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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

BRAZIL BECAME the FBI's prime suspect, but although they found out where he was, they never interviewed him, perhaps because they had to clear their interviews in advance with the embassy.

Instead, they focused on Hun Sen's bodyguard unit. The resistance they encountered was telling. In part the problem was cultural.

Foreigners new to Cambodia rarely understand that a smile can be a sign of fear. That a note that reads "I look forward to seeing you" is a death threat—if it's written in red ink. Years later, if you request an interview with a Cambodian, it is best not to say that you want to talk about the March 30 attack. If you bring it up, the polite smile becomes strained. Voices drop to a whisper. Doors and windows are quietly shut. You think about the long list of people who have found themselves on the wrong side of Hun Sen. A senator whose wife was beaten up in their home by "robbers" who stole nothing. A police official arrested and tortured in jail, then held for ransom by the police. A union leader shot dead in the street.

To make matters worse, the FBI agents interviewed the fearful soldiers in front of their own commanders—Hun Sen's lieutenants—and the results were predictably opaque.

AGENT HOFFMAN: When the grenade throwers were running toward your position, how many people were chasing them?

WITNESS (through translator): I have no intention to count how many people (were) chasing the throwers and I have no knowledge that those people are the grenade thrower.

HOFFMAN: Do you have good eyesight?

WITNESS: No, no problem with the eyes. The reason is that there are a lot of demonstrator.

HOFFMAN: So three or four people throw grenades into a crowd … and you didn't see anything?

WITNESS: I see nothing.

Another witness claimed he did not know who ordered him to be in the park, as he had only been in the bodyguard unit for five months, and that he did not know his own commander's name.

Faced with stone-walling from soldier after soldier, Hoffman becomes audibly frustrated. "Are these grenade throwers supermen? Can they just click their fingers"—he snaps his own—"and they disappear?" "I don't know," came the response. The commander, General Hing Bun Heang, looked on without comment.

"Who am I supposed to believe?" Hoffman asked. "In the United States army, in our country, we do not have blind soldiers. I do not believe the Cambodians have blind soldiers, cannot see, they'd be bumping into each other. So even if there had not been a line, you have three grenade throwers running in that direction, somebody would see them. Right?"

But one after the other Hun Sen's bodyguards denied that they could remember the faces or clothing of anyone who ran across the park. They all insisted that they were only following instructions—to protect the compound of Hun Sen—but that they knew nothing more. Hoffman goes on: "We have this problem. Every [soldier seems?] to say the next guy saw the people run into the wat and then I ask him the question and everyone says, ‘I have no knowledge of anyone passing and running into the wat!'"

"It's very confusing for an American who does not understand Cambodian politics to come over here," says Hoffman to another soldier. "If the country is going to move to freedom and democracy and away from dictatorship and communism"—he pounds the table—"then you have to have people be allowed to speak freely! You have to have that, otherwise a democracy is just pretend!"

WORKING AS JOURNALISTS IN CAMBODIA, we knew that the FBI agents were in town, but at the time we had only a shadowy idea of what they were doing. The agents did not go out at night as far as we knew, and the embassy had no comments on their activities. We were, of course, eagerly awaiting their results, but while we were waiting, they simply disappeared. It took us the better part of the next three years to piece together what happened.

On May 15, the agents met several of their Cambodian counterparts at the Ly Lay restaurant on dusty Kampuchea Krom Boulevard. Dried shark fins at $50 each stood in glass cases. Chinese lanterns and attentive waiters hung over crimson-draped tables.

It was a special occasion: The FBI was packing up. By agreement with Ambassador Quinn, Cambodian investigators would carry on. The agents had gathered extensive evidence, enough to link Hun Sen or, at the very least, the head of his bodyguard force—a man who took orders directly from Hun Sen—to the attack. Over dinner, Hoffman and Nicoletti offered advice to the Cambodian police officials, led by General Teng Savong, about how they should handle their own ongoing investigation.

Nicoletti, who had previously noted that the Cambodian team had come up with nothing, told them that they must blame the military units whose chief had said they were ordered out to the park by Hun Sen's cabinet. He told General Savong that Hun Sen's bodyguards had let the throwers escape. You have to mention it in your report, Nicoletti told him.

"What can I say?" Savong whispered. "It would be too dangerous."

Hoffman and Taister left Cambodia the next day, Nicoletti soon after. But it had become obvious that the agents were closing in, and word was spreading to the street and to the newspapers. In Hun Sen's inner circle, the tension was showing.

"Why do they accuse us without any basic evidence? We are innocent people, we were not involved in that attack," the bodyguard chief, General Hing Bun Heang, raged to a reporter from the Phnom Penh Post. "Publish this: Tell them that I want to kill them ... publish it, say that I, chief of the bodyguards, have said this. I want to kill ... I am so angry."

IT WAS WIDELY ASSUMED that the agents left because their investigation was complete, and that a report would be forthcoming.

But the real reason the FBI agents left was that just as they were assembling the evidence pointing toward Hun Sen's inner circle, Nicoletti got the word: The agents were targeted for assassination by the Khmer Rouge. According to embassy sources as well as Cambodians involved in the investigation, word of the threat came straight from Ambassador Quinn.

Quinn (who retired from the State Department when his Cambodia posting ended) told us that the threats were real, but insists that Nicoletti had already come to his house to tell him that the investigation was complete.

"The FBI was very particular about this," he told us. "They wanted to be absolutely clear that their work had stopped on May 16." The first threats came eight days later, according to Quinn. The implication is that the threats could not have caused the investigation to end. Quinn also said that it was Nicoletti who told him about the warnings, not the other way around, and that it was the FBI chief in Bangkok who pulled the agents out, not the ambassador in Phnom Penh who pushed.

Quinn, understandably, could not produce the reports of the threatening Khmer Rouge radio broadcast he cited. Regardless, the idea that the agents were at risk from the distant remnants of the Khmer Rouge was preposterous. An attack on FBI agents in Cambodia would have brought about a much larger investigation with far more serious consequences, something Quinn was surely aware of. And the remnants of the Khmer Rouge, for twenty years the blood enemy of Hun Sen, would hardly have wanted to kill the FBI agents, unless of course they had already reconciled with him. Of course, this latter scenario would have laid responsibility for the threat at the door of Hun Sen, the only person in the country with both the power to make such threats in a credible way.

Quinn further maintained that the FBI agents had shifted their suspicions in the attack to a French-Cambodian named In Thaddee, a man in his thirties who worked in France for a company that made flavorings for ice cream and frequently visited from France to work with Rainsy as an aide.

Like Rainsy, Thaddee was in the crowd when the grenades exploded; like Rainsy, he was not killed; and like Rainsy, he was accused of masterminding the attack. Quinn extended this theory to suggest that the attack may have been carried out by the Khmer Rouge itself or by elements within Rainsy's party. These theories were dismissed by the Senate investigators.

Five weeks after the agents left, a Washington Post article cited U.S. sources familiar with the FBI's preliminary report as saying that the agency was tentatively pinning responsibility for the massacre on Hun Sen's personal bodyguard forces. The FBI was even planning to return to finally interview Brazil. But that visit, too, was postponed, on Quinn's advice. The risk was too great, he said. Hun Sen had made it clear that stability in Cambodia was contingent on his unchallenged rule.

"This was a pretext to pull them out," a former senior Cambodian police official told us. "The ambassador decided to call it quits."

The FBI, for its part, refuses to discuss the case. A spokeswoman in the Los Angeles office, where Nicoletti was transferred, said that he would not be permitted to speak about this or any other case. He has ignored repeated entreaties to discuss it.

DESPITE QUINN'S EFFORTS, the coalition between Hun Sen's party and Funcinpec continued to disintegrate. The grenade attack, it turned out, was only the first round of a brutal, and one-sided, power struggle.

Officials from both sides took to traveling around the capital in Toyota Land Cruisers followed by motorcycle outriders carrying AK-47s and rocket launchers. Prince Ranariddh installed machine gun nests in bunkers at both ends of his block. Day after day, in rambling televised speeches, Hun Sen threatened to crack down on Funcinpec corruption.

 

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