Freedom Fighters, Leader Mired in Mystery

Confusion and rumors have surrounded the Cambodian Freedom Fighters and the group’s leader Chhun Yasith since they emer­ged two years ago.

Many people didn’t even be­lieve the CFF actually existed, until last Friday’s attacks on government offices, for which the rebel group has been blamed. And now people still don’t know what to think of the group.

What is known is that the Freedom Fighters were founded in Long Beach in the US state of California, where Chhun Yasith lives, said a spokesman for Chhun Yasith staying in Thai­land, who was interviewed by phone. The group was incorporated and registered at the California Secretary of State’s office as a political organization in June 1999.

Nineteen brigade commanders elected the group’s board of directors, and all the members met during a world conference held Oct 10-11, 1998, in Thailand, according to the CFF’s mission statement.

Cambodian-Americans make up the CFF’s membership and are the main funders of the organization, said the spokesman, who identified himself as “Mr David.”

“We do a lot of demonstrations in the US to inform the whole world [Prime Minister] Hun Sen is a criminal,” David said.

He said the CFF’s plans are to overthrow the government this year, and stressed that the members are not terrorists, but are part of an anti-communist group.

That’s what CFF members told the CIA and FBI when agents visited their office in California last year and spent two hours interviewing them.

“They wanted to know what we were doing and we told them that we are not terrorists,” the spokesman said. “We gave them all our reports so they know everything about us.”

He said CFF members in the US would hold a press conference Thursday in Washington, DC, to tell the world about what happened in Phnom Penh last week and about their future plans.

Part of CFF’s intentions are to pressure the government to stop postponing a trial for former Khmer Rouge leaders, said the spokesman, who added he was frequently tortured and his father was killed during the genocidal regime.

The spokesman also said the CFF did not provide weapons to those who fought in last week’s battle, and the men who participated in the nearly two-hour firefight found the guns on their own. He also denied reports that those recruited to be members of CFF were promised good salaries.

“Where would we get the money?” asked the spokesman. “We are paying for this movement from our own pockets, and we are not rich.”

When asked why the alleged rebels who were arrested and injured in the fighting said they came to Phnom Penh because they were promised jobs and didn’t know anything about CFF, the member said he understood it was their ploy to be freed.

“We don’t cheat our people,” he said. “We know they are trying to free themselves so they tell lies, and that’s OK. We don’t use people, we use the power of the people.”

As for Chhun Yasith, descriptions of him range from a man who has sacrificed his personal life to fight for his country to someone bent on gaining power through military means.

Sam Rainsy Party members who knew Chhun Yasith from their days as colleagues said his intentions for an armed struggle were not known until after the factional fighting broke out in 1997.

Chhun Yasith was a founding member of the Khmer Nation Party, the precursor to the Sam Rainsy Party. Chhun Yasith was one of the expatriate Cambodians recruited by the party and in 1996 he was elected deputy chairman of the Khmer Nation Party’s West Coast-US branch.

“He did fundraising to support the party, he strengthened the party network and made propaganda,” said Eng Chhai Eang, secretary general of the Sam Rainsy Party. “He was well known. He was very active. At that time, he agreed with our principles of peace and non-violence.”

During his years with the party, Chhun Yasith came to Cambodia once in a while, but mainly did his work in the US. When the fighting broke out between forces loyal to the CPP and those aligned with Funcinpec, Chhun Yasith went to Thailand to help those fleeing from advancing CPP troops.

He brought a few thousand dollars to buy food, clothing and other items for resistance forces staying along the Thai-Cambodian border. It was soon afterward that he made known his intentions to raise armed forces to fight the government.

“As I understood, he was not so serious. He always told lies,” Eng Chhai Eang said. “His ambition is uncontrollable.”

Another opposition party member who spent time with Chhun Yasith along the border in 1997 said he seemed like a nice man, but he was easily provoked.

“He’s a former soldier under the Lon Nol regime, so he’s very hot blooded,” he said. “At the border, he went around appointing soldiers as division commanders or something like that. It was very strange.”

Chhun Yasith, 44, was educated in the US and is a certified management accountant, working at a firm in Long Beach. Those who know him said he fled from Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge were ousted from power in 1979.

Cambodian-Americans who were part of the Cambodian-American Coalition for Democracy, of which Chhun Yasith was once a part, said they’ve heard of him or met him once, but did not know him well.

Rothy Reach, who lives in the state of Massachusetts, said he was not friendly with Chhun Yasith.

“He is too extreme,” he said, “so we did not get along well.”



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