3 July 2018
The New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) has begun repatriating the remains of personnel buried in Malaysia.
This is part of project Te Auraki (The Return), under which the NZDF is bringing home personnel and dependants buried overseas after 1 January, 1955, following a change in Government policy.
Between July and August, 28 NZDF personnel and one child will be exhumed from cemeteries in Malaysia and Singapore and returned to New Zealand as one group.
The personnel were serving in Vietnam and Malaysia when they died. Twenty-seven were New Zealand Army soldiers and one was a Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) Officer. A child belonging to a member of the New Zealand Army is also being disinterred.
The repatriation of 16 New Zealand Army personnel from Terendak Military Cemetery began today with a blessing ceremony. The short ceremony, led by kaumātua and an NZDF chaplain, was attended by delegates from New Zealand’s High Commission in Malaysia, the NZDF contingent and members of the Malaysian Armed Forces.
It’s the first in a series of ceremonies to be conducted as the remains of 27 NZDF personnel and one child are disinterred from Terendak Military Cemetery, Taiping Christian Cemetery and Cheras War Cemetery in Malaysia, plus one serviceman from Kranji War Cemetery in Singapore.
A disinterment team has been deployed, comprising bioarchaeologists and forensic anthropologists from New Zealand universities and NZDF odontologists (dentists), who will assist with the identification of remains. The team will be led by an NZDF doctor.
Te Auraki project manager Group Captain Carl Nixon said the NZDF was committed to making the project as dignified and respectful as possible for the families of those being repatriated.
“This project is about rectifying the inequalities and inconsistencies of the past, so we will be treating everyone the same, regardless of wealth, rank or cause of death,” Group Captain Nixon said.
“We are grateful to the governments of Malaysia and Singapore and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for looking after the resting places of our people for more than 60 years, but it is now time for them to be returned home to their families in New Zealand.
“We would also like to thank the Malaysian Armed Forces for their logistic and forensic support for this project.”
Once the remains are identified, NZDF personnel will conduct a 24-hour vigil around the caskets, until they are returned to their families in New Zealand.
In August, the Malaysian Armed Forces will conduct a departure ceremony in Kuala Lumpur to honour the contribution of NZDF personnel to the formation of the Federation of Malaya.
“We recognise the repatriation of New Zealand Servicemen holds special significance to the people of Malaysia, as these men lost their lives in defence of Malaya,” Group Captain Nixon said. “Their sacrifice underpins New Zealand’s longstanding relationship with Malaysia and the Five Power Defence Arrangements.”
The fallen personnel are due to be returned to New Zealand on August 21 and handed to their families at a ramp ceremony at Auckland International Airport, using the NZDF’s contemporary cultural, religious and military protocols.
Questions and answers:
Why is the NZDF repatriating personnel buried abroad after 1 January, 1955?
Following a policy change, the New Zealand Government directed the NZDF to conduct the dignified repatriation of the remains of Service personnel and dependants buried overseas between 1 January, 1955, and 1971.
How has New Zealand repatriation policy changed over time?
Between 1899 and 1955, New Zealand Government policy for Service personnel who died overseas was that they should be buried close to where they died and not be repatriated to New Zealand.
This changed, and between 1955 and 1971 personnel could be brought home, at the cost to their family. The 1955 policy introduced inequalities between those families who could and those who could not afford to repatriate, and was administered in an inconsistent fashion.
Overseas burial policy changed again in early 1971. Since that date New Zealand’s policy has been to repatriate at public expense all Service personnel and their dependents who die while serving overseas. It has also been policy since that time not to repatriate the remains of those who were already interred overseas. This policy was last considered and reconfirmed by Cabinet in 2007.
In response to a petition and following a repatriation policy review by the Veterans’ Advisory Board (directed by Minister of Veterans’ Affairs in October 2016):
• On 20 March, 2017, Cabinet agreed to a repatriation policy change, and approved the offer of repatriation to families of Service personnel buried in Malaysia and Singapore after 1 January, 1955.
• On 10 April, 2017, the New Zealand Government publically extended an offer to families of Service personnel and dependants buried abroad since 1 January, 1955, to repatriate them at public expense.
How many NZDF personnel are being repatriated?
Depending on family preferences, the NZDF anticipates repatriating 36 personnel in four tranches from six countries: Fiji, American Samoa, Malaysia, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Korea.
How long will this project take?
This project will be conducted in four tranches from April to October, starting with the repatriation of two Air Force airmen in Fiji and a Navy mechanic in American Samoa in early May:
• Three Service personnel from Fiji and American Samoa were returned to New Zealand in early May 2018.
• 28 Service personnel and one child from Malaysia and Singapore will be repatriated as one group and will arrive in New Zealand in mid-late August 2018.
• Two Service personnel from the United Kingdom will be returned to New Zealand in mid-September 2018.
• Two Service personnel from the Republic of Korea will be returned to New Zealand in mid-October 2018.
How will Te Auraki be funded and how much will it cost?
The New Zealand Government is funding the repatriation. The initial budget for the project was $10 million. However, it is estimated the cost will not be more than $7 million.
How is the NZDF engaging with international governments?
NZDF is working with relevant authorities in each of the countries to ensure the repatriations are conducted respectfully and in accordance with local requirements, regulations, and protocols.
How are families being supported?
The families of those being repatriated are NZDF’s key priority during Te Auraki, and we are consulting directly with the families affected. Each family will be supported by a liaison officer throughout the process. The decision to repatriate Service personnel is made by the families and NZDF is committed to making this process as dignified and respectful as possible.
There will be no cost to families for the disinterment, repatriation, and reinterment of their relative. Up to 12 members of each family will be invited to attend the arrival ceremony for their relative, at no cost to them. NZDF will provide support (chaplains, buglers, pallbearers) for the reinterments as requested.
What religious and cultural protocols are being undertaken?
The remains will be returned using NZDF’s contemporary cultural, religious and military protocols, with a Chaplain, Kaumatua, Kuia, and Maori cultural advisers travelling with the NZDF contingent. The remains will be handed over to the families with the appropriate NZDF tikanga associated with repatriating bodies from abroad.
How will you ensure the correct remains will be returned?
The NZDF will deploy a disinterment team of bioarchaeologists, forensic anthropologists, and forensic odontologists (dentists) drawn from universities and forensic experts across New Zealand. The team will be led by an NZDF doctor. International best practice will be used to conduct the identification and New Zealand’s Chief Coroner concurs with the planned exhumation and identification approach. The Chief Coroner will continue to be engaged throughout the process.
How will the remains be handed to families?
Arrival ceremonies will be conducted in New Zealand for each group arriving home. The handing over of the remains to families is a private occasion when families are reunited with their loved ones. All ceremonies will follow a similar format and will include a guard of honour of Service personnel, haka and pōwhiri. Attendance is limited to a senior representative of the nation, a small group of senior NZDF officers, family members of the returning personnel and media. Diplomatic representatives from the country the personnel are being repatriated from, and a representative from veterans’ communities relevant to the group being returned home, will be invited to witness the arrival.
Where are the personnel being reburied?
Families will reinter their relative at a place and time of their choosing in New Zealand. The NZDF will not conduct military funerals because all of the deceased had military funerals before their interment. We expect many families will want to reflect on and commemorate the life of their relative in some way, and the NZDF is offering some support to the reinterments if families request it (e.g. chaplains, buglers, pallbearers). Remains will be reinterred at Service, public, or private cemeteries depending on family preferences and the Service person’s qualifying service. Memorials (headstones or plaques) will be provided and $1000 will be given towards a headstone for those who wish for their relative to be interred in a public/private cemetery.