Asia and Pacific, KRM In Focus

Taken Hostage by a Khmer Rouge Warlord in Cambodia

ALL Melbourne backpacker David Wilson wanted was some time on an idyllic Cambodian beach.

Instead he had a gun shoved in his face and, along with a British backpacker (Mark Slater) and a French traveller (Jean-Michael Braquet), was frog-marched by Khmer Rouge militants to a jungle hostage camp.

All would die on the killing fields.

The tragic story began in mid-1994 when Mr Wilson, a 29-year-old youth worker, took some leave and left Australia to travel through South-East Asia.

His itinerary took him to Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia.

Mr Wilson arrived in Phnom Penh from Bangkok on July 6.

Some three weeks later, on July 26, he and fellow travellers Mark Slater and Jean-Michael Braquet boarded a train for Sihanoukville which, according to Victorian Deputy State Coroner Iain West, was “an area being developed as a resort with white sand beaches and good swimming conditions”.

The three men were looking forward to sand, surf and sun.

But a warning had been issued.

“At the time that David travelled to Phnom Penh, the Department’s travel advisory notice for Cambodia specifically identified the dangers of travel outside Phnom Penh,” according to John Oliver, the former second secretary in the Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh.

“It noted that banditry was widespread outside the main urban areas. It advised travel in daylight in convoys. It urged travellers to seek advice from the embassy.”

“At approximately 2.20pm, the train (on which Mr Wilson and his two companions were travelling) was attacked by a substantial force of Khmer militia …. The attack was ordered by Sam Bith, the Khmer Rouge regional commander in the district.

“The train was stopped by the use of anti-tank mines and fired upon by the Khmer Rouge forces using rifles and B40 rockets.

“Some ten Cambodian militia and civilians were killed at the time. Whether or not the kidnapping of foreign nationals was an object of the attack is unclear. However, in the vicinity of 100 persons were kidnapped.”

Mr Wilson and his two friends were among that group.

At gunpoint, they were forced to carry food supplies to the Khmer Rouge base in the Vine Mountains, near the border of the Kampot Province.

“The camp was about 20 kilometres to the north east of Kampot City and was surrounded by banana, rice and corn fields,” Mr West would say in a 2012 coronial finding.

Wilson and the others worked and lived as hostages in shocking conditions, as civil battles raged around them.

The Cambodian forces were shelling the Khmer Rouge, enraging its general, warlord Nuon Paet.

In an interview he was allowed to do on August 19, Wilson said: “Unless the bombing stops here by the Cambodian government we have no chance of living. They (the Khmer Rouge) have made that quite clear to us.”

According to a senior Australian Federal Police agent, the hostages became pawns “in a wider game” being played by the Cambodian government — which had been left with the responsibility of ensuring the hostages’ release.

General Paet had announced a ransom: $US50,000 gold for each man.

Sticking to policy, the Australian government refused to pay for Mr Wilson’s safe release.

(The British and French governments refused to pay also.)

“The longstanding position of most Western countries, including Australia, has been not to pay ransoms,” Mr West would state in his finding.

As one Australian ambassador said: “Any such payment would be likely to have the effect of encouraging further such kidnappings in Cambodia and thereby endangering the position of other Australians living in Cambodia and elsewhere overseas.”

The decision not pay the ransom enraged Mr Wilson’s family, who were prepared to pay whatever they had to for a safe release.

In a desperate message to the bureaucrats, Mr Wilson and his two fellow captives stated: “If the government won’t pay for our release please do the moral thing and give our families the opportunity to arrange our release. Please, please, please get us out of here.”

On September 28, on the order of General Paet, the three foreigners were marched to the place where they were killed.

“Their hands were tied with coloured nylon rope, and they were taken to the back of the house by the four men,” Mr West would state.

“(Two of the men) were carrying AK rifles.” 

Slater and Braquet were shot dead.

Mr Wilson was fatally bashed to the right side of his head.

“It is not 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 West stated in his finding.

Australian federal agents and army officials located the men’s bodies in a shallow grave near General Paet’s camp on November 2, 1994.

“Mr Wilson’s body was lying face down and his arms were tied together behind his back with blue rope,” Mr West found.

“Each of the bodies was exhumed, taken to Phnom Penh for identification and then returned to their respective countries to be appropriately interred.

“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 September 28, 1994 in the Knach Prey area, Touk Meas district, Kampot Province, Cambodia on the orders of General Paet.”

Paet was found guilty of the murders, despite appeals.

It is commonly estimated that between 1 and 3.5 million Cambodians died under the Khmer Rouge regime ( up-to 37% of the population), half from executions and the remainder from starvation and disease.

Source: Herald Sun