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’97 grenade attack remembered

MORE than 100 people turned out for Tuesday’s ceremony marking the 13th anniversary of the 1997 grenade attack that left at least 16 dead and scores injured during a peaceful opposition rally in Phnom Penh.

During the annual ceremony, held at the commemorative stupa marking the site of the attack near the former National Assembly, participants lit incense and laid wreaths, while victims’ relatives and Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) officials called for fresh investigations into the attack.

SRP President Sam Rainsy, who was injured in the attack, told his supporters by phone from France that finding justice for the victims and their families was only a matter of time.

“I have belief that justice must win someday. We will show the reality so that national and international public opinion see clearly that the highest officials were involved in the cowardly grenade attacks on March 30,” said the opposition leader, who is currently in self-imposed exile in France.

“Even if I am far away, my heart and my senses are with all of you. I would like to tell the Khmer people that we cannot forget March 30, 1997.” He added that the development of an independent court system would lead to the arrest and punishment of the perpetrators of the attack.

On March 30, 1997, four grenades were thrown into the crowd at a rally held by the opposition Khmer Nation Party (KNP) – the predecessor to the SRP – killing and injuring scores of bystanders. Though the results of a subsequent FBI investigation of the incident have never been fully made public, Kong Korm, the SRP’s acting president, hinted on Tuesday that Brigade 70 – Prime Minister Hun Sen’s personal bodyguard unit – was involved in the attack.

He said that during the KNP’s demonstration, the prime minister’s bodyguards were present at the scene just prior the grenade explosions, and that the attackers made their escape towards a perimeter set up by Brigade 70 soldiers.

“The perpetrators did not seem afraid and escaped in the direction of the security forces that were known to be the bodyguard forces of Prime Minister Hun Sen,” Kong Korm said, adding that as the attack was being investigated, the Cambodian authorities did not cooperate fully with the US agents.

Sam Vanny said at the ceremony that she does not wish for revenge against anyone, but she also called on the government and FBI to reinvestigate the attack and ensure those responsible are punished.

“We do not have rancour or a wish for revenge, but legal obligations, democracy and justice demand that the government is responsible for this,” she said. “We would like to call for the government again to revive its inquiry into the above criminal case to reveal the perpetrators and backers and take them to the court,” she said.

Meanwhile, the US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) also said the Cambodian government has failed to take any steps to investigate the attacks, despite strong evidence of the involvement of Brigade 70.

“The United States claims that human rights and the rule of law are primary policy goals in Cambodia, yet it withdrew the FBI just when it was close to solving the case and has done nothing for over a decade to resolve it,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in the statement.

“Members of the personal bodyguard unit for Hun Sen were deployed in full riot gear at the rally. They opened their lines and allowed the grenade throwers to escape, then threatened to shoot people trying to pursue them,” he added. “This attack has cast a shadow over Cambodia that will only be lifted when the perpetrators are brought to justice.”

Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak could not be reached for comment Tuesday, but Phnom Penh municipal police chief Touch Naruth dismissed the accusations, saying that authorities have tried to investigate the attack but lack enough evidence to determine who is responsible.

“Normally to make an accusation, it is necessary for them to have evidence and if there was no evidence, how can we accuse? If Phnom Penh authorities do not want to investigate, it means that the FBI does not want to investigate as well,” he said. “We wanted so much to cooperate, but we tried hard, and there was no evidence.”

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