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Cambodia family shields frail mother from truth: Her sons were murdered

Nuoun Tael's two sons were blindfolded, handcuffed and shot to death after a coup last July. But she doesn't know that yet.

Afraid the truth might kill the 80-year-old woman, Tael's other children have lied to her when she asks about the whereabouts of her two favorite sons.The pair, they tell her, went to the United States for job training shortly after the coup in which Cambodian strongman Hun Sen seized power.

"They like America. Things are very good there," says Tael, confined by partial paralysis to her bed. With a hint of disbelief in her pale eyes, she says they will be gone several years.

Chao Tea, 29, and Chao Khung, 25, will never return, though, and her family hopes the old woman dies peacefully before she ever learns of their deaths.

Like nearly all families in Cambodia, the Chao clan has been touched by one national trauma after another: carpet bombing by the United States during the Vietnam War, mass slaughter and dislocation by the Khmer Rouge regime between 1975 and 1979, harsh military occupation by Vietnam in the 1980s.

Hun Sen's coup last July, in which he overthrew his co-prime minister, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, inflicted yet another nightmare.

Not only were Nuoun Tael's two sons killed in the purge, but Hun Sen used the family to rebut claims that his power grab had been bloody.

Until the coup seven months ago, Hun Sen shared power with Ranariddh in an unwieldy coalition installed by the United Nations in 1993 to cap a $2 billion peacekeeping mission. Ranarridh won the U.N.-organized election, but Hun Sen was granted partial power after he threatened renewed civil war.

Since the coup, the U.N. Center for Human Rights in Cambodia says at least 43 people were tortured and killed by Hun Sen's men after the coup. Among those cases are the slayings of Chao Tea and Chao Khung.

But Hun Sen has rejected the center's findings and frequently called for its investigators to leave Cambodia. And when Mary Robinson, the top U.N. human rights official, visited Cambodia in January, Hun Sen made a dramatic attempt to discredit the report.

At a news conference, Hun Sen introduced Chao Keang - the older brother of the two dead men - in an attempt to show the report was inaccurate and politically motivated. The center had mistakenly listed him as dead, confusing his name with his brother Chao Khung's.

"See, he is alive," Hun Sen told journalists, never mentioning the killings of Chao Tea and Chao Khung.

The center admitted the mistake.

According to the U.N. report, Chao Tea was found dead in a car with his younger brother July 7. A hotel employee working under the protection of one of Hun Sen's rivals, Chao Tea had been shot in the right temple, his brother in the chest.

Trying to downplay a controversy that could get him killed, Chao Keang, 43, says he believes robbery, not politics, was behind the deaths of his brothers.

"They were businessmen," Chao Keang said. "They were not tied to the military or to politics. But if the robbers wanted money, I would have given it to them. Instead, they just killed them."

No one has ever been arrested for the killings of the Chao brothers. Despite a promise by Hun Sen to investigate the deaths, no probe has been carried out.

The deaths were just the family's latest burden. Three of Chao Keang's siblings were killed during the Khmer Rouge regime, as were scores of other family members and distant relatives.