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Why a Canadian Journalist’s Death in Siem Reap is likely to Remain a Mystery

Dave Walker. A missing Canadian journalist found dead in Cambodia

Dave Walker. A missing Canadian journalist found dead in Cambodia

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SIEM REAP – On the morning of Feb. 14, 2014, a 58-year-old Canadian named Dave Walker rose late and left his room at the Green Village Angkor guest house in this city of 175,000 in northwestern Cambodia.

After eating at his usual spot, the Five Sons noodle bar on Sok San Road, he walked back to the hotel, stopping to pick up his clothes from a laundromat, before returning to his room around 1 p.m. When one of the housekeepers knocked on Mr. Walker’s door to clean the room, he grabbed his wallet, a bottle of water and his cellphone, and left to give her space, leaving his laptop, passport and other belongings behind. He then returned almost immediately, plugged his phone into a charger, and walked out for good.

Reports sent from a so called Australian 'investigator' called James An to the Cambodian Military Police and also police in Edmonton, Alberta, pointed the finger at Sony Chhoun who is Walker’s partner in their film production company Animist Farm Films. James An suggested that Sonny Chhoun was milking Walker's cash.

Reports sent from a so called Australian ‘investigator’ called James An to the Cambodian Military Police and also police in Edmonton, Alberta, pointed the finger at Sony Chhoun who is Walker’s partner in their film production company Animist Farm Films. James An suggested that Sonny Chhoun was milking Walker’s cash.

Downstairs in the spartan guest house, a few of the staff were having lunch outdoors near the murky, sun-warmed plunge pool. One of them later told investigators that she saw Mr. Walker exit down the garden path, past the pool, and out through the tall metal gates into the street beyond. The time was approximately 2 p.m. Despite the sweltering dry-season heat, Mr. Walker – a man with an eclectic résumé, from soldier and police officer to movie-set driver and nascent documentary filmmaker – was wearing his typical attire: a black T-shirt, baggy jeans and a pair of New Balance trainers.

“He would not come back”.

Dave Walker went missing for 11 weeks, until May 1, when a group of children scavenging in the jungle inside Angkor Wat found his severely decomposed body. The famous temple complex is roughly a 15-minute drive from Mr. Walker’s guest house. The corpse was discovered on the forest floor, just off a narrow footpath, not far from the temple’s notorious Death Gate, which many locals refuse to use for fear of bad luck. Ancient Hindu armies once marched prisoners through it before executing them.

A body believed to be that of missing Canadian Dave Walker is seen in a jungle at the famed Angkor complex in Siem Reap province on May 1, 2014. A body believed to be that of a Canadian journalist who vanished in February in Cambodia has been found in jungle near the famed Angkor Wat temples, police said on May 1. Dave Walker, 58, disappeared on February 14 after leaving a guesthouse in Cambodia's northwestern tourist town of Siem Reap, according to the town's police chief Tith Narong. AFP PHOTO / YOU VONGYOU VONG/AFP/Getty Images

A body believed to be that of missing Canadian Dave Walker is seen in a jungle at the famed Angkor complex in Siem Reap province on May 1, 2014.

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Mr. Walker was found wearing the same clothes he had on when he disappeared. Judging by the crime-scene photos, as well as accounts from sources who were at the site, the skin on his face was blackened with rot, his eye sockets hauntingly empty. He was found supine, limbs splayed, his head tilted back in a position that some witnesses claim looked as if his neck had been broken.

Two autopsies were conducted. The first was done by the Cambodian police; the second was commissioned privately by Mr. Walker’s closest relative – his cousin Tammy Madon, a bank teller in Edmonton – and was overseen by the Canadian embassy in Bangkok, where the body was shipped several weeks after being found.

Canada has no embassy in Cambodia. Since the Harper government closed it in 2009, diplomatic relations have been handled through the embassy in Thailand. In response to interview requests, officials there redirected this reporter’s e-mail to the Ottawa media-relations department of Foreign Affairs, which said that, due to privacy concerns, “an interview will not be possible.”

More than a year after Mr. Walker’s disappearance and death, there are still more questions than answers. But one thing seems obvious: Neither Cambodian authorities nor the Canadian government will do much more – if anything – to determine whether Mr. Walker was murdered, and, if so, who killed him.

Officially, the Cambodian constabulary considered Mr. Walker just a missing person. When his body was discovered, the file was effectively closed. In an interview with local media at the time, provincial police chief Sort Nady said of Mr. Walker’s body turning up in the jungle: “There is not enough fresh air in that forest and it is easy for people to fall unconscious.”

A year later, various police sources in Siem Reap told conflicting stories to The Globe and Mail. One officer said that the autopsy verdict was “heart attack.” Another, Chao Mao Vireak, who is the head of the local immigration police force (which handles all matters pertaining to foreigners), said the investigation was so sensitive that it had been referred up the chain of command to the military police in Phnom Penh because “both the Prime Minister Hun Sen and the King took an interest.” There appeared to be no ongoing investigation on the ground in Siem Reap.

What does the Canadian government owe Dave Walker? Legally speaking, almost nothing. Most Canadians don’t realize that the government is absolved of any real legal responsibility to defend the rights of Canadian citizens the moment they enter another sovereign nation. This is not true of fellow G8 nations such as Germany and the United States, which long ago passed legislation binding them to help their citizens abroad.

Canada, however, has an archaic principle handed down from the Commonwealth known as “Crown prerogative.” In practice, it means the government can choose when to intervene. The Supreme Court controversially upheld the principle in a 2010 ruling in the case of Omar Khadr.

According to Gar Pardy, a former diplomat and retired head of the Canadian government’s consular services, Crown prerogative effectively allows the government to fail its own citizens in cases where it might be politically expedient to do so. “Everyone should be treated exactly the same, regardless of your situation or what country you’re in,” he says. “And in my experience, in the absence of someone at a high level pushing politically for the government to get involved, there is not a hell of a lot that can be done to get them to act if they don’t want to.”

Mr. Walker’s story is about the troubling death of a Canadian citizen abroad, but it’s also about the sort of corpses both authorities and the media pay great attention to, and those they ignore – or at least give up on quickly. In many ways, Dave Walker was as enigmatic in life as he is in death. An eccentric loner who kept his many friends carefully compartmentalized, he was a man who often baffled those who knew him best. We may never fill in all the gaps in his story or understand the reasons behind his troubling demise. But this murkiness does not alter the principle of justice. If Dave Walker was murdered, his killer is out there.

Why do some deaths and disappearances resonate for years while others fall to the wayside?

It has been nearly a decade since Woodbridge, Ont., residents Nancy and Domenic Ianiero were found murdered in their hotel room on Mexico’s Mayan Riviera. At the time, the RCMP joined forces with the Mexican authorities in the case, which made front-page news for months. In England, an entire unit of the London Metropolitan Police is devoted to solving the 2007 abduction of three-year-old Madeleine McCann in Portugal.

As for Dave Walker, friends and family around the world tried to keep the case alive, and a Toronto-based criminal historian and blogger named Peter Vronsky – a close friend of Mr. Walker since the early 1990s – continues to compile an exhaustive account of his death and the subsequent investigation. But in Cambodia, the Walker story is just another enigma in a society that’s full of them. As one Canadian official put it, “Westerners always want answers, empirical truth. But you have to remember, this is Cambodia. Some things here just need to remain a mystery.”

By Leah McLaren

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