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When politicians should step aside

By Sasha Uzunov - posted Thursday, 19 March 2009

Gaisford was referring to a 1994 military strategy, known as the Three Leopard Spots, directed by Hun Sen to remove the Khmer Rouge from three major strongholds, commencing at Phnom Vour, where Wilson and the others were being held hostage. The Cambodian Army attack started there on August 6 ,1994 and it directly led the Khmer Rouge to kill the three foreign hostages a month later on September 7, 1994.

Prior to their murder, in early August 1994, the French government had sent a rescue team of intelligence officers (DGSE) to the Kampot province where the hostages were being held. Headed by the infamous Major Alain Mafart of Rainbow Warrior bombing fame, it conducted a four-day surveillance mission, then returned to its team to standby near Angkor Wat, awaiting the order to rescue Wilson, Braquet and Slater.

Also by early August, the British had their own SAS (Special Air Service) rescue team on standby in Bangkok, Thailand, like the French team already in Cambodia, waiting for their governments' green light. Fearing failure, the Australian government’s opposition to such a snatch and grab raid, forced the French and British governments to call any rescue mission off, ensuring the hostages murder three weeks later.


Gaisford, in his testimony to the 1998 Coroner's Inquest, said the Australian government had learnt nothing about kidnappings in Cambodia as it did not debrief embassy staff in Cambodia after the kidnapping and murder of Brisbane model Kellie-Anne Wilkinson three months earlier in Cambodia, nor learn the obvious lessons from Melissa Himes’ safe release in May 1994 by the same Khmer Rouge then holding Wilson and his companions on Phnom Vour.

Ten days after Kellie-Anne Wilkinson’s kidnapping and murder the next morning in April 1994, Melissa Himes, an American aid worker in Kampot was taken by the Khmer Rouge and held to ransom on Phnom Vour. The then US senior diplomat in Cambodia, Charles “Chuck” Twining immediately and publicly threatened the Ranariddh-Hun Sen government with cutting off US military aid if it did not stop military operations against the Khmer Rouge holding Himes. This direct diplomatic threat worked and Himes was released five weeks later after successful negotiations with her captors by her NGO, Food for the Hungry: only then did Cambodian government launch military attack against the Khmer Rouge on Phnom Vour.

Sadly, three months later, Wilson and his companions on Phnom Vour received no such direct official intervention from their own governments, despite repeatedly asking for such actions in desperate messages sent out during their six weeks’ captivity. Indeed, by official duplicity, the very contrary actually happened.

According to Gaisford, Prime Minister Keating and Foreign Minister Evans had privately given official written undertakings to the Cambodian government during August, that they would not cut off promised but not yet delivered Australian military aid irrespective of the hostage outcome. This was at the same time as they publicly accepted Cambodian government assurances - contrary to fact - that it would not launch its planned military operation against the Khmer Rouge holding the hostages on Phnom Vour "without prior consultation" with them.

As the Australian government already knew that military operations had commenced on August 6, Gaisford said, all Keating and Evans needed to do then was to threaten Hun Sen, as Twining had done successfully in April, and Hun Sen would have complied long enough to ensure the negotiation and safe release of Wilson, Slater and Braquet took place, then the Cambodian government could resume military operations against the Khmer Rouge on Phnom Vour.

When Keating and Evans failed to do so, they sealed the hostages’ fate by their inaction and lack of courage while publicly duplicitously telling the hostages' families and the Australian public that "we are doing everything possible to get their safe release". Nothing could have been further from the truth. Clearly, Wilson and his companions died on Phnom Vour in vain to protect Evans' false conclusion during a visit in April 1994 that "Cambodia had returned to normalcy" so as to keep his bid to become the next UN Secretary-General on track.


In 2005, whatever the failings of the Howard Coalition government (1996-2007), it did not pussyfoot around when Australian contractor Douglas Wood was kidnapped in Iraq. Immediately it sent in the SASR who then rescued Wood. No repeat of Cambodia 1994 inaction there. Wood lived to tell his tale. The truth is now known to all.

By contrast, the truth of the Wilson fiasco may never be known. The Victorian Inquest into David Wilson's death has been adjourned after State Coroner, Graeme Johnstone, retired in November 2007. Since then there has been no word over whether the Inquest will ever be completed. So we may never know why Evans simply did not pick up the phone. But he is now trying to save the world in his new role as PM Rudd's co-chair of the International Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Commission.

The moral of the story for politicians, whether it be fighting bushfires or wars, is to step back and let the professionals handle it, having first of all given them the necessary official support and tools to start and then finish the job.

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About the Author

Sasha Uzunov graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Australia, in 1991. He enlisted in the Australian Regular Army as a soldier in 1995 and was allocated to infantry. He served two peacekeeping tours in East Timor (1999 and 2001). In 2002 he returned to civilian life as a photo journalist and film maker and has worked in The Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan. His documentary film Timor Tour of Duty made its international debut in New York in October 2009. He blogs at Team Uzunov.

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