Wartime Issue 37 - Persuader for lasting peace

By Dr John Connor.

By 1991 Cambodia had become a byword for tragedy. After a coup overthrew the thousand-year-old monarchy in 1970, Cambodia was caught up in the war in neighbouring Vietnam, and civil war broke out between the country’s new republic and local communists known as the Khmer Rouge. In 1975 the Khmer Rouge took power and, over the next three years, about 1.7 million people, or 20 per cent of the population, died of hunger, disease or execution in Pol Pot’s deluded attempt to create a socialist utopia.

Vietnam invaded in 1978, toppled the Khmer Rouge and established a client regime in Phnom Penh. From 1978 to 1991 the Cambodian people endured another civil war, in which the pro-Vietnamese government, supported by the Soviet Union, fought three guerrilla armies: the Chinese-armed Khmer Rouge and two noncommunist forces funded by the United States. Negotiations to end the conflict began in 1989 and culminated in a peace agreement in 1991.

Sanderson greets members of the Royal Malaysian Air Force, part of the Malaysian contingent to Cambodia. P03258.002

The Australian government played an important role in the peace negotiations. When the Cambodian factions could not agree on who should govern the country after the ceasefire, Australia broke the deadlock by proposing the United Nations (UN) set up a temporary authority to run Cambodia and hold elections. The warring parties approved the plan and the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), established in 1992, became the largest peacekeeping mission since the Congo operation in the 1960s.

The French government regarded the Cambodian peacekeeping mission as an opportunity to reassert influence in a former colony and nominated a French officer, Major General Michel Loridon, to command the peacekeeping force. The Australian government saw UNTAC as a way to build on its diplomatic success in the peace negotiations and to increase its presence in south-east Asia. It lobbied hard for an Australian representative to be appointed. The UN Security Council agreed and appointed Lieutenant General John Sanderson of the Australian Army. This was only the second time an Australian had commanded a UN mission, the first being Lieutenant General Robert Nimmo in Kashmir (see Wartime 32).

Sanderson had both the military experience and personal traits that suited him to command the Cambodian mission. Born in Geraldton, Western Australia, in 1940, Sanderson graduated from the Royal Military College, Duntroon, in 1961, and became an officer in the Royal Australian Engineers. He gained operational experience in south-east Asia, honing his engineering skills with 21 Construction Squadron in Borneo, during the Indonesian Confrontation, and commanding 17 Construction Squadron in Vietnam during 1970 and 1971. In 1989 Sanderson actively advocated simplifying the structure of the Australian Defence Force, a process that demonstrated his ability to negotiate within the Department of Defence and to take a project from an idea to fruition. These traits led to Sanderson being selected as the Australian candidate to command UNTAC’s military force. He also took an intensive language course to achieve conversational French, helping to overcome the French government’s opposition to his appointment.

Sanderson in 1993, speaking at a meeting of the Mixed Military Working Group, which brought together senior officers from the four Cambodian factions. P03258.078

Sanderson found leading a UN peacekeeping force very different from traditional military commands. For example, he had no direct say in choosing the composition of his force. While the 500-strong Australian communications unit arrived promptly in Cambodia, the remainder of UNTAC was delayed because France unsuccessfully demanded that more French-speaking troops be included. Furthermore, experienced peacekeeping nations, such as Canada and Sweden, sent their soldiers to the Balkans rather than to Cambodia. Therefore, Sanderson’s force contained several contingents from first-time peacekeeping nations. Some, such as a unit of Uruguayan marines, surprised Sanderson with their professionalism; others, such as a battalion from Bulgaria, became notorious for their indiscipline, bad behaviour towards Cambodian civilians, and involvement in crime. Many of these soldiers were sent home.

Commanding UNTAC also required different skills from those Sanderson had learned early in his army career. The most important was negotiating with the national contingents in UNTAC and the armies of the Cambodian factions. Normally, a military commander’s orders to units under his or her command are automatically carried out. But because countries contributing to UNTAC retained control of their contingents, Sanderson’s role as Force Commander relied more on his power to persuade them to do what he asked.

Sanderson’s negotiating skills were tested further in his relationships with the military commanders of the four Cambodian factions, particularly the Khmer Rouge. His aim was to ensure the armies were concentrated, disarmed and demobilised their soldiers, thus keeping to the peace agreement. To this end, he met Son Sen, Khmer Rouge military commander, who on one occasion conversed with Sanderson in French about his days as a student radical in Paris. Despite the cordiality of this and other meetings, Sanderson was unable to convince the Khmer Rouge to disarm.

During this time of crisis and uncertainty, Sanderson kept the peace process on track. He refused to engage the Khmer Rouge in military action, arguing he had neither the resources nor the mandate to fight a war. Instead, he focused on achieving two outcomes. The first was to facilitate successful elections, beginning with the enormous task of registering and educating voters in a country that had not seen fair elections in 40 years. To achieve this he re-deployed the UNTAC military force to protect electoral workers and the voters from Khmer Rouge attack.

Sanderson’s second objective was “to forge an alliance with the Cambodian people” by showing UNTAC supported them in choosing their own future through an election. This was done both through UNTAC’s radio station, which broadcast information about the elections, and through the friendly but respectful conduct of most of the UN force towards the Cambodian people.

This group of officers illustrates UNTAC’s multinational composition. Sanderson is seated in the front row, third from left. P01748.044

Sanderson’s objectives were achieved. Despite voter intimidation and the fear of Khmer Rouge attacks, 96 per cent of eligible adults registered to vote, 90 per cent of whom cast a ballot in the May 1993 election. While Cambodian democracy has subsequently travelled a rocky road, it has not returned to the violence of previous decades.

Sanderson’s contribution to the successful outcome is remembered and honoured in a park in Phnom Penh that bears his name. A sculpture in the park, called Bird of peace, is made from AK-47 assault rifles handed in by demobilising soldiers, symbolising a return to tranquillity for Cambodia after decades of war.

Sanderson returned to Australia in October 1993, after serving 18 months as UNTAC’s force commander. He then served as Chief of the General Staff (later Chief of Army) between 1995 and 1998 and was Governor of Western Australia from 2000 to 2005.


Dr John Connor is a Senior Historian at the Australian War Memorial and is writing a volume of the Official History of Australian Peacekeeping and Post–Cold War Operations.