After almost twenty years of bloody civil war, the notorious rule of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, and invasion from Vietnam, in 1989 Cambodia was finally on the brink of a precarious peace. Pivotal to the peace process was the Australian Army and its efforts as part of United Nations missions in the region—both as a guarantee to the early ceasefire and then in support of free democratic elections.
In the Australian Defence Force’s largest overseas commitment since the Vietnam War, Australian soldiers were spread across 60 locations throughout Cambodia. Commanding the military component of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), Australian Lieutenant General John Sanderson described the majority component, Australian signalers mostly from the 2nd Signals Regiment, as ‘the glue that held the mission together.’
The commitment of military forces to Cambodia marks an important chapter for the Australian Army. Since then Australian forces have been increasingly involved in peacekeeping missions throughout the world—underwriting security and free elections by maintaining ceasefires, disarming and demobilising warring factions, and ensuring voter registrations in countries like East Timor, Rwanda and Somalia.
Over 1200 Australians served in Cambodia between 1991 and 1993, and, although there were several casualties, no Australian soldiers were killed.
Given its desirable strategic position in South-East Asia, Cambodia had been at the centre of its larger and more powerful neighbours’ ambitions for centuries finally becoming a French protectorate in the mid-nineteenth century. Declared independent in 1953 along with the rest of French Indochina, peace did not last long. From 1970 onwards, the people of Cambodia suffered during a palace coup, civil war and the rule of the Khmer Rouge, and then finally, invasion by the Vietnamese. By the time Vietnamese troops withdrew in 1989, upward of half a million Cambodians had died and thousands had fled the country to become refugees, much of Cambodia’s countryside was devastated by drought, and its economic and political infrastructure was extremely fragile.
With the help of the United Nations, the many Cambodian factions finally managed to agree on a power-sharing arrangement in 1991 that would bring lasting peace and democratic elections.
Australia was heavily involved in the deal brokered between the many factions in Cambodia and signed in Paris in 1991. The Australian Government continued its support of Cambodia’s democratic aspirations, following up diplomatic encouragement with military support to the several United Nations missions.
The first of these missions was the United Nations Advance Mission in Cambodia (UNAMIC), whose task was to help create a neutral environment in which Cambodia’s warring factions could disarm and demobilise. In October 1991, Australia committed 65 military personnel—military observers, a signals unit, support personnel—to this mission.
In March 1992, UNAMIC was absorbed by the larger United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), whose role was to supervise the ceasefire and the subsequent general election. This mission included 12 infantry battalions and support units, military observers and civilian police—a total of 22,000 personnel from 32 different countries—under the command of Australian Lieutenant General John Sanderson. Australia provided the first contingent, the Force Communications Unit made up of 488 personnel, mainly from the 2nd Signals Regiment. Signalers were spread throughout Cambodia maintaining contact with the force’s headquarters. The second contingent included Royal Australian Navy, Royal Australian Air Force and New Zealand Army personnel.
As elections moved closer Australia increased its military contribution. Between May and September 1992 a 30-strong Movement Control Group with members from the three Services joined UNTAC. Between May and July 1993, an additional 115 Australian troops and six Blackhawk helicopters from the 5th Aviation Regiment and 2/4 Royal Australian Regiment were also deployed to ensure security during the general elections.
The general elections were a success. By January 1993, 96 per cent of those eligible to vote had registered and during the elections from 23 to 27 May, 90 per cent of those registered, voted. UNTAC withdrawal from Cambodia was completed by November 1993 and Cambodia remains a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary representative democracy to this day