KR Victim’s Wife Says French Gov’t Failed To Protect Him

Thirty-two years ago today the French Embassy in Phnom Penh sent a panicked missive to Paris.

As the Khmer Rogue breached the city lines, National Assembly President Ung Boun Hor had “forc­ed” his way onto the grounds of the embassy with a desperate crowd, French Consul Jean Dy­rac wrote in a telegraph at 12:45 pm, April 17, 1975.

“[Ung Boun Hor] pleaded for the right of asylum for the immediate protection of his life,” Dyrac wrote in the cable, which was among documents recently re­leas­­ed by the French government and published by the Paris daily newspaper Le Monde.

“With the help of security guards I tried, in vain, to keep him out,” Dyrac wrote.

“He is currently being held under our control in one of our buil­dings,” Dyrac continued, ad­ding that Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak, an architect of the March 1970 coup against then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk, had also te­lephoned to ask for asylum from France.

“I would be grateful to the department for informing me with extreme urgency as to the conduct to adopt with regard to them under the hypothesis in which the new authorities should ask that these people be delivered to them,” Dyrac finished.

One hour and 24 minutes later, the French Foreign Ministry in Paris replied: “It now remains to them to consider whether it is not in their interest to seek refuge in another place and in any case to leave the territory of our establishment quickly.”

Did Ung Boun Hor leave the em­bassy willingly when on April 20 he and other Lon Nol government officials, as well as hundreds of other Cambodians precariously camped out on the em­bassy grounds, were told to leave? Or was he forced into the waiting hands of the Khmer Rouge by the French government?

In 1999, Ung Boun Hor’s wife Billong Ung, 67, currently secre­ta­ry-general of the France-based Committee of Victims of the Kh­mer Rouge, lodged a grievance for “sequestration” and “acts of torture” against unknown persons before the court of Creteil, a suburban town outside Paris.

Billong Ung believes that Fran­ce broke its own laws by failing to heed her husband’s pleas for help and leaving him to the Khmer Rouge and certain death.

The case was referred to the Paris criminal brigade, and three judges have in turn investigated the matter. Judge Jean-Marc Tou­blanc, however, officially declared on Jan 3 this year that he was not competent to prosecute the al­leged crimes as the entire French government cannot be a suspect, Le Monde reported.

Laurent Lemarchand, first counselor at the French Embassy in Phnom Penh, said Monday that he was prohibited from commenting on matters before the French courts.

Despite renovations that began in 1992 after 17 years of abandonment, the French Embassy located at 1 Monivong Boulevard re­mains essentially the same place it was during the tragic drama that unfolded in April, 1975, Lemarchand said.

French ethnographer Francois Bizot, author of the 2000 memoir “The Gate,” which contained a de­tailed account of events inside the embassy following the fall of Phnom Penh, has told French police he believes Ung Boun Hor left the embassy of his own will.

“I remember nothing that could indicate the gendarmes forced the gentleman to exit the embassy,” he said, according to a statement seen by Le Monde.

Dyrac has also told investigators that the Cambodian National Assembly president “suffered no constraints.”

But a now famous photograph published by Newsweek in May 1975 appears to show Ung Boun Hor resisting the grip of two French gendarmes on April 19 of that year.

One of the gendarmes photographed by Newsweek, Pierre Gouillon, 67, told Le Monde in Jan­uary about the moment Ung Boun Hor left the embassy.

“To be frank, he didn’t want to go. He must have known what was going to happen to him,” he said. “He fought. We pushed him. The Khmer Rouge would have loaded him by force anyhow.”

In France, however, despite the support of prosecutors, who re­quested in October that the investigation continue, Billong Ung’s eight-year-old case appears to be floundering.

Robert Petit, co-prosecutor at the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia, said Monday that while he could not comment on individual cases, the current structure of the court, which has yet to be finalized, allows for civil parties to seek justice.

“If somebody deems himself or herself to be a victim and qualifies as a civil party, they can come forward,” he said.

Political observer Chea Van­nath said she felt French Em­bassy officials likely would have been unable to help the Cam­bodians who had sought shelter in 1975, even had they wanted to.

“The embassy did not want to help them, but we’re talking about a chaotic situation beyond the embassy’s control,” she said.

Following the factional fighting of 1997, Cambodians were again angered by Western embassies in Phnom Penh, which denied them protection, she said.

People victimized in times of con­flict often find it easier to blame governments rather than combatants, Chea Vannath said.

“The frustration goes to the embassies, not the military coup. Usually it goes to the state be­cause it’s more accountable,” she said.

Of Billong Ung’s long legal fight, Chea Vannath added: “I’m curious to see the verdict.”

 

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