Father searches for truth

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Sam Bith (Photo: Reuters)
Chhouk Rin

April 3, 2010
The Age (Australia)

Off a dusty track in Trapeang Chranieng village lies a half-finished Buddhist pagoda, its unpainted walls still exposed to the mid-afternoon sun. Like many across Cambodia, the new building - as well as a nearby shrine, built in 2007 - is dedicated to the spirits of those killed in the village while it was under the control of Khmer Rouge insurgents in the 1990s.

Now a small hamlet of thatch houses, there is little to hint at Trapeang Chranieng's tumultuous past. As a Khmer Rouge camp - part of the armed group's Phnom Voar (''Vine Mountain'') stronghold - the village was the last home of Melburnian David Wilson, Briton Mark Slater and Frenchman Jean-Michel Braquet, three tourists kidnapped when Khmer Rouge troops ambushed a Sihanoukville-bound train on July 26, 1994, killing 13 Cambodians.

Despite heated negotiations with Cambodian government officials to secure their release, the three were killed in early September as Phnom Voar came under fierce attack from government troops. When soldiers finally overran the area the following month, the bludgeoned bodies of the three men were found in a shallow grave at the foot of the hill.

At one hut, a former Khmer Rouge women's cadre recalled the "handsome" foreign men who arrived at the camp in July 1994. "When they came they were afraid at first, but after they [became at ease with] me, they always spent time with me and we talked a lot, even though I didn't understand what they said," said Keo Gnov, who cooked for the hostages during their six-week stay.

Upon their arrival, she said, Wilson, Slater and Braquet did not take well to the rice-based Khmer diet, but were able to survive on potatoes, sugar cane and coconuts that she foraged for them. The 63-year-old, now bent by years of back-breaking rural labour, giggled like a young woman when recalling an incident during their first days at the camp, when the captives scandalised local villagers by showering naked in the open. The three quickly learned to wear a cotton krama.

Although the captives were confined to the camp, they were not mistreated, Keo Gnov said, and they were largely free to walk about as they pleased. But her bright eyes dimmed when she recalled the government's frequent artillery offensives on the area, when the mood of the hostages fluctuated between relative relaxation and fear for their lives.

"When the Cambodian government soldiers opened fire, they put their arms around me and we hid in the trenches together, and at night we slept together in that wooded house," she said. "I loved them as my sons, and I saw that they loved me as their mother."

Keo Gnov said she was moved out of the area as the government forces intensified their assault on Phnom Voar and heard only several months later that the hostages had been killed. "I shed many tears when I got the news that they were killed. I wanted to help in their release, but I couldn't because the area was surrounded by Khmer Rouge and government soldiers," she said.

Fifteen years after the 1994 hostage affair, the Victorian Coroner's Court is preparing to reopen its inquest into Wilson's killing - adjourned in 2007 - after the delivery of a case file by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The "secret" file is believed to include hundreds of documents and diplomatic cables detailing the Australian government's day-by-day response to the crisis.

Alastair Gaisford, who was consul at the Australian embassy in Phnom Penh at the time of the kidnappings, says the file shows Canberra had foreknowledge of the Cambodian military's planned attack against Phnom Voar beginning in August 1994, but "did nothing" to stop it.

In an article published in The Age on February 8, he described the David Wilson case as a "a total failure" of the government's hostage policy. In particular, he said that then foreign minister Gareth Evans, who enjoyed a close personal friendship with senior Cambodian officials, particularly with co-prime ministers Norodom Ranarridh and Hun Sen, ignored the embassy's advice that he should travel to Cambodia in an effort to immediately ensure a halt to the offensive. "The Australian government already knew and approved of a Cambodian government plan for full-scale attack on the hostage mountain, which would place their lives in danger, only a week later," he wrote.

Gaisford said in an interview last month that the government-led negotiations - which were successful in negotiating the three captives' release in exchange for $US150,000 cash - crumbled under the government's subsequent military offensive. As a result, he said, two agreed releases scheduled for August 19 and 26 were aborted and led directly to the killing of the hostages at dawn on September 8.

Gaisford also cited the March 31 kidnapping of US national Melissa Himes, also by Khmer Rouge troops at Phnom Vour, as an example of the positive outcome that could have been reached in Wilson's case. After her kidnapping, then US ambassador to Cambodia, Charles "Chuck" Twining, put immediate pressure on the Cambodian government not to attack the mountain, threatening a withdrawal of promised military aid if they did not comply. Following negotiations with Family Health International, the non-government organisation that had employed her, Himes was released on May 10 for one truckload of food and building supplies costing only $US5000. All this happened, Gaisford said, despite the $US50,000 ransom payment demanded by General Nuon Paet, the head of the Phnom Voar base and commander of Khmer Rouge Division 405, for Himes' release - the same amount that would be demanded for Wilson, Slater and Braquet.

Not much remains today of the Khmer Rouge base at Phnom Voar. After the stronghold was overrun in late 1994, the remaining troops turned in their weapons and descended to the surrounding plains, returning to rural life. Chamkar Bay village, set inland from the palm-swept shores of the Gulf of Thailand, is today populated with former cadres who have taken a new turn as farmers, vendors, local government officials and cultivators of the famed Kampot pepper vine. Prak Sothy, 63, a former Khmer Rouge commander who once bore the nom de guerre Chum Nuong, still retains shades of the idealistic young man who took up then Prince Norodom Sihanouk's call to join the Khmer Rouge resistance in the mid-1970s. Dressed in a baggy military shirt and torn green trousers, Prak Sothy's former leadership role has secured him a prominent place in the community. Following the arrest in 1999 of General Nuon Paet for the killing of the hostages - and the subsequent arrest of his subordinates, Colonel Chhouk Rin and General Sam Bith - he is now the highest-ranking former cadre still living in the village.

During an interview at his home in Chamkar Bay last month, Prak Sothy confirmed that the Cambodian government's three-month siege of Phnom Voar divided the local Khmer Rouge leadership and led to the sudden, unplanned killing of the three hostages. He recalled first hearing of the killings when he arrived at the camp early in the morning after returning from the front line.

His said his wife told him that Angkar, as the Khmer Rouge "organisation" was known, had taken them to "a higher level" before she heard three shots to the west of the village. Prak Sothy, now a commune councillor, said he later learned that Nuon Paet had been in favour of a ransom exchange, but that two low-level officers - whom he identified only as Vorn and Bon - were angered by the attack and decided to execute the hostages themselves. Vorn and Bon were subsequently shot on Nuon Paet's orders, he said, for having sacrificed the $150,000 ransom payments.

You Yi, another former Khmer Rouge soldier living in Chamkar Bay, agreed that the three hostages were killed as a result of the intensifying government offensive on Phnom Voar. He added, however, that a dubious middleman had also contributed to the hostages' death by grossly misrepresenting ransom demands to their Khmer Rouge captors. "They wanted to cheat the Khmer Rouge soldiers. The victims' families agreed to give us $50,000 for each of the hostages, but [the middleman] told the Khmer Rouge soldiers the figure was only $7000. When they found out the real price, with the situation destabilised by the Cambodian government attack, they were killed," he said.

Last month, lawyers for Colonel Rin, the former regimental commander in Division 405, said their client would soon seek a royal pardon for his role in the killings, on the grounds of ill health. Both men said they sympathised with Chhouk Rin, who was handed a life sentence in 2002 for leading the train ambush that netted Wilson, Slater and Braquet.

"Chhouk Rin only arrested the three of them; he did not kill them. After he joined with the government he tried to negotiate their release," said Prak Sothy. While his efforts came too late to save the hostages, Prak Sothy said Chhouk Rin should be released as a token of goodwill.

As the government in Victoria prepares to reconvene its inquest after a three-year hiatus, Peter Wilson, David's father, expressed hopes the process might finally shed light on his son's death at Phnom Voar. Wilson said he did not level all the blame at the local Khmer Rouge; instead, pointing the finger at the political machinations of the Cambodian and Australian governments. "Politically, the Australian government was not willing to go in hard enough to do something about Hun Sen."

Despite 15 years of trying to obtain documents through freedom-of-information laws, he said the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was still withholding large sections of the Wilson case file. "They don't want it to come out for many reasons - some maybe are justifiable, but others could be just to protect themselves from what they failed to do."

But following a February request from the Coroner's Court for 157 pages of top-secret documents to be released by the government, he said the full story may now be told. "It's the truth that we want," Wilson said. "David and his friends could have been saved."

Sebastian Strangio is a journalist on The Phnom Penh Post.


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