"Thun Bun Ly paid the price for his political choices. And Sam Rainsy will
pay the price. They will get him. They just wait for the right time," a senior
CPP official told the Post after the murder of journalist and Khmer Nation Party
member Thun Bun Ly last May.
On March 30, Easter Sunday, somebody decided the time was right. At about 8:30am
Sam Rainsy learnt that he had called one public demonstration too many. Four grenades
thrown, from at least two directions. A crowd of about 150 - more than half of them
hit by shrapnel. At least 15 dead. More than an assassination attempt on Rainsy,
it was a successful bid to commit mass murder.
The venue was richly appropriate: outside the National Assembly - the symbol of democracy
in Cambodia, or, as some see it, the symbol of the impotence of democratic institutions
The lack of respect for this parliament and its members has reached new depths. As
one former CPP advisor wryly noted an hour or two after the grenades went off: "They've
finally found a use for the National Assembly."
The photographs of the carnage are sickening. Some may prefer not to see them. But
this is reality, as 150-odd people experienced it on Sunday. This is the reality
of Cambodia six years after the Paris Peace Agreements, four years after UNTAC and
- most disturbingly - 18 months before a general election. They are photographs that
should make their way to the desks of every Cambodian official, and every foreign
one who makes decisions on dealings with this country.
Welcome to Cambodian democracy. What lay on the ground across the road from the parliament
gates last Sunday morning was more than the shattered remains of human beings. Also
lying there, for all to see, was the tragedy of a country where human beings remain
- still - cannon fodder; where people throw grenades with the self-assuredness that
comes from being confident of your impunity; where the state of what we call human
rights - that means the right not be murdered, for those who like to argue the semantics
- is as ugly as torn, bloody limbs.
The issue is not whether you like Sam Rainsy, whether you believe he is pushing too
hard (or rowing in a straight line down a crooked river, to use a Khmer phrase),
whether you believe he is courting an ugly fate and toying with his followers' lives
in the process. The issue - the only one - is whether throwing grenades into a crowd
of people holding a peaceful demonstration is acceptable behavior and, if not, whether
the perpetrators of such acts should face justice.
Even before the last bodies had been dragged away, the rhetoric began: It was the
CPP; it was the fault of the people who had the grenades thrown at them (a familiar
line); it was Sam Rainsy throwing grenades at himself; it was Funcinpec; it was the
The fact is that there is more than one plausible explanation, if also plenty of
implausible ones. The fact is that what Cambodia least needs now is speculation,
assumption and innuendo but - in the absence of anything else - that is all it will
Maybe the grenades threw themselves. We may as well make that the official line,
because, on past experience, the chances of there being a competent, independent
inquiry into who threw grenades into a crowd outside the National Assembly on the
morning of March 30, 1997, can be put at nil.
Who remembers the night of September 30, 1995, when at least 35 people were injured
when grenades were thrown at Son Sann's BLDP supporters, including at a Buddhist
pagoda (so much for "Nation, Religion, King")? Who remembers the condescending
government faces who pledged a "full investigation" to bring to justice
the perpetrators? Today, does the Cambodian public know who threw those grenades?
Do they know who killed journalist Noun Chan on Sept 7, 1994? Thou Char Mongkol three
months earlier? Who shot Ek Mongkul February last year? Who killed Thun Bun Ly? Everybody
does know who ransacked Serepheap Thmei newspaper offices in October 1995; they bragged
about it, and possibly are still doing so today. Some people claim to be sure of
who killed Kov Samuth last November - so sure that they haven't let the constitutional
rights of the suspects stand in the way of the pursuit of "justice".
Perhaps it's time for some honesty. Time to say that, when the CPP official spoke
of the murder of Sam Rainsy, he was referring to people within his own party. Time
to say that acts of political violence are inevitable as long as a nation's leaders
spend more time publicly squabbling than running the country. Time to say that threatening
to shoot down airplanes and call out the tanks (there are words for leaders who speak
and act like that, and "Statesmen" is not one of them) serves no useful
purpose for the development of a country.
Perhaps it is also time for honesty from the diplomatic corps. For those who say
they support democracy to actually do so a little less diplomatically. Or time for
those diplomats - of the prominent western variety - who effectively choose to support
"political stability" rather than pluralism in Cambodia to make their position
official. Even time for those foreign envoys who privately suggest that Sam Rainsy
deserved what he got on Sunday morning to say that publicly.
It is time to acknowledge that the election campaign has officially begun, with a
bang. To come out and say what we fear for the 1998 elections - the revival of special
units such as the A-90, A-92 and A-93 "reaction forces" which UNTAC identified
as responsible for political intimidation and violence in 1993. And, on the other
side, to say that we wonder whether the leopards of the Khmer Rouge have really changed
their spots. Time to say that the recent events in Battambang show clearly that the
excesses of militants on all sides of the political spectrum only push Cambodia closer
to civil war.
Most of all, it is time to remember that millions of ordinary Khmers have repeatedly
been given the promise of peace in the past six years. To those people, that promise
is more than mere platitudes. The people who threw those grenades, and anyone who
puts the pursuit of power ahead of the pursuit of peace, are the true traitors of
Then again, perhaps we would just be wasting our time.