Chunn Yasith Gives Interview in Bangkok
bangkok – Chhun Yasith’s favorite movies are “Braveheart” and “Gladiator,” two blockbuster Hollywood films about one man’s fight to free his people from oppressive, corrupt leaders by urging them into armed conflict.
“I love those films,” he said with a grin. “I watch them almost every day. That’s what me and the [Cambodian Freedom fighters] are all about.”
The leader of the CFF was casual and relaxed in his first meeting with a journalist since the group’s Nov 24 attack on Phnom Penh, which left as many as eight dead and more than a dozen wounded. Despite the Cambodian government’s search for him, he said he is not worried about being arrested by Thai authorities or others, and moves about easily in Thailand without looking over his shoulder.
He spent a recent day traveling around Bangkok, meeting with a journalist in a hotel, dining in two restaurants and spending time at his home and office. He said he is working with Amnesty International and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to provide protection just in case, but is convinced that he has done nothing wrong.
“I just sent a letter to the Thai Foreign Ministry telling them that CFF is not a terrorist group,” said Chhun Yasith, who has a Thai visa. “[Prime Minister] Hun Sen is not the rightful leader of Cambodia and it is the right of the people to get rid of him.”
Chhun Yasith said he has been in Thailand since the Nov 24 attack, traveling back and forth between Bangkok and his offices in two other Thai provinces. He said he is in the process of regrouping and making up for the damage done by the government.
The arrest of Richard Kiri Kim, the Cambodian-American who led the attack in Phnom Penh, means the government now has access to all the CFF documents, Chhun Yasith said. The authorities have used the documents, which lists all CFF members, to arrest and question hundreds of people.
“If the list hadn’t been leaked, the people in the provinces would not have been arrested,” Chhun Yasith said. “The arrests have damaged our leadership, but I hope most of that can be recovered. I started this by myself two years ago so I can start over again.”
He said he feels bad for the more than 45 people who have been charged and imprisoned for being CFF members. He said he has been sending CFF members in Phnom Penh money to buy food for those in prison.
“I’m not the kind of guy who makes a mess and then leaves,” Chhun Yasith said.
Although the arrests have hurt the CFF, Chhun Yasith said the atmosphere of fear created by Hun Sen will eventually work against the prime minister.
“The more people Hun Sen arrests, the more the situation is going to get worse,” he said. “He is creating insecurity and investors will stop coming. Then he’ll become more angry and more violent and the country will just collapse. And then not just our people, but the whole country will stand up.”
Chhun Yasith scoffed at the rumors that he is a Hun Sen crony who staged the fighting to help the prime minister purge his political enemies. “I have been against Hun Sen forever so how can I now be Hun Sen’s puppet?”
He said the CFF never had bounties out for Hun Sen and National Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh, who had announced after the attack he was worth $1 million and the prime minister was worth $7 million.
“Where would I get the money?” Chhun Yasith said. “The attack itself cost $80,000 and 60 percent of that was my own personal money. I don’t have millions of dollars.”
As for the accusations made by other CFF members, who called him a power monger and a womanizer, Chhun Yasith said the insults were made by those in the older generation who were kicked out of the organization in August.
He acknowledged that he had many girlfriends before he was married. He said he was divorced once and now has two wives who live in separate homes in the US state of California, and seven children.
“I used to play around a lot, but I’ve changed,” he said. “I know I have to act professionally to be the CFF leader. And when would I find the time to fool around when I’m so busy taking care of the CFF? This is just childish gossip and the people who said these things are not acting professionally.”
After being a member of the Sam Rainsy party for two years, Chhun Yasith said he saw that opposing Hun Sen through non-violent means was useless.
“Sam Rainsy keeps fighting, but he doesn’t achieve anything,” he said. “A communist dictator never negotiates under the law. They are very hypocritical and tricky like a fox so you have to play their game if you want to win.”
Chhun Yasith was born in Battambang and was put in a youth group when the Khmer Rouge took over in 1975. His father was killed by the Khmer Rouge and Chhun Yasith moved to the US in 1982 to the state of Georgia. Soon after, he moved to California, where he lives with his mother and brother. He has three sisters living in Cambodia.
Chhun Yasith said he is a religious man, becoming a Seventh Day Adventist after he moved to the US. He said he was baptized and often reads the Bible.
After the New Year, Chhun Yasith said he plans to return home to Long Beach. He has missed his family during his six months abroad and he needs to take care of his clients at his accounting firm.
But he said he will never stop fighting Hun Sen.
“I would be scared of Hun Sen if people respected him, but they don’t,” Chhun Yasith said. “If Hun Sen promised to bring peace and democracy to Cambodia in exchange for me cutting off my arm, I would do it.”