A former soldier told the Khmer Rouge tribunal on Tuesday that the regime’s navy chief, Meas Muth, ordered the capture of the S.S. Mayaguez, an American container ship that was seized in the Gulf of Thailand in 1975, sparking a deadly rescue mission.
The ship and its crew of 40 was captured by Khmer Rouge troops in disputed waters off Koh Tang island in May of that year. Forty-one of the 200-odd U.S. servicemen who took part in the ensuing operation to free the crew—who had already been transferred to Koh Rong Samloem and released—were killed, and nine U.S. helicopters were shot down or crashed.
Testifying for a second day, the witness, identified only as 2-TCW-1000 due to his role in investigations in the tribunal’s Case 003—in which Meas Muth is facing charges for crimes including genocide—said he brought down one of those helicopters while stationed on Koh Tang.
“People on the island noticed the presence of the Mayaguez, and at that time, we, the people on the island, reported to the superior or upper echelons, and the order came back to us to capture the Mayaguez,” he said.
The witness, who went on to serve as Meas Muth’s bodyguard, said he had been tasked with guarding the crew of the Mayaguez before taking on the U.S. troops, who began attacking the island from the air.
“At that time, the situation was rather tense and we knew that we were about to be attacked, so we had to prepare ourselves. During the heat of the battle, we only focused on fighting back,” he said.
“The fighting became intensified on the island,” he said. “I was severely wounded in the fighting and I myself was [using] a 12.7 mm machine gun and I used the gun to shoot at the helicopter and of course that helicopter was shot down.”
Victor Koppe, a defense lawyer for Nuon Chea—the Khmer Rouge’s Brother Number Two, who is on trial for crimes including genocide alongside the regime’s head of state, Khieu Samphan, in the second phase of Case 002—questioned the witness on where, exactly, the order to capture the Mayaguez came from.
The witness replied that the order came from Meas Muth himself.
“The order came from Ta Muth, in charge of the division, and he gave the order to members of the navy to go arrest the ship or vessel,” he said.
The lawyer shot back: “Is it true you have no idea who gave the order in 1975 to stop the Mayaguez and that you make a general conclusion that it must have been Meas Muth, and it must have been going through the normal chain of command, but in fact, you don’t know?”
“I could make an objective conclusion that there must have been an order from the division, otherwise we would not have been able to perform the task,” the witness replied.
The operation to repel the U.S. troops in 1975 was overseen by Em Son, the Khmer Rouge commander on Koh Tang at the time.
Contacted by telephone and asked about the witness’ claims that Meas Muth gave the order to capture the Mayaguez, Mr. Son declined to comment.
“If you know [the S.S. Mayaguez] was captured at Koh Tang, what else do you want to know?” he said. “I am tired of this, so don’t remind me about it again.”
During an interview in Koh Tang in May, Mr. Son said that he accidentally shot and killed one of three U.S. machine-gunners left behind by their comrades during a battle on May 15, and handed the other two over to Meas Muth.
“Meas Muth ordered ships to come and take the two Americans to Sihanoukville,” he said at the time. “The two Americans were passed to Meas Muth. I had no more information after that.”
In an email, Michael Karnavas, a lawyer for Meas Muth, said he thought the evidence against his client sounded “simplistic.”
“Sounds like pure speculation and naturally I have no comment. [Former U.S. President George W.] Bush must have ordered the torture at Abu Ghraib since he was US President. How simplistic!” he wrote.
(Additional reporting by Sek Odom)