March 26 marked the second anniversary of the kidnapping of Christopher Howes and
Houn Hourth, and two years of rumor, speculation and precious few facts. Tom Fawthrop
delves into the mystery of their fate, and uncovers an eyewitness who suggests the
new Khmer Rouge chief of staff may have the answers.
In November 1996 foreign journalists flocked to Pochentong Airport after Funcinpec
general Nhek Bun Chhay declared that Christopher Howes, the British deminer, would
soon be released. Howes was said to be in the hands of more than 100 Khmer Rouge
running away from Anlong Veng, and would be flown to Phnom Penh any day. British
tabloid reporters flew in, with their chequebooks ready to buy the "great Christopher
Howes escape" story.
The story turned out to be fiction - it was a hoax. General Khann Savoeun, the army's
Region 5 chief in Siem Reap at the time and a top Bun Chhay deputy, had been fed
false information by a Khmer Rouge contact.
It was just one, if the most notable, example of the rumor, misinformation, and disinformation
which have plagued the many investigations into the fate of Christopher Howes and
Houn Hourth. The British deminer and his Khmer translator, working for Mines Advisory
group (MAG), were seized by about 30 Khmer Rouge at the village of Preah Ko Chas,
17km north of the Angkor temples, on March 26th 1996. The rest of their team, 24
Cambodian deminers, were also kidnapped but released after a few hours.
Approaching the second anniversary of the abduction, Howes and Hourth remain one
of Anlong Veng's closely-guarded secrets.
The long-standing official line from the British Embassy in Phnom Penh and the Foreign
Office in London is that "there is no proof, no firm evidence, to show that
Howes is dead, or that he is alive".
But privately many people believe him dead, and there are even indications of a macabre
competition to find his remains. Most recently, CPP-aligned government military intelligence
agents insisted that Howes is "certainly dead", and spoke of recovering
his bones - for a price.
"We are seventy percent sure that we can bring you his bones," agents told
the Post in a dark and dingy long wooden hut, distinguished only by a radio antenna
on the roof, in Siem Reap. Their "breakthrough" was thanks to their contact
with a high-ranking KR officer, on the brink of defecting, who "has all the
details where to find the remains of Howes".
The poorly-paid secret agents said their main problem was lack of money needed to
launch a "dangerous mission inside enemy territory" to uncover the bones.
The figure of $1,400 was mentioned.
Meanwhile, another version of "Howes is dead, but we can get the bones"
has come from Nhek Bun Chhay, who now leads the Funcinpec resistance on the northern
Thai border. The same general who claimed Howes' imminent release in November 1996
now sings a different tune.
Claiming that "Howes was executed by the Khmer Rouge near Anlong Veng within
a week of his capture", Bun Chhay has in recent months assured various people,
including Scotland Yard detectives, that his soldiers have been dispatched to search
for the bones. "We expect to have the bones in ten days," he reportedly
told Scotland Yard investigators - three months ago.
Although both groups of "bone-diggers" claim to have information from Khmer
Rouge in Anlong Veng about the location of the remains, there is no danger of a race
to the same location: Bun Chhay, speaking from Surin in Thailand, said that the remains
are about 20km south of Anlong Veng; not so, said Cambodian military intelligence,
who point to a position about 30km west of Anlong Veng.
Whether either group's information is reliable, and whether they will be able to
actually dig for bones relatively close to the KR's well-protected headquarters,
The British Embassy in Bangkok has requested help from the ousted Cambodian First
Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh many times; Ranariddh has reportedly instructed
Bun Chhay to do everything he can to help.
But some people warn that Bun Chhay, whose "Howes is alive" comments raised
so many hopes in November 1996, should not now be relied upon to prove "Howes
"Maybe the Foreign Office in London is relying too much on General Nhek Bun
Chhay to find the bones and resolve the case," remarked the MAG director in
Phnom Penh, Ian Brown, referring to the unreliability of the general in the past.
So is he dead, or is he by some miraculous chance still alive? Cambodian military
intelligence may say one thing, but two top army officers based in Samrong, the nearest
government base to Anlong Veng, tell a different story: "Howes is still alive".
Colonel Yim Phan, deputy commander in Samrong, claimed that a KR defector interviewed
last October reported seeing a foreigner in Anlong Veng some time after July. The
defector, from KR Div 912, reportedly told Yim Phan that KR cadre said that "the
Briton was training our soldiers how to make explosives and landmines"
Howes, a former Royal Engineers soldier, was trained in handling explosives and in
demining. Ta Mok, the Anlong Veng military commander, is known to have established
workshops to produce crude landmines and AK47 bullets some years ago.
Yim Phan's superior, Samrong commander General Mok Sovann - who said he had been
told by another KR defector of a foreigner being in Anlong Veng earlier in 1997 -
believes the story.
"I think Howes is still useful to them in the production of mines. During the
last 15 months we have noticed that they are making more effective mines; these are
coming from the British deminer," Sovann speculated.
A foreign military analyst, however, was sceptical: "The Khmer Rouge have been
laying mines for a long time - what could Howes teach them what they don't already
So far, these second-hand anecdotal sightings of Howes - and there have been others
- have not yielded any credible details about the Briton.
The only first-hand account is from Major Phuan Phy, a former KR who claimed to have
seen Howes and Hourth two days after their capture in March 1996, and who says the
pair were handed over to a top aide of the new KR chief Ta Mok.
Phuan Phy, who defected from KR Div 912 last May, said he was part of a mobile unit
that met up with soldiers from the division's Battalion 55 in Rolum village, in Siem
Reap's Varin district. He said it was this battalion, led by a commander Don and
under orders from a Colonel Kong, who kidnapped the pair.
Phuan Phy claimed he saw the prisoners, who were marched to Rolum, the night after
their abduction: "In Rolum village I saw the British deminer and his interpreter,
who were prisoners but they were not in chains. The British man was able to walk
around with his escorts. They did not torture him. They even went in search of bread
as he did not like rice, and provided him with a can of Tiger and hammock for the
The next day his KR unit joined the 55th battalion on the route north toward Anlong
Veng, Phuan Phy said. After four hours, Colonel Kong decided that Hourth could be
released. The interpreter, however, "was very loyal to Howes, and told the Khmer
Rouge that it was his duty to stay".
Phuan Phy claimed that he later learned that a four-man squad shot Houn Hourth in
the back and left his corpse unburied. Three days later, he said, he chanced upon
After Howes was separated from his interpreter, arrangments were made for a Toyota
pick-up truck which arrived from Anlong Veng to transport the prisoner. Phuan Phy
identified a senior KR general - Khem Nguon, who has since become known as Ta Mok's
right-hand man following Pol Pot's apparent overthrow - as arriving with the truck.
Khem Nguon, also known as Im Nguon (the name cited by Phuan Phy), and a group of
his soldiers reportedly left with Howes in the direction of Anlong Veng on March
29, 1996. Phuan Phy said that was the last time he saw the deminer.
(Khem Nguon became the new KR military chief-of-staff after Ta Mok ousted Pol Pot;
both he and Mok have promoted the message of a new-look, rehabiliated Khmer Rouge.)
Phuan Phy added that, within a few days of Nguon taking Howes away, all the KR who
had seen or escorted the Briton were summonsed to a meeting addressed by Div 912
commander Kong. The guerilla chief reportedly told them that "Howes was the
enemy because these deminers disrupt our work, and dismantle our mines... ."
One month later a UN security report noted a unit of 912 KR laying mines in Preak
Ko Chas - the village where Howes and the MAG deminers had been clearing mines at
the time of their abduction.
Scotland Yard detectives led by Supterintendent Dixon of the anti-hostage unit returned
to Cambodia last December and interviewed Phuan Phy. The Foreign Office has banned
him from speaking to the press but NGO sources said that Supt Dixon concluded that
Howes was "probably killed around the same place as Hourth" and that "we
are not talking about whether Howes is alive anymore".
Howes' colleagues and family dispute this line of thinking. "I am concerned
that the Yard is only looking for evidence that Howes is dead," said Ian Brown,
the MAG director. "The hard evidence is only about Houn Hourth. It does not
follow that Howes suffered the same fate..."
Roy Howes, the deminer's father, summed up his view to the Sunday Times newspaper
in London early this year: "I do not accept the reported death of one man should
point to the death of the other."
As for the Khmer Rouge, their policy has been one of denial. Major Phuan Phy remembered
that at the meeting called by his commander, Colonel Kong, the party line was laid
down. "Our forces did not kidnap the Englishman; you have not seen anything,"
Kong instructed his men.
KR radio has consistently denied any knowledge of Howes. No serious ransom demand
has ever been made (although in November 1996 MAG handed over $120,000 to a man in
Phnom Penh, a former refugee camp official with claimed KR contacts, in a failed
bid to secure Howes' release - $40,000 of it was later returned; the remainder disappeared).
Around last February, Howes was reportedly mentioned during Fun-cinpec negotiations
with Anlong Veng chiefs, including Nguon. According to some who were on board the
ambushed Funcinpec helicopter flight to Anlong Veng, they had also been briefed to
try to secure Howes' release as well as negotiate a peace deal.
Some analysts wonder why, if Howes was executed after his capture, the murder was
not pinned on Pol Pot at his show trial last July. "It was the perfect opportunity
to deal with it," noted one analyst, suggesting that Ta Mok and Khem Nguon could
have blamed the murder on Pol Pot and his Div 801 commander Gen So Saroeun, who was
also put on trial.
Khem, asked about Howes by US journalist Nate Thayer, who attended the trial, denied
any knowledge of his abduction or what happened to him.
Ancedotal evidence of Howes' death has come from two senior defectors. Pean Sambath,
a member of Pol Pot's general staff who defected from Anlong Veng last June, reported
that Howes was murdered on Pol Pot's orders a few weeks after he was captured. Interviewed
by British detectives, Sambath was unable to say when, where and how he was killed.
A second defector, former Div 801 soldier Chea Keo, who joined the government side
last December, said he had been told that Howes had been killed.
However, other contradictory reports suggest that Howes was alive at least in early
1997. Sum Sok, a Khmer official working for the Thai-Kampuchea Border Liason Office
in Kap Chouern, near the border at O'Smach, reported that Howes was sick around that
time with chronic diarrhea, according to human rights worker and KR researcher David
Ashley, who visited the area last June at the British Embassy's request. The information
reportedly came from a pharmacy in Surin, Thailand, which regularly serves the KR.
The pharmacy owner recently told the Post that he had been instructed by an aide
to Ta Mok: "Don't talk about Howes".
As well, according to Ashley, senior KR general Ke Pauk told his son in April 1997
that Howes, and five survivors from the ambushed Funcinpec helicopter flight, were
still alive. The five survivors were later freed, proving him right on them.
The border official, Sum Sok, interviewed last month by the Post, said he had heard
other reports of Howes' survival from Thai and Cambodian military, and loggers who
deal with Anlong Veng. He put the chances of Howes still being alive at about 60%.
Given the KR's track record of killing foreign hostages, the ancedotal reports of
Howes' death may carry greater weight than the equally anecdotal accounts of his
However as David Ashley concluded: "There are second-hand reports - in one case
quite detailed - suggesting that [Howes] was still alive in June 1997, before and
during the conflict in Anlong Veng. These reports cannot be discounted unless there
is first-hand evidence to confirm or deny them. Unfortunately this means that Mr
Howes fate remains a matter of supposition rather than hard fact."
Coincidentally, while much attention has been focused on Howes, the sad reality is
that the fate of dozens of Khmer hostages are also unknown. More than 100 hostages
kidnapped in 1996, many but not all by the KR, remain recorded as missing, according
to one western military analyst.
- Tom Fawthrop is a correspondent for the Sunday Times, London.