United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC)

The south-east Asian county of Cambodia has experienced war and conflict throughout its history. Located between Thailand and Vietnam, Cambodia is smaller than the state of Victoria. For hundreds of years, larger and more powerful neighbours have sought to establish their control over the country, until it became a French protectorate in 1863. Cambodia became independent in 1953 but as the Cold War intensified it again became victim to those who were larger and more powerful. Although officially “neutral”, Cambodia received Western economic aid through the Colombo Plan. It also allowed Vietnamese communist forces to operate in the country’s north, along the Ho Chi Minh trail, supplying troops in South Vietnam.

In 1970 a coup deposed the Cambodian king and the new Cambodian government ordered the Vietnamese out of the country. The Vietnamese responded by advancing on the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. Consequently, South Vietnamese and American forces also invaded in an unsuccessful attempt to drive out the Vietnamese communists. Cambodia meanwhile began to descend into a civil war, with the government fighting Cambodian communists, commonly known as the Khmer Rouge, who were led by Pol Pot. The ousted king also raised a force and formed an alliance with the Khmer Rouge, fighting against the government. China supported the Cambodian communists, while the United States supported the Cambodian government. In 1973 the US carried out massive bombing raids against Khmer Rouge targets. In 1975 the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh. It is estimated that half a million Cambodians died during the civil war and thousands became refugees. Worse was to come.

For the next three and a half years the Khmer Rouge perpetrated genocide on the Cambodian people that devastated the country. Estimates vary but at least 1.7 million people (about twenty per cent of the country’s population) died, while hundreds of thousands of people fled the country as refugees.

The Khmer Rogue also attacked Vietnam, which was allied with the Soviet Union. In December 1978 Vietnam invaded Cambodia, which was allied with China. The Vietnamese captured Phnom Penh in January 1979 but fighting continued for another ten years. The situation deteriorated into civil war. The Cambodian government - a puppet of the Vietnamese government - fought a coalition of forces, of which the Khamer Rouge was the strongest. In 1989 Vietnamese troops withdrew from Cambodia but peace was fragile, as the warring parties could not agree on a power-sharing arrangement that would bring lasting peace to the country and enable free elections.

The end of the Cold War brought the possibility of peace for Cambodia and diplomatic negotiations began. The different factions and the international community agreed on an arrangement in which Cambodian sovereignty was vested in a Supreme National Council, made up of members from the different factions. Cambodia’s administration and the first general election would be overseen by the United Nations (UN), which would also be responsible for the country’s security. The deal was signed in Paris in October 1991 and became know as the Paris Agreement.

To facilitate the agreement, the UN passed a resolution establishing the United Nations Advance Mission in Cambodia (UNAMIC). UNAMIC’s task was to help create a neutral environment in which Cambodia’s waring factions could disarm and demobilise. It was a precursor to the larger United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), deployed in 1992. Australia, particularly Foreign Minister Gareth Evans, had been heavily involved in the diplomacy that led to the Paris Agreement. The government was keen to follow up with military support.

Australia provided the signallers for UNAMIC by committing 65 personnel in October 1991. UNAMIC consisted of military observers, a signals unit, and support personnel. It initially helped maintain the ceasefire and later tasks included running a mine detection and clearance training program for Cambodians. In March 1992 UNAMIC was absorbed by UNTAC.

UNTAC was established to supervise the ceasefire and subsequent general election. It was a large force consisting of 12 infantry battalions and support units, military observers, and civilian police, totalling 22,000 personnel from 32 different countries. The military component was commanded by an Australian officer, Lieutenant General John Sanderson. A further 14 Australians served on UNTAC’s headquarters staff. Australia provided the first contingent - the Force Communications Unit (488 personnel) - which was mainly from the 2nd Signals Regiment. The second contingent included RAN, RAAF, and New Zealand Army personnel. The signallers were attached to units throughout Cambodia to maintain contact with the force’s headquarters. Sanderson later explained they “were the glue that held the mission together”.

Australia’s contribution increased as the election came closer. Between May and September 1992 Australia sent a movement-control group, with members from the three services. Between May and July 1993, the period covering the general election, the government sent an additional 115 Australian troops and six Blackhawk helicopters from the 5th Aviation Regiment and 2/4 RAR.

The deployment was tense. By July 1992 the Khmer Rouge had effectively withdrawn from the peace agreement and was feared to disrupt UNTAC’s operations. There were a number of small skirmishes and mortar attacks. An Australian signaller was taken hostage when he and three Thai military observers were captured by the Khmer Rouge and detained for several hours.

The Australian Federal Police sent a detachment to UNTAC to serve with the civilian police component. Personnel from the Australian Electoral Commission were also sent to Cambodia, as part of UNAMIC, to help prepare for the general election. Much of their work related to voter education and registration. Cambodia had not had a free election since the early 1950s and did not have a democratic tradition.

By January 96 per cent of those eligible to vote had registered. When the general election took place on 23-27 May, 90 per cent of those registered voted. Considered a success, UNTAC began withdrawing from Cambodia, which was completed by November.

Casualties

  • Nil killed
  • 3 wounded
  • 10 injured

For more information please see the Roll of Honour database.

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References

  • Doyle, Michael W, UN peacekeeping in Cambodia : UNTAC's civil mandate, (London : Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1995)
  • Goldsworthy, David; Edwards, Peter Geoffrey, Facing north : a century of Australian engagement with Asia, (Carlton South, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 2001)
  • Horner, David Murray, The Australian centenary history of defence. Vol. 4, The making of the Australian defence, (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2001)
  • Londey, Peter, Other people's wars: a history of Australian peacekeeping, (2003)
  • Parry, Bill (Winston Oliver), We were there in the R.A.R. / Bill Parry. We were there in the Royal Australian Regiment, (Mango Hill, Qld.: Winston Oliver Parry, 2005)
  • Smith, Hugh; Australian Defence Studies Centre, International peacekeeping : building on the Cambodian experience, (Canberra: Australian Defence Studies Centre, 1994)
  • Thayer, C A; Australian Defence Studies Centre; Selochan, Viberto, Bringing democracy to Cambodia : peacekeeping and elections, (Canberra, A.C.T. : Australian Defence Studies Centre in association with the Regime Change and Regime Maintenance in Asia and the Pacific Project, 1996)