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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

After seizing Phnom Penh, Vietnam flew a 28-year-old Khmer Rouge defector to the capital and made him foreign minister in the replacement regime. They called him Mai Phuc, or Happiness Forever, but he has become known to the world as Hun Sen.

In 1985 he was made prime minister, and, backed by Vietnam and the Soviet Union, he presided over the continuing war against the Khmer Rouge and its domestic allies, who were based on the Thai border and in the refugee camps and supported by the United States, China, and Thailand. When the Soviet bloc collapsed, the Vietnamese pulled out, leaving Hun Sen and his party apparatus in charge, lacking financial and military support, and—eventually—willing to sign the Paris Peace Agreement in 1991.

He let the United Nations administer the country for two years preceding the 1993 elections. But when his party, renamed the Cambodian People's Party, narrowly lost to Funcinpec, he declared that unless the CCP received a share of power, Cambodia would again disintegrate into warfare. Sihanouk and the international community gave in.

To Hun Sen, the lesson was clear. An election means aid money, and electoral defeat means nothing as long as you retain both the threat of military takeover and the knowledge that the international community has no stomach for a fight. Through the 1990s, Hun Sen would offer the same stark choice: Keep the money flowing in while I rule, and Cambodia will never again descend into horror as it did during the Khmer Rouge regime or the wars before and after it. Interfere with me, however, and disaster will be on your head.

That bargain, calibrated in careful consultation with foreign diplomats, sealed his grip on power.

BENEATH THE JOVIAL COUNTENANCE of Kenneth M. Quinn, U.S. ambassador to Cambodia, lay both a heartfelt commitment to peace in Cambodia and an intense disdain for the Khmer Rouge.

As a graduate student at the University of Maryland, Quinn wrote his dissertation on the origins of radical Cambodian communism, and he was one of the first State Department officials to recognize just how sinister the Khmer Rouge were. Later he served as a deputy assistant secretary of state. Quinn arrived in mid-1995 determined to persuade Hun Sen—who sometimes implicitly threatened Americans in the country—that Washington was no longer his enemy.

But by the second year of his tenure as ambassador, Quinn suggested that he was tortured by doubts about the course he was taking, something he expressed in private conversations with foreign journalists and human rights workers. During the course of a rambling discussion in his embassy meeting room, he appeared to agonize, saying, "It's so hard to know when you are doing good here."

One night in the early spring of 1997, Ambassador Quinn was sitting on his sister-in-law's sofa in McLean, Virginia, watching Saturday Night Live, when his deputy called him from Phnom Penh with news of the attack. Quinn told us he took a tough line. "I dictated a statement," he recalls. "I said take this and get it out and deplore the attack. Condemn it."

The ambassador, however, was better known for his backyard barbecues than for his willingness to confront Hun Sen, with whom he felt he had a special rapport. They had worked together when Quinn helped negotiate the United Nations peace plan for Cambodia,and they had a common enemy, the Khmer Rouge. Quinn could work with Hun Sen—in fact, he had to work with Hun Sen because Hun Sen was, realistically, the only player with the power to reward Quinn with any signs of success.

But Hun Sen could also deliver failure, and he played by rougher rules than Quinn. To convey to us how badly the American ambassador misread power relations in the country, an influential Cambodian official recounted watching Quinn offer a group of Cambodian law students a lesson. "When I ask for something I say please," Quinn told the students, "and when I receive something I say thank you."

The Cambodian official scoffed. "I don't say please. I don't say thank you. I have an envelope stuffed with cash to give and I don't care about the rest," he told us. "I think Quinn missed the whole point in this country. If Hun Sen heard Quinn say that, he would be laughing all night."

Quinn's "tough" statement was carefully diplomatic. "We extend our sympathies," it read. "Attacks like this can cause great harm to efforts to promote democracy and advance human rights in Cambodia. It is imperative that all in Cambodia do everything possible to avoid any future violence which could put at risk the significant progress Cambodia has made in recent years."

Seriously injuring a U.S. citizen in a terrorist attack abroad is a federal crime punishable by up to ten years in prison. So long as the U.S. ambassador agrees to it and the foreign country pledges cooperation, the FBI is duty-bound to investigate and present its findings to the Department of Justice. In this case, neither Ken Quinnnor Hun Sen could oppose an investigation; a lot of foreign aid was at stake.

ON APRIL 17, 1997,Tom Nicoletti and another FBI agent, Peter Hoffman, flew in to Phnom Penh.

The rainy season had not yet arrived to bring life to the parched rice paddies, loosen old landmines and bring corpses to the surface. In the dry season, the land appears solid and predictable. Light brown roads divide slightly darker fields; small clusters of houses at regular intervals nudge up to yellow-roofed pagodas topped by tiny finials.

The mission must have seemed as clear as the summer skies. Grenades are thrown into a rally in front of hundreds of witnesses in broad daylight. An American is wounded. The local government has pledged to cooperate. The embassy is in full support. Someone is going to talk. What the agents presumably did not know was that they were heading into territory that had entangled many who came before.

Setting up operations in a different hotel every dayas a security precaution, they interviewed witnesses in front of Cambodian officials—who promised that the witnesses would not be harmed—and U.S. Embassy staff. The reels of a tape recorder turned slowly, and Myke Taister, one of the bureau's top forensic facial reconstruction men, sketched away.

Nicoletti and Hoffman quickly focused on Hun Sen's bodyguard unit, which by March 1997 had emerged as a private army of 1500 men, under the de facto control of Hun Sen's lieutenant, Hing Bun Heang.It was members of Bodyguard Unit 2 who were stationed at the park on the day of the attack, the first time these well-armed special units had been seen at an opposition rally.

Civilian witnesses quickly brought a critical part of the sequence of events into focus. As the grenades exploded, one of Rainsy's security men looked up from the ground and saw a thick arm stretch out from an orange vest and hurl the final grenade. Rainsy's man leapt to his feet and chased the thrower west. The thrower was built like a weight lifter, and ran like one.

The gap narrowed as the men approached Hun Sen's bodyguards, lined up across the west side of the park. A witness screamed: "He threw a grenade!" but rather than stopping him, the bodyguards opened their line and then urged the man in the vest to run faster.

As he disappeared into the maze of pathways leading through Wat Botum, the Buddhist temple, toward Hun Sen's mansion, the bodyguards closed ranks and leveled their guns at Rainsy's man. He stopped in his tracks, dumbfounded. A blow from behind knocked him to the ground.

MYKE TAISTER, THE FBI ARTIST, PRODUCED sketches of at least four men. Sketch No. 1—the man in the orange vest—was particularly distinctive: a heavy-set man with a small mouth, flaring eyebrows and a "tiger jaw."

When the sketches appeared in local newspapers, many people in Phnom Penh recognized him. His street name was Brazil.

Every schoolyard has its bullies. In Cambodia, there are the young toughs known as Bong Thom, or Big Brothers, who extort protection money from beggar children, sell cheap amphetamines, occasionally rob foreigners at gunpoint and spend their earnings in karaoke bars and brothels. And there are those who move up.

Brazil, whose real name was Kong Samreth, was once known as a local hood who worked out of a noodle shop near a high school just south of downtown. Students hired him to beat up their romantic rivals. He joined the army in 1990, at the age of 20 or 21. By 1992, he was a second lieutenant, and his unit had a new commander: Hing Bun Heang.

Thuggery is a career path that offers unbounded opportunity to the truly motivated, and by 1996, Brazil had joined the security force of the Sharaton Hotel, under the command of Thong Vinol.

Based in a mildewed Soviet-era apartment building across the street from the Sharaton, members of the unit were frequently called upon for odd jobs: To plant a bomb on the road near the stadium. To murder the owner of a factory. To kill Sam Rainsy.

On the 26th of February, just a month before the March 30 massacre, Brazil and a man called Solo rode a blue Honda Dream motorbike to the United Garment Factory, where Rainsy was to speak to striking workers. They approached a labor organizer and his assistant. "‘You are Sam Rainsy?' I said ‘No, I'm not,'" the organizer later recounted. "They hit us both. First the big guy hit me, then the other. They point the gun and hit at the same time, like a coward who is afraid you would hit back, so he has a gun in the other hand. The big guy hit hard—so strong."

A crowd of workers hauled the bloodied men away. Brazil waited until dusk, but Rainsy never showed.

Brazil can finish the story himself. His statement:

Sam Rainsy also did not show up at United Factory. So, at around 9am the demonstrators were walking toward the National Assembly. For myself, they ordered me to wait at the factory just in case Mr. Sam Rainsy came. I waited there until 5pm, then went back to the Sharaton Hotel. Arriving at the hotel, Mr. Thong Vinol berated me. "You never achieve anything, but you are really a big talker." For myself, I just kept quiet. I did not dare to speak back to him. I would like to note that the cause that Mr. Thong Vinol blamed on me, because I had smashed the demonstrator that morning, which caused people to panic, and Sam Rainsy did not show up
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