Television Interview, Sky News Newsday

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The Hon Matt Thistlethwaite MP

Assistant Minister for Defence

Assistant Minister for Veterans’ Affairs

Assistant Minister for the Republic

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Ben Leeson on 0404 648 275

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25 April 2024

SUBJECTS: Sandakan Memorial; Anzac Day; Australia-Malaysia relationship.     

KIERAN GILBERT, HOST: From Kokoda, let's go live now to Sandakan, Malaysia. I'm joined by the Assistant Defence Minister, Matt Thistlethwaite. It must have been a special moment for you to be there for the dawn service, Matt, from one sacred ground at Kokoda, Sandakan, sacred for another reason. 2,500 Australian and British troops were involved in the death marches, only six survived.

MATT THISTLETHWAITE, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: Yeah, that's correct, Kieran. This is the site of one of the worst atrocities ever perpetrated against Australian soldiers in any conflict. And as you point out, on the death march from Sandakan to Ranau 2,428 Australian and British troops set out. They were sick, they were emaciated, they were in no condition to march the 260 kilometres, and at the end only six survived. It's a terrible, terrible tragedy. It was a very moving dawn service this morning in which a number of the descendants of those who were killed and some of the survivors spoke very passionately and laid wreaths. It's an honour to be here on behalf of the Australian Government and also to thank the Malaysian people who assisted our troops during that time. The six that survived managed to do so because they escaped and they were sheltered and given food by the local Malayan people. And we thank them and remember them today as well.

GILBERT: Yeah, it is sacred ground, as we've said. And we know that many family members and offspring of those that took part in Gallipoli or Villers-Bretonneux right around the world, they make the pilgrimage to those sites to spend Anzac Day, to mark Anzac Day. Have you met family members during your visit to Sandakan that have done the same?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, I certainly have. And I've been very touched and moved by the raw emotion that was on display here this morning. All of those descendants got the opportunity to name their relative and to lay a rose at the memorial, and they surrounded the memorial in a ring of solidarity. And it was just a very, very moving moment. And I met one young Australian, Ethan. His grandfather and great grandfather had served in World War One and World War Two, and he was laying a wreath on behalf of his family. And you could tell that he was very, very emotional. He was with his grandfather, and they were both paying their respects and they were on a pilgrimage to do just that, to respect their family heritage.

GILBERT: Not a lot of people would be aware. I want you to reflect, if you can, on how some of those experiences have forged what is a strong friendship, really, between Australia and Malaysia in the sense that our Air Force uses a Malaysian air base. I think one of few, if maybe the only, country that is afforded that opportunity to essentially have a base out of Malaysia. And a lot of that strength of the military ties goes back all the way to Sandakan.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: It certainly does, Kieran. That connection has been there since World War Two and we've maintained what is the only Australian Defence Force base on foreign soil since World War Two. And we have that strong connection between our two militaries that's been maintained ever since. And it was wonderful to meet some of the troops, the Australian troops who are at Butterworth at the moment, they participated in the ceremony this morning. I'm flying there tomorrow to meet with them, to see firsthand the great work that they're doing on their deployment, and also to thank them for strengthening relations not only with Malaysia, but through broader Southeast Asia. Some of the guys that are situated at Butterworth are participating in dawn services in Brunei, in Singapore, in Thailand, and, of course, strengthening that bond that exists between Malaysia and Australia and the wider Southeast Asia where Australians serve with pride and dignity.

GILBERT: Indeed, they have, and I appreciate your time to speak to us from Sandakan today. Assistant Defence and Veterans' Affairs Minister Matt Thistlethwaite we’ll speak to you soon.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Thanks very much, Kieran.


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