Australia announced on Monday that it would repatriate the bodies of 25 of its soldiers who were killed 50 years ago while fighting in the Vietnam War. The move is part of Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s plan to expand Australia’s commemoration of its past wars.
Abbott told the nation's parliament on Monday that the remains from one grave in Singapore’s Kranji War Cemetery and 24 from Malaysia’s Terendak Military Cemetery would be returned. He added that while Malaysia had treated the graves with respect and care, the fact that they were interred in a military base limited relatives’ access to them.
“We can never restore those who have died in the service of our country, but we can and we should offer solace and support to the families left behind,” he told parliament.
"As 2015 marks 50 years since the arrival of combat troops and the escalation of Australian involvement in Vietnam, it is right and proper that we honor their service with this gesture," he added, in separate remarks.
Abbott vowed that Canberra would take steps to return the remains to Australia except in cases where the relatives expressed their wishes for the graves to remain undisturbed.
“Either way their decision will be respected,” Abbott said. “I can assure those who chose repatriation that we will bring our soldiers home with full military honors. They will be reburied in Australia at a cemetery of the families’ choosing.”
Until 1966, Australian military policy called for soldiers killed abroad to be buried in the countries where they had fallen, resulting in large cemeteries for Australian soldiers across Europe and Korea. Since then, Australia has repatriated all of its war dead, with the exception of the 25 bodies.
The announcement is set to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the departure of the 1st Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment to Vietnam, where 521 Australian soldiers fell in combat, out of almost 60,000 who served in the war. Abbott said the anniversary was the right time to “honor their service with this gesture.”
The current year also saw the hundredth anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign from World War I, celebrated in Australia and other countries as Anzac Day.