long beach, California, USA – Even a life sentence in a Cambodian prison hasn’t deterred Chhun Yasith, the US-based accountant whose abortive rebellion in Phnom Penh last year left at least four dead, a dozen injured and dozens in prison.
From his office here he continues his anti-CPP rhetoric, promising another attack against Hun Sen’s government by the end of the year, though those threats often fall of deaf ears in this tightly-knit Cambodian-American community where Chhun Yasith’s politics are viewed as, at best, a bit extreme.
“This time, it will be all over the country, not just in Phnom Penh,” he vowed during a recent interview in his storefront office here. “We had 1,000 men [during the November 2000 rebellion] and [Prime Minister] Hun Sen arrested only 200.
“There are 800 more out there, stationed all over Cambodia. They will rise up at the right time….The Cambodian Freedom Fighters organization seems small, but it shook the whole country.”
The fast-talking accountant’s depiction of himself as the leader of a growing rebel movement is sharply at odds with opinions in the Cambodian-American community in Long Beach, home to the world’s largest population of Cambodian expatriates.
Community leaders here say Chhun Yasith is not taken seriously by his fellow Cambodian-Americans, most of whom believe further violence of any kind can only keep Cambodia mired in poverty and corruption.
“There is no hope” in armed rebellion said Chhim Him, executive director of the Cambodian Association of America, which provides a variety of social and educational services to the Cambodian community.
Most Cambodian-Americans believe economic development is Cambodia’s only hope, and that further violence is fatal to investment, he said. Chhun Yasith “does not have wide support.”
Others characterized him as a marginal figure who has never been a player in the local Cambodian political community. “The CFF is nobody,” asserts Prak Sereivuth, deputy director of United Cambodian Community Inc, another social service agency.
“I have been here 20 years and this is a small community. We all know each other. He is not a credible person, and people here don’t respect him,” he said.
Chhun Yasith brushes all that aside, although he concedes that his popularity is not high at the moment. “Right now I’m hot. I’m like a virus. People are scared to be seen with me.”
His office on 10th Street is protected by surveillance cameras and iron grids across doors and windows. He is protected by bodyguards, whom he says have foiled several assassination attempts.
He prefers to talk about his detailed plan for the overthrow of the government, and says it is only a matter of time before it is successfully executed.
“The whole country is unhappy. The pot is boiling. We have men stationed all over Cambodia, and they will rise up at the right time,” he said.
Chhun Yasith flips through a pile of documents in his office with the enthusiasm of a teen-ager showing off a new computer game. It was just such a document—a spreadsheet listing scores of alleged CFF operatives in Cambodia—that led to widespread arrests in the wake of the November uprising.
Last month Chhun Yasith was tried in absentia and sentenced to life in prison, along with four others. Fellow Cambodian-American Richard Kiri Kim, who said he was the ground commander for the attack, is serving a life sentence at Prey Sar prison. Twenty-five other suspects were given sentences ranging from three to 20 years.
Chhun Yasith shows little obvious concern about the men who died in the botched November attack, or those now in prison. “The more people who get hurt, the more revolutionary action takes place,” he said calmly.
He dismisses the claims by many defendants that they knew little or nothing about the CFF and were tricked into taking part in the rebellion.
“They did know what they were doing,” he insisted. “Everybody did. And those who were killed did not die in vain. They were heroes for their country.”
Chhun Yasith notes with pride that he is adhering scrupulously to the relevant tax laws, conducting CFF business in a separate corner of his tax office that is not used for any other purpose.
The CFF room is decorated with photos of Chhun Yasith and friends in fatigues, a portrait of his mother, a red-white-and-blue CFF flag and a photo of Jayavarman VII in meditation.
“I understand the political situation, and I understand the legal situation,” he said—under US law, the CFF is a political interest group limited to lobbying activities such as promoting human rights and democracy.
“We cannot buy or transport military arms or supplies,” he said, adding that he confines his activities to organizing an insurrection so he will not violate the law. He says he does it because he wants the Cambodian people to enjoy the kind of freedoms he has found in the US.
“I like the way the Americans do democracy,” he said. “I want Cambodia to have a president. No more king, no more prime minister. I want it to be a United States junior.”
It is unfortunate, he said, that most Cambodian-Americans prefer to concentrate on their own families and economic well-being, rather than working to improve conditions in Cambodia.
“They enjoy living here, because they are the children of the killing fields,” he said. “They are sick of feeling stress and being scared….But I never forget about the pain. I cannot forget about 2 million people lost.”
He declines to provide more specifics about the assault planned for later this year, including how he plans to communicate with rebels all over the country, or where they will get their arms if not from him.
Perhaps turncoat military officers will raid government stockpiles for weapons, he says genially.
He is convinced that the ruling CPP is riven with factions, and that the time is coming soon when he will be able to exploit those divisions.
“I make the strong bite each other, and when they are weak, we will crush them to the ground,” he said. “Pol Pot was killing us. Now we turn it around on them, and they will be killing each other.”
He dismisses the recent split in his own organization, when a group of CFF members denounced him for turning to violence. “Maybe they can form their own organization, but I don’t care,” he said. “My heart is very open.”
He says he has no plans to return to Cambodia himself to live, and that he wants his four children to remain in the US, where they will be safer and get a better education.
“I want to fix Cambodia, not to have power,” he said. “I am not like Hun Sen.”
What’s certain, he says, is that King Norodom Sihanouk cannot live forever, and that when he dies the political situation in Cambodia will change drastically.
He and his men will be ready to take advantage of the situation, he said. “We love to support anyone against the communists—it doesn’t matter who.
“They cannot stop us,” he said. “We lost a battle, not the war.”