A Tragedy of No Importance

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

Sam Rainsy, president of the Khmer Nation Party, is carried away after a 30 March grenade attack outside the National Assembly building.AFP Imageforum

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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.

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.

IN THE UNITED STATES, Cambodia is synonymous with genocide. News stories rarely inform readers of the foreign role in Cambodia’s tragedy, but they place nearly every story about Cambodia against the backdrop of Khmer Rouge savagery.

The popular media weave a colorful tapestry of horrors: intractable poverty, the government’s addiction to foreign aid, the destruction of rainforests, the transshipment of drugs, the flesh trade. With each one, Cambodia seems to prove itself unable to escape its genocidal past.

As if to oblige the journalists, Cambodia has nearly every modern plague on tap. It ranks near the bottom in the UN’s Human Poverty Index, five places below Haiti. On average, Cambodians earn less than a dollar a day and can expect to live to the ripe old age of 56. The main exports are cheap clothes, raw timber, marijuana, and beggars, although not necessarily in that order. The main imports include luxury items for the ruling classes, smuggled cigarettes, and stolen cars. The sex industry brings in as much as the national government spends, while the rate of HIV infection is by far the highest in Asia. Teenage girls in pajamas beckon from hundreds of brothels, while younger girls are held captive in back rooms, available for a premium price for those who believe that having sex with a virgin can prevent AIDS.

Almost without exception, the accounts of these new tragedies return to the bleaching piles of skulls and the dirt-covered bones left behind by Pol Pot and his comrades. Cambodia may be an open sore, they imply, but its agonies are the inevitable result of its past.

The West would like to think that it has finally done its penance for its role in Cambodia’s bloody past, and by some standards, Cambodia had indeed made great strides toward democracy and development. Although it was Vietnam that drove the Khmer Rouge from power in 1979, it was the international community that brokered a peace agreement between the Khmer Rouge and their Vietnamese-sponsored successors in 1991.

When thousands of foreign peacekeepers arrived that year to prepare Cambodia for U.N.-sponsored elections, they found Phnom Penh repopulated but otherwise little changed from twelve years earlier when Vietnamese forces drove the Khmer Rouge out and found a ghost town. Billions in foreign aid flowed in, as did thousands of diplomats, aid workers, and journalists. Restaurants, shops, bars, and brothels blossomed amid the ruins, and independent newspapers, both Cambodian and foreign-run, started to roll off the presses.

Like their colonial forebears, Westerners found that Phnom Penh offered luxuries few could afford back home. They could rent enormous villas, and hire maids, armed guards, and drivers. A bag of marijuana the size of a pillowcase could be obtained for about $20.

By 1995, when we arrived at the Daily, the foreigners were seeing their wealth eclipsed by a new class of government officials, police and army generals, and their business associates. Commoners still slalomed through dusty, mogul-filled roads, sometimes five or six to a single moped or pedicab, but the rich and powerful traveled in air-conditioned bliss, cushioned by high suspensions, protected by tinted windows, and armed escorts. By night, Land Cruisers and Mercedes-Benzes filled the parking lots of the new luxury hotels, karaoke palaces, and expensive Chinese restaurants that offered delicacies like sea turtle, sun bear, scaly anteater, and slow loris.

Fueled by foreign aid, the culture of corruption evolved into an economic system in its own right. Tax enforcement was close to non-existent. Customs revenues were siphoned away through an elaborate system of payoffs at the ports, timber concessions sold in secret. What little revenue came in went mostly to the security ministries, but not into salaries. Instead, the policeman on the corner collected bribes from motorists, and paid his captain for the right to stand on that corner. The captain paid his commander for the right to assign policemen. The commander paid the general for the right to choose captains, and so on up the line. Teachers, paid only twenty to thirty dollars a month, demanded fees from their students, doctors in public hospitals insisted on cash in the emergency room, and judges routinely sold their verdicts to the highest bidder.

As the money filtered its way up, it bought luxury cars, $300 bottles of Johnnie Walker Blue Label, teenage mistresses, and loyalty. And for the most part, that is how things remain today. A noble effort to rescue a ruined country from civil war and help it recover has gone dreadfully wrong.

RAINSY PUSHED Han Mony’s corpse off him. Recalling war films he had seen as a child, he stayed low and crawled away under the smoke. “We missed the target,” he heard someone say.

As he crept, blinded by the smoke and missing his glasses, the third grenade went off ahead of him, and then the fourth. Rainsy’s bodyguards shouted to him that government soldiers were closing in. He went limp and his bodyguards carried him away.

When Rainsy reached his house he held an impromptu press conference, telling reporters that the attack was an assault on democracy and the 1998 elections. Hun Sen, he insisted, “will be arrested and sentenced one day.”

Hun Sen’s top aide, Om Yentieng, had a different take. It was obvious, he said, that Rainsy ordered the attack on himself—after all, Yentieng cynically pointed out, he had escaped unscathed.

That evening Hun Sen threatened to “drag the demonstration’s mastermind by the neck to court.” Members of the opposition, he said later, “are not afraid to do anything, even acts that will lead to bloodshed, because they need to paint their faces with the blood of innocent people, victims they create, in order to get pity from others.”

Pity, however, was in short supply. Less than ten hours after the attack, the first (and apparently last) Southeast Asian Biennial Film Festival opened at the Royal Palace. Foreign dignitaries, directors, starlets, film jurists, government officials, and members of the royal family arrived at the Throne Hall in dinner jackets and flowing silk.

Pretty young girls cast jasmine petals at their feet, and waiters poured Chateau Noaillac, Medoc, 1993. Guests dined on symphonie de canard landais en quatuor, pavé de saumon confit sur chiffonnade d’épinard au beurre, and mignon de boeuf en spirale de pancetta aux nuances balsamiques.

As the orchestra played, some of the visitors commented that the attack was especially unfortunate, because the film festival might have presented a positive image of Cambodia, one not seen since decades earlier, before the American bombing, the civil war, and the rise of the Khmer Rouge.

JUST OVER FIFTY YEARS AGO, with her mother as midwife, Dee Yon gave birth to a fat baby boy on the floor of a wooden house in Peam Koh Snar village, on the Mekong river in Kampong Cham province.

Cambodia was a peaceful, pastoral land, a French colony at the threshold of independence. Peasants like Dee Yon, who made up the bulk of the population, lived much as they had for a thousand years, growing rice, tending water buffalo, cutting wood in the forest, living from season to season.

Dee Yon and her soldier husband named the boy Hun Bunall, Nall being a common name for a pudgy child. Villagers there still call him by that name. It was the Year of the Dragon and a Tuesday no less; this child would be a stubborn one.

At 13, his family sent him downriver to continue his education. Arriving in Phnom Penh with the equivalent of less than 50 cents, he moved into a pagoda, waiting on the monks, studying in his spare time. He took a new name, Ritthi Sen, from an ancient Khmer story about a boy who endures eleven wicked stepmothers.

He stayed in the capital, he later told his biographers, until 1969, when just before graduating from high school he was forced to flee the pagoda. Sihanouk’s secret police were trying to stave off a rising rebellion by a mysterious communist movement that Sihanouk dubbed the “Khmer Rouge,” or “Red Khmer,”, and his security forces began to harass the monks, who were suspected of sympathizing with the Communists. Soon after, Sihanouk was toppled not from the left, but from the right, in a putsch that installed General Lon Nol, a hard-line anti-communist backed by the United States.

Sihanouk, from his exile in China, quickly joined his Communist former enemies, the Khmer Rouge. To bolster their common struggle, he called upon his “little people” to join the fight for liberation. Ritthi Sen changed his name to Hun Samrach—Samrach meaning “someone who completes his life’s work”—and joined the movement. Samrach was wounded several times as he rose through the ranks of the Khmer Rouge.

In 1972, after what he described as a heroic raid, he changed his name again. As Hun Sen, he lost an eye in the battle for Kampong Cham, on April 16, 1975, the day before the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh and sent the Americans fleeing in helicopters. Cambodia’s cities and towns emptied out by order of the new regime. The crash of falling bombs was replaced by the scratch of the shovel and the dull thud of the hoe.

Two years into the nightmare, Hun Sen was a deputy regimental commander, in charge of 2,000 Khmer Rouge troops. By then, however, the regime had already turned on itself. Although Vietnamese communist support had been instrumental in the Khmer Rouge takeover, Cambodia’s historical (and not entirely unjustified) fear of its much more populous and powerful neighbor soon trumped any sense of ideological kinship.

In 1977, Hun Sen was ordered to take part in what he considered a foolhardy attack on Vietnam. Perhaps fearing that he would be swept up in the regime’s increasingly vicious internal purges, he fled into the waiting arms of Cambodia’s enemy instead. Over the next year, the Khmer Rouge, under the delusion that each Cambodian soldier could kill 30 Vietnamese, mounted a series of vicious—and suicidal—attacks on Vietnamese border villages. At the end of 1978, the Vietnamese army, along with a group of Cambodian defectors and exiles, marched into Cambodia, quickly overthrew the Khmer Rouge, and drove its tattered remnants to the Thai border.

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

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.


The two forces tested each other in a series of small battles that moved from the distant countryside into the heart of Phnom Penh. Cambodian reporters began asking their western colleagues if they would flee the country, as the foreigners did in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge took over.

On the afternoon of July 4, 1997, as if some secret telegraph system had been activated, Cambodians left their jobs, shuttered their shops, loaded their possessions onto bicycles and pedicabs, and pleaded wide-eyed to their foreign customers. Go home now—danger!

The Washington Post article pointing toward Hun Sen had been published just five days earlier, and the FBI were about to return to interview Brazil at last. The visit was postponed, again, on Quinn’s advice.

Hun Sen’s forces started shelling Prince Ranariddh’s house and other Funcinpec bastions. Tanks blocked the major roads leading from the city. Black smoke rose from burning gas stations. Slum dwellers piled their small possessions into carts and fled toward the river. Foreigners in the wealthier city center huddled in their apartments, cracking nervous jokes.

Ranariddh’s forces collapsed within two days, whereupon Hun Sen’s troops pillaged stores, warehouses and hotels. At least two Funcinpec generals were taken to the forest and executed, while a secretary of state for interior was brought to a back room in his own ministry and shot dead. Other prisoners were tortured until they confessed to having links to the Khmer Rouge, in an effort to support one of CPP’s official justifications for the coup. Some were reportedly held in Tuol Sleng, the old Khmer Rouge torture center turned genocide museum.

Prince Ranariddh and his loyalists found refuge in Bangkok, as did Rainsy. Over the next two months, U.N. human rights investigators unearthed dozens of decomposing bodies, some bearing the signs of excruciating torture. Ambassador Quinn, however, studiously refrained from referring to Hun Sen’s takeover as a coup. Under the law, that would have automatically cut off all U.S. aid.

IT WAS A CURIOUS COUP, staged by one prime minister against another in the same government.

Hun Sen was in a good position to control the electoral process the following year, but the election would be worthless to him unless the international community approved it. Through an agreement engineered by Japan, Hun Sen agreed to let Funcinpec and Rainsy’s party run, and to guarantee the safety of their top leaders. It was open season on everyone else.

Rainsy’s supporters in particular were assaulted and killed by the score as election day approached. Television and radio stations blared speeches by Hun Sen and his supporters to the exclusion of almost all other news.

The National Assembly, newly stocked with Hun Sen supporters, appointed a cooperative election commission that changed the rules as needed. Electoral “experts,” many supplied by Canada and the European Union, helped the commission make the changes it wanted. Since they were only advisers, they made no judgments on the merits of these changes.

Two days before the election the bulk of the foreign poll watchers took their positions, along with the international journalists. As soon as the eyes of the world’s mobile democracy team focused, however briefly, on Cambodia, the killings ceased.

“Hun Sen can turn off the faucet,” a U.N. human rights worker in Cambodia noted, “and he can turn it back on.”

Before the votes were counted, before the observers’ reports were in from the field, and before any of the hundreds of complaints filed by the opposition were even considered, the Joint International Observer Group (the ad hoc group representing most of the foreign observers) announced that the polling and counting were “free and fair to an extent that enables it to reflect, in a credible way, the will of the Cambodian people” and soon thereafter, vacated.

Stephen Solarz, a former congressman from New York, parachuted in on behalf of the National Democratic Institute, the counterpart of Ron Abney’s IRI, and coined the phrase “miracle on the Mekong.” This news bite instantly dominated the coverage—and infuriated his own group’s election observers.

Inspired in part by the demonstrations that had only recently toppled Suharto in Indonesia, tens of thousands of Funcinpec and Rainsy supporters marched in the streets demanding an investigation of voting irregularities.

Hun Sen’s reply came on September 7, when a long line of trucks pulled into the national stadium and unloaded bundles of wooden staves and thousands of hired thugs. The next morning marked the beginning of a week of terror.

Led by police in plain clothes, the mob chased protesters off the streets, beating those they caught, even Buddhist monks, and shooting some on the spot. The government forbade newly elected opposition members from leaving the country unless they implicitly accepted the election results by taking their seats in the assembly. Bodies started turning up again, some in shallow graves, others floating in the Mekong.

In Washington, State Department spokesman James Rubin condemned the violence in language that was, as always, careful not to point the finger. “It is time for the Cambodian political crisis to be resolved in a nonviolent manner through dialogue,” he said. “We urge the parties to conduct their activities in accordance with those principles.”

After two months, Prince Ranariddh caved, and accepted the election results. The prince was named president of the National Assembly, while valuable government positions were handed out to Funcinpec’s ranking members. Beautiful new houses soon arose in the Prince’s personal compound in Kien Svay, southeast of Phnom Penh.

Funcinpec would resume its role in a coalition government, but this time its submissive position was official. As diplomats in attendance pumped each other’s hands, the assembly members were sworn in at a splendid ceremony at the gates of ancient Angkor Temple.Hun Sen had won again.

The very next day, eighteen months after its agents had left Cambodia, the FBI delivered an unclassified version of its report to the Senate Foreign Affairs committee. Unsigned and undated, the report was more a report on the process of the investigation than a report on the massacre and who might have ordered it.

The conclusions previously reported by The Washington Post were absent, and the evidence that pointed in the direction of Hun Sen was barely noted. “All investigative findings are complete, the report concluded. “The FBI has presented its investigative findings to the Department of Justice for a prosecutive opinion.”

THE “SECRET BOMBING” of Cambodia ordered by President Richard Nixon left scars in the eastern half of Cambodia that have lasted through coups, genocide, famine and civil war.

Cambodia left its mark on the United States too. In both parties, those leaders who haven’t lost sight of Cambodia entirely still tend to see the country through the lens of America’s lost war in Vietnam.

Diehard anti-communists among the Republicans still seem to want to win Cambodia back. Hun Sen, they say, is a dictator, a killer, a war criminal. Hun Sen was installed by communists—and by Vietnamese communists at that. He is a living symbol of America’s greatest Cold War humiliation.

Democrats, meanwhile, tend to favor letting the region sort out its own problems, offering reparations in the form of democracy-building programs. For them, Hun Sen is a homegrown leader who represents the victims of misguided, even criminal, American policies in Cambodia dating back to Nixon’s bombing campaign. Led by Senator John Kerry, they yearn to expiate our national sins by overlooking those of Hun Sen.

Another year passed with no word from the FBI or the Justice Department. Frustrated, the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee sent a delegation to Cambodia to review the entire affair. James Doran, the head of the delegation, concluded that members of Hun Sen’s bodyguard force participated in the planning and execution of the attack, and that either the FBI was incompetent or there was a cover-up.

“Possessing such overwhelming evidence that Hun Sen and his bodyguard force were behind this attack,” Doran wrote, “a legitimate course of action would have been to recall our Ambassador and downgrade relations with Phnom Penh until Hun Sen left or was removed from the scene.”

Since September 11, 2001, the United States has led the international community through two wars and into two more rebuilding projects: in Afghanistan, and in Iraq. If the Cambodian model is followed—and it is a comparison that is frequently made—new leaders will have only to be less appalling than those they replace. Many millions of dollars, and many thousands of lives will be spent, and reputations will be on the line. The standards of democracy will prove conveniently flexible. The rule of law will not be put to the test by excessively strict application.

Those who claim to implant democracy from above may once again find themselves held hostage by those who have the power to put the lie to their claims.

AMBASSADOR KENNETH QUINN completed his mission on July 25, 1999, having won the State Department Award for Human Rights and Democracy for his embassy in Phnom Penh.

Now in his sixties, he is executive director of the World Food Prize Foundation in Des Moines. Quinn told us he has no idea who the FBI’s findings point to in the case of the grenade attack, and offered no theories as to who might be guilty.

The FBI never returned to interview Brazil, and almost certainly never will; he has never been heard from again. Nicoletti left the FBI to work in the federal air marshall program after September 11, 2001.

On the third anniversary of the massacre, Rainsy returned with his supporters to the park and erected a small concrete memorial. The police swooped in and by morning it lay in a sewage ditch by the edge of the river, the gold-painted names of the dead smeared with effluent.

Recognized by the world as Cambodia’s only prime minister, Hun Sen later gloated when asked about the investigation. “Once the grenades exploded, already they blamed it on Hun Sen,” he told Asiaweek magazine. “I am not sure whether it is true or not, but it is reported by newspapers that the FBI have concluded that it seems likely that the case of throwing grenades in front of the National Assembly was carried out by Sam Rainsy himself.”

There is scant reason to hope that this distortion will be rectified any time soon. FBI officials told the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee in 2001 that the investigation was neither active nor closed, and the findings had not been turned over to the Department of Justice. The FBI, it seems, has no intention of revealing what it discovered.

If Hun Sen continues to successfully conceal domestic repression with a democratic facade for foreign consumption, his regime—with the tacit approval of the United States—may endure for decades. Twenty years after he first rose to to the top of Cambodian politics, it appears he may last longer than perennial dictators such as Suharto’s or Mobutu Sese Seko’s.

“Remaining in office for another two terms will make me 60 years old, but that is not too old,” he has said. At other times, he has spoken of remaining until he is 70.

The Cold War rationales under which the United States supported dictatorships in Chile and Iran in the 1970s, and El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980s, has been reborn in a soft war of public relations and diplomatic convenience. A suffering people’s hope for justice has been sacrificed to the goal of stability.

Ron Abney still walks, with a grimace and a limp, through the corridors of Congress. Tom Nicoletti’s card is in his pocket. He wants the FBI’s original report made public. As an American who loves Cambodia, he dreams that one day the country will escape the shadow of the Khmer Rouge, that it will break a decades-old curse.

He hasn’t given up hope entirely. He expects to get his grenade fragment back one day, he says, “when everybody at the State Department is dead.”


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This is the rubber-meets-road moment: the early days in our first fundraising drive since we took a big swing and merged with CIR to bring fearless investigative reporting to the internet, radio, video, and everywhere else that people need an antidote to lies and propaganda.

Donations have started slow, and we hope that explaining, level-headedly, why your support really is everything for our reporting will make a difference. Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” or in this 2:28 video about our merger (that literally just won an award), and please pitch in if you can right now.

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