A declassified report by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation indicates involvement by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party to a deadly grenade attack on an opposition rally in 1997.
The attack, on a gathering of supporters for opposition leader Sam Rainsy, killed 16 people and injured more than 100 others, including an American citizen, which prompted an FBI investigation that was ultimately abandoned.
But in documents recently released to the English-language Cambodia Daily through a Freedom of Information request, the FBI said it had been pursuing evidence that pointed to the involvement of security forces loyal to then second prime minister Hun Sen.
Released in part to the newspaper, the 2,300-page case file indicates advance knowledge of the attack by Cambodian police at the scene of the March 30 rally and possible collusion with the attackers by Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit.
The rally was organized by the Khmer Nation Party, the precursor to the Sam Rainsy Party, to demand an independent judiciary.
“But at the time, some criminals with an order from the top threw hand grenades into the rally,” Sam Rainsy told VOA Khmer recently. “The FBI also looked thoroughly into the case and had witnesses, evidence and clear records to show that those who are behind the grenade attack are those in power today.”
The FBI investigation came months after the attack, at the request of Funcinpec and the CPP, which were in a power-sharing coalition. The investigation did not go far, and the FBI pulled its investigator from the country due to security concerns and political tension, the Daily reported.
The FBI also encountered difficulties having CPP officials cooperate, the newspaper said.
Khieu Sopheak, a spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, dismissed the report, calling the abortive investigation “an FBI failure.”
“The FBI should take it as a lesson for its academy,” said Khieu Sopheak, who had acted as a liaison officer with investigators at the time. He also denied any security threats to FBI personal, saying he would have heard about them because police and the FBI spent time together.
Nevertheless, the FBI report highlights several anomalies that led investigators to suspect involvement of Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit, including an abnormal deployment of troops near the rally.
Unit commander Huy Piseth and his deputy, Hing Bunheang, were interviewed by the FBI, along with other officials.
Hing Bunheang, who is now the head of Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit, declined to comment on the FBI report.
“I only pay attention to helping farmers to harvest,” he told VOA Khmer by phone. “People don’t have enough, and they are now harvesting. I have no time to think of any political parties. I only see rice harvesting. Many people lack a labor force. Some are disabled, old and widowed…and they need a workforce. Besides this, I know nothing.”
The FBI made more than 50 interviews in its investigation, sometimes in collaboration with Cambodian police and sometimes separately without their knowledge, the Daily reported.
A US congressional committee said agents met difficulty gaining the cooperation of police officials like Mok Chito, who was then the chief of penal police for Phnom Penh and is now in charge of the criminal department for the national police.
“I assisted in bringing witnesses to the FBI for drawing sketches, because when I got there I saw a few witnesses and I was on the taskforce,” Mok Chito told VOA Khmer.
The FBI produced nine sketches of suspects that were widely circulated that year. In the end, however, no arrests were ever made, and the FBI concluded its investigation was “incomplete.”