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- 12/02/2020 7:15 AM
Much has changed in Cambodia since 1997, but justice remains elusive—24 years on from a deadly grenade attack on Sam Rainsy, those responsible for 16 deaths remain free and will likely remain so.
PHNOM PENH--The Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) have again called for justice for the families of victims killed and injured in the 1997 grenade attack. The culprits, believed to be protected by the government, remain at large 24 years later.
Opposition groups continue to blame the Cambodian government for failing to find the perpetrators and those behind them to face justice.
“The CNRP remains committed to seeking justice for those victims,” the opposition group said in a statement on March 30.
“According to the FBI report, the cruel and inhuman actions were ordered by the Commander-in-Chief and Deputy Commander of Prime Minister Hun Sen's bodyguard unit,” the statement added.
Every year on March 30, former opposition party officials hold a religious ceremony at a stupa in front of Wat Botum Watey to pay their respects to the protesters who lost their life.
But this year, no former opposition party officials went to hold a ceremony as the previous year and many fear justice will never be served.
At around 8.30 a.m. on March 30, 1997, Sam Rainsy—then campaigning for the Khmer Nation Party ahead of the 1998 elections—had gathered a rally for several hundred supporters in a park outside the old National Assembly building on St. 240.
Bearing banners with slogans that decried Hun Sen’s perceived loyalty to Hanoi, Rainsy’s supporters had just heard the then-ascendant politician speak before four US-made fragmentation grenades were thrown into the crowd.
The explosion killed at least 16, but left more than 150 injured. Rainsy, the target of the assassination, survived only due to his personal bodyguard shielding him from the blast and being blown apart in the process.
Members of the Prime Minister Bodyguard Unit (PMBU) were spied at the scene by eyewitnesses, who reported at the time that these soldiers allowed the perpetrators of the attack to escape. Eyewitnesses also stated the PMBU soldiers refused to help the wounded.
While the attack may have been forgotten as one of many bloody incidents in Hun Sen’s path to power in the 1990s, an American citizen—Ron Abney—was injured by a piece of grenade shrapnel, which prompted an FBI investigation into the attack.
A three-man FBI team arrived in Phnom Penh for a six-week investigation, led by Special Ageny Thomas Nicoletti who, despite being informed he had become the target of several assassination plots, said that all evidence pointed towards the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
But Nicoletti would never finish his investigation. He was ordered home before any conclusions could be drawn.
Two Conflicting Confessions
In early June, 1998, two men, Chhay Vee and Chom Bun Theun, came forward and confessed to participating in the attack, according to an October 1999 staff report to the US Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations.
Vee and Theun were filmed stating that Hin Bun Heang, then an assistant to the PMBU had offered them money to participate in an attack on Rainsy, but were afraid they would be killed for having failed to kill the opposition politician.
“In February, 1999, this videotape was viewed on Capitol Hill in the presence of two Cambodian-Americans who provided translation,” the staff report read. “When the translators were asked to judge the veracity of the two suspects, each independently replied that both Chhay Vee and Chom Bun Theun appeared credible and seemed genuinely to fear for their lives.”
However, by November 1998, Vee and Theun’s story had changed. Instead of Bun Heang offering them money to attack the rally, it was now Rainsy who had offered the two suspects $15,000 to stage an assassination attempt.
“Incredibly, the FBI omitted from the report the fact that Chhay Vee and Chom Bun Theun were taken into custody by Hun Sen's police in August, 1998,” the report added, noting that police would have had time to coach the men on what to say.
“The FBI made still more unbelievable revelations,” the report continued. “It turns out that the FBI's November 13 re-interview, in which the suspects recanted and blamed Rainsy, took place in the private home of Om Yentieng, an advisor to Hun Sen.”
Blaming Rainsy for the death of his own supporters remains the party line today.
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said that the bombing of a crowd of protesters near the old National Assembly building in 1997 was a ploy by the former opposition party.
“The monkey eats the rice and smears the mouth of the goat,” he said.
But whether the US—or anyone else—is perhaps reflected in the US Treasury’s decision to sanction Bun Heang on June 12, 2018, noting that his involvement in violence against Cambodians dates back to at least 1997.
“Bun Hieng and the PMBU have been connected to incidents where military force was used to menace gatherings of protesters and the political opposition going back at least to 1997, including an incident where a U.S. citizen received shrapnel wounds,” the Treasury Department wrote.