As Chhun Yasith passed through the official border checkpoint at Penang Island more than a week ago, a Thai immigration officer leveled a question at the rebel leader: “Did you have a good time in Thailand?”
“Of course I did,” Chhun Yasith answered.
And when he arrived last Wednesday at Los Angeles International Airport, a US immigration official had something to say: “Welcome home,” the customary greeting to returning citizens.
“I had nothing to lie about and nothing to hide,” said the Cambodian-American leader of the Cambodian Freedom Fighters, who have taken credit for the Nov 24 attack on government offices.
After six months of living in Thailand to plan and implement an overthrow of the Cambodian government, Chhun Yasith is back at work at his accounting firm in his hometown of Long Beach, California.
In an e-mail, Chhun Yasith said he is spending much of his time dealing with tax clients and figuring out the next move for the CFF.
“My agents are well-organized to apply the second attack,” he said. “As long as the Cambodian people do not get their true freedom, justice and democracy, then CFF will remain to remove…the communist dictators.”
Chhun Yasith said he left Thailand on Jan 4 through Penang Island, where he had obtained his Thai visa from the consular office. He then went to Malaysia, where he stayed for about a week before heading back to the US on a Japan Airlines flight.
“I did not see any red lines on the computer screen when the Thai immigration people scanned my passport,” he said. “I never felt worried about my safety at all.”
After the attack, which left as many as eight dead, Prime Minister Hun Sen asked the US for cooperation and the Cambodian government formally requested the extradition and arrest of Chhun Yasith.
But it seems the CFF leader is safe, for now.
US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann said Sunday the US has denied the Cambodian government’s request to extradite because the two countries do not have an extradition treaty.
Though the case remains under investigation, so far it appears that Chhun Yasith has not violated any US laws, Wiedemann said. In Cambodia, Chhun Yasith and three other Cambodian-Americans were charged with terrorism and membership in an illegal armed force. Only one, Richard Kiri Kim, is in custody.
“We are investigating the charges of the Cambodian government,” Wiedemann said. “But as far as we’re concerned, these charges have yet to be proved.”
Khieu Kanharith, a government spokesman, said the Cambodian government has provided all the necessary documents to the US authorities that would show Chhun Yasith violated the Neutrality Act.
Under US law, the Neutrality Act forbids citizens from instigating or supporting military action against foreign governments.
Chhun Yasith is confident that he will remain free in the US. “The USA won’t hurt someone who is against communist dictators,” he said.
A senior Thai security source told The Nation newspaper in Bangkok that Chhun Yasith was banned from entering the country again and “he will not be able to cause any more trouble in Thailand.” The Thai authorities promised to cooperate with the Cambodian government in its CFF investigation.
Although Chhun Yasith moved about openly in Thailand, Thai authorities failed to locate him, according to The Nation.
Chhun Yasith, however, said the Thai government knew where he was, and deliberately did not take any action against him.
“The Thai government respects the terms democracy, freedom and justice,” he said. “The Thai government is not Hun Sen’s puppet.”
The CFF’s next move will depend partly on what happens to the Khmer Rouge draft law, which is being considered by the Cambodian Senate, Chhun Yasith said.
“If the Khmer Rouge trial does not give justice for all Khmer people, then a second attack will be started,” he said.
He also said he has not forgotten about the more than 50 CFF suspects who have been imprisoned here.
“I promised that what they sacrificed is for the sake of freedom, justice and democracy,” Chhun Yasith said. “I will convert this honorable and unforgettable mission into bright victory in the near future.”