Sombre KLIA ceremony marks repatriation of 27 Kiwi soldiers' remains

Hashini Kavishtri Kannan, Siti A'isyah Sukaimi

SEPANG: The decades-old remains of 27 fallen soldiers of the New Zealand armed forces were repatriated today following a special ceremony called "Op Te Auraki" (the return) at the Bunga Raya Complex of the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) here.

Defence Minister Mohamad Sabu who was present at the send-off also witnessed the signing ceremony of the official handing-over document.

Also on hand were Armed Forces chief Tan Sri Zulkifli Zainal Abidin and New Zealand Chief of Army Peter Kelly.

The ceremony was also attended by some 400 members of the Malaysian Armed Forces and a New Zealand armed forces delegation.

A total of 180 members of the Armed Forces Protocol Team took part in the official handing-over of the 27 coffins.

The remains departed KLIA via an Air New Zealand Boeing 787 aircraft and are expected to arrive in Auckland on Tuesday, where they will be handed over to their respective families.

Mohamad said Op Te Auraki is a high-value operation for Malaysia.

"This is a milestone in the bilateral defence ties of Malaysia and New Zealand. We honour New Zealand for their contributions to Malaysia’s independence.

"And Malaysia is delighted to carry out this joint project," he added.

Mohamad said the remains were of Kiwi soldiers who perished while serving in engagements prior to World War 1 and the Malayan Emergency.

"This is a milestone in the bilateral defence ties of Malaysia and New Zealand. We honour New Zealand for their contributions to Malaysia’s independence” said Defence Minister Mohamad Sabu. Pix by Ahmad Irham Mohd Noor

"New Zealand soldier mostly lost their lives in Perak and at the Thai-Malaysian border up to around 1966.

"It is estimated that nearly 4,000 New Zealand soldiers served in Malaya/Malaysia before their deployment to Vietnam in 1967," he said.

In 2017, the New Zealand government announced changes to its repatriation policy and began bringing home the remains of personnel and dependents who died overseas between 1955 and 1971.

Forensic and excavation works took place in Malaysia between July 3 and Aug 12, which led to the identification of 16 New Zealand defence personnel, four soldiers and one family member, and seven bodies at the Commonwealth War Grave (CWG) in Terendak Camp, Melaka; the CWG in Cheras, Kuala Lumpur; and the CWG in Kamunting, Perak, respectively.

A disinterment team of 588 bio-archaeologists, forensic anthropologists and other experts started work on March 21 last year, led by Major-General Datuk Dr Haji Mohd Ilham Haji Haron who is a forensic odontology expert at the Defence Ministry’s hospital.

Experts from New Zealand; the Army Museum Port Dickson; the Health Ministry; the Malaysian Nuclear Agency, the Centre for Global Archaeological Research, Universiti Sains Malaysia; the Institute of the Malay World and Civilisation; and Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s experts in medicine, odontology and forensic biology also assisted in the victim identification and verification process.

Meanwhile, Kelly extended the New Zealand armed forces’ gratitude to Malaysia in helping in the repatriation process.

"We are grateful to the Malaysian government for agreeing to and assisting with the repatriations, and for caring for the resting places of the New Zealand soldiers for more than 60 years.

"We recognise that the repatriation holds special significance to the people of Malaysia, as these men lost their lives in defending Malaysia.

"Their sacrifice underpins New Zealand's warm and long-standing relationship with Malaysia," he added.

However, Kelly said that there are still remains of their soldiers in Malaysia.

"We only bring home the remains of soldiers whose families want them back in New Zealand.

"But, there are also families who expressed that they want their loved ones to remain in this country," he added. © New Straits Times Press (M) Bhd