ceremony. They are often joined by members of Japanese associations and non-governmental organizations. “They bring small groups of teachers, members of the media and students here to create awareness about what happened during the war,” explains Siow.

The journalist-turned-historian was first contacted by Japanese university students studying in Singapore in the 1970s, who had traced him through his old newspaper articles. Since then he has inadvertently become an ambassador and liaison for Japanese groups interested to know more about the Yu Lang Lang incident.

Siow harbors hopes of starting a research library in Titi to house documents and materials related to the massacre. “I still get calls from the Japanese about what happened. A lot of them actually do not know about Japan’s war crimes. There should be a place they can go to.”