Australians in the UN missions to Cambodia 1991 to 1993
In the 1990s, Australians served in peacekeeping missions to Cambodia where thousands of people had suffered years of conflict. United Nations (UN) peacekeepers facilitated and oversaw the 1993 general election in Cambodia. Australia's involvement in Cambodia lasted from 9 November 1991 to 15 November 1993. Initially, Australia provided a small contingent of defence personnel to the United Nations Advance Mission in Cambodia (UNAMIC). Later, Australia was one of 46 countries to provide defence personnel or police to the United Nations Transition Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC). We recognise and remember the role of more than 1,200 Australians who served as peacekeepers in Cambodia.
Civil unrest and conflict
The people of Cambodia had suffered from years of conflict, occupation, civil war and genocide.
Cambodia achieved independence from France in 1953. However, the Kingdom of Cambodia had years of instability and international interference related to the Cold War.
During the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong used sanctuaries in Cambodia, putting the country's neutrality at risk. During the war, the United States (US) undertook Operation Menu in eastern Cambodia, a series of airstrikes on Cambodian sanctuaries from March 1969 to May 1970.
After a 1970 coup d'état deposed the Cambodian king, the new Cambodian government ordered the Vietnamese out of the country. Unfortunately, this action incited an invasion by Vietnamese forces, and Cambodia fell into civil war.
In the Cambodian Civil War, the government fought against followers of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), known as the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge was allied to the ousted king's force.
In the long and ruthless conflict, the US supported the Cambodian government, and China supported the Khmer Rouge. From its base in Vietnam, the US launched a devastating bombing campaign - Operation Freedom Deal - on Cambodia between May 1970 and August 1973.
By the time the city of Phnom Penh was surrendered to the Khmer Rouge on 17 April 1975, more than 500,000 people had died in the civil war and thousands became refugees.
Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge controlled the country under the name Democratic Kampuchea. During the reign of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, some 1.7 million people died through forced labour and genocide.
Vietnamese forces invaded Kampuchea in December 1978 and captured Phnom Penh in January 1979. The Vietnamese-controlled regime in Phnom Penh focused on survival, restoring the economy and combating the Khmer Rouge insurgency throughout the 1980s.
After the withdrawal of Vietnamese troops from Cambodia in 1989, the country began a long process to rebuild its government as a democracy.
The United Nations (UN) was asked to help Cambodia form a new democratic government.
The UN's role was to temporarily take on government administration and security, ensuring that fair and free elections could take place in 1993.
The deal, known as the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements, was signed in Paris on 23 October 1991 by 19 countries, including Australia.
In support of the UN's role, 1,279 Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel served in Cambodia as peacekeepers.
United Nations Advance Mission in Cambodia
In September 1991, the UN offered to form the United Nations Advance Mission in Cambodia (UNAMIC) to help maintain a ceasefire in Cambodia.
Australia provided 65 ADF personnel for a UN military communications unit as a voluntary contribution.
Operation Goodwill 1991 to 1992
Australia's participation in UNAMIC began on 9 November 1991 with the deployment of the Australian contingent.
Under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Russell Stuart, the first contingent was codenamed 'Operation Goodwill'.
The first 40 signallers (communications staff) arrived in Phnom Penh on 10 November, the day after UNAMIC headquarters opened. Later on, Australia's commitment was increased to 65 personnel.
The Australians were stationed in Phnom Penh and small detachments throughout the Cambodian countryside. Their role was to help the UN by reporting any ceasefire violations to prevent the escalation of conflict.
While the contingent was only small, the Australians were exposed to danger throughout their mission.
On 26 February 1992, for example, a UN helicopter carrying peacekeeping forces was on a reconnaissance mission in Kampong Thom province. Guerrillas on the ground fired on the helicopter, and Russell Stuart was wounded in the attack.
UNAMIC ended in March 1992 when the UN formed a larger peacekeeping mission.
United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia
The UN formed the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) on 14 March 1992, which marked the expiry of UNAMIC.
UNTAC was established under the Paris Peace Agreements to supervise the ceasefire and the general election to be held in 1993.
The goals of UNTAC were to bring peace and establish a functioning government. After so many years of war, genocide and Vietnamese occupation, this task was difficult.
The new mission was responsible for administering Cambodia's communications, defence, finance and foreign affairs systems.
The UN welcomed the help of military personnel and police from 46 countries, including Australia. UNTAC was one of the largest peacekeeping operations undertaken at the time.
The UN deployed an advance force to establish its presence in Cambodia. Its personnel liaised with the different factions in the country and began the massive task of clearing millions of land mines.
The country was in chaos, and the Khmer Rouge was obstructing peacekeeping operations. One time, Khmer troops turned back a Netherlands battalion as it tried to move through a Khmer-controlled area. Another time, they turned around a convoy led by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Chief of Mission, Yasushi Akashi from Japan, and the Force Commander, Lieutenant General John Sanderson from Australia.
Force Commander of UNTAC
Australia provided the Force Commander for UNTAC, Lieutenant General John Sanderson AM from the Australian Army. He was also acting as an adviser to the Secretary-General of the UN in the lead up to the mission.
In Cambodia, Sanderson commanded more field troops than any Australian since World War II. He had served in Malaya and Vietnam, but Cambodia was his greatest challenge because he was commanding a disparate multi-national force of 16,000 troops.
Faced with the Khmer Rouge's refusal to adhere to the terms of the Paris Peace Agreements and the other factions' determination to rearm, Sanderson focused on ensuring that the general election could go ahead.
After returning from Cambodia, Sanderson remained in leadership positions, retiring as Chief of the Army in 1998. He was later the Governor of Western Australia from 2000 to 2005.
Operation Gemini 1992 to 1993
Australia's commitment to a peaceful general election in Cambodia increased on 12 May 1992, with an extra 502 ADF personnel to UNTAC.
Under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Russell Stuart, the first contingent was codenamed 'Operation Gemini'.
Operation Gemini included:
- Force Communications Unit (FCU), formed with New Zealand communications staff
- Movement Control Group
- Aviation Group - one Blackhawk Helicopter Squadron accompanied by 2nd/4th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment (2/4 RAR)
- Military Police attachment
- HQ UNTAC staff.
The FCU was originally based on the 2nd Signal Regiment but reinforced from many other units, including 20 personnel each from the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF).
In addition to the ADF personnel, 20 members of the Australian Federal Police (AFP) were also deployed, as well as some Australian state police specialists.
Most of the Australians had arrived by June 1992, landing in a chaotic, unpredictable environment. They were sent either to Phnom Penh or throughout the countryside in small detachments. Their role was to report on the ceasefire and deal with any reported violations to avoid further conflict.
And there were many ceasefire violations. The Australians witnessed fighting between the Khmer Rouge and government forces in Kampong Thom province and reported general lawlessness throughout the country. Lieutenant Colonel Stuart was wounded when the helicopter he was flying in was hit by ground fire.
In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge was still a feared presence long after losing power. Cambodians and UN peacekeepers were both wary. With the Khmer Rouge still active and threatening to disrupt the election ballot, the lead-up to the vote was a tense time. Voter intimidation was widespread.
There was a lot of worry about the Khmer Rouge and what they could do ... issued machine guns to strengthen our defensive position, we built bunkers, we had wire out and we were doing active patrols … we honestly thought that attack was imminent
In May 1992, 10 AFP members were deployed to Phnom Penh to participate within the peacekeeping force. On arrival, the contingent was briefed and deployed to Banteay Meanchey Province. The province was a 'liberated zone', under the shared command of Cambodian factions, including the Khmer Rouge.
Withdrawal from Cambodia
The UNTAC undertook a phased withdrawal of its military component after the general election between August and November 1993. The operation aimed to support the withdrawal of the other components while keeping UNTAC personnel and assets safe.
Australians in the FCU provided continuous communication support from the arrival of FCU UNAMIC in November 1991 until November 1993, when the final elements of FCU UNTAC were withdrawn from Cambodia. They were the last Australians to leave the mission.
Experiences of Australians
Lieutenant Colonel Martin Studdert was the Commanding Officer of the Force Communications Unit contingent of the UNTAC from December 1992 to October 1993. Studdert tried to increase the number of women in the Australian contingent.
In the 1994 Australia Day Honours, he was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for his outstanding service in Cambodia.
Learn more about his experiences in Cambodia in this 1993 interview with Studdert.
Lieutenant Colonel Steve Ayling was the Commanding Officer of the Force Communications Unit of the UNTAC in 1992.
Learn more about his experiences as a military observer with UNAMIC and UNTAC in this 1997 interview with Ayling.
Lieutenant Colonel Damien Healy was the Chief Liaison Officer of the Mixed Military Working Group and the only Australian representative.
The Working Group was formed by the UNAMIC and first met on 28 December 1991. Its objective was to provide a high-level forum for all 4 Cambodian military factions and the UN's military representatives. It continued to operate under the UNTAC.
Healy received the Conspicuous Service Cross for his service in Cambodia.
A radio operator
Trent Prince was a signaller with the UNTAC in Cambodia. While there, he witnessed human suffering and many dangerous situations.
One time, Prince found a local truck that had careered out of control over a cliff. He took charge and organised the rescue and evacuation of the severely injured passengers, giving them first aid and going with them to the hospital.
A few months later, Prince was part of a group staffing an observation post on the Thai-Cambodian border. The group was attacked by Khmer Rouge forces and held captive by the Khmer Rouge for 8 hours. Finally, the Thai military negotiated their release.
Prince received the Conspicuous Service Cross for his exceptional devotion to duty in Cambodia.
Learn more about Prince's experience in our ebook, Control: Stories of Australian peacekeeping and humanitarian operations.
The Australians who served in Cambodia did so courageously and selflessly. We pause to recognise and remember their challenging experiences on National Peacekeepers' Day on 14 September.
We also honour them on International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers on 29 May.
The Australian Peacekeeping Memorial in Canberra was officially dedicated by Australia's Governor-General, Sir Peter Cosgrove, on 14 September 2017. The national memorial commemorates the contribution made 'in the service of peace' by Australian military, police and civilian peacekeepers.
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- Australian War Memorial (undated), Cambodia (UNTAC), 1992 - 1993, accessed 15 November 2021, https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/U60642
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- United Nations Archive and Records Management Section, S-0994-0001-05-00001, 1.6 - Chronological file, 1992-02-01 - 1992-02-03 (Creation), Item, Unclassified, accessed 11 February 2022, https://search.archives.un.org/downloads/united-nations-advance-mission-in-cambodia-unamic-1991-1992.pdf
- United Nations, Cambodia - UNTAC Facts and Figures, undated, accessed 15 February 2022, https://peacekeeping.un.org/sites/default/files/past/untacfacts.html