Truth Behind Backpackers’ Deaths Still Elusive

The 10 years that have elapsed since Khmer Rouge soldiers kidnapped French tourist Jean-Michel Braquet from a train and later executed him have brought his father little solace.

Jean-Claude Braquet wore his late son’s shirt the first time he walked into his lawyer’s Paris office in 2002, the lawyer said last week.

“What surprises me most is that the time has not weakened the suffering,” Francois Zimeray said in a telephone interview . “It’s very difficult for Monsieur Bra­quet to turn the page…. As a father, it’s impossible for him.”

Zimeray said Braquet was not able to talk to reporters.

“He’s in a bad way,” Zimeray said in an e-mail.

On the 10th anniversary of the July 26, 1994 kidnappings of three Western backpackers—Braquet, 27, Briton Mark Slater, 28, and Australian David Wilson, 29—during a train hijacking in Kam­pot province, key questions re­main unanswered.

Following the hijacking, in which 13 Cambodians were killed, rebels held the three foreigners for two months and de­manded a $150,000 ransom.

But the money, released and handled by the Cambodian government, went missing before it reached the captors. And to this day, it’s unclear where it went.

While negotiating for the men’s release, the government repeatedly shelled the Phnom Voar region where they were being held, despite appeals from the diplomatic community—and the hostages themselves—not to do so.

Around mid-September, all three were executed.

Ten years later, Braquet still believes more could have been done to save his son’s life.

“There are so many lies…double games,” Zimeray said. “[Bra­quet] wants explanations.”

Although he does not believe the Cambodian government wanted the hostages to die, Braquet thinks it manipulated the crisis in order to win financial and military aid from the West, Zim­eray said. Contacted Sunday, government spokesman Khieu Kan­harith declined to comment on the government’s involvement in the incident.

In the decade since the kidnappings, three Khmer Rouge officials have been convicted for their role in the Westerners’ deaths. Two of them—former rebel commander Nuon Paet and former Khmer Rouge regional commander Sam Bith—are in prison. A third commander, Chhouk Rin, still lives in Kampot, de­spite being sentenced to life in prison by the Appeals Court in 2002 for the kidnappings and killings.

Tea Sarim, another ex-Khmer Rouge commander, who some say led the train attack, died unexpectedly in mid-May, his neighbors in Phnom Voar said earlier this month. Tea Sarim was sitting in a neighbor’s stilt house during a storm, when a lightning bolt pierced the roof and killed him, said Tet Nuon, a former rebel soldier from Chamcar Bei village in the Phnom Voar area of Kam­pot.

“It could be called bad karma for him,” Tet Nuon said.

With reports of Tea Sarim’s death, the historical facts of the kidnappings appear further ob­scured. Tea Sarim’s neighbors say he, and not Chhouk Rin, should have been held responsible for hijacking the train and that Chhouk Rin was not present when the attack occurred.

Sitting on his porch in the morning sun during a December interview, Chhouk Rin appeared ill and said he felt ostracized by his conviction.

“I am like a bad-smelling fish,” Chhouk Rin said. “If [politicians] touch me, they will be bad smelling, too.”

Chhouk Rin, who denied re­sponsibility for the kidnappings and killings, is awaiting the outcome of the final appeal of his case from the Supreme Court.

The day of the attack on the train, former rebel soldier Tet Nuon said he was manning his Khmer Rouge checkpoint and saw the backpackers, clad in jeans and T-shirts, escorted past by 200 rebel soldiers.

“It was the first time I saw a foreigner,” he said. “They looked scared.”

The Khmer Rouge frequently hijacked the train from Phnom Penh, but the train rarely carried foreigners, he said.

Nuon Paet had wanted to take the ransom and release the hostages, Tet Nuon recalled. But, he said, “the money never showed up.”

The government’s bombardment of the area made it hard to move the captives around, Tet Nuon said, pointing into the distance to where the shells landed. It was eventually decided that it would be easier to kill them, he said. The three men were forced to dig their own graves and then were struck on the back of the head with a hoe, a former Australian Embassy official familiar with the case wrote.

Some observers say the order to kill the backpackers came from Pol Pot, Brother No 1, and Khieu Samphan, the Khmer Rouge head of state. Others say Nuon Paet ordered them killed in revenge after his niece was killed during an RCAF assault.

To some, the fact that the men who killed the backpackers have been convicted while the Khmer Rouge’s top leaders remain free indicates double standards of justice. The men who actually killed the hostages were following orders, and had no choice but to do so, Tet Nuon said.

“The three white skinned victims were from countries that have economic and political pow­er in Cambodia,” Moneak­sekar Khmer newspaper said following Nuon Paet’s life sentencing in 1999, according to Agence France-Presse.

“Are the 13 dead Cam­bodians animals or hu­mans?” the newspaper asked.

Contacted last week, Alastair Gaisford, who was second secretary at the Australian Embassy during the crisis, said he still be­lieves the backpackers could have been saved. Australia, he wrote in an e-mail, has blood on its hands be­cause it gave control of the negotiations “to a corrupt, incompetent, divided [Cambo­dian] Govern­ment, whose objective we already knew was the military defeat of the KR on [Phnom Voar] at whatever cost.”

Cambodia’s policy was ex­plained to him by Nhiek Bun Chhay, then-RCAF deputy chief of staff in August 1994, Gaisford wrote in an e-mail.

“We are here to take the mountain, the hostages are of no consequence,” Gaisford recalled being told by Nhiek Bun Chhay.

A neutral NGO should have negotiated for the men’s release, he said. But since the embassies involved the Cambodian government, they should have made greater efforts to directly pressure then-first prime Minister Prince Ranariddh and second prime minister Hun Sen to save the hostages and end the shell­ing.

Their failure to do this, Gais­ford wrote, was “when we signed their death warrants.”

“Our governments have…done as little as possible for as long as possible not to inquire into the truth of how and why,” the backpackers died, Gaisford wrote.

Contacted by telephone Sun­day, Nhiek Bun Chhay, now a dep­uty prime minister, said the government tried its best to rescue the hostages. The Khmer Rouge were entirely responsible for their deaths, he added.

“We tried a lot to rescue these people,” he said.

In a telephone interview Friday, Karen Lanyon, counselor at the Au­stralian Embassy, said Au­stralia is committed to finding justice for Cambodians killed and injured in the train attack, as well as for the backpackers.

The embassy lobbies the government and Prime Minister Hun Sen as often as it can to bring Chhouk Rin to justice, and is waiting for the announcement of Chhouk Rin and Sam Bith’s ap­peals, she said.

The British Embassy declined to discuss the kidnappings Friday, and the French Embassy did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment.

For Braquet, a fresh inquiry into the case, “not to judge and condemn, but to know the truth,” would help him begin to come to terms with his son’s death, Zim­eray said. The lawyer also called for Chhouk Rin to be jailed.

Braquet “wants to find reasons for his suffering,” Zimeray said. “He will always seek the truth.”

(Additional reporting by Thet Sambath)


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