Australian David Wilson (L) is seen with an unidentified man in a picture released by the Ministry of Information in August 1994. Wilson was executed along with two other foreigners the following month. Photograph: Reuters
An RCAF military offensive on a Khmer Rouge stronghold where Australian backpacker David Wilson was being held hostage in 1994 was the likely event that led to his murder – not his government’s refusal to pay a $50,000 ransom, a coroner’s court in Melbourne found yesterday.
Victoria deputy state coroner Iain West released a finding clearing the Australian government of wrongdoing in its handling of the 29-year-old Melbourne man’s abduction.
Cambodia, however, reneged on a promise not to fire on the Khmer Rouge-occupied Phnom Vor area in Kampot province where Wilson and two fellow Western prisoners were held captive for two months from July 1994, according to the report.
“It is likely that the development which precipitated the orders of [captor] General Paet to kill the hostages was the escalation in the military offensive by the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces,” the 23-page finding states.
Wilson, British national Mark Slater and Frenchman Jean-Michel Braquet were murdered two months after being taken hostage by Khmer Rouge militia who blasted a Sihanoukville-bound train with anti-tank landmines, gunfire and B40 rockets, killing 13 people and taking about 100 hostages.
Khmer Rouge commanders Nuon Paet, Chhoukk Rin and Sam Bith have been convicted over the three murders.
Wilson died from a blow to the head, while Slater and Braquet were both shot.
According to West’s findings, then-Cambodian foreign minister, Prince Norodom Sirivudh, told the Australian, British and French ambassadors on August 8 of that year that there “would be a concerted attack on Phnom Vor within one to two weeks”.
“However, the plan was that the Cambodian government would wait to commence this offensive until after the hostage situation was resolved,” West states.
But a video of Slater released a short time later showed him complaining of shelling in and around where he was being held hostage.
On August 19, General Paet demanded that the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces withdraw from the area around Phnom Vor as a “precondition to solving the matter of the foreigners”, West’s findings state.
“The Cambodian Government instead intensified the military offensive in the region, bombarding areas some distance from the camp and expelling foreigners from the Kampot area on 23 August 1994.”
Australia’s then-ambassador to Cambodia, Tony Kevin, had said an attack on the area had “humiliated and enraged Paet, almost certainly adversely affecting his attitude toward negotiations”.
Deputy Prime Minister Nhek Bun Chhay, former Funcinpec Party deputy commander-in-chief, said yesterday that those in power at the time deeply regretted the men’s deaths, but said the assaults on Phnom Vor occurred only after they had died.
“[Then Prime Minister] Prince Norodom Ranariddh had said the government would pay the $150,000 ransom, but our investigations showed that the commanders had already killed the hostages.”
The coroner’s report says there is “no legitimate reason” for criticising the Australian government for not paying a ransom as that had been “the longstanding position of most Western countries”.
Alastair Gaisford, a former Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade employee based in Cambodia involved in trying to free Wilson, told the Post yesterday that Australia could have done a lot more, including cutting aid.
In March 1994, he said, the US government helped secure the release of a kidnapped aid worker after telling Cambodia that an attack on Phnom Vor, where she was being held, would result in aid suspensions.
“But [Australia’s then prime minister] Paul Keating sent a letter to Ranariddh and Hun Sen – explaining that irregardless of what happened, once this is over, we will send military aid,” Gaisford said, adding that he had seen this letter. “Like I said before, it’s a travesty.”
West states in his report that he is not satisfied of Gaisford’s “reliability as a witness and his torian” and says such criticisms are unwarranted.
“There is no basis for criticising the decision to abstain from taking diplomatic measures involving threats to limit or cease provision of foreign aid as a means to manipulate or place pressure upon the conduct of another ... nation,” he writes.
Gaisford said he had been in regular contact with Wilson’s family who he said did not want to give interviews. Prince Sirivudh and RCAF commander-in-chief Pol Saroeun could not be reached for comment.