Told by embassy to lay low, FBI feared election ‘hoax’
“FYI, Cambodia is heating up again,” the FBI’s man in Bangkok said in a classified September 1998 e-mail.
Five weeks after elections had returned Prime Minister Hun Sen to power, the US Embassy and the Federal Bureau of Investigation decided the matter of a 1997 political massacre was finally safe to touch again.
It was the case FBI officials privately called “a political minefield,” believed “never should have been opened in the first place” and wanted to close by the time of its first anniversary.
But as FBI Bangkok Legal Attache Ralph Horton wrote that September to the FBI’s National Security and Honolulu Divisions, new developments—and all the unwanted political scrutiny they brought with them—required action.
Two men, a paratrooper named Chhay Vy and a civilian named Chum Bunthoeun, had come forward in June claiming to confess to roles in the 1997 grenade attack, which killed at least 16 and wounded more than 100, including a US citizen. But that soon changed.
“Just before the Cambodian elections, we received a communication re a ‘witness’ who was recanting or deciding to tell a different story. I concluded that he was just a pre-election hoax,” Myron Fuller, head of the FBI’s Honolulu Division, wrote in an e-mail on Aug 4, 1998.
The reply came two days later: “Now that the election returns are in I think some of these ‘witnesses’ can be addressed,” wrote Mr Horton in an e-mail sent from Jakarta.
While Mr Vy and Mr Bunthoeun may or may not have started out as creations of Cambodian politics, they certainly ended up that way.
According to newly declassified records, the FBI greeted the pair with deep suspicion, hearing their stories but standing by as they were taken into custody by Cambodian authorities and unsurprisingly recanted.
The pair were delivered to the FBI in Bangkok in June 1998 by Tioulong Saumura, wife of opposition leader Sam Rainsy, the apparent target of the attack.
But, with Cambodian elections just seven weeks away, their arrival immediately smelled fishy to Mr Horton, who wrote in official records that Ms Saumura had changed her story as to how long the pair had been in Thailand and prematurely pulled the pair out of questioning to return them to Cambodia.
Ms Saumura “was also very angry because I did not allow her to sit in on the interview and because I told the witnesses that if they were telling the truth they were guilty of murder and terrorism, and if they were lying then they were obstructing justice,” Mr Horton wrote in a secret Sept 2 e-mail, after the elections were safely over.
“The embassy in Phnom Penh is concerned that [redacted] was trying to draw the FBI into the political arena in order to influence the elections, which occurred at the end of July. They asked us not to take any action until after the elections occurred and the new government was installed” later that month.
“This has been typical of the whole case—it’s impossible to know which of the parties in Cambodia, if any, are telling the truth and there seems to be a political motivation for everything,” Mr Horton wrote.
In a separate communication in November, Mr Horton wrote that the pair said they had come forward “to confess the whole story and to possibly get money.”
In a telephone interview Thursday, Ms Saumura denied having changed her story, ending the interviews early, coaching the witnesses or offering them any money.
“They had all the time they wanted,” she said from Manila, adding that she had merely presented the men to the FBI after they came forward.
“Two people presented themselves and said things about a criminal matter in which I myself was a victim, in which many of my colleagues were victims. Personally, I believe investigations are conducted by professional investigators,” she said.
In the June 4, 1998, interviews at the US Embassy on Bangkok’s Wireless Road, Mr Horton spoke to Chhay Vy, who wore a blue shirt and a gold watch and said he had been a soldier in the Cambodian People’s Armed Forces.
After his expulsion from the CPP following the 1993 elections, Mr Vy said “he wandered and drank alcohol every day. Then in 1995, he joined the army. He trained for three months in the ‘Srey Koev’ Special Forces