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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - 10 years after the grenade attack

10 years after the grenade attack

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Adecade after the unsolved March 30, 1997 grenade attack on a Khmer Nation Party

(KNP) demonstration, Doung Hak, a former journalist present at the rally, still feels

pain from the shrapnel wounds in his legs.

On March 30, 1997, a grenade attack on an opposition rally left more than a dozen dead and more than 100 wounded. No arrests have been made. A Ministry of Interior spokesman told the Post on March 22 "the investigation continues, but no evidence has been found."

Hak, 45, from Phnom Penh, can vividly recall the Sunday morning when a crowd of about

200 supporters of the opposition KNP party, led by former Finance Minister Sam Rainsy,

demonstrated in a park across the street from the National Assembly.

"The mood was very high and I remember a woman was expressing her grievances

about the loss of her land in Kampong Cham province," Hak told the Post on March

21. "Then suddenly there was a huge explosion. It stunned me and I fell to the

ground. Then I heard three more explosions."

Hak said he lost consciousness and when he came to, he felt an extreme pain in his

leg.

"My leg felt very heavy. All around people were groaning. Then there was screaming.

People were running away."

Hak said he struggled to his feet and ran to his car. He drove himself to Calmette

Hospital with other victims.

"I think the force of the shock pushed me on," he said. "When I arrived

at the hospital I lay down and couldn't move any more. There were more people lying

around me. It was truly terrible. It was a sea of blood."

Eyewitness accounts reported two grenades thrown by a pair of attackers on foot in

the park behind the protesters. Two more grenades were thrown by men on a moto who

sped by on the other side of the demonstration.

Witnesses told the Post at the time that the assailants on foot fled towards a group

of soldiers in the park who were in the dress of Second Prime Minister Hun Sen's

bodyguard. The soldiers were deployed in the west of the park near Wat Botum and

close to a guarded Cambodian People's Party (CPP) compound.

Witnesses said the line of soldiers opened to allow the grenade-throwers to pass

- but their pursuers were stopped at gunpoint.

The grenade attack killed protesters and bystanders, including children, and blew

limbs off nearby street vendors. Witnesses described scenes of bloody carnage, with

victims loaded indiscriminately into pickup trucks. Others were left to bleed to

death where they had fallen. Some victims were taken to the nearby Kantha Bopha II

children's hospital but Dr Beat Richner, the hospital's director, refused them entry.

They were left on the footpath.

The attack killed about 16 people - the exact number has never been officially confirmed

- and injured more than a hundred others.

After the first grenade exploded, Sam Rainsy's bodyguard, Han Muny, threw himself

on his leader. He took the full force of a subsequent grenade and died at the scene.

Rainsy escaped with a minor leg injury.

The attack occurred at a time of extreme political tension in Cambodia. The coalition

government was unraveling after armed clashes between Funcinpec and CPP forces the

previous month. Sam Rainsy's KNP was seen as a threat in the national elections scheduled

for the following year.

Rainsy told the Post immediately after the attacks who he thought was responsible.

"Hun Sen is behind this," he declared at his home, his shirt splattered

with blood. "He is a bloody man. He will be arrested and sentenced one day."

CPP officials denied all knowledge of the presence of the soldiers in the park and

blamed the Khmer Rouge for the attack.

Journalists threatened

In a June 1997 interview with the Post, Hing Bun Heang, deputy commander of Hun Sen's

bodyguard unit, threatened to kill journalists who alleged Hun Sen's bodyguards were

involved.

Hun Sen went so far as to threaten to arrest the organizers of the protest as being

responsible, comparing Rainsy to the captain of a boat that sank and its passengers

drowned.

"I think this bunch must be handcuffed according to the law, as [they are] responsible

for the deaths because they are the ones who caused it," Hun Sen said.

Rob Abney was the country director of the US International Republican Institute at

the time. Abney told the Post by email he remembered thinking the rally would be

a success.

"As we entered the area I told Rainsy that we would be safe today as Hun Sen

had sent his private bodyguard unit to guard us," he said.

When the grenades went off Abney was seriously injured with shrapnel wounds in his

back.

"I saw blood-splattered people everywhere," he said. "As I tried to

get up I thought we were all going to be killed."

Abney was taken to Calmette Hospital before being moved to a private clinic.

"I remember the people who came by [the clinic] and the look of fear and sadness

in their eyes as it had sunk in that this was how Hun Sen was going to treat anyone

speaking out against him," he said. "We all felt as if all the promises

made by the Cambodian government for openness and freedom were broken that day."

The US government deemed the attack "an act of terrorism" and because Abney

was a US citizen the FBI arrived to investigate.

On June 29, 1997, the Washington Post reported that the investigation had "tentatively

pinned responsibility for the blasts, and the subsequent interference, on personal

bodyguard forces employed by Hun Sen."

In July 1997, forces loyal to each Prime Minister fought each other in Phnom Penh,

and First Prime MinisterNorodom Ranariddh's supporters were ousted from the capital.

In the years since, with the Cambodian authorities failing to cooperate fully, the

FBI investigation into the grenade attack wound down. It has now effectively been

abandoned.

Brad Adams, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said the grenade attack had

a profound and lasting effect on Cambodia's political scene.

"The brazen attack, carried out in broad daylight, ingrained impunity more than

any other single act in recent Cambodian history," Adams said. "But that

appears to have been one of its purposes."

Adams said the attack had never been properly investigated.

"No credible explanation has ever been offered for the deployment or behavior

of Hun Sen's bodyguards," he said.

When contacted by the Post, Teng Savong, undersecretary of state in the Ministry

of Interior, was reluctant to speak about the attack.

"My authorities are still continuing to investigate but up to now nothing has

been found," he said. "We can't find any evidence."

In 2004 Rainsy filed a lawsuit accusing Hun Sen of masterminding the massacre. Sam

Rainsy Party officials claimed to have videotaped evidence of two men confessing

to being paid by Him Bun Heang, an assistant to Hun Sen's Bodyguard Force commander,

to participate in the attack. The lawsuit failed to proceed.

In February 2005 Rainsy left Cambodia when the National Assembly stripped him of

his parliamentary immunity and Hun Sen filed criminal defamation charges against

him. He was tried in absentia, found guilty and sentenced to 18 months in jail.

In February 2006 Rainsy returned to Cambodia after reaching an agreement with Hun

Sen, and publicly withdrew his accusation that Hun Sen had orchestrated the attack.

Doung Hak, who now runs a massage parlor, said he was one of the lucky victims. He

was a correspondent for the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun, which evacuated him

to Bangkok. He spent two months recovering from his injuries.

Hak believes the victims will never receive justice.

"The culture of impunity continues in Cambodia and I don't think the people

responsible will ever be caught," he said. "There was never a real investigation

by the government. If the Khmer Rouge trial finally goes ahead then one day we might

get justice. But if they can't even prosecute the really big crimes then how can

we ever expect other crimes to be prosecuted?"

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