Khmer Rouge Murder Of Three Western Backpackers in Cambodia Still Casts A Dark Shadow.
Above Photo: A Staged Khmer Rouge Execution. (Pinterest)
In my novel BACK, a Khmer Rouge gang capture a modern-day group of American and British backpackers in the tri-border jungle of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, holding them captive and torturing them. Unfortunately, this happened in real life, far closer to the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh.
In July 1994, three backpackers, Australian David Wilson, Frenchman Jean-Michel Braquet and Briton Mark Slater, were travelling on a train from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville when it was attacked by the Khmer Rouge.
Using grenade launchers, and shooting at least 13 passengers dead, the Khmer Rouge marched more than 200 captives away. The Cambodians who had been seized were later released, but the three Westerners were taken to a mountain stronghold in Kampot province south of Phnom Penh, where they were put to work building dykes.
Villagers in the area say the trio were seen crying and refused to eat in protest at their capture.
The men’s kidnappers demanded a ransom of $50,000 in gold for each of the hostages for their safe return, but the none of the mens’ governments would negotiate a ransom. Instead, the governments of Australia, the UK and France left negotiations for the mens’ release to the Cambodian government, who tried to bomb the Khmer Rouge into releasing the men.
For two months, the captives were tortured and terrorised by the Khmer Rouge before being tied up, shot and bundled into shallow graves.
The last time Mark Slater was seen alive was on a video recording in which he made a desperate appeal for help. He said: ‘I am very weak from stress and bombings – it is as if they were bombing to kill us. The government should pay the ransom directly to the Khmer Rouge. There is no way for us out of here unless the ransom is met.’
Flash forward to 2012, when it was finally determined by an Australian inquest that the Australian government had done all it could to secure the release of David Wilson, a verdict that left many in Australia, including the victim’s father, furious, believing their government could have done more to secure Wilson’s safe release.
Victoria’s deputy state coroner Iain West said it was necessary to be mindful of the ‘‘exceptionally difficult circumstances’’ confronting the Australian officials at the time, and that three named Khmer Rouge commanders, and “a person or persons unknown” were responsible for inflicting the head injuries, contributed to the death of David Wilson.’
Three senior members of the Khmer Rouge were subsequently convicted over the trio’s deaths, General Paet and Commander Rin for murder and Commander Bith for conspiracy to murder, terrorism and other offences.
Multiple appeals by the killers have all been dismissed.
An autopsy on Mr Wilson, who was a Melbourne youth worker, found that he died from severe skull fractures to the right side of the head. The pathologist expressed the view that the fractures were brought about by a heavy blow or blows with a blunt instrument, which were inflicted while Mr Wilson was alive.
This was a typical form of execution used by the Khmer Rouge during their reign of terror when they ran the country from 1975-1979, when millions of Cambodians were murdered using the same low-tech but deadly methods.
The coroner said the most reliable account of what happened, which had come from Khmer Rouge members who testified at the killers’ trials, was that General Paet had ordered the hostages to be brought to his camp at Vine Mountain where four of his men were waiting, armed with AK rifles.
The hostages were said to have been taken behind a house where their hands were bound, before a number of shots were fired. The French and British tourists were shot dead and put into graves that had been dug at the site.
The coroner added: ‘‘It is not now possible to determine definitively who applied the blunt instrument force that caused Mr Wilson’s death or why he was not shot, while Mr Slater and Mr Braquet were’’.
Mr Wilson was also then placed into a shallow grave.
Mr West ruled: ‘‘I find that David Wilson was brutally and tragically killed close to General Paet’s house by members of the Khmer Rouge early in the morning of 28 September 1994 in the Knach Prey area, Touk Meas district, Kampot Province, Cambodia, on the orders of General Paet.’’
After Cambodian officials received ransom letters, the Australian government reiterated the long-standing policy adopted by most Western countries not to pay, as it would only encourage further kidnappings.
But despite earlier assurances from the Cambodian Foreign Minister Prince Sirivudh that no military attack would take place until the hostages were safe, the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces intensified shelling in the region. Australian officials believe this enraged General Paet and almost certainly adversely affected his attitude towards negotiations in Mr Wilson’s release, and may have led to the murder of all three men.
See the trailer for our new film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil. Set in the jungles of Laos and Vietnam, the film deals with the possible fate of US servicemen left behind after the US pulled out of the Vietnam War.
For POWs left behind in Laos, see also:
© Peter Alan Lloyd
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