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At Long Last, Signs of Justice for 1997 Cambodia Massacre

The brazen attack in broad daylight 25 years ago has ingrained impunity in Cambodia more than any other single act in the country’s post-Khmer Rouge history.

Published in: The Diplomat
A former opposition party Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) member prays in front of portraits of victims of the March 30, 1997 deadly grenade attack, during a Buddhist ceremony, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Friday, March 30, 2018. © 2018 AP Photo/Heng Sinith

March 30, 1997, began as a sleepy Sunday morning in Phnom Penh. It ended in carnage. 

In a coordinated attack involving Prime Minister Hun Sen’s personal bodyguard unit, four grenades were thrown at an opposition party rally, leaving 16 dead and more than 150 injured. No one has ever been held accountable.

What would have been a long-forgotten protest against judicial corruption made history for two reasons: It was the first opposition demonstration ever formally approved by Cambodia’s Ministry of Interior, and it would soon find a place on the State Department’s list of terrorist acts for 1997, just between the kidnapping of a Venezuelan in Colombia and the murder of a Danish nurse in Ethiopia. 

The target was opposition party leader Sam Rainsy.

The location should have been a safe place: a park across the street from parliament. But what Rainsy and others attending the rally didn’t know was that they were walking into a deadly trap. The police, normally deployed in large numbers, were instead stationed out of sight around a corner. Instead, for the first time, Hun Sen’s notorious bodyguard unit, a heavily armed brigade of the army, was on hand at a protest. 

At the time I was a United Nations human rights worker in Cambodia. When the grenades exploded, I was called and raced to the park. When I arrived, people lay scattered on the ground, dead and dying. Rainsy survived with a minor wound because one of his bodyguards fell on top of him after the first grenade exploded; the bodyguard died. Body parts of victims landed everywhere, and the grisly photos of the dying against the backdrop of Cambodia’s spectacular Royal Palace landed the story on the front pages of newspapers around the world and as the lead story on CNN and the BBC. 

One particular photo, of a girl trying to stand up with no legs, encapsulates the genuine evil of terrorism everywhere — and will always haunt me. A teenager, she got up early on a Sunday morning so she could make a few cents selling sugar cane juice. Her face stares at the camera in shock and incomprehension, her long black hair matted with blood, surrounded by dead bodies, the dreams of a teenager leaking out of a body in the process of expiring from shock and blood loss. A stranger and I tried to move her onto the back of a police pickup truck just before she died, but were blocked by police. We screamed and begged but they refused to help. In a career of almost 30 years working in human rights, this is the day I will never forget. 

Twenty-five years later, the wheels of justice may finally be turning to hold the perpetrators of this massacre accountable. A December 30, 2021 French court order has sent shockwaves through Cambodia by issuing indictments against two senior Cambodian generals, Huy Piseth and Hing Bun Heang, for ordering and carrying out the attack. (I was summoned as a witness in the case and gave evidence in Paris.) At the time of the attack, Huy Piseth was chief of Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit and Hing Bun Heang was deputy chief. 

But the most striking development was the revelation that the court had issued a summons for Prime Minister Hun Sen for his role in the attack. The order states that the French government blocked its delivery, citing head of state immunity.

The indictments were issued in a case filed in Paris by Rainsy, a dual French-Cambodian citizen. The court noted “the lack of cooperation of the Cambodian authorities throughout this judicial investigation.” This was an understatement: In a June 1997 interview with the Phnom Penh Post, Hing Bun Heang threatened to kill journalists who alleged that Hun Sen’s bodyguards were involved.

Between investigations by the U.N., the FBI (it had jurisdiction under U.S. law because Ron Abney, a U.S. citizen working for the International Republican Institute, was seriously wounded in the attack), the U.S. Congress, and others, the basic facts have long been known. Numerous witnesses reported that the people who threw the grenades subsequently ran toward Hun Sen’s bodyguards, who were deployed in full riot gear in a line at the west end of the park in front of a closed and guarded residential compound containing the homes of many senior leaders of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (referred to as the “Forbidden Compound” by Cambodians). Witnesses told U.N. and FBI investigators that the bodyguards allowed the assailants to escape into the compound. The bodyguards then stopped at gunpoint crowd members who were in pursuit, threatening to shoot them.

While the police units normally deployed at protests were stationed around the corner, other police units were in a nearby police station in full riot gear on high alert, suggesting they knew that there would be violence.

A June 1997 article in the Washington Post reported: “In a classified report that could pose some awkward problems for US policymakers, the FBI tentatively has pinned responsibility for the blasts, and the subsequent interference, on personal bodyguard forces employed by Hun Sen, one of Cambodia’s two prime ministers, according to four US government sources familiar with its contents…. the agents involved reportedly have complained that additional informants here are too frightened to come forward.”

The FBI’s lead investigator, Thomas Nicoletti, interviewed Cambodian soldiers and officers up the chain of command. Huy Piseth admitted that only Hun Sen had the power to order the bodyguard unit to be deployed, leading Nicoletti to conclude that only Hun Sen could have ordered the bodyguard unit to the park. Nicoletti has said that, if he had more time, he believed he could have gathered enough evidence to present a case to prosecutors to file criminal charges. Yet, in May 1997, U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Quinn ordered him out of the country.

Quinn wasn’t the only diplomat who tried to protect Hun Sen. In what the French judge described as “biased” testimony, the French ambassador, Gildas Le Lidec, told her that Sam Rainsy likely wasn’t present when the grenades exploded; he had previously told a U.N. colleague of mine that Rainsy had bombed his own protest in order to make Hun Sen look bad, an absurd allegation based on malice but no evidence. 

The failure of accountability meant that Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit has only become more powerful and untouchable. It remains synonymous in Cambodia with violence, corruption, and impunity, fully protected by Hun Sen as his de facto private army. 

Since the attack, Hun Sen has repeatedly promoted Hing Bun Heang. He is now a lieutenant general and deputy commander-in-chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces. In 2018 the U.S. government sanctioned him under its Global Magnitsky Law “for being the leader of an entity involved in serious human rights abuse.” Huy Piseth went on to become undersecretary of state in the Defense Ministry.

March 30 is referred to as “Impunity Day” by activists in Cambodia. It marked the beginning of the end of Cambodia’s brief U.N. and internationally supported effort at genuine multi-party democracy, ultimately leading to flawed elections the following year and the consolidation of power by Hun Sen, who has now been in power for 37 years and is one of the longest serving leaders in the world. He has dissolved the political opposition, put dozens of leading figures in prison or forced them into exile, and runs the country with an iron fist. 

The brazen attack in broad daylight 25 years ago has ingrained impunity in Cambodia more than any other single act in the country’s post-Khmer Rouge history. Within months, Hun Sen staged a violent coup that cemented his singular hold on power and leading to the de facto dictatorship that exists in Cambodia today. Human Rights Watch estimates that there are now over 50 political prisoners in Cambodia. In the latest show trial, on March 17, a court convicted Rainsy and 20 other opposition party members and activists of treason and other charges. Rainsy has been in exile since 2016, but the other main opposition leader, Kem Sokha, has been banned from participating in politics and is in Cambodia standing trial on trumped-up charges that could lead to a lengthy prison term. 

Huy Piseth and Hing Bun Heang now face arrest warrants in France. The French government should request a European Arrest Warrant and an Interpol Red Notice to take both into custody and produce them before the court for trial in Paris. Whether they are in custody or not, a trial is expected in 2023. 

The U.S., which routinely condemns impunity and calls for investigations of extrajudicial killings and violence in Cambodia, should now follow France’s lead. The FBI was close to solving the case when it abruptly ended its investigation. The FBI should now finish what it started by declassifying its entire report and following the French example by initiating criminal proceedings against those responsible, including the alleged mastermind, Hun Sen. There should be no more Impunity Days in Cambodia’s future.

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