Three years ago today someone—witnesses say several men—threw a handful of grenades into a crowd listening to an early morning political speech by Sam Rainsy.
Seventeen people died. More than 125 were injured, some horribly. In seconds, the park where they had been standing looked like a war zone, with severed limbs and pools of blood staining the pavement and earth. Shattered human beings lay crumpled on the ground like debris.
No one has ever been prosecuted for the crime.
Human rights activists, politicians and diplomats say the criminal violence of March 30, 1997, struck at the very heart of a fledgling democracy movement.
They say those explosions echo through Cambodian society today, and that the rest of the world hears them too.
“In Cambodia, you don’t need to blow up a whole stadium’’ to make your point, said one Western human rights worker. “You don’t need to do much to intimidate the people, because of what happened here.”
Activists say the government’s inability—or unwillingness— to bring the perpetrators to justice is like a cancer eating away at the country from within.
“A criminal act has been done. You cannot keep the case open indefinitely, year after year, with nothing happening,’’ said an Asian diplomat.
Government investigators insisted this week the case is still open. But, they say, they can’t get enough evidence to convict anyone.
While some say the government’s apparent paralysis simply goads pro-democracy forces to work harder, others say the message being broadcast to the world is that Cambodia is not ready to deal honestly with its shortcomings. And, they say, as long as the killings go unpunished, that message will be true.
“If they can’t be honest about the events of Mar 30, there is little hope for honesty in the Khmer Rouge tribunal,’’ said the diplomat. “They are a long way from a real democracy.’’
Although there had been scattered instances of political violence in the months leading up to March 1997, many people thought Cambodia had progressed beyond such brutal tactics, that the country was finally leaving its violent past behind.
“Cambodians had started believing it was really possible that you could go to a gathering in front of the National Assembly on a weekend and speak out about anything that was going on,’’ said the rights worker.
Political rallies had become so uneventful and routine, in fact, that few Western observers bothered to attend Sam Rainsy’s speech that morning. He had been holding rallies nearly every week, she said, and nothing out of the ordinary was expected Mar 30.
The grenades were thrown around 8:30 am. Although accounts vary, most witnesses reported four explosions; at least two assailants fled the scene, unhindered by heavily armed members of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s private security detachment, who stood at the edges of the crowd, according to witnesses and a report by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The overwhelming reaction was of shock and horror, followed quickly by outrage at the blatant lawlessness of the act.
“It was such a public venue, near the National Assembly, during the day, in the presence of so many military watching and not coming to help,” said the human rights worker.
The carnage marked everyone who came in contact with it.
“It was very terrible, and very sad,’’ said General Sok Phal, one of the Ministry of the Interior’s chief investigators trying to determine who threw the grenades. He said he was on the scene within minutes that morning, and he never wants to see such sights again.
“I saw many people on the ground, the dead, the injured,’’ he said last week. “I am horrified by this grenade attack.’’
The day remains crystal clear in the memory of Keo Veasna, a demonstrator who was injured in the blast.
“I cannot forget,’’ he said last week, “ and when I remember, I feel sad and suffer. Almost every week, my leg and whole body are painful, as shrapnel is still in my body.’’
Still, Keo Veasna says, when today’s anniversary ceremonies begin at 8:30 am on the ground where so many died, he will be there.
The morning the grenades exploded, Sam Rainsy was denouncing corruption in the courts. It was a new topic for him to thrust into the spotlight; in preceding months, he had been urging passage of labor laws and supporting the efforts of mostly female garment workers to improve their working conditions.
Their marches had been relatively peaceful, although there had been other, sporadic violence, including the murder of a journalist and Sam Rainsy activist, Thun Bunly, in 1996 and two grenade attacks on the Buddhist Liberal Democrat Party on the night Sept 30, 1995, in which 31 people were injured.
By the spring of 1997, tensions had been growing for months between Prince Norodom Ranariddh’s Funcinpec forces and Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party.
They would finally explode in civil war on July 5-6, when units loyal to the CPP routed Funcinpec soldiers and royalist leaders fled into exile. Casualties were never officially estimated but the UN confirmed at least 80 Funcinpec army and police officers were killed in the first weeks of armed confrontation. Fighting in the north near the Thai border continued for more than a year until the international community helped broker a peace.
In the months after the 1997 grenade attack, people were reluctant to demonstrate, according to a report filed in September 1997 by Adhoc, the Cambodian Association for Human Rights.
Despite the 1993 Constitution’s guarantees of freedom of association, expression, and assembly, the grenade attack “effectively silenced many critics and prospective demonstrators,’’ the report states.
Many say it’s impossible to divorce the Mar 30 attack from the bloodier events of July 5-6; it proved that some were willing to use tremendous violence to protect their interests.
Others say that in fact, the fallout from both of 1997’s watershed events was shorter-lived than had been feared.
As early as Aug 3, more than 1,000 people were back on the streets in a Buddhist-led march calling for “peace and non-violent settlement of conflict,’’ the report states.
Garment workers resumed demonstrating for better working conditions, and there were large demonstrations after the 1998 elections.
“Partly, it is due to demographics,’’ said the Asian diplomat. “In Cambodia, 50 percent of the population is less than 18 years old, and when you are young, you are full of idealism.’’
Students who demonstrated Monday against Vietnamese living within the Wat Chak Angre Leu compound in southern Phnom Penh buttressed his point.
Pang Sokhoeun, 26, said he certainly remembers what happened on Mar 30, but he won’t let fear stop him from demonstrating with fellow members of the Students Movement for Democracy.
“`I don’t feel safe, but I am willing to take that risk, to risk my life for my nation,’’ he said as he waited with more than 100 others to march to Phnom Penh’s city hall.
“If the government commits violence against the students and the monks and the citizens, that would [mean] that our government is not a democratic government.
“We are trying to force them to be more democratic by insisting on our right to be here.’’
The government deserves credit for allowing at least some dissenting voices to be heard, the Asian diplomat said: the Cambodian press is freer than that in many other Asian countries.
“People can criticize the King and the government, and get away with it,’’ he said. “That’s not true everywhere.’’
General Sok Phal says there have been more than 300 demonstrations since the Mar 30 killings. “So it means the people are not frightened,’’ he said.
“I would like to praise the Cambodian people, and their leaders, for not being frightened.’’
Phi Thach, cabinet chief of the Sam Rainsy Party, says the Cambodian people are frightened, all right—they just won’t let the fear stop them.
“Right now, there is a kind of demonstration going on before the National Assembly. People are gathered there to demand their property rights,’’ he said, referring to the group that has camped out for months to protest alleged thefts of land.
He said they have no choice, if they want to achieve real freedom. “Violent acts can kill people, but violent acts’’ can only be countered by people insisting on their rights, including the right to assemble peacefully and the right to express themselves.
Three years after the Mar 30 killings, “I don’t think the climate is really any better now,’’ Phi Thach said. “Cambodia is living in an atmosphere of fear. It has been for a long time.’’
He says the government’s refusal to hold certain people accountable for their actions—Cambodia’s so-called “culture of impunity’’—keeps the country paralyzed.
“Even the big one, the Pol Pot clique, has not been brought to justice. We see many attempts by the Cambodian government to protect them.
“The Khmer Rouge tribunal must take place. I don’t understand why the government opposes the efforts of the international community and the UN to try them.’’
And he says he has no real hope that the killers of Mar 30 will ever be brought to justice. “This government,’’ he said, “is incompetent to run the country.’’
Lao Mong Hay, of the Khmer Institute for Democracy, said he has thought a great deal about the grenade attack during the past three years, and he has come to some conclusions.
“We have had time to ponder who was responsible,’’ he said, “and we can draw lessons on how to prevent such carnage again.’’
He said that in addition to the actual culprits, he blames two institutions for starting the chain of events that led to the killings. First, the National Assembly, which he said illegally expelled Sam Rainsy, forcing him to hold public rallies in his attempt to build a new political party.
And second, he faults the Supreme Council of Magistracy, which is supposed to oversee and discipline the judicial system. Sam Rainsy was denouncing the judges as corrupt and controlled by the CPP when the grenades exploded, he said.
“Had [the Supreme Council] done their job, there would have been no need for the demonstration,’’ Lao Mong Hay said.
He said the government’s failure to arrest anyone is unconscionable. “Nineteen are killed in a park like that, and if you are not shocked by such carnage, what are you?’’ he said.
“People will say, well, in America there are many killings. But in America the police are very active, and bring the killers to justice.’’
He said the nation’s top priority must be to establish a credible system of laws and judges, if it is ever to truly join the international community of nations. Law-abiding nations share two characteristics, he believes: citizens who are governed by moral and ethical restraints, and a government ruled by law.
“Nobody needs to tell me not to throw grenades, because I am governed from within,’’ he said, pointing to his heart.
He said those behind the grenade attack have no such internal restraints and are dangerous.
“To throw grenades into a crowd of innocent people, it is clear they do not know about consequences. It is a lesson they need to be taught in prison.’’
On Monday afternoons, the five members of the Senate Committee on Human Rights meet in the office of chairman Kem Sokha (Funcinpec).
Sitting at a round conference table, they discuss human rights complaints and cases, seeking consensus on what to do. Two members are Funcinpec, two belong to the CPP, and one the Sam Rainsy Party.
They took a moment this week to reflect on today’s anniversary.
Senator Ouk Moeun, who represents the Sam Rainsy Party, said his party will commemorate the tragedy with ceremonies today, as it does each year. He said his party “cannot forget the suffering. We still condemn the people who committed the crime.’’
He said the opposition party will continue to pressure the government to solve the case “for the good of the citizens of Cambodia.’’
Said chairman Kem Sokha, “For me, the problem is impunity, not only for Mar 30 but for every case of violence.’’ He said his party’s recent congress grappled with the issue.
“We want Cambodia to be ruled by law,’’ he said, and until criminals are forced to pay for their crimes, “we do not have a state ruled by law.’’
Senator Men Maly (Funcinpec) agreed, saying she hoped the government will arrest the killers soon. She said that Buddhists believe “that someone who does bad things deserves to be punished.’’
Senator Kang Chan (CPP) declined comment, saying he had not been here when the grenade attack occurred.
But fellow CPP member Senator Ung Ty, deputy chairman of the committee, said he believes the government is sincere about bringing the killers to justice and about ending the culture of impunity.
“The killers should be brought to court,’’ he said. “I heard yesterday that they are working very hard to find the killers.’’
He said he doesn’t believe the attack has had long-lasting repercussions for Cambodians—in the sense of discouraging them from demonstrating—because it is man’s nature to forget.
“Even the killing fields, people forget,’’ he said. “It’s human nature.’’ He said he doesn’t believe such political violence could ever happen again.
He said his sources in the Ministry of the Interior say they are making progress on the case, but “right now we don’t have evidence or proof to support the case.
But, he said, “They haven’t closed the case yet.’’