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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Comment: Hostages: Pawns and politics

Comment: Hostages: Pawns and politics

Ker Munthit and Matthew Grainger probe the underlying causes of the tragedy.

The turbulent events on Phnom Vour have climaxed in the deaths of the three Western hostages.

On July 26 they left Phnom Penh on what many would say was a foolhardy journey by train to Sihanoukville. As fate would have it the train was ambushed by Khmer Rouge Colonel Chhuk Rin and his men. Fifteen passengers died in the assault, valuables were looted and the three Westerners, around 12 Khmers and three Vietnamese were retained as hostages, in the hands of General Noun Paet.

Whether it was an opportunistic kidnapping by the rebel faction or a planned operation, the three intrepid travellers found themselves embroiled in a situation beyond their control.

That there are never "winners" in terrorism involving hostages has been proven time and again.

In this incident, which is certainly far from over following the discovery of three graves, the players are already scarred.

Paet has escaped with his life, for now, but the Khmer Rouge has lost an enclave, and Paet a cushy fiefdom where he had survived a highly-professional, battle-hardened Vietnamese army.

The Khmer Rouge faction as a whole has also lost out, it could be argued, by stirring up international anger that might yet led to their destruction. Certainly any force used against them now will have at least the moral and tacit blessing of the French, British and Australian governments. That help might become more tangible.

To some degree Cambodia has suffered further damage to its battered public image - with a corresponding boost for the Khmer Rouge.

Certainly the Royal Govern-ment's actions in response to the hostage crisis deserve close inspection and some ground work conducted to formulate policy in advance of future incidents.

The media were blasted for its feeding frenzy that did not help the hostages and heaped embarrassment on the Cambodian government. It was fed by the Khmer Rouge, who allowed letters, photos, a radio conversation and even a half-hour video clip out of the camp. In retrospect, the alarm should have sounded when that constant news flow suddenly stopped - possibly around late-September or earlier.

The Australian government wanted to "minimize damaging publicity, protect its relationships with Cambodia, protect (Foreign Affairs minister) Gareth Evans and, provided those objectives were not compromised, secure the hostages release." That charge came from the Wilson family, who also complained that Prime Minister Paul Keating publicly expressed his condolences at a time they were still living in hope, and that he never contacted them.

Of course the biggest losers in what became a geopolitical drama were the hostages themselves and their families, who will soon be burying their sons. They join the Vietnamese and Cambodian families who have been mourning their dead, from the same attack, for the past three months.

Winners? Possibly only one, and he the most unlikely - Chhuk Rin, the same man who began the journey for the three that led to their graves.

Rin, probably rather quickly, lost his control of the hostages to Paet. It took him however until Oct 15 before deciding to wash his hands of the affair and wander down the mountain to the government with a smile.

By that stage the hostages were probably already dead.

His wife mediated his defection. She was driven to Phnom Penh for a shampoo and dress-up.

Rin danced at a Kampot club, had a macabre dinner fete with his former enemies and from Defense Minister Tea Chamrath collected a pardon, a pressed army uniform, a promotion and $200.

First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh, managing a moment of lightness, suggested Rin be put in charge of security in Kep. The joke would not have read well in three homes in Australia, France and England, which probably haven't heard much laughter recently.

Paet demanded six Swiss Rado watches and $150,000 in gold for the hostages. The KR leadership got in on the act and demanded an end to international military aid.

The government could not afford to entertain either demand.

To pay Paet would have put a price on all Western heads. No government can give in to terrorist demands. To turn away foreign aid would be to strengthen the very terrorists they are fighting.

But the government seemed to promote both "carrot and stick" solutions, bombing the area one minute, haggling the next.

Paet should have known the score. He kidnapped American aid worker Melissa Himes in May, exchanged her for a truck-load of supplies, then got a faceful of government rockets.

Paet was quoted as saying "the three sharp-noses must die before I do."

The Cambodian Government at all times made public assurances that the hostages were alive, and that Paet needed them to bargain. Why then did Keating publicly send his condolences to the Wilson family apparently before the bodies were discovered? Why did Evans say they were probably dead? Why did the government order a full assault on Phnom Vour?

Even a ham-fisted politician, which Keating is not, wouldn't have gone public unless he knew something concrete. The suggestion is that the fate of the hostages has been known long before now, and that the government has been protecting itself by covering its eyes with its hands.

Certainly the government was quick to trumpet the "good news" about the stream of Khmer Rouge defectors coming down from Phnom Vour in the last few weeks.

However, there must have also been some unwelcome intelligence from the same sources - that yes, the hostages were dead.

There are questions too about the Australian, French and British Governments. Given the knowledge of the Cambodian army's shortcomings, and their track record of failure in other hostage situations, would it not have been feasible to expect their help? Was it offered? Will those governments now demand their pound of flesh, possibly from Rin?

The death of the hostages is not necessarily a bad outcome for the Royal Government. It fuels their campaign to drum up lethal aid from Western countries, who have been for the most part left to wring their hands on the sidelines as the tragedy unfolded.

To some observers it would seem that Hun Sen was particularly quick off the mark in this regard by presiding over a a trip to Kampot to announce the deaths of the hostages with the diplomatic and press corps.

In Kampot Hun Sen blamed media coverage for the hostages' deaths but to do so is trite.

There must be no opportunity to think that the problem will somehow drift away now that the fate of the three is known.

While the hostages lives have sadly ended on Phnom Vour a debate about how this came about should now begin.

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