When US Senator Mitch McConnell rose on the floor of the US Senate last week to denounce the Cambodian government for its failure to convict anyone for a brutal March 30, 1997, grenade attack that left 19 dead, it was more than a reminder of the event’s thorny legacy. Critics of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government and McConnell is one see the event as proof positive that the government ignores widely observed tenets of due process to maintain a culture of impunity.
Barely concealed in the comments are insinuations that the government was behind the attack, and that government officials actively sought to disrupt investigations after the grenades exploded.
That theory has held for five years now, since portions of a confidential US Federal Bureau of Investigation preliminary report were leaked to The Washington Post three months after the attack. The investigators pinned the blasts on Prime Minister Hun Sen and his bodyguards, claims that were angrily denied by the government at the time. Hun Sen suggested Sam Rainsy had orchestrated the attacks himself to win sympathy for his cause.
The insinuations of the government’s involvement, whether right or wrong, carry broad currency today among observers and survivors of the attack.
Many of them also believe a story that the man who lobbed the grenades was assassinated long ago to prevent him from revealing the mastermind.
Brazil, named for his dark skin, was named early on in investigations as a main suspect; he was captured and held by Funcinpec Lieutenant General Nhiek Bun Chhay but then escaped custody before he was interviewed.
Two additional suspects in the case confessed to the crime but then later recanted, saying they had been approached by people within the Sam Rainsy Party who offered them money in exchange for their confessions.
The tangle of rumors and suspicions that became the grenade attack legacy makes it seem unlikely that anyone will ever be arrested.
A government spokesman said this week that the government continues to investigate the case. Some survivors hold out hope that they may one day know who tried to kill them.
There’s a plastic shard in Pov Sinoun’s left leg that makes it hard for the 24-year-old to walk. She fears she will lose her leg some day because of it.
For now she shows the shrapnel buried in her calf muscle to the curious and laughs that it’s not as bad as Ros Kan, her friend who can only show people X-ray pictures if they want to see the two pieces of grenade casing that burrowed deep into her torso.
The pain makes it hard for Ros Kan to sleep on her back, and she spends most nights gingerly resting on her side.
“The Khmer doctors cannot take it out because they are afraid it will make it worse. I might be impossible to walk,” she said.
For the survivors of the March 30, 1997, grenade attack against a peaceful demonstration of the Khmer National Party, five years has done little to diminish the pain of their injuries. Some 150 people were injured by the grenades.
“Every rainy season it is painful,” said Pov Sinoun on Wednesday as she held her left calf.
The blasts broke the calm of a Sunday morning gathering of Khmer National Party members who met outside the National Assembly to call for reforms in Cambodia’s courts and demand higher salaries at garment factories.
The KNP, lead by Sam Rainsy, had organized their 200-strong assembly on the park along Sothearos Boulevard near the National Assembly.
A photographer said he saw the first grenade as it was dropped out of a white Toyota Camry. An FBI investigation into the attack said it was possible the grenade was thrown from behind the car. Whatever its source, the grenade landed on the street and a truck drove over it, the photographer said. The blast shot out from under the truck chassis, a focused blast of shrapnel that cut into legs and waists.
Three more blasts followed in rapid succession. The grenades killed at least 19 people, some of them immediately and others who died hours later at the hospital.
Shortly after the attack, Prime Minister Hun Sen called for the arrest of the organizer of the protest.
One US citizen, Rob Abney, was injured, granting the FBI jurisdiction to investigate. Their final report, released to the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in November 1998, did not name suspects.
“I am not afraid to say who the attacker is,” said one survivor, who then named a police official who was investigated along with many others but never charged. The police official is now missing, he said, and may have been killed in Sihanoukville a few months after the grenade attacks.
“No arrests are likely,” said Pov Sinoun. “I am very angry and hurt. I will never forget what happened five years ago. I am hopeless.”
If anything, the grenade blasts have only made Sam Rainsy and his opposition followers stronger.
At fundraisers in Cambodian communities in the US, Sam Rainsy plays a videotape of the grenade attack before asking for contributions, according to a Western man who has been to the fundraisers.
“Once he shows that video, the money just comes in,” said the man, a resident of Lowell, in the US state of Massachusetts.
Rainsy collected $100,000 at one fundraiser alone, said the observer
“The people who attacked me were murderers,” said Kong Youthana, a writer for the Indradevi magazine. “I don’t think the police know who the attackers are, but the most important thing is to find them.”
Like the people who want justice from the leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime, the victims of the grenade attack say the passing of time has not diminished their need for justice.
“I demand the police make an arrest because the Khmers now have got a peaceful culture,” said Kong Youthana. “So we have to raise the law. And to raise the law we have to arrest the murderers and the persons who stand behind the crime.”
Many Sam Rainsy Party members believe the US government knows who carried out the attack but has decided not to share the information for fear that it would destablize the government.
The FBI has not commented on its investigation. A confidential preliminary report from the FBI pinned blame for the attack on Hun Sen and his bodyguards, according to a Washington Post article that quoted government sources. A report released publicly in November 1998 was inconclusive.
“I cannot say who did it or who is responsible for it, there is only the FBI that can point out who did it,” said Eng Chhay Eang, secretary general of the Sam Rainsy Party.
“The FBI knows the names and faces of all four [of the perpetrators],” said Chea Vichea, president of the Free Trade Union of the Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia, and a survivor of the attack.
“With my eyes I did not see who threw the grenades, but I know the people who have power, they use people like terrorists to throw the grenade.”
Chea Vichea said the grenade attack may not be solved until a new government runs Cambodia. Until then he says, the attacks stand as an embarrassment for Cambodia before the international community.
“It is bad for the reputation of Cambodia because people see this as a model. It encourages people to use trouble [to solve problems.]”
“For my trade union, this problem does not make us afraid. We’re not afraid. We are braver than before.”