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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Twenty years since grenade attack on opposition rally marked

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CNRP president Kem Sokha places incense at a stupa memorialising the victims of a 1997 grenade attack on an opposition rally, during an anniversary ceremony yesterday in Phnom Penh. Hong Menea

Twenty years since grenade attack on opposition rally marked

As Buddhist chants resonated around Wat Botum Park yesterday, the CNRP marked the 20th anniversary of a grenade attack on a rally, led by former party president Sam Rainsy, that claimed at least 16 lives and injured scores, but has still yet to see perpetrators brought to justice.

At a small memorial adorned with flowers and incense sticks, Cambodia National Rescue Party officials, supporters, victims and their families were led in prayer by a dozen saffron-clad monks. Party leaders Kem Sokha, Eng Chhay Eang and Pol Ham lit candles at the memorial and made offerings for those killed in the attack on March 30, 1997.

The event, which has been organised over the past 20 years, makes an annual call for a thorough investigation into the attacks and to bring the still-unidentified perpetrators to justice.

The exiled Rainsy, speaking via Skype, made a rousing call to supporters to never forget the events of 1997 and to continue to push the government to find and convict the perpetrators – likening the wait to the 40 years it took to set up the Khmer Rouge tribunal to prosecute the brutal regime’s senior leadership.

Meanwhile, in an ironically timed announcement, a Phnom Penh judge yesterday convicted Rainsy in absentia of incitement and defamation over his allegations that the assassination last year of political analyst Kem Ley was “state-backed terrorism”.

Party president Sokha yesterday struck a conciliatory note, asking supporters to not replicate any acts of violence or insults they may face.

“Justice can take place only when we reduce or eliminate mistreatment, the use of insults or violence,” he said.

On March 30, 20 years ago, four American-made grenades were lobbed into a group of Khmer National Party supporters rallying at Wat Botum to call for an independent judiciary. The resulting carnage, which Rainsy narrowly escaped, killed at least 16 people and injured around 120.

Kampong Speu resident and former factory worker Pov Phally yesterday thanked her lucky stars she survived the blasts.

“When the people started to fall down, I was stuck under them. So I was lucky to escape the grenades,” she said.

However, Yung Mot, lost his daughter and niece – both garment workers – and still recalls the harrowing hours after the attack. “I heard about the blasts and asked people to look for my daughter but no one could find her . . . We finally found her [body] at Preah Puth pagoda.”

While a local investigation into the incident yielded no results, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation conducted an inquiry due to the fact that American national Rob Abney was injured in the attack.

Though the investigation was ultimately inconclusive, the FBI’s report pointed at the involvement of the Prime Minister’s Bodyguard Unit, which allegedly allowed the attackers to escape to a nearby compound. But investigators were packed off before concluding the inquiry, allegedly because of then-US Ambassador Kenneth Quinn’s reluctance to sour relations with Hun Sen.

In a report to coincide with the anniversary, Human Rights Watch called for the resumption of the FBI’s stalled investigation, casting doubts at local authorities’ willingness to identify and convict the perpetrators.

“Compelling evidence of the involvement of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s personal Bodyguard Unit in this atrocity means a serious domestic investigation never has – and never will – take place,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

Adams added that the incident set the tone for a bloody coup a few months later and continued “physical attacks and trumped-up prosecutions against the opposition”.

Immediately following the attack, Rainsy held a make-shift press conference pointing the finger squarely at Hun Sen for orchestrating the attacks.

However, a letter written by Rainsy in 2006 – and published yesterday by government mouthpiece Fresh News – had him apologising to the premier for alleging that he was behind the attack. At the time, Rainsy was negotiating a political deal with Hun Sen to end his exile from the country.

Asked yesterday about the letter, Rainsy did not address its contents but only said political assassins were roaming free today as they have since 1997.

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Don Rennie's picture

Dear David and Sokchea,

This was a tragic event and no different from the recent event that killed Dr. Kem Lay.

In 1997, Mr. Rainsy was the target. His bodyguard was killed while protecting Mr. Rainsy from this assassination attempt.

In 1970 while working in Lai Khe, I survived three assassination attempts (the latter attempt wounding me slightly) during the Vietnam War. I was subsequently informed by my South Vietnamese counterpart that there was a bounty on my head.

The attempt on Mr. Rainsy's life was no small matter.

The CNRP should formally request the US Embassy and the FBI to reopen the investigation. The only reason the FBI got involved is because an American citizen was wounded in the attack.

Shame should fall on the US Ambassador at that time, Kenneth Quinn, for not seeking the truth. Worrying about creating sour relations between the US and Cambodia is no reason to halt or fail to conclude an investigation into a grenade attack that wounded an American citizen living abroad.

Democracy has no place for the indiscriminate killing of people who hold and voice opposing views.

DR