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.[n]
[listen to this interview]
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.[listen] “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. [listen]“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:[listen] “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!”