Bodies of military personnel killed in Malaysia to return home

The most significant phase of a mission to exhume the remains of New Zealand military personnel killed and buried while serving overseas begins in Malaysia on Wednesday.

The bodies of 28 New Zealand Defence Force personnel and one child will be disinterred from cemeteries in Malaysia and Singapore as part of project Te Auraki, or 'The Return'.

It started in Fiji and American Samoa where three service personnel were exhumed and brought back to their families in New Zealand in early May. The Malaysian phase of the mission is the largest and began with a blessing ceremony at Terendak Military Cemetery. 

A team of bio-archaeologists, dentists and anthropologists have accompanied the Defence Force to help identify the remains.

The repatriation project, which could cost up to $10m, follows a change in Government policy when it comes to those buried overseas after 1955. 

Previously - and controversially - only those who could afford to bring their loved ones home from their place of burial could do so. That policy was seen as discriminatory and the rules were changed last year, but only after a lengthy campaign by the Returned Services' Association (RSA) and affected families.

"This project is really about putting that right for 29 people coming home from Malaysia and Singapore," says Te Auraki project manager Carl Nixon, who is currently in Malaysia. 

The remains from Malaysia and Singapore will be returned to New Zealand on August 21, when families will gather for a ramp ceremony at Auckland International Airport.