Alain Gascuel, the editor of French-language journal Cambodge Nouveau, was perusing the paintings at shop-front galleries across from the National Museum in Phnom Penh on a Sunday morning when he heard the first explosion. His camera was at home, but his motorbike was parked outside and he headed straight to the scene—or at least tried to.
Arriving near the Royal Palace, he started walking along the palace wall, against those leaving the scene and seeking help.
“I walked my way up the line and came across this place where there were all these dead and all these injured people,” he said in an interview last month.
A soldier with a rifle refused to let him pass. The same thing happened his next street down. So he retrieved the motorbike and sped back around Independence Monument, headed east down Sihanouk Boulevard and then north on Sisowath Quay, reaching the blast site about 15 minutes after the first of four grenades went off.
“It was horrible, the more so because nothing was happening,” he said. “That is, there was no rescue service, no police or medical emergency services. There was nothing. People were waiting and waiting and waiting. It took a very long time.”
Help, or at least some semblance of it, eventually arrived.
“It was a police pickup truck. They put the bodies in it—the injured in it like that—not too kindly. It was not medical emergency workers that had come, but the police. And there you go—in it!”
The grenades, lobbed 20 years ago today into a crowd of about 200 that had gathered for a protest led by Sam Rainsy against the corrupt judiciary, killed 17 and injured about 150, making it the single deadliest act of violence against civilians since the fall of Pol Pot in 1979.
Once the injured had been sent to hospitals across the city (Kantha Bopha, the charity children’s hospital that was the closest medical facility, had refused to take in victims), Mr. Gascuel went to the Phnom Penh headquarters of the Khmer Nation Party, the name of Mr. Rainsy’s first opposition party.
“He was there, as calm as can be,” the journalist said of Mr. Rainsy, who was saved from severe injury by his bodyguard, Hann Mony, who threw himself on top of the opposition leader and was killed by one of the blasts.
“He asked me, ‘You’re here to interview me?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ ‘Then it’s a press conference, but you’re the only journalist.’ He still had all his wits about him,” Mr. Gascuel recalled. “So he explained what had happened.”
Mr. Rainsy has continued telling the story for the past two decades, using the attack, which he blames on Prime Minister Hun Sen, to symbolize a political career that has been built largely around the notion of victimhood at the hands of a ruthless regime.
Speaking from Paris, where he is living in exile, the former opposition leader recalled last month that the morning of the attack had been calm and cheerful. Mr. Rainsy had gone through his usual exercise of asking the government for permission for the protest—requests that were routinely met with a rejection that he would then ignore. But this time, the Interior Ministry had given him the green light.
In retrospect, he understands it was a trap, but that morning, Mr. Rainsy and his supporters were feeling ebullient. “I was sincerely happy. I was relieved. This time, we can proceed without fear, or with less fear,” he said via Skype.
“I walked 500 meters from party headquarters to the old National Assembly building, so it was very joyful. Then, just south of the Royal Palace in the public garden, when I saw soldiers in combat uniforms, with their helmets…and big guns, I still was not worried. I thought they came to protect us, even if it might be overly heavy protection.”
Once the group settled on their protest spot and began railing against the judiciary, the police who routinely watched over such protests withdrew, he said. “We were left on our own with the relatively small group of demonstrators—I would say a few hundred, including passersby.”
About 20 minutes later, at 8:25 a.m., four U.S.-made M33 fragmentation grenades ripped through the crowd, killing some instantly, blowing off limbs and leaving many maimed.
“I have never taken part in any combat, so when the grenade exploded, I didn’t realize it was a grenade,” Mr. Rainsy said. “But some of my bodyguards around me said it was a grenade, they said, ‘Lay down, don’t stand up.’ Not just to me, but we couldn’t see anything around us, this advice was for everyone who was there. They said, ‘It is a grenade. Creep out. Creep out.’ And that’s all I remember at that time.”
After three more blasts and the realization that he was likely the target of a political attack, Mr. Rainsy said he decided to go limp.
“I could see some of those soldiers approaching. And I saw at the same time some of the participants, my supporters, shouting and crying that, ‘The president is dead. Sam Rainsy is dead.’ So it was another reflex. They said I am dead so I pretend to be dead.”
Once the dust settled, supporters and bodyguards carried Mr. Rainsy to a nearby pickup truck, he recalled. Once he was placed in the truck bed, the driver promptly tried to leave.
“But there were so many people still around and then I start to open my eyes to see what happened and one of the bodyguards takes his pistol and shoots in the air to open the way because we have to go. And then the pickup went and I then stood up—out of danger when we had left that place—and I said now go to see the wounded.”
Before he did that, Mr. Rainsy went to the residence of Prince Norodom Ranariddh, then the first prime minister. After visiting hospitals around the city—“it was horrible—breathing, bleeding, no room”—he returned to his party’s headquarters to speak with the press.
“I think we have touched on one of the most sensitive points of the CPP…. It is very easy to demonstrate that the judiciary is not independent,” Mr. Rainsy told gathered reporters at the time, reminding them of a grenade attack on another opposition party in 1995 that had supposedly been forewarned by Mr. Hun Sen.
“Hun Sen is either a very good fortune-teller or he is the leader of this terrorist squad,” Mr. Rainsy said.
The CPP, meanwhile, had already determined that Mr. Rainsy was not a victim, but rather a wanted man, accusing him of organizing the attack on his own protest. In the evening, the prime minister addressed the nation from his home in a televised speech.
“I have requested that the Interior Ministry and National Police, while looking for the suspects, must examine the responsibility of the demonstration organizers,” Mr. Hun Sen said. “Whether the demonstration was approved or not, the police should arrest the demonstration leader immediately.”
Om Yentieng, a longtime adviser to the prime minister who is now head of the Anti-Corruption Unit, was even more direct, accusing Mr. Rainsy of orchestrating the carnage to distract from the legal disputes he was caught up in.
“I think Sam Rainsy plays a very dangerous game. He does not think about the consequences of his actions on the lives of his party members,” he said in the hours after the attack.
“Hun Sen is not responsible for this attack, he is only the scapegoat. It is my opinion that Sam Rainsy did this to himself,” he said. “Sam Rainsy should not spill the blood of his own party members to hide the stain of his own criminal activity.”
Mr. Rainsy was not arrested. Though various suspects have been named, with some even admitting to the crime before retracting their confessions, no one has been prosecuted for the attack. When one suspect—a man named Kong Samrith who was given the alias “Brazil”—disappeared, officials said the case had gone cold.
Among the many victims of the blasts was Ron Abney, the country director for the International Republican Institute, who worked closely with Mr. Rainsy and was monitoring the protest. Though his injury was relatively minor, a shred of shrapnel embedded in his hip, it would prove critical in efforts to determine who was, in fact, responsible for the bloodshed.
Because a U.S. citizen was injured in an act of terror, the FBI opened a case on the attack. Though the agency suspended its investigation before coming to any conclusions, records obtained by The Cambodia Daily in 2009 show that signs were pointing to forces loyal to Mr. Hun Sen.
Based on interviews with witnesses and evidence gathered from informants, the FBI reports—obtained by reporters through the U.S. Freedom of Information Act—contained a number of details supporting the opinion of Mr. Rainsy, and many others, that the CPP was behind the attack.
Among the most damning details were multiple witness accounts saying that a line of soldiers identified as members of Mr. Hun Sen’s personal bodyguard unit, who were inexplicably deployed behind the rally, let some of the alleged assailants pass through and escape toward the entrance of Wat Botum.
According to witnesses, those assailants exited the rear of the pagoda and entered the adjacent military compound behind the prime minister’s house. Another witness claimed to have heard soldiers discussing the attack, one whose appearance matched FBI sketches of the suspects.
Eyewitnesses who pursued the alleged attackers said they were blocked by the same soldiers who had moments earlier let the suspects pass. “Eyewitnesses have reported that they lost sight of the two men running toward the wat when the soldiers pointed weapons and threatened them, ending their pursuit,” one FBI documents says.
Taken together, the facts collected during the aborted investigation were “substantial” and “definitely warranting a grand jury, but not yet complete,” concluded Thomas Nicoletti, the special agent who led the investigation and says he was pulled out prematurely against his own objections.
In an email to The Cambodia Daily in 2009, after he had retired, Mr. Nicoletti said the attack was meant to “eliminate Mr. Rainsy as a viable candidate” in the 1998 elections and that claims he was responsible were a “smoke shield.”
In emails to The Cambodia Daily and communications with the U.S. Embassy and others in the FBI, Mr. Nicoletti describes a CPP security apparatus that was uncooperative from the start, often actively preventing his attempts to conduct a proper investigation.
An initial attempt to interview commanders of the prime minister’s bodyguard unit in 1997 went nowhere, he said.
“My immediate line of questioning and investigative plan was abruptly terminated when the military representative of the bodyguard unit refused to participate further and left the police compound,” he said.
Khieu Sopheak, who served as the CPP’s police liaison to the investigation and is now the Interior Ministry spokesman, claimed earlier this year that others in the FBI had said they did not believe Mr. Hun Sen was responsible.
“They don’t believe that. They speak to me, they say they don’t believe the prime minister killed,” General Sopheak said during an interview at his office, adding that he had no idea who was behind the attack.
“I don’t know, maybe the third party,” he said. “How can the government kill the opposition leader at the time when the government controls the whole land? It will be useless. Killing is not good for the government.”
As part of a deal allowing Mr. Rainsy to return to Cambodia during one of his previous stints in exile, the opposition leader in 2006 dropped a case against Mr. Hun Sen in U.S. courts and agreed to stop accusing him of personal responsibility for the attack.
However, Mr. Rainsy said last month that he had not lost hope that the truth would eventually emerge. He said he believed the U.S. government has additional incriminating information that has not been made public, and that perhaps the new administration of U.S. President Donald Trump would permit its release.
“It has been a concern for American administrations to be on good terms with the Cambodian government, not to make Hun Sen angry and act in an uncontrolled way,” he said last month.
“But I hope with the new administration now, with Trump, I think there will be no such considerations,” he said. “As you can see and guess, Trump couldn’t care less about being on good terms with Hun Sen.”
(Additional reporting by Michelle Vachon and Douglas Gillison)