Cambodians in US Divided on CFF
long beach, California, USA – Journalists trying to find Chhun Yasith, the supposed mastermind of the worst political violence Cambodia has seen in three years, have been told by his followers that he lives in the heart of every Cambodian who dreams of a life free of poverty and oppression.
However true that is, in reality Chhun Yasith is a fleshy-faced accountant from Long Beach, where the largest Cambodian-American community resides. He works at a plain, orderly desk in an office filled with images of Angkor Wat, the symbol of Cambodia’s long-faded glory. His rebel group, the Cambodian Freedom Fighters, rents out a corner of the room that contains a single computer, a television and little else.
There are satirical anti-Hun Sen cartoons on the walls, mixed in with pictures of men in camouflage posing for a group photo and another of men crowded around a tank. The office itself is located in a strip mall between a convenience store and a photo shop.
A month ago, Chhun Yasith and his group were hardly known. But now Chhun Yasith is gaining the fame that the people who know him say he always wanted.
His group has taken responsibility for the Nov 24 raid on government offices in Phnom Penh, which left as many as eight died, more than a dozen were injured, and dozens arrested and charged with terrorism. Chhun Yasith and three other Cambodian-Americans have been charged in absentia.
For CFF members and Cambodian government officials alike, there remains a nagging question: Where is Chhun Yasith? Some say he is on the Thai-Cambodian border, others insist he is in Long Beach. Still others heard he was picked up by Thai authorities.
Kia Dee and John Som, members of the rebel group’s executive board interviewed at the CFF headquarters, would not reveal Chhun Yasith’s whereabouts.
But in the US, the Freedom Fighters are not exactly a shadowy group. They’re registered as a nonprofit with the California Secretary of State and they have their own web site (www.cffighters.org). Chhun Yasith’s accounting firm is in the Yellow Pages, a phone directory.
The group has “a few hundred” members in several states, and in France, Canada and Australia, Kia Dee said. It raises about $100,000 a year through banquets and private donations, about $60,000 of which went to the Nov. 24 raid, he said.
There’s no need to hide in the US, Kia Dee said, because the Freedom Fighters only wish to bring US values to their homeland. “People in America know about freedom, justice and democracy,” Kia Dee. “Those are our principles.”
The CFF is also eager to present itself as a legitimate political movement and not a rag-tag group of terrorists. The CFF has even composed a national anthem and printed T-shirts. They solemnized their Constitution at a banquet earlier this year on the Queen Mary, a famous old cruise ship in southern California. “No way are we terrorists,” Kia Dee said. “We are very open, we have our Web site and our office. We have had 300 to 500 people to our parties. Terrorists, they don’t do that.”
Prime Minister Hun Sen, however, says members of CFF are indeed terrorists. He has asked US officials to arrest and extradite Chhun Yasith and the other Cambodian-Americans to face justice in Phnom Penh. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation is looking into the attack in Phnom Penh, but Kia Dee said there have been no arrests or even interrogations of group members on US soil.
Kia Dee said Cambodian-American CFF members do not fear extradition because they did not ship arms or ammunition, or carry guns on the ground during the fighting. Because Cambodia and the US do not have an extradition treaty, it will be up to US authorities to decide whether to prosecute Americans in connection with the fighting.
“We don’t believe the US would give us political asylum (as refugees from Cambodia) only to turn us back to Hun Sen’s government,” Kia Dee said. “His government has no humanity. It tortures people. How would that look?”
The fiercely nationalist Freedom Fighters claim that Hun Sen is a puppet of the Vietnamese. Kia Dee said the raid was intended to stop a visit of Vietnamese President Tran Duc Long. Long and Hun Sen were to sign a decree that would have reversed a portion of the Paris Agreement and allowed Vietnamese troops to reenter the country, Dee said. He claims the raid did succeed in that it postponed Long’s visit. “Hun Sen knows if (Long) comes again, we will hit again,” he said. “And the Vietnamese president fears us.”
Long was scheduled to visit Cambodia days after US President Bill Clinton visited Vietnam in a clear show of warming relations between the two previous enemies. Some say that desire to put aside past differences could leave an anti-Vietnamese, anti-communist group like the CFF with little sympathy from the US.
The political climate has changed significantly since the anti-communist resistance movements of the 1980s, US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann told Deutsche Presse-Agentur. “What they were fighting against then was something that the United States was against, and that was a communist, Vietnamese-imposed puppet regime,” Wiedemann said. “The only similarity now is that Hun Sen is still in the government.”
Opposition party leader Sam Rainy and some opposition newspapers have claimed that the raid was actually orchestrated by Hun Sen’s government as a distraction from the country’s real problems. But the Freedom Fighters say it is just a first step toward a complete coup d’etat.
They say they have moles in high positions ready to turn on top officials at a moment’s notice, which they refer to as a “popcorn” strategy. “A lot of officials in Cambodia are our men, so we know who to grab,” Kia Dee said.
But Kia Dee acknowledges the CFF is also struggling with its own moles, though he would not name suspects. Cambodian authorities indicated they had been tipped off to a coming raid.
Kia Dee did acknowledge the raid did not go as planned and that the CFF troops were forced to withdraw. Led by Cambodian-American Richard Kiri Kim, the rebels had hoped to surround the capital and possibly even complete a coup, Kia Dee said. Kiri Kim is now in custody and has confessed to being leader of the attack.
“It seems somebody found out from the government’s side,” Kia Dee said. “They tripled and quadrupled their guard, but we had to do [the raid] to stop the president of Vietnam from visiting.”
Kia Dee said CFF was also responsible for anti-Hun Sen, anti-Vietnamese leaflets distributed in Cambodia in recent months.
In Chhun Yasith’s neighborhood, where Khmer jewelry stores sidle up to Vietnamese dentists’ offices and Mexican-owned restaurants, several local Cambodians interviewed said they had never heard of the Cambodian Freedom Fighters. Some in the neighborhood, which has about 50,000 Khmer residents, said they knew Chhun Yasith more as an accountant and tax preparer than as a revolutionary.
Local leaders who knew of Chhun Yasith’s cause spoke of him quietly as merely a troublemaker or an embittered powermonger who was taking up arms because he had failed to climb the political ladder in Cambodia. Others call the CFF a group of bandits. With Cambodia experiencing its first sustained peace in 30 years, more violence is the last thing the country needs, they say.
“I don’t believe the Cambodian Freedom Fighters are well known or have wide support here in Long Beach or elsewhere,” said Him S Chhim of the Cambodian Association of America, adding that he was not speaking on behalf of the association.
Chhun Yasith moved to the state of Oregon in 1979, after the Vietnamese ousted the Khmer Rouge regime. He later joined the Khmer Nation Party, the precursor to the Sam Rainsy Party, in 1996 and became deputy chairman of its US-West Coast branch.
After the factional fighting in 1997 that ultimately established Hun Sen as the sole premier, Chhun Yasith began publicizing his intention to form an armed resistance group to fight Hun Sen. In 1998, Chhun Yasith was forced to resign from the Sam Rainsy Party because his goals clashed with the party’s principle of non-violence, according to Sam Rainsy.
But Him S Chhim relayed a rumor circulating within the Cambodian-American community that Chhun Yasith split with Sam Rainsy because the opposition leader did not offer him a high-ranking seat in the National Assembly during the 1998 elections.
Him S Chhim said Chhun Yasith made a mistake in splitting with Sam Rainsy. “He can get more [Cambodian-American] support and more funding on behalf of Sam Rainsy,” he said. Ham S Chhim himself returned to Cambodia in 1998 to run—unsuccessfully—for the National Assembly with the San Kum Thmei party.
Sereivuth Prak, a Long Beach activist, said the CFF may be hard-pressed to find the outside support crucial to a successful armed resistance. “They continue their activity,” he said, “but have no support.”
But Chhun Yasith’s brand of nationalism does have an appeal to an older generation of Cambodian-Americans, according to Kosal Kom, who said he was Chhun Yasith’s dentist and an acquaintance. “They have more attachments,” Kosal Kim said of the older generation. “They grew up in Cambodia and lived half their lives there.”
Kia Dee said the US has provided the Freedom Fighters with a place to organize without fear of repression. It has also provided a model for the society they would like to create in Cambodia, he said.
“If Hun Sen gave his people freedom, justice and democracy, I would walk away,” said Kia Dee, who works as a computer analyst in Long Beach. “I’m happy here [in the US]. They say we want high-ranking jobs in government. But they can’t afford to pay me there….
“[Cambodians] trust us because we’re in a free country, we know what it’s like. There’s no reason for us to want to destroy them,” he said. “It’s very hard for them to trust each other. So they ask us for help.”