Prasat sambor, Kompong Thom – When Atsuhito Nakata arrived 15 years ago, Prasat Sambor district was a very different place.
Today it is mostly sedate rice-fields, but in 1993 the area was a frontline between rebel and government forces, with such forbidding place names as Thief Forest, Khmer Rouge Forest and Tiger Forest.
It was on a road cutting through these thick jungles that Nakata, a UN Volunteer from Japan who was monitoring Cambodia’s first election, and his interpreter, Lay Sopheap, 24, met their deaths.
On the morning of April 8, 1993, Nakata and Lay Sopheap were driving toward a nearby UNTAC base. In a patch of forest, their jeep was stopped by armed men who ordered them out of the car, clubbed them around the head and then shot them dead.
The killings caused international uproar with aftershocks reverberating right to the heart of the Japanese government, as it tried to hold onto wavering domestic support for its first-ever international peacekeeping role in Cambodia.
While the UNTAC investigation into the murder of Nakata and Sopheap was inconclusive, the general consensus was that the two men had died at the hands of Khmer Rouge renegades, angry at a foreign presence on Cambodian soil.
The truth about their murders may still be as murky as the dark forests where the two men died, but new information revealed in recent interviews with witnesses and relatives points to a very different suspect and a very different motive.
Today, most of the forests have been logged, and a well-tended memorial is located on the grounds of the Atsuhito Nakata School, built on the spot where he died with funds raised by his family.
A plaque featuring Nakata’s smiling face is the centerpiece, with two large lotus flowers on either side.
In 1993, the 25-year-old’s job was to try and oversee a democratic election in the province for the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia as part of the plan by the international community to impose some kind of order after years of unrest and warfare in the countryside.
There were ample risks for all the nearly 500 electoral supervisors who were stationed in Cambodia at the time, and Kompong Thom was one of the most dangerous areas as government and Khmer Rouge forces had fought over the province for years. The Khmer Rouge were bent on disturbing the election environment that year, and Nakata’s death was commonly believed to be a planned attack by the rebel movement.
However, several officials and residents interviewed earlier this month in Kompong Thom province claimed that Nakata’s murder was not politically motivated, but a revenge killing for a perceived slight against a man he considered his friend.
“I do not know why they would have blamed the Khmer Rouge,” said Mon Yong, deputy military colice chief in Toul Prasat commune, Prasat Sambor district, who was member of the Cambodian People’s Armed Forces when Nakata was killed.
Mon Yong, who was stationed in the district in 1993 and fought regular battles with hardened Khmer Rouge units for control of the area, said investigators should have looked closer to home, and particularly at one well-known local CPAF officer, Chhorn Lvei.
Tall and charismatic, Chhorn Lvei is still remembered fearfully by locals for his hair-trigger temper and his keen interest in local UNTAC forces stationed in the area. He also wanted one of UNTAC’s high-paying jobs as an election monitor, Mon Yong remembered.
Local election staff were being paid up to $250 for just over a week of work, a substantial sum of money at the time.
The problem was that UNTAC rules forbade anyone connected to the military being appointed to the role of electoral monitor.
Mon Yong recalled that Chhorn Lvei could barely conceal his anger that his application had not been successful.
“Anyone who does not give me a pass for this job, they must die,” Mon Yong remembered Chhorn Lvei saying to a colleague within earshot as he raged about not being chosen for an UNTAC job.
People were generally fearful of speaking out against CPAF, particularly in the case of an officer such as Chhorn Lvei who was known as a violent character.
UNTAC investigators who probed the death of the young Japanese volunteer and his interpreter did not put too much pressure on witnesses and others to speak up either, Mon Yong said.
“Maybe UNTAC understood it was a civil war and did not want to disturb our soldiers,” Mon Yong speculated. “Maybe it was someone who wanted to take suspicion away from CPAF,” he added.
Two days after the killings, all security chiefs in the area came together for a meeting to organize the investigation.
“After Atsu was killed, we were ordered to investigate and get information on whether it was a robbery or an execution,” said Pol Yun, 43, who has been the district’s police chief for the past 20 years. He said he still recalled the Nakata case clearly.
“We could see this was not a robbery, as nothing had been stolen, and it did not seem like it was Khmer Rouge because they were not strong in that area,” Pol Yun said.
For Pol Yun, as with Mon Yong, the young, powerful and very volatile Chhorn Lvei was the most likely suspect.
“He did not shoot Atsuhito himself; he would have ordered some of his men to do it,” Pol Yun said.
“We all knew that this was a revenge case, but we were afraid to say anything like this about a CPAF soldier,” he added.
Local villagers living in the area of the execution also believed that it involved CPAF forces.
“We don’t have any report that survives from that time, but the villagers who used to stay here still have a clear memory of what happened,” said Prasat Sambor District Governor Tou Kuntheng.
Tou Kuntheng said he had also concluded that Chhorn Lvei had shot Nakata because he had not been hired as an electoral monitor.
But there was plenty of evidence at the time to make a case for Khmer Rouge involvement in the killings.
Kompong Thom’s then-provincial governor Chieng Am insists that the Khmer Rouge were responsible for killing Nakata and that there was no evidence of a dispute between Nakata and local CPAF forces.
“We received strong information at the time that the vehicle in which Atsu was traveling was ambushed by four to five Khmer Rouge soldiers,” said Chieng Am, who is currently governor of Svay Rieng province.
UN officials also believed it was Khmer Rouge based on reports made by the victims shortly before they were slain.
Peter Partu, who was assistant to the UNTAC Force Commander at the time and was privy to reports and the investigation into the Nakata and Sopheap case, said the killings occurred in a period of direct attacks against UN staff in several places in Cambodia.
A local UN radio operator who picked up a call from Nakata’s interpreter, Sopheap, heard him describe the gunmen who had attacked the car as Khmer Rouge, Partu wrote in an e-mail.
“The murder occurred at a time when both Atsu and his interpreter had expressed concerns for their security in the preceding days,” he wrote.
“Their concern arose from local animosities generated by the recruitment process,” he added.
Ultimately, the murder investigation ran out of steam.
“It was a busy time in the lead-up to elections. There were also no witnesses, and the community went silent,” Partu added.
Vong Sarann, who was the Khmer Rouge representative for Kompong Thom province, denied that Khmer Rouge soldiers killed Nakata, claiming that he and his troops had already departed.
“Our troops were ordered to retreat from that area to the jungles in Anlong Veng two months before [Nakata] was shot because we were boycotting the election,” he said. “When we were in [Prasat Sambor], there were no attacks on UNTAC vehicles.”
As for Chhorn Lvei, he is not able to defend himself as he was shot dead almost exactly one year after the death of Nakata and Sopheap. On April 1, 1994, Chhorn Lvei and four of his soldiers were killed in a mysterious attack for which no one was ever apprehended.
Pol Yun, who was one of the first people on the scene, said authorities have never been able to establish what had led to the bloodbath, or why the five were killed.
“It was an easy thing to get away with murder then; all you had to do was run into the jungle and join with the Khmer Rouge,” Pol Yun said.
Relatives of Chhorn Lvei stoutly defend his reputation and deny that he had anything to do with the death of Nakata—even claiming that he was killed for investigating the case of the murdered Japanese man.
Chhorn Lvei’s widow Chor Borin, 39, claimed earlier this month that her husband got too close to finding answers in the case and died as a result.
“Lvei told me that Atsu was killed by other CPAF soldiers, and he was trying to find out who did it,” Chor Borin said in a recent interview, adding that her husband had no reason to harm Atsuhito, who was considered a family friend.
“We knew [Nakata] well,” she said. “He gave Lvei a tape recorder, and they would listen to music on it. When it would run out of batteries [Nakata] would get more for him,” she said.
“[Nakata] was a gentle and calm person and would help me with my small baby when he could.”
But Chor Borin admitted that Lvei had sat an exam to become a UN election supervisor.
“Please do not say [Chhorn Lvei] killed Atsu,” she said. “If he did it, I would say it as he is already dead,” she added.
Chan Deth, 53, a brother-in-law of Chhorn Lvei, said he remembers the young officer was being well acquainted with the UNTAC troops stationed in the area, and his only trouble was with his own CPAF colleagues.
According to Chan Deth, Chhorn Lvei was killed by his own soldiers for disciplining them after they stole food from a local market.
“He cut some of their salaries as punishment, so they shot him in revenge,” he said.
“His parents did not want to follow up on the case…they were afraid that if we said too much, [the killers] would come after the whole family,” he added.
Mon Yong, however, said that Chhorn Lvei’s death turned the page on an unpleasant, violent chapter in the area.
“There were many problems with the soldiers here, and when Chhorn Lvei was killed those problems stopped,” he said.