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A Tragedy of No Importance

Before Iraq, before Afghanistan and before Bosnia, the West set out to heal another ruined country—Cambodia.

| April. 15, 2005 03:00 AM PDT
Sam Rainsy, president of the Khmer Nation Party, is carried away after a 30 March grenade attack outside the National Assembly building.

WHEN RON ABNEY AWOKE, he didn't know where he was, but he knew he wasn't in Cambodia anymore.

There had been a political demonstration, grenade explosions, a hurried evacuation by air. Here, the hospital room was clean. Through the window he could see new buildings in orderly rows—no dirt roads, no beggars, no amputees limping along in the tropical heat. No, clearly not Cambodia.

Abney was a political consultant, a graying foot soldier in the army of U.S.-funded advisers that fanned out to the former Soviet satellites in the 1990s to help recast them as multi-party democracies. He had been working in Cambodia as director of operations for the International Republican Institute. Now he lay in Mount Elizabeth Hospital in Singapore, looking at the grenade fragment that had been dug out of his left buttock. It was the size of a marble, but jagged.

Three or four days later, a man in a dark suit appeared at his bedside. He introduced himself as Tom Nicoletti, from the FBI's Asia-Pacific office in Honolulu. Nicoletti looked the way an agent is supposed to look, square-jawed and solid, right out of Hollywood. "We're here to get the guys who did this," Abney recalls him saying. Man, he's a big old guy, Abney thought. Talks like John Wayne. Go get 'em man, go get 'em.

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Nicoletti stood in the same spot for the whole interview, a solid hour. Then he picked up the piece of shrapnel. Abney stopped him. "If you take it," he said, "you gotta give me a receipt." Nicoletti pulled out his card, and scrawled this on the back:

4/4/97. Received one small grenade fragment to be analyzed by FBI lab—to be returned to Mr. Abney when investigation completed. T.E. Nicoletti.

Abney had been lucky. At least sixteen others were killed, and more than 100 were injured. To many Cambodians, Abney's injury seemed a stroke of luck. This was not the first attack on an opposition protest, but it was the first time an American was injured in one. For once, it seemed the truth would come out.

THE LINE FROM GENEVA was that Cambodia was a success story. It was a model for a new mode of multilateral intervention: the United Nations taking the lead, and the generous nations of the world stepping up with aid, trade and technical expertise, righting the wrongs of the past, picking up a fallen brother and setting him on the path to success.

But by 1997, the story of Cambodia's spectacular transition to democracy under international guidance had begun to unravel.

At the time, we were working for The Cambodia Daily, an English-language paper self-consciously modeled on The New York Times, struggling to make sense of the country's politics for our largely expatriate readership. We struggled with crashing computers, intermittent electricity, broken toilets, but our real challenge was to peel away the layers of deceit, find some semblance of truth, and then figure out how to publish it without getting the paper shut down. On the best days the Daily felt like a college paper in revolutionary times, alternately exhilarating and petty, comic and tragic; it was also addicting.

Although the Khmer Rouge was nearly defunct as a rebel force, reduced to a couple of warlord strongholds near the Thai border, the government coalition was in tatters. Every layer of Cambodian society, from the boy scouts to the prime minister's office, was unofficially divided between two parties: the royalists who won the 1993 elections and the former communists who refused to step aside. Prince Norodom Ranariddh headed Funcinpec and held the post of first prime minister. The second prime minister, in spite of the election results, was Hun Sen, leader of the Cambodian People's Party, which remained in control of the police, the justice ministry, and the bulk of the military.

Whether you were a drug runner, a general, a businessman or a monk you had to affiliate—and the smart money was on Hun Sen's side. The unbalanced coalition was ready to splinter; both parties were stockpiling arms and trying to cut deals with the remaining Khmer Rouge warlords to bolster their own military strength. The second election was scheduled for 1998, and new opposition voices were starting to be heard.

As Easter Sunday approached, the big news in the United States was the thirty-nine Heaven's Gate cultists in San Diego who committed suicide in the hope of hitching a ride on the Hale-Bopp comet. In Cambodia, it was the new alliance between Hun Sen's chief rivals.

A month earlier, in preparation for the 1998 elections, Prince Ranariddh had formally allied Funcinpec with a small but growing third party, one of those that Abney and the IRI were advising, the Khmer Nation Party. Its founder was a charismatic French-educated investment banker and reformer named Sam Rainsy. Rainsy's growing popularity clearly irked Hun Sen, and even then, irking Hun Sen was a risky business. Two years earlier, Hun Sen recommended that another small opposition party cancel its convention because somebody might throw hand grenades. The next day, somebody did. Thirty-five people were injured, but no arrests were ever made.

Over gin and tonics at the Foreign Correspondents Club or Tiger beers at the Heart of Darkness bar, foreigners used to rank Hun Sen's opponents in the "assassination sweepstakes." Rainsy was the odds-on favorite.

ON MARCH 30, 1997, about 200 of Rainsy's supporters gathered to demand a cleanup of the corrupt justice system. They marched just a few blocks from the nearby headquarters of the party, under the canopy of trees shading quiet Street 240, past the Kantha Bopha children's hospital and the stable of the royal elephants. They emerged, under the baking morning sun, in a rectangular park in the heart of Phnom Penh.

The park serves as a good map of the past decade of Cambodian politics. Immediately north, the golden walls of the Royal Palace shelter Prince Ranariddh's father, the revered but politically diminished King Norodom Sihanouk. To the northeast the Ministry of Justice stands, a mildewed memorial to the dream of a global union française.

To the east, across Sothearos Boulevard from the site of the protest, the central spire of the ornate National Assembly building rises above overlapping gables in the Cambodian style. In the center of the park is a towering statue of a Vietnamese soldier, a Cambodian soldier, and a woman and child. And on the west side, beyond the boddhi trees, is the Buddhist temple Wat Botum. A complex of mansions and guarded compounds, including one owned by Hun Sen, sprawls out behind it.

A vendor was selling cubes of hand-cut sugarcane from a bright blue wooden pushcart. A passerby recognized a policeman with whom he had played soccer and greeted him. "Something is going to happen," the officer warned him. Across the park, in front of Wat Botum, a line of soldiers—Hun Sen's elite bodyguard unit—stood in formation, armed with AK-47 rifles and B-40 rocket launchers. Perhaps because it was so early on a Sunday morning, none of the young Western reporters were there yet.

Abney had stopped off for breakfast. By the time he arrived, Rainsy, standing on a chair, was wrapping up his speech. Abney started across the street to greet him. He didn't notice that the policemen had pulled back, nearly out of sight. Abney heard a pop, like a bottle being smashed, and fell. Those standing nearest took it in the legs. Metal cut through flesh, muscle, bone. The center of the crowd flattened out. Han Mony, Rainsy's bodyguard, knocked his boss down and fell on top of him just as a second grenade exploded a few yards away. People were flayed alive as they dived for cover behind fallen bodies. Fragments sliced through the windshield of a truck carrying medicinal wine.

The third grenade exploded near the sugar cane cart where the crowd was thickest, butchering garment factory workers, vendors, and onlookers, splintering the cart and partially shattering a thick concrete park bench. The fourth landed on a dirt pathway behind the crowd, rolled to a stop, and detonated. "It was out of a Kubrick movie," Abney recalled. "People were flat on the ground, blown to shit."

Against the sudden silence, moans rose thinly in the air. Two young women lay near the cart, one with her feet blown off. The other, pale from blood loss, clutched at a motorcycle taxi driver's shirttails, begging for help. A 13-year-old boy, Ros Keam, lay clutching a protest sign, his arms and legs pierced by shrapnel. Bodies lay scattered on the pavement like broken puppets. Rainsy's wife, Tioulong Saumura, heard a woman screaming, "Your husband is dead! Your husband is dead!"

As the smoke thinned, a few members of the National Assembly slowly emerged and wept at the sight, accompanied by a surreal combination of sounds: the slow, careful steps of late-arriving photographers, the fading wails of the mortally wounded, and the pockets of silence in between. An American journalist paced the sidewalk, speaking into a cell phone, her voice cracking. "It's horrible. It's horrible."

Within a few minutes, policemen began to arrive. Ignoring the wounded protesters, they roped off the area and removed loudspeakers left over from the rally. The woman with no feet sat up. "Hot…hot," she murmured, as her eyes began to glaze.

The motorcycle taxi driver picked up one of the wounded girls, but a soldier told him to put her down, or die. Helpless, he left her under a tamarind tree and stood by the palace wall, saying to himself, "She is dying, she is dying."

For thirty-five minutes no ambulances arrived. Phnom Penh's three main hospitals became obstacle courses of sprawling victims and slick pools of blood. The truck driver's head was delivered to the morgue in a cardboard box.

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