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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - In the shadow of Vine Mountain

In the shadow of Vine Mountain

With an Australian inquest set to revisit the killing of three Western tourists by Khmer Rouge in 1994, former cadres in Kampot reflect on the events that led to the men’s capture and killing

KAMPOT PROVINCE
OFF a dusty track in Trapeang Chranieng village lies a half-finished Buddhist pagoda, its unpainted walls still exposed to the mid-afternoon sun. Locals say the new building – as well as a nearby shrine, built in 2007 – is dedicated to the spirits of those killed in the village while it was under the control of Khmer Rouge forces in the 1990s.

Now a small hamlet of thatch houses and rustling palm leaves, there is little to hint at Trapeang Chranieng’s tumultuous past. As a Khmer Rouge camp – part of the armed group’s Phnom Voar (‘Vine Mountain’) stronghold – the village was the last home of David Wilson, Mark Slater and Jean-Michel Braquet, three tourists kidnapped when Khmer Rouge troops ambushed a Sihanoukville-bound train on July 26, 1994, killing 13 Cambodians.

Despite heated negotiations with Cambodian government officials to secure their release, the three were killed in September as Phnom Voar came under fierce attack from government troops. When soldiers finally overran the area the following month, the bludgeoned bodies of the three were found in a shallow grave at the foot of the hill.

At one hut, thatched with dried palm leaves, a former Khmer Rouge cadre recalled the “handsome” young men who arrived at the camp in July 1994. “When they came they were afraid at first, but after they understood [became at ease with] me, they always spent time with me and we talked a lot, even though I didn’t understand what they said,” said Keo Gnov, who cooked for the hostages during their stay.

Upon their arrival, she said, Wilson, Slater and Braquet did not take well to the rice-based Khmer diet, but were able to survive on potatoes, sugar cane and coconuts that she foraged for them.

The 63-year-old, now bent by years of back-breaking rural labour, giggled when recalling an incident during their first days at the camp, when the captives scandalised local villagers by showering naked in the open. The three quickly learned to wrap a cotton krama, or cloth, around their waists in the traditional Khmer manner.

A quiet grove, shaded by banana, mango and guava trees, is all that remains of the “prisoners’ area” of the village. Kol Mak, 60, a stooped former school teacher, pointed out the crumbling laterite foundations that mark the location of the small wooden hut that was used to house the three Western hostages.

Although the captives were confined to the camp, they were not mistreated, said Keo Gnov, and they were largely free to walk about as they pleased. But her bright eyes dimmed when she recalled the government’s artillery offensives on the area, when the mood of the hostages fluctuated between relative relaxation and an evident fear for their lives.

“When the Cambodian government soldiers opened fire, they put their arms around me and we hid in the trenches together, and at night we slept together in that wooded house,” she said. “I loved them as my sons, and I saw that they loved me as their mother.”

Keo Gnov said she was moved out of the area as the government forces began their assault on Phnom Voar and heard only several months later that the hostages had been killed. “I shed many tears when I got the news that they were killed. I wanted to help in their release, but I couldn’t because the area was surrounded by Khmer Rouge and government soldiers,” she said.

Failed negotiations
Fifteen years after the 1994 hostage affair, the Victorian coroner’s court in Melbourne, Australia, is preparing to reopen its inquest into Wilson’s killing – adjourned in 2007 – after the delivery of a case file by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The file is believed to include hundreds of pages of documents and diplomatic cables detailing the Australian government’s response to the hostage crisis.

Alastair Gaisford, who was consul at the Australian embassy in Phnom Penh at the time of the kidnappings, says the file shows Canberra had foreknowledge of the Cambodian military’s planned attack against Phnom Voar between August and October 1994 but “did nothing” to stop it.

In an article published in Melbourne’s The Age on February 8, he said that then-foreign minister Gareth Evans, who enjoyed a close relationship with senior Cambodian officials, ignored the embassy’s advice that he should travel to Cambodia in an effort to halt the offensive. “The Australian government already knew and approved of a Cambodian government plan for full-scale attack on the hostage mountain, which would place their lives in danger, only a week later,” he wrote.

Gaisford told the Post last week that the government-led negotiations – which were successful in negotiating the captives’ release in exchange for US$150,000 cash – crumbled under the government’s subsequent offensive. As a result, he said, two agreed releases scheduled for August 19 and 26 failed and led directly to the killing of the hostages at dawn on September 8.

He cited the kidnapping on March 31, 1994 of US national Melissa Himes, who was released after negotiations with the NGO she was working for, as an example of the positive outcome that could have been reached in the later case. At the time, US embassy officials put pressure on the Cambodian government not to attack the area in which she was being held, allowing negotiations to proceed.

Photo by: Sebastian Strangio
Prak Sothy (right), a former Khmer Rouge commander from Kampot province, says the attack on the Phnom Vour stronghold led to the killing of the three hostages. Keo Gnov (above) cooked for the men during their six-week internment.

Former stronghold
Not much remains today of the main Khmer Rouge base at Phnom Voar. After the stronghold was overrun in late 1994, the remaining forces turned in their weapons and descended to the surrounding plains, returning to rural life.

Chamkar Bay village, set inland from the palm-swept shores of the Gulf of Thailand, is today populated with former cadres who have taken a new turn as farmers, vendors, local government officials and cultivators of the famed Kampot pepper vine.

Over the village, tracing a crooked line across the horizon, looms Vine Mountain itself, flecked with shadows cast by the fast-moving clouds.

Prak Sothy, 63, a former Khmer Rouge commander who once bore the name Chum Nuong, still retains shades of the young man who took up Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s call to join the Khmer Rouge resistance in the mid-1970s. His former leadership role has secured Prak Sothy a prominent place in the community: Following the arrest of General Nuon Paet, the head of Khmer Rouge Division 405 – as well as his subordinates Chhouk Rin and Sam Bith – for the killing of the hostages, he is the highest-ranking former cadre still living in the village.

During an interview at his home in Chamkar Bay on February 9, Prak Sothy, dressed in a baggy military shirt and torn green trousers, confirmed that the government’s two-month siege of Phnom Voar divided the local leadership and led to the unplanned killing of the three hostages. He first recalled hearing of the killings when he arrived at the camp to find the captives gone.

His said his wife told him that angkar had taken them to “a higher level” before she heard three shots to the west of the village. Prak Sothy, now a local councilor in Pong Teuk commune, said he later learned that Nuon Paet had been in favour of a ransom exchange, but that two low-level officers – whom he identified only as Vorn and Bon – were angered by the attack and decided to execute the hostages themselves.

“The two Khmer Rouge soldiers said that the three foreigners were not their parents, so they didn’t care if they shot and killed them,” he said.

Vorn and Bon were subsequently shot on Nuon Paet’s orders, he said, for having sacrificed the ransom payments.

You Yi, a former soldier living in Chamkar Bay, agreed that the three hostages were killed as a result of a government offensive on Phnom Voar.

He added, however, that a dubious middleman had also contributed to the hostages’ death by grossly misrepresenting ransom demands to their Khmer Rouge captors.

“They wanted to cheat the Khmer Rouge soldiers. The victims’ families agreed to give us $50,000 for each of the hostages, but [the middleman] told the Khmer Rouge soldiers the figure was only $7,000. When they found out the real price, with the situation destabilised by the Cambodian government attack, they were killed,” he said.

Last month, lawyers for Chhouk Rin, the former regimental commander in Division 405, said their client would soon seek a royal pardon for his role in the killings, on the grounds of ill health. Both men said they sympathised with Chhouk Rin, who was handed a life sentence in 2002 for leading the train ambush that netted Wilson, Slater and Braquet.

“Chhouk Rin only arrested the three of them; he did not kill them. After he joined with the government he tried to negotiate their release,” said Prak Sothy. While his efforts came too late to save the hostages, Prak Sothy said Chhouk Rin should be released as a token of good will. “I think the government should release him because he gave the government a lot of help,” he said.

Long-awaited answers
As the government in Victoria prepares to reconvene its inquest after a three-year hiatus, Peter Wilson, David’s father, expressed hopes the process might finally shed some light on his son’s death at Phnom Voar. Wilson said he did not level all the blame at the local Khmer Rouge who were involved with the abduction of the three young tourists, instead pointing the finger at the political machinations of the Cambodian and Australian governments.

“In my opinion, most soldiers who do bad things, they mainly do them because they’re told to,” he said by phone from Melbourne. “Politically, the Australian government was not willing to go in hard enough to do something about Hun Sen.”

Wilson described the “mental torture” that the Phnom Voar offensive would have wreaked on the three hostages, who would have never known when their moment of reckoning was at hand. Despite years of trying to obtain vital documents through Australian freedom of information laws, he said, the department of foreign affairs is still withholding large sections of the Wilson case file.

“They don’t want it to come out for many reasons – some maybe are justifiable, but others could be just to protect themselves from what they failed to do,” he said.

But with requests from the coroner’s court this month for 157 pages of top-secret documents to be released by the government, there is an increased chance the full story will now be told.

“It’s the truth that we want,” Wilson said. “David and his friends could have been saved.”

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