Cambodia: 1991 - 2005

The New Zealand Defence Force’s 15-year long involvement in Cambodia, which saw the deployment of hundreds of personnel and the establishment of a flourishing demining programme, ended in 2005.

When an uneasy peace descended on Cambodia in the early 1990s, New Zealand soldiers, sailors and airmen were at the forefront of the international effort to restore stability and help the local people restore their lives.

Millions of landmines were laid in Cambodia by all factions involved in the war and the overthrow of Khmer Rouge regime. Unseen, deadly and indiscriminate about whom they kill or maim, the mines claimed hundreds of casualties. The New Zealanders, all experienced deminers courtesy of their Army engineering training, soon realised they could pass that training on.

The NZDF demining specialists worked alongside the United Nations to help the UN establish the Mine Clearance Training Unit, which took over training and supervising Cambodian mine clearing operations on behalf of the UN, and the Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC), which was responsible for mine clearing.

The New Zealand engineers were among the first mine clearing specialists to arrive in Cambodia, and they set about developing training programmes, and teaching the locals how to develop standard operating procedures so that mine clearing could be done cohesively and effectively.

The demining programme burgeoned, and in its wake huge areas of land were cleared and made habitable again. But the route to that state was not without tragedy, as can be expected when unseen killers litter the countryside, including where children play.

One incident involved group of children just outside Phnom Penh. The oldest about eight, found a ball-like object, and began throwing it to one another. Suddenly the “ball” – a live mine – exploded, killing two of the children and leaving another six with horrific injuries.

New Zealand Army engineers are often asked how a country such as New Zealand, with a small Defence Force, and no history of mines in its own soil, can develop a world-renowned skill set that has seen it supply advisers to every one of the world’s most heavily mined countries.

“I think it comes down to the way we train, and the empathy that our personnel seem to have with other cultures and people. We spend a lot of time in the minefields, and it took a measure of trust that the deminers were doing their job properly. But it also showed we had faith in them.”

“Safety was always a major issue with us – for our own good and that of the local deminers. Sometimes people take shortcuts, and at one stage we closed down the whole region because of a training issue that needed to be addressed.” ‒ Colonel Paul Curry

The Cambodia deployment in 1992 was the largest force of armed troops that had left New Zealand since the Vietnam War. Initially, RNZSigs provided 39 signallers for service with the United Nations Transitional Authority Cambodia (UNTAC) attached to the Australian Force Communications Unit (FCU) followed by a second rotation of 29 personnel.

The FCU strength was 500 ANZAC troops and was responsible for providing communications for all the 15000- strong UN forces throughout Cambodia. New Zealand signallers were posted throughout Cambodia, some to remote border locations, others to FCU HQ located in Phnom Penh.

Through the deployment a total of 70 RNZSigs and two RNZIR personnel served in UNTAC as part of the FCU.

This page was last amended on 19 March 2015