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When politicians should step aside

By Sasha Uzunov - posted Thursday, 19 March 2009

After the enormous destruction of the 1983 Ash Wednesday bushfires in the state of Victoria, the experts told us never again. Australian politicians, whether fighting fires or wars, seem to have trouble heeding the bitter lessons of history but there is some hope.

Could the ferocious 2009 Victorian fires have been minimised? It is hard to say now, as we wait for the findings of the impending Victorian Royal Commission of Inquiry.

Still, 2009 marks the 15th anniversary of two “political bushfires” that still burn fiercely in the minds of many Australians.


The two “political bushfires” from 1994 are the Rwanda United Nations Peacekeeping mission fiasco and the killing of two Australian backpackers in Cambodia, Melbourne social worker David Wilson and Brisbane model Kellie-Anne Wilkinson.

The man at the centre of these 1994 “fires” was the then Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans, who had a burning ambition to become the next UN Secretary-General. Since retiring from Australian politics, Evans has exacerbated this condition as a near-invisible international firefighter heading up the International Crisis Centre in Brussels. Ironically, Evans is again playing international firefighter for another ALP Federal government. Last year Prime Minister Kevin Rudd appointed him co-chair of the International Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Commission.

Then ALP Prime Minister Paul Keating and Foreign Minister Gareth Evans, in order to score international brownie points and bolster Evans’ tilt at the UN top job, deployed a contingent of Australian army medics, who were protected by a company of infantry soldiers from Townsville-based battalion 2/4 RAR, to African hell hole Rwanda as part of United Nations Peacekeeping mission that was flawed from the very start.

Despite the obvious limitations of the UN Rwanda mandate, Australian peacekeepers were able to do the best job possible in treating the many wounded and suffering during a genocide that saw rival ethnic Hutu extremists kill nearly a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 1994.

Years later, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who was also responsible for the Rwanda debacle when he ran the UN peacekeeping portfolio, said:

“We must never forget our collective failure to protect at least 800,000 defenceless men, women and children who perished in Rwanda.


“Neither the UN Secretariat, nor the Security Council, nor member states in general, nor the international media, paid enough attention to the gathering signs of disaster. Still less did we take timely action.”

In his book Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, Canadian ex-General Roméo Dallaire, who was commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda, claims that Annan was overly passive in his response to the incipient genocide. General Dallaire explicitly asserts that Annan held back UN troops from intervening to settle the conflict, and from providing more logistical and material support.

In particular, Dallaire claims that Annan failed to provide any responses to his repeated faxes asking him for access to a weapons depository, something that could have helped defend the endangered Tutsis. Dallaire concedes, however, that Annan was a man whom he found extremely "committed" to the founding principles of the United Nations.

So questions remain as to why Australian troops were sent to Rwanda.

In order to get an understanding of the Keating government’s rationale for getting involved in the almost guaranteed UN failure in Rwanda, immediately after our successful involvement with the UN in Cambodia, I applied on June 17, 2007 through the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) to obtain the briefing notes of Greg Turnbull, the Prime Minister’s then media advisor but got nowhere fast.

I was a serving soldier in a Sydney-based infantry battalion in 1997, and remember speaking to a short, tough, wiry Corporal, a former surfer in civilian life, who had been on the Rwanda mission.

“We shouldn’t have been there in the first place,” he said. “It was absolute bloodthirsty savagery. But the politicians wanted us there even though we weren’t allowed to stop the massacres.”

This Corporal, who is probably a Sergeant or a Warrant Officer in the Special Forces by now, also revealed that there were elite (Special Air Service Regiment) SAS soldiers putting their hands up, without even being prompted, to undertake a rescue mission in Cambodia to rescue (kidnapped) Australian backpacker David Wilson, and his two traveling companions, Englishman Mark Slater and Frenchman Jean-Michel Braquet. After been kidnapped from a train on July 26, 1994, they were held for ransom by the Khmer Rouge in southern Cambodia. However, our SASR undertaking such a rescue mission had been vetoed by the civilian heads of Foreign Affairs and Defence in Canberra against the military advice and recent experience in Cambodia.

“The SASR were itching to go and could’ve pulled off the rescue mission successfully,” he said "... but were not called in".

David Wilson and his two companions were killed by their Khmer Rouge kidnappers a few weeks later.

Australia, at Gareth Evans’s urging, had sent a large UN peacekeeping force to Cambodia in 1991-93 and was an influential player in that part of the world when Wilson was taken from a train along with two other westerners.

Cambodia had been ruled by the murderous Pol Pot and his communist Khmer Rouge regime which killed millions and was finally toppled by neighbouring Vietnam in 1979. Decades of instability followed until a western brokered peace deal in 1991.

A 1998 Victorian State Coroner's Inquest into the death of Wilson headed by then State Coroner Graeme Johnston heard the testimony of an Australian Foreign Affairs official who had served as a diplomat in Cambodia in 1994-95, Alastair Gaisford:

“Evans was advised to use his direct personal connections with senior Cambodian officials, (particularly Hun Sen and Ranariddh,) to secure Wilson's safe release (but would not do so.)

"He (Evans) did not pick up the phone, as we advised him to do, to (tell them), 'Stop this military build up, stop now or we will cancel our aid or punish you in a diplomatic meaningful way'."

Gaisford was referring to a 1994 military strategy, known as the Three Leopard Spots, directed by Hun Sen to remove the Khmer Rouge from three major strongholds, commencing at Phnom Vour, where Wilson and the others were being held hostage. The Cambodian Army attack started there on August 6 ,1994 and it directly led the Khmer Rouge to kill the three foreign hostages a month later on September 7, 1994.

Prior to their murder, in early August 1994, the French government had sent a rescue team of intelligence officers (DGSE) to the Kampot province where the hostages were being held. Headed by the infamous Major Alain Mafart of Rainbow Warrior bombing fame, it conducted a four-day surveillance mission, then returned to its team to standby near Angkor Wat, awaiting the order to rescue Wilson, Braquet and Slater.

Also by early August, the British had their own SAS (Special Air Service) rescue team on standby in Bangkok, Thailand, like the French team already in Cambodia, waiting for their governments' green light. Fearing failure, the Australian government’s opposition to such a snatch and grab raid, forced the French and British governments to call any rescue mission off, ensuring the hostages murder three weeks later.

Gaisford, in his testimony to the 1998 Coroner's Inquest, said the Australian government had learnt nothing about kidnappings in Cambodia as it did not debrief embassy staff in Cambodia after the kidnapping and murder of Brisbane model Kellie-Anne Wilkinson three months earlier in Cambodia, nor learn the obvious lessons from Melissa Himes’ safe release in May 1994 by the same Khmer Rouge then holding Wilson and his companions on Phnom Vour.

Ten days after Kellie-Anne Wilkinson’s kidnapping and murder the next morning in April 1994, Melissa Himes, an American aid worker in Kampot was taken by the Khmer Rouge and held to ransom on Phnom Vour. The then US senior diplomat in Cambodia, Charles “Chuck” Twining immediately and publicly threatened the Ranariddh-Hun Sen government with cutting off US military aid if it did not stop military operations against the Khmer Rouge holding Himes. This direct diplomatic threat worked and Himes was released five weeks later after successful negotiations with her captors by her NGO, Food for the Hungry: only then did Cambodian government launch military attack against the Khmer Rouge on Phnom Vour.

Sadly, three months later, Wilson and his companions on Phnom Vour received no such direct official intervention from their own governments, despite repeatedly asking for such actions in desperate messages sent out during their six weeks’ captivity. Indeed, by official duplicity, the very contrary actually happened.

According to Gaisford, Prime Minister Keating and Foreign Minister Evans had privately given official written undertakings to the Cambodian government during August, that they would not cut off promised but not yet delivered Australian military aid irrespective of the hostage outcome. This was at the same time as they publicly accepted Cambodian government assurances - contrary to fact - that it would not launch its planned military operation against the Khmer Rouge holding the hostages on Phnom Vour "without prior consultation" with them.

As the Australian government already knew that military operations had commenced on August 6, Gaisford said, all Keating and Evans needed to do then was to threaten Hun Sen, as Twining had done successfully in April, and Hun Sen would have complied long enough to ensure the negotiation and safe release of Wilson, Slater and Braquet took place, then the Cambodian government could resume military operations against the Khmer Rouge on Phnom Vour.

When Keating and Evans failed to do so, they sealed the hostages’ fate by their inaction and lack of courage while publicly duplicitously telling the hostages' families and the Australian public that "we are doing everything possible to get their safe release". Nothing could have been further from the truth. Clearly, Wilson and his companions died on Phnom Vour in vain to protect Evans' false conclusion during a visit in April 1994 that "Cambodia had returned to normalcy" so as to keep his bid to become the next UN Secretary-General on track.

In 2005, whatever the failings of the Howard Coalition government (1996-2007), it did not pussyfoot around when Australian contractor Douglas Wood was kidnapped in Iraq. Immediately it sent in the SASR who then rescued Wood. No repeat of Cambodia 1994 inaction there. Wood lived to tell his tale. The truth is now known to all.

By contrast, the truth of the Wilson fiasco may never be known. The Victorian Inquest into David Wilson's death has been adjourned after State Coroner, Graeme Johnstone, retired in November 2007. Since then there has been no word over whether the Inquest will ever be completed. So we may never know why Evans simply did not pick up the phone. But he is now trying to save the world in his new role as PM Rudd's co-chair of the International Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Commission.

The moral of the story for politicians, whether it be fighting bushfires or wars, is to step back and let the professionals handle it, having first of all given them the necessary official support and tools to start and then finish the job.

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About the Author

Sasha Uzunov graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Australia, in 1991. He enlisted in the Australian Regular Army as a soldier in 1995 and was allocated to infantry. He served two peacekeeping tours in East Timor (1999 and 2001). In 2002 he returned to civilian life as a photo journalist and film maker and has worked in The Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan. His documentary film Timor Tour of Duty made its international debut in New York in October 2009. He blogs at Team Uzunov.

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