LA Weekly

January 19, 2001

The Plotting Fields

by Eric Pape

A botched and pathetic assault by drunken men armed with AK-47s, a B-40 rocket launcher and grenades halfway across the world has some Long Beach locals wondering what their neighbors in Little Phnom Penh are doing in their spare time.

The 50,000-strong Cambodian-American community in Long Beach is accustomed to strife back in its homeland. Many endured intense U.S. bombings during America's sideshow war in Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge genocide, and the humiliating Vietnamese takeover of their country in the 1970s, which led to the rise of the nation's strongman, Hun Sen.

But now events in their homeland are raising questions on this side of the Pacific about the actions of a local nonprofit group led by a Cambodian-American man who advocates the violent overthrow of a government led by former communists.

"The goal of the attack is to overthrow the Cambodian government," said Yasith Chhun, a 44-year-old Long Beach accountant who leads a California-registered nonprofit group known as the Cambodian Freedom Fighters (CFF) in his spare time.

"I did many nonviolent demonstrations in 1995 and 1996, but it is not workable. We will never change the nature of the communist dictatorship with rallies," Chhun told the Weekly on December 14 when tracked down by telephone on the Thai side of Thailand's border with Cambodia. "Communists are like cows. When you talk to cows, they don't understand."

The CFF's profile was raised substantially in the predawn hours of November 24 when a shabby band of attackers wearing headbands, flip-flops and Cambodian Freedom Fighters T-shirts opened fire on government buildings in the nation's capital, Phnom Penh.

Security forces who had obtained detailed information about the attack weeks earlier easily fought off the attackers, many of whom were drunk on rice wine. It is unclear whether intoxication or the leaders of the "freedom fighters" did the attackers the greatest disservice, but all of the dead -- eight, according to most estimates -- and most of the 14 injured came from their ranks.

While Chhun said he is "very regretful" about the loss of life, he asserted that there is no other way to change Cambodia. "As a leader I don't want anyone to die, to get hurt or to get arrested, but we have to sacrifice some life for higher things. Peace, justice and democracy will not be put on a tray and given to you easily. Hun Sen will not do that. We have to fight for it."

Chhun said he trained the men who engaged in the attack on the Thai-Cambodian border, although he insisted that they led the assault on their own initiative, using their own weapons.

"When we came to Thailand, we didn't bring weapons and military supplies, we just gave them telephone cards to call us."

The amateurish nature of the attack has members of the world's largest Cambodian expatriate community here in Long Beach asking questions. The assault inflicted minimal damage, little more than bullet holes in a couple of walls and grenade divots in the ground.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen called his Long Beach--based opponents terrorists while playing down any threat to his hold on power. His regime also quickly arrested and jailed more than 200 people -- mostly members of the political opposition.

Some in Long Beach speculate that Hun Sen had his proxies dupe the CFF's leaders so that the regime can crack down on political opponents who represent a far greater threat.

"Chhun said he wants to lead a coup. But they are manipulating him," said longtime L.A.-based political activist Sahak Vaun. "There is no superpower support for a war. You can't fight a war without guns and money. Nobody believes they can do this."

While Yasith Chhun started the CFF, it was Hun Sen who gave it massive publicity by spreading its name around the world via the news wires. "Indirectly, Hun Sen has created a monster," a source said. "Now Yasith's name is everywhere."

Chhun doesn't cast himself as part of any conspiracy that serves Hun Sen. "The Cambodian people are our master . . . I give you God's word: We are not anyone's puppets," he said.

"Our forces are inside the government itself. That is why people think we were working for Hun Sen," he said. "We are using -- what do you say? -- psychological strategies. This is difficult for people to understand. With communists you have to use that, use communists against communists."

Hun Sen has called for the U.S. to extradite Chhun and two other Cambodian-American "terrorists" to Cambodia. While the Federal Bureau of Investigation's L.A. office would not confirm or deny an investigation, a Bangkok representative of the bureau took a preliminary trip to Phnom Penh to see if any American laws have been broken.

While there is no extradition treaty between the two countries, Hun Sen used the preliminary FBI visit to bolster his tough talk, saying that CFF leaders would be hunted down. "Do not think that you can escape. Now the FBI have arrived. The United States is cooperating with us. Some leaders will be arrested here and some in the U.S. to stand trial there," he said in a December 2 radio speech.

"Hun Sen said I am a terrorist," said Chhun. "We are not terrorists. Terrorists don't show their faces. We do. We have a Web site We had a plan to attack the Defense Department, the Interior Ministry and other government offices. We don't attack anything public, just the government."

Chhun, who was born a Buddhist but has become a Seventh-day Adventist, said God had tapped him for this mission, and equated himself with a prominent biblical figure. "Moses tried to liberate the slaves of Egypt. Like him, I am not afraid of anything. If the U.S. punishes me or if the FBI wants to arrest me, I accept that because I am doing this to restore things . . . I know I am doing this for my people, my principles."

Chhun returned last week to his rented apartment in Long Beach so that he can return to his day job. "Tax time is getting close, so I have to come back to take care of my clients," he said with a slight chuckle.

Back in Washington, some are skeptical about the chances that the U.S. would extradite any American citizen to Cambodia, given that Hun Sen's political opponents have long suffered well-documented intimidation, torture and executions.

"There would have to be a tremendous amount of proof that Cambodian-Americans were involved in criminal activities before there could be any consideration given to sending them to Cambodia," said Huntington Beach Congressman Dana Rohrabacher.

"I am not saying it is totally out of the question, but when you are dealing with Hun Sen, who has committed so many crimes, it is hard to get worked up about his accusations," the Republican congressman said. He added that Cambodia's politicized courts and grim prison conditions make such a scenario even more unlikely.

One Cambodian-American did not escape the reach of the Southeast Asian strongman. Cambodian authorities arrested Richard Kiri Kim on their soil following the attack. Another person that Hun Sen is after, longtime Long Beach resident Samien Thong, denied involvement. "I am on Hun Sen's list, so I have to tell the press that I was not involved with that," he said. Thong added that Hun Sen is calling for his extradition as a result of outdated information gathered from Kiri Kim's confiscated portable computer.

Thong, who runs a small Long Beach travel agency, acknowledged that he visited the Thai border in 1998 to meet with 60 soldiers, but he also said he is against the use of violence to overthrow Hun Sen and that he is no longer a leader of the CFF.

"Nobody agreed with Yasith to do what he did. He went it alone," Thong said.

Chhun describes Thong as "an internal enemy" who was kicked out of the CFF. And he is ready to continue a fight he calls "God's mission."

"I have a business in Long Beach with 3,000 clients. I earn almost a million dollars a year. I have kids, a wife and a family to take care of, so why am I coming here to suffer? Because I cannot ignore the bloodshed of my people," he said. "We failed this time, but not every time."

[back to clips]