In September 2001, a day before terrorists hijacked two airliners that crashed into the World Trade Center in New York, officials in Cambodia were busy dealing with their own terrorist threat.
Police had charged six Cambodians and one Cambodian-American with belonging to an illegal armed force called the Cambodian Freedom Fighters (CFF).
Although the CFF had staged a bloody raid on CPP offices that killed eight people a year earlier, human rights groups were quick to express concern that the government was using the attack as a pretext to move against its political opponents.
Since then, a long line of terrorist groups have been discovered in Cambodia, publicly decried by the government and deemed punishable in the eyes of the law.
But unlike the CFF, none of them ever engaged in any violence. Instead, many of them were caught committing acts of a far less violent nature: distributing information critical of the administration of Prime Minister Hun Sen. In December, a small Buddhist ceremony was held in Denmark to commemorate the formation of the Khmer National Liberation Front (KNLF), a group of activists committed to peacefully distributing literature condemning Mr. Hun Sen and the ruling CPP.
On the group’s website, Sam Serey, the group’s president, who claims to be living as a political refugee in Denmark, has posted KNLF’s manifesto along with letters to world leaders, all of which contain antigovernment literature that accuses the CPP of being communist, beholden to the Vietnamese government and responsible for acts of violence and oppression of human rights during its time in power.
Over the past month, six alleged members of the KNLF have been arrested by Thai authorities and spirited back to Cambodia, where they are being held in Prey Sar prison on charges of terrorism and organizing an armed uprising against the Cambodian government.
Police said this week that all of the men, three of whom are Buddhist monks, have confessed to their involvement in the KNLF. However, authorities are still searching for weapons or evidence that an armed insurrection was actually in the works.
The case bears striking similarities to the cases of many other government-labeled terrorist groups that have come through Cambodia’s courts under the administration of Mr. Hun Sen. From the Free Vietnam movement in 1994 to the Tiger Head movement in 2010, alleged insurgencies and planned terrorist uprisings have been a common occurrence in Cambodia.
But analysts say the groups, apart from the CFF, have posed no discernable threat to the government and often give the CPP an excuse to quash voices of dissent.
Carlyle Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert at the Australian Defense Force Academy, said the myriad terrorist groups that have popped up in Cambodia while Mr. Hun Sen has been in power have not represented a significant security concern to the country, but have proven politically convenient to the prime minister.
“None of [these groups] have posed a real threat to the Cambodian government in the sense that they could have overthrown the government or instigated a mass uprising. While several have access to arms, they are small highly personalistic groups,” he said.
“I do not think the [Hun Sen] regime is paranoid about such groups. The regime is concerned about the impact of external impressions of Cambodia’s stability. And, to a certain extent, these groups provide the opportunity for the regime to implicate the opposition,” he added.
Since the U.N.-organized elections of 1993, the CPP has touted its success in making Cambodia more secure, a platform that has required a series of new enemies, whether their threat is legitimate or not, according to John Ciorciari, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. “Given the nature of modern Indochinese history, the CPP leadership undoubtedly takes even small perceived threats seriously, but it is difficult to detect significant threats over the past decade.”
“The CPP’s political success has been built largely on the notion that the party has helped to stabilize and unify the country—a narrative that is difficult to maintain without occasionally identifying threats to national stability,” he added.
Beginning in 1994, Cambodian police began investigating members of “Vietnam Tu Do,” or Free Vietnam, who were allegedly plotting to overthrow the Vietnamese government by building an army and a weapons factory in Cambodia. Dozens of the group’s alleged members, including the editor of the anti-communist Vietnamese-language newspaper also called Free Vietnam, were arrested and deported to Vietnam.
Although human rights groups blasted the deportations, which happened without due legal process and with little explanation for the men’s arrests, Cambodian officials said that it was necessary for the government to immediately disrupt the group’s activities in the interest of national security.
In 2000, three men accused of being part of Khmer Serey, or Free Khmer, a shadowy antigovernment movement supposedly operating in the jungles of Eastern Cambodia, were found shot dead in Kratie province.
Days later, after human rights groups raised concerns that the killings were part of a political purge of former Khmer Rouge and Funcinpec soldiers, a senior Royal Cambodian Armed Forces commander said that the men were not part of the Khmer Serey at all, but were in fact criminals who preyed on travelers in Ang Snuol district, and that a total of seven of them were killed in an exchange of fire with military forces.
In the weeks leading up to the killings, dozens of other men were recruited to be Khmer Serey and later went missing. Although then-Co-Minister of Defense Sisowath Cirirath said the men had simply returned to live with their families, others suggested the men had been tricked into joining the group and then punished for their involvement.
Months later, in February 2001, the Khmer Serey movement came to an end when 25 men claiming to be part of the group handed in their arms at a ceremony presided over by Kratie province’s governor.
In November 2000, the CFF was orchestrating an attack on the government that led to the worst political violence in the country since 1997.
The CFF, a group headquartered at the Long Beach, California, office of an accountant named Chhun Yasidh, claimed responsibility for a raid on CPP offices in Phnom Penh that left eight dead, more than a dozen injured, and dozens more arrested.
Human rights groups quickly expressed concern that the CPP was using the attack as a pretext to move against political opponents. More than 200 people were arrested in connection to the attack and at least 40 people were charged with terrorism and membership in an illegal armed force. In June 2010, a U.S. court found Mr. Yasidh guilty of masterminding the failed coup and sentenced him to life in prison without parole.
One of the more bizarre alleged armed forces to have formed in Cambodia under Mr. Hun Sen’s watch was the Empire Movement, a group of Cham Muslims who allegedly planned to create a commando unit to reclaim Cambodian and Cham territory lost centuries ago to Vietnam and Thailand.
Three men were arrested for the alleged plot, in which they planned to rally another 400 armed members of the Cham Muslim community to take back their land. But it later transpired that none of the men possessed any weapons and most of the recruits were totally unaware that they had been conscripted.
After more than a year in pretrial detention, two of the charged men were handed five and six years jail sentences. One of the men claimed to have been an undercover agent with the FBI investigating possible al-Qaida links within Cambodia’s Muslim community, a claim that the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh denied.
Another terrorist group to grab headlines was discovered in January 2009 in Mondolkiri province. Police said they had discovered a group called the Tiger Head Movement, named for its insignia consisting of three tiger heads.
The group first caught the attention of authorities in 2006 for allegedly spreading hundreds of anti-Hun Sen leaflets in Phnom Penh and Takeo.
But the case against the men revolved around two bomb plots in Phnom Penh—one near the Vietnamese Friendship memorial in 2007 and another near the Defense Ministry headquarters in 2009. None of the bombs were detonated and the four leaders of the Tiger Head Movement, who were sentenced to between 20 and 28 years, have refuted all involvement in the alleged plots.
Even the opposition SRP has been accused of mounting an armed group designed to overthrow the CPP. From its inception in 2001, the SRP’s “Committee 14” was meant to be a shadow Cabinet that would oversee the government’s military activities. But in 2003, Mr. Hun Sen came out blasting the group and accused the SRP of organizing a rebel force meant to overthrow the CPP.
SRP lawmaker Chea Channy was arrested and imprisoned in 2005 for two years for his role in organizing the so-called illegal armed force.
The six members of the KNLF now in pretrial detention in Prey Sar prison have yet to be told when they will stand trial. Police have said they are seeking higher-ranking members of the group, including the leader, who is living in Denmark.
In a statement posted to the website of the National Police after their arrest, spokesman Lieutenant General Kirth Chantarith said the men had been arrested on a court warrant charging them with “terrorism, distributing leaflets, possessing explosives, creating illegal armed forces and creating the Khmer National Liberation Front that violates the rule of Cambodian law.”
Speaking from Denmark last week, Sam Serey said that he and other members, many of whom were monks, were simply trying to let people in Cambodia know about the “real situation” in their country.
“The members were arrested because they work with me and are members of KNLF and they distribute books and leaflets to tell people to know what the government is doing and about Vietnam’s invasion and colonization of Cambodia,” he said. “But what we do is peaceful and without weapons.”
(Additional reporting by Eang Mengleng)