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