By Brendan Brady / Phnom Penh
Almost 16 years after Australian backpacker David Wilson was kidnapped and killed in Cambodia by a Khmer Rouge militia, the Australian government is resisting fresh demands for full disclosure of the case file on his death. Wilson was 29 when he was kidnapped in July 1994, along with Briton Mark Slater and Frenchman Jean-Michel Braquet, in a Khmer Rouge ambush on the train they were riding from the capital Phnom Penh to the seaside town of Sihanoukville. Six weeks later, the three tourists were executed at a remote Khmer Rouge stronghold after negotiations for their release broke down. Parties intimate with the case say its reopening could reveal willful neglect by Canberra in handling the negotiations.
For years, Wilson’s murder has been surrounded by intrigue. Shortly after the abduction, a wealthy Australian businessman offered to pay the $150,000 ransom the Khmer Rouge holdouts were demanding. Retired Australian commandos proposed launching a Rambo-style rescue mission. Opportunistic local middlemen muddled the ransom talks, communicating inflated figures to both sides so they could pocket the difference. Wilson’s abduction occurred at a time when foreign journalists and adventurous travelers were returning to Cambodia to witness the country’s Wild West atmosphere. The nation had just returned to being a nominally self-governed democracy following years of civil war, brutal communist rule and foreign occupation. But large swaths of the country were still held by the ousted Khmer Rouge communists. Eight foreigners had been kidnapped in the four months before the abduction of Wilson and his friends.
The Wilson family, along with the Victorian state coroner who is relaunching the inquest, has been denied access to 157 pages of the several-thousand-page case file at Canberra’s insistence to protect its intelligence-gathering methods. Wilson’s family, which still lives in Victoria, believes the documents will show that the Australian government did not discourage the Cambodian army from shelling the site where the hostages were being held — a rash move believed to have directly led to their killings in the following days. The army had wanted to swiftly topple prominent Khmer Rouge positions in order to restore the legitimacy it needed in the eyes of Western powers to receive military aid. The show of force, however, tragically misfired, infuriating Khmer Rouge cadres who, according to later reports, executed the hostages out of revenge for losses to their side.
Alastair Gaisford, now retired, was consul of the Australian embassy in Phnom Penh at the time and in charge of assembling the case file after Wilson’s death. He says it includes cables between top-level Australian and Cambodian officials showing that in the run-up to the standoff, Canberra made a commitment of military assistance to Phnom Penh regardless of the outcome of the hostage negotiations — a pledge Gaisford says “was effectively the signing over of [the hostages’] death warrant,” since the Cambodian army was more focused on proving its prowess than on collateral damage to the hostages. In contrast, just months earlier the American embassy had assisted in the release of American aid worker Melissa Himes by sternly warning Cambodia that any state attack on the area in which Himes was being held would jeopardize the flow of U.S. aid money, allowing negotiations between her NGO and the Khmer Rouge to continue.
The state coroner’s inquest, however, may do more to open up debate on growing expectations for consular protection than shed new light on the circumstances of Wilson’s death. In Australia, as in many other Western countries, there has been rising public and media attention to government protection of citizens abroad following a string of high-profile security crises, including 9/11 and the Boxing Day tsunami as well as the Bali, Madrid and London bombings, according to Michael Fullilove, a scholar with the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney. “In more and more countries, [Australian] diplomats are saying that consular services for protecting citizens are keeping them awake at night,” says Fullilove. “People are demanding more muscular assistance from their embassies.”
Wilson’s father says that if his persistence helps achieve that, he’ll be glad. Experts say the state coroner and Wilson’s family face an uphill battle in trying to force Canberra to hand over the case-file pages it is withholding, but Peter Wilson says he’s going ahead with it. “The truth that might come out can help others,” he says.
[Published by TIME.com on March 2, 2010]