Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Grenade inquiry 'on stand-by' as impunity reigns

Grenade inquiry 'on stand-by' as impunity reigns

Grenade inquiry 'on stand-by' as impunity reigns

There has been no justice for the worst act of urban terrorism since before the 1993

elections - the bombing of a KNP rally on March 30 last year. Chris Fontaine and

Chea Sotheacheath report on the most deadly example of Cambodia's climate of impunity

for political crimes.

On March 30, 1997, four grenades were thrown into a crowd of peaceful demonstrators

outside the National Assembly. At least 16 innocent people were killed and more than

130 wounded.

"On Easter Sunday we were joyful, we were chanting. It was a beautiful morning

in early spring," recalled Sam Rainsy, the leader of the protest against the

Cambodian judiciary. "We never believed that it would end in a bloodbath."

The attack sparked a storm of outrage from human rights groups, foreign governments

and King Norodom Sihanouk. The presence of Second Prime Minister Hun Sen's bodyguards

just a few hundred meters behind the demonstration raised accusations that Sam Rainsy's

assassination had been ordered at the highest levels of power.

Rosemary McCreery, director of the UN Center for Human Rights in Phnom Penh, called

that attack a significant change in the nature of political violence in Cambodia.

"The event in itself and the scale of the damage makes it extremely important,"

McCreery said. "It marked a change from specific individual attacks to an indiscriminate

attack on a large group of people."

Although slow to start, a high-profile investigation was organized by the Cambodian

authorities. Because an American citizen was wounded in the attack, the US Federal

Bureau of Investigation lent their expertise, raising hopes that this inquiry would

be serious and that justice would, for once, be served.

The local and foreign press paid close attention as the Cambodian and American investigators

did their work. Witnesses were interviewed, sketches of the attackers were produced

from their testimony, a suspect was identified and located.

But one year later - nothing. Matching the progress of almost every single investigation

into a political killing during the post-UNTAC era, no arrests have been made.

Thomas Hammarberg, the UN Secretary-General's human rights representative in Cambodia,

continued his pleas in February in a draft UN report presented to the Phnom Penh

government. He called for "decisive steps to be taken to address the phenomenon

of impunity in political crimes" and declared that "investigations and

prosecutions should be seriously pursued in the case of last year's March 30 grenade

attack and [the] July-August executions".

When Hammarberg returns to Cambodia in mid-April, the United Nations plans to send

along two criminal investigation experts in hopes they can assist the Cambodian authorities

to "stimulate" their investigations into the grenade attack and post-coup

killings, McCreery said, adding that the government has agreed to the visit.

"[The experts] are coming to observe the investigation processes and to make

suggestions of how the investigation could continue," she explained. "They

are not coming to do the actual investigation."

The government's grenade attack file has not been closed, Police General Teng Savong,

head of the investigation team, said on March 21, but the inquiry has been "on

stand-by" since the July fighting.

The stated reason for the team's lethargy is that its work cannot continue effectively

because a prime suspect, Kong Samreth - known better as 'Brazil' - has disappeared.

Brazil, a short and stocky man with distinct facial features, was recognized immediately

by many Phnom Penh residents from the FBI's sketches. He was identified as a bodyguard

at the Hotel Sharaton, owned by Meng Sreng, the son of business tycoon Teng Boonma.

An admitted hired gun, Brazil apparently knew he was a marked man and went into hiding.

Funcinpec General Nhek Bun Chhay found him before the police did, and in June the

RCAF's second-in-command hid the suspect at the Funcinpec-controlled Tang Krasaing

army barracks near Pochentong Airport.

Official requests were made to Bun Chhay in mid-June for Brazil's release. They were

first ignored, and later deflected with a report that Brazil had escaped from Tang

Krasaing - an apparent deception.

Bun Chhay has been quoted by many sources as saying that he last saw Brazil heavily

armed and fighting against CPP forces as his men left Tang Krasaing during the July

coup. He was either killed during the escape from Phnom Penh or he survived and went

back into hiding.

Although the investigation team won't directly accuse Bun Chhay of misconduct, his

actions have raised their ire and scrutiny.

"Regarding the Kong Samreth case, I can say there was a secret affair with Nhek

Bun Chhay. We can say that he was under the protection of Nhek Bun Chhay," Teng

Savong said.

"After the July 5-6 events we did not gather any new information on [the grenade

attack]. But we still continue our work - we have not closed this case. I believe

that if we found Kong Samreth it would produce a good result."

With the investigation focus clearly on Brazil and Nhek Bun Chhay, all other information

from eye-witnesses to the attack was termed "useless" by Teng Savong, a

statement strongly contested by human rights investigators who say that the presence

of Hun Sen's bodyguards on the day of the tragedy has been conveniently ignored.

According to Hammarberg's October 1997 report on human rights in Cambodia, based

on investigations by the UNCHR, the "heavily armed" bodyguards were in

positions 200 meters from the demonstration site in the early morning hours of March


"This was the first time ever that these soldiers were dispatched to a demonstration,"

Hammarberg wrote. "Their presence, military equipment and, according to a witness,

hostile attitude, indicated a preparedness for combat, which contrasted the small

and peaceful demonstration."

In the chaos following the attack, these soldiers maintained their battle positions

and made no attempt to help the injured. Wounded who ran toward them were turned

back at gunpoint, according to the report, while several witnesses claimed they protected

two perpetrators who were allowed to run through their defense line and into Wat


One rights worker told the Post that a witness at Wat Botum reported that two men

ran through the pagoda grounds toward its west gate that separates it from the CPP


The suspects were allowed to pass through the gate, a high-pitched whistle was heard

and an order was given to seal the compound, according to the testimony. "This

is enough to implicate the bodyguards...and prove that they were acting under orders,"

the rights worker said.

Adding weight to the accusation is a June 29 Washington Post article that claimed

the FBI had "tentatively pinned responsibility" for the attack on Hun Sen's

bodyguard unit.

Citing four US government sources, the Washington Post stated that the preliminary

FBI report was incomplete as the FBI agents visiting Phnom Penh were forced to leave

early because "US Ambassador Kenneth Quinn told them they had been targeted

for assassination and could not be protected adequately".

In reply to inquiries about this, the US Embassy stated: "The US Embassy and

the State Department have in no way impeded or tried to prevent the completion of

the FBI's investigation of this incident, nor have we hindered the preparation of

nor tried to quash any report."

The Washington Post article also quoted Phnom Penh-based diplomats as saying that

Hun Sen, "the most powerful man in Cambodia", would not be implicated in

any Cambodian criminal investigation because the Interior Ministry and judiciary

were controlled by the CPP.

When asked about the Washington Post story, Teng Savong became visibly agitated,

stating that the alleged FBI findings conflicted with the information publicized

by the joint FBI-Cambodian investigation.

"We have been aware that the FBI disclosed secret documents to affect public

opinion in America," the investigation leader said. "I would like to express...that

we categorically deny this information released by some FBI investigators."

Teng Savong said that Hun Sen's bodyguards "always opened their door" to

the FBI and the Cambodian authorities and cooperated completely with the investigation.

Quoting bodyguards that were interviewed, he said Hun Sen's security forces have

a small unit permanently stationed at Wat Botum. They had been ordered to the perimeter

of the park near the National Assembly on March 30 to secure the area for the demonstration.

As for the witness accounts that at least two suspects were allowed to enter the

CPP compound, Teng Savong had a simple explanation.

"All the soldiers we interviewed said they did not see any people run through

their line," he said. "They admitted that even they fell to the ground

when the grenades exploded. How could they see anyone run across their line? They

were also afraid they would be killed by the grenades."

Huy Piseth, a top commander of Hun Sen's bodyguards, did not mention that his troops

became frightened or jeopardized the integrity of their line, saying instead that

his men had no choice but to turn away people who fled the attack.

"Our duty is to protect the security of our leader, wherever he may be. My troops

were not related to the attack itself at all," he said.

The testimony from the witness inside Wat Botum was also discounted by Teng Savong.

"We have interviewed this man, but we have determined that these two people

were victims because one of them was injured. This is what we have determined that

the witness saw."

Interior co-Minister Sar Kheng, while supporting the findings of Teng Savong that

the bodyguard unit was not involved in the attack, expressed a shadow of doubt when

asked his personal opinion.

"The FBI went back to their country and released some other information that

[the bodyguards] were suspects. But we together did not have any reason to suspect

the bodyguards," Sar Kheng said. "[However,] it seemed to me that their

involvement or non-involvement was not clear."

At the moment, the police investigation team appears convinced that a resolution

of the grenade attack case lies with the capture of Brazil, who could identify a

suspected group of people that planned the attack.

Does Teng Savong have any leads to who might be in this group? "How can I know?"

he asked. "We must talk to Kong Samreth about this. We are very sorry he escaped,

a big fish has jumped out of our basket."

Rights workers, who note that they have examined testimony from almost 100 witnesses

while the government team interviewed only 11, were not surprised by the investigation

team's preliminary conclusions.

Brazil may be a real suspect, they said, but Nhek Bun Chhay's attempt to protect

him - perhaps in hopes of discovering the masterminds of the attack before they were

discovered, and silenced - has left the fugitive resistance general tangled in the

same political game that tempted his involvement.

"Brazil's escape is unacceptable," Sar Kheng said. "There is no excuse

for a man to be able to escape from an army barracks with hundreds of soldiers."

Teng Savong's unwillingness to even consider Hun Sen's bodyguards as possible accessories

to the attack places the grenade attack investigation in the same category as all

other recent government investigations into political killings, according to one

rights worker - "a farce".

Sam Rainsy believes his assassination was ordered at the highest levels, and in the

months after the attack he often singled out Hun Sen as the mastermind behind it.

But after inviting Hun Sen in December to participate in a first anniversary ceremony

in an attempt at reconciliation with his arch-political enemy, he now tends to focus

his anger at what he calls a ring of mafia-style leaders within the business community

and the CPP.

One rights worker pointed out that the courts, widely believed to be controlled by

the CPP, are one link in the cycle of impunity and that the Khmer Nation Party's

March 30 demonstration was specifically against the judiciary.

"In this country, the true role of the judiciary is to legitimize the actions

of those in power - actions that are often completely illegal. When you touch the

judiciary, you touch a sensitive nerve. It will cause a reaction."

The culture of impunity in Cambodia is one of Ham-marberg's gravest concerns. "The

problem is both institutional and political, and therefore requires not only reforms

in the administration of justice, but also a political determination to ensure that

no one is above the law," he wrote in a report to go before the UN human rights

commission in Geneva next month.

McCreery noted that impunity feeds upon itself, increasing the likelihood of terrorist

activities. The victims are not only the innocents who are bound to suffer in any

indiscriminate attack, but also pluralist democracy - a statement that has extra

weight as election day nears.

"The message has been sent that this is what you can get away with. From the

point of view of the public, the message is: Don't go near any political demonstrations,"

she said.

The investigation of the March 4, 1998, assassination of Kim Sang, a high-ranking

Funcinpec general, should not inspire hope in opposition politicians hoping to drum

up support in the election campaign.

Yeng Marady, deputy chief of national police and head of the investigation, said

more than two weeks after the attack that although police had done some preliminary

interviews at a coffee shop near the spot where Kim Sang was gunned down by two men

in green "combat police" uniforms, no formal interviews of witnesses had

been conducted.

One Western diplomat said of the Kim Sang investigation that "there is nothing

happening there".

Marady pledged to work "for the next ten years" if necessary to find suspects.

One rights worker indicated that it may take that kind of patience to find the killers

inside Cambodia.

The rights investigator said one report placed the two well-paid assassins in Kampuchea

Krom, a portion of southern Vietnam with a large Khmer population, where they may

hide for quite some time until things blow over.

The cause of lame-duck investigations, according to McCreery, is a multitude of issues

arising from Cambodia's long period of turmoil and factional conflict.

Especially before the July fighting, politics often stalled a police force split

between Funcinpec and the CPP, causing investigative work on political crimes to

grind to a halt, McCreery explained.

"In a situation where there are different command [structures] in the army and

police...it is not altogether surprising that these factors get played off each other,"

she said. "This may be at the back of all this."

In the rare politically-sensitive cases where arrests have been made - such as the

murder of Hun Sen's brother-in-law Kov Samuth, which led to the conviction of a KNP

official - rights workers have alleged that the wrong people have been prosecuted

for political reasons.

Most recently, rights officials have claimed that two men arrested for the killing

of On Phnong, a KNP activist in Prey Veng, are "almost undoubtedly" not

the real killers.

Sar Kheng, meanwhile, advocated de-politicizing security forces and raising their

skill and salaries.

"I can say that, first, we should establish a true national police, not a police

force for every political party, he said. "Second, we must train them in professional

investigation techniques. Third, we must educate the police with high morals and

high esteem. And fourthy, we should also concentrate on the standard of living of

our police officers - raising their salary because today the police are working for

a low rate of pay."

In the meantime, impunity prevails in Cambodia.


  • Hun Sen: Full country reopening to be decided in two weeks

    Prime Minister Hun Sen has announced that if the Covid-19 situation remains stable for 15 consecutive days from the end of the October 5-7 Pchum Ben public holiday, Cambodia will reopen fully, albeit in the context of Covid-19 whereby people have to adjust their lives to

  • Phnom Penh governor: Show Covid-19 vaccination cards, or else

    Phnom Penh municipal governor Khuong Sreng late on October 5 issued a directive requiring all people aged 18 and over and the parents of children aged 6-17 to produce Covid-19 vaccination cards when entering schools, markets, malls, marts, eateries and other business establishments that have been permitted

  • Will Evergrande change the way Chinese developers do business in Cambodia?

    China’s property sector policy has exposed the grim financial condition of real estate developers including those operating in Cambodia, which raises questions over the viability of their projects and business going forward The dark blue netting draping over one of Yuetai Group Co Ltd’

  • Cambodia seeks probe into 'false reports' on Hun Sen's alleged Cypriot passport

    Minister of Justice Koeut Rith on September 6 wrote a letter to his Cypriot counterpart Stephie Dracos requesting cooperation in investigating and providing the truth in relation to the "exaggerative and false allegations" that Prime Minister Hun Sen holds a Cypriot passport. In his letter, the

  • Cambodia sets new Covid-19 quarantine rules

    The government has modified Covid-19 quarantine requirements, shortening the duration for, among others, Cambodian officials, foreign diplomats and delegations, investors and inbound travellers in general. According to an official notice signed by Minister of Health Mam Bun Heng late on October 16, quarantine length for Cambodian

  • 'Pandora Papers' expose leaders' offshore millions

    More than a dozen heads of state and government, from Jordan to Azerbaijan, Kenya and the Czech Republic, have used offshore tax havens to hide assets worth hundreds of millions of dollars, according to a far-reaching new investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (