The Cambodian Freedom Fighters, One Year After the Attack

One year ago today, Chhun Yasith’s plans to overthrow the government were failing. His group of 50 or more Cambodian Freedom Fighters had attacked two locations in Phnom Penh with B-40 rockets, grenades and AK-47 assault rifles, but were arrested after a one-sided 90-minute shootout. At least four people were dead and 14 wounded. The main CFF agent in Cambodia was arrested in Siem Reap as he was boarding a plane bound for Thailand a day after the attack.The raid may have failed, but over the past year the story of the CFF has evolved into something larger than even Chhun Yasith could have predicted. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation has launched an inquiryi nto the group’s activities, more than 50 alleged CFF members have been convicted, and at least 64 suspected members have been arrested. Funcinpec and Sam Rainsy Party officials have also become entwined in the CFF legacy, each claiming that the government is using the CFF as a pretext to intimidate and arrest their commune election candidates.

According to Chhun Yasith, the CFF attack proved that the government is vulnerable. But like most other aspects of the Cambodian Freedom Fighters, that point is open to debate. One US official jokingly referred to the CFF as “the gang that couldn’t shoot straight.”

The CFF was founded on Oct 21, 1998, at the Cambodian-Thai border near Poipet, wrote Chhun Yasith in an e-mail from his accounting office in Long Beach, in the US state of California.

More than 60 future CFF commanders and representatives—whom Chhun Yasith had contacted from the US—met in Poipet on that day to discuss the formation of a rebel group to overthrow the Hun Sen government. This was their manifesto: “We are Cambodian-Americans who have a legal duty…to remove this illegal and communist-styled government who was born out [of] the fraud election.”

Although that Oct 21 meeting marked the official start of the CFF, Chhun Yasith wrote that events two decades earlier inspired him to “fight and struggle [to] remove this communist-styled government from power.”

After being drafted by Khmer Rouge troops in 1979 to fight against the Vietnamese, Chhun Yasith wrote that “I decided to be with the Khmer Rouge troops rather than to be a Vietnamese puppet who continues to kill Khmer people.” He describes his fights against the Vietnamese in Pailin, Kandal and 10 other locations as “deadly,” and those fights against the Vietnamese eventually led to his disgust with the current Hun Sen government, which he claims is merely a puppet for the Hanoi government.

In early 1981, tired and perhaps scared from the fighting, Chhun Yasith wrote that he gave up “my guerrilla movement” and traveled to Kao I Dang refugee camp and applied for entry into the US under a resettlement program. He was shipped to a refugee camp in Bataan, the Philippines, for seven months before he landed in the US state of Georgia in March 1982.

“As a new refugee in the land of freedom, I built my new life, career, education and title as a certified accountant,” he wrote.

Within a year, he was in Long Beach, studying for a high school diploma, which he received in 1984. His resume lists an associate degree in science from East Los Angeles College in 1987, and by 1993 he claims to have graduated with a Bachelor of Science from California State University at Los Angeles and to have earned a Masters of Science from California Poly Tech University.

In the late 1990s, Chhun Yasith became more involved with Cambodian-Americans and joined the Khmer National Party, which later was renamed the Sam Rainsy Party. After “performing” in, by his count, 13 non-violent demonstrations in Cambodia and 23 in the US for the opposition party, he wrote that he “saw all political opposition leaders bow their heads and kneel down to the front of those communist dictators while justice, freedom and true democracy have never [prevailed] in Cambodia.”

After the 1998 formation of the CFF, Chhun Yasith met Richard Kiri Kim in the US state of Oregon. He said that after a few discussions, “Richard fell in love with the CFF principles, then started to work actively” for the CFF. In1999, Chhun Yasith and other CFF members in the US, Cambodia and Thailand were planning a “psychological military strategy” to take power from Hun Sen.

The two years of planning culminated in the Nov 24, 2000, attacks that threw Phnom Penh into turmoil—at least for 90 minutes.

The alleged CFF attackers assembled at the Phnom Penh Railway Station late on the night of Nov 23. They proceeded on foot to Pochentong Road—throwing grenades, bombing the Council of Ministers building and firing at the Ministry of Rural Development and Ministry of Defense before being apprehended by authorities. The wall in front of the Ministry of Rural Development is still pockmarked with bullet holes, showing the vicious crossfire CFF members came under from government troops in the Defense Ministry.

Within a day, authorities had arrested 58 suspects; they released 20 shortly afterwards.

“Even though [the CFF] were armed with guns and bombs and grenades, they were no match for the National Police Force,” said co-Minister of Defense Prince Sisowath Sirirath. “The CFF was not a threat at all. I don’t think the Cambodian people would be fooled by their actions—they are not a valid terrorist movement. They might try to recruit people in California, to fool people in California, but not in Cambodia.”

This sentiment was shared by a US official, who said it was a little hard to take the CFF seriously. “We saw some pretty elaborate looking schemes, which on paper appeared to be rather serious and well-planned. But then you look at the soldiers—drug addicts and farmers—and they didn’t look like a threat to anyone,” the official said.

But the US official was careful not to entirely write off the CFF, saying that shortly after the attack he was in the office of the Secretary of State for the Ministry of Rural Development and saw a bullet hole in the window, making the attack a little more real in his mind.

The US government also did not entirely write off the CFF, especially since the group was founded by a Cambodian-American and at least some of the orchestration of the rebel insurgency was conducted in California. A US Federal Bureau of Investigation official—under the title “Legal Attache”—came to Phnom Penh several times from Bangkok to look into the case.

While the US official could not comment directly on his government’s investigation, he did say the US was continuing its investigation into Chhun Yasith and would make an arrest if they gather enough evidence against him.

On June 11, over six months after the attacks, the Phnom Penh Supreme Court tried the first round of CFF suspects. The 32 suspects were charged with terrorism under Article 2 of the Law of Punishment of the Acts of Terrorism, and membership in an illegal armed force under Article 36 of the Untac code.

“I confessed [to the CFF crimes] because I wanted to be released and because I did not want to be tortured by the police,” said Sok Sieng Ly, the ninth suspect to stand trial. “When I was questioned by [police], I was not shackled but I did not feel safe during my detention by the police.”

This became a familiar response from suspects during the week-long trial. Many CFF suspects claimed police intimidated them into confessing membership in the CFF; they later denied they were actual members. Others said they took part in the raid because CFF members—including Richard Kiri Kim—paid them money to undertake the attack.

There were some exceptions. An Mao—also known as Nakpros or Sory Se—testified that he met Chhun Yasith and Richard Kiri Kim several times in a hotel in Thailand where they planned the attack, which they called operation “Volcano Explosion.” An Mao said he received between $1,000 to $2,000 from Chhun Yasith at various times, which he called “not much money.”

When asked by the prosecutor if they had any hopes of overthrowing the government, An Mao replied: “We had absolute hope.”

“Will you kill?” asked the prosecutor.

“Yes,” responded An Mao in open court. “If Vietnamese, I would kill. Or if they fire at me.”

When asked what the motive behind the attack was, An Mao said: “The target was to disturb the city.”

On June 22, Supreme Court Judge Sek Sethamony sentenced five suspects to life in prison, including An Mao, Richard Kiri Kim and Chhun Yasith, who was tried in absentia. He sentenced 25 other suspects to sentences ranging from three to 20 years. Two suspects were acquitted.

For several months after that first trial, news of CFF activity decreased.

But on Sept 7, the government began a new round of arrests aimed at breaking up what it said was another attack plot by the CFF. Ten alleged members of the group were arrested in Phnom Penh and Battambang, beginning a new phase that has netted, by one NGO’s count, 64 suspects since September.

Whether or not these recently arrested CFF suspects are in fact CFF members is a question being raised by members of two political parties.

Funcinpec parliamentarian Nan Sy claimed some recent arrests of CFF members were politically motivated after provincial police arrested four Funcinpec commune candidates and officials, accusing them of CFF membership. Funcinpec general secretary Prince Norodom Sirivudh joined the denouncement, saying the four suspects had not received legal representation and the suspects had no lawyers present when they were questioned by police.

Officials from the Sam Rainsy Party also called some recent arrests politically motivated after Battambang police took into custody two SRP commune officials in mid-September. “The so-called CFF’s case…has been an effective measure to silence the opposition and restrict people’s civil and political rights,” the party said in a statement.

CFF leader Chhun Yasith denied that the most recent CFF suspects arrested belonged to his group. Chhun Yasith, who spoke at length of the CFF’s involvement in the original attack—going so far to say “[Richard Kiri Kim] is a hero in my eyes, including An Mao and many other commanders, soldiers, agents and officers”—said he did not recognize any suspects arrested since September when shown a list of suspect’s names.

On Sept 11, the same day Cambodian provincial authorities charged six Cambodians and one Cambodian-American with terrorism, terrorists thousands of kilometers from Cambodia flew two American Airlines planes into the World Trade Center in New York and crashed another plane into the Pentagon in Washington.

It took Prime Minister Hun Sen a little more than a week to offer his support for a US military operation to fight terrorism after the Sept 11 attacks. The prime minister also announced he would step up his government’s efforts to combat the domestic terrorist threat, namely the CFF.

Branding the CFF as “terrorists,” Hun Sen said he would continue to arrest CFF networks in Cambodia as well as share information on Chhun Yasith with the FBI.

During the next month, the government arrested an estimated 62 CFF suspects, according to a report from the human rights group Licadho. The suspects, whose have mostly been hidden from the public, were arrested in Phnom Penh, Battambang, Banteay Meanchey, Kampot, Kompong Cham, Kompong Thom and Siem Reap.

“People should not carry guns—people should not carry weapons,” said Prince Sisowath Sirirath when asked why the government is continuing its crackdown on the CFF. “Cambodia is at peace now, and there is no reason to carry a gun. If you carry a gun, the government will arrest you.” He added that if the suspects are not CFF members, then the courts would find them innocent and release them.

The Prince’s confidence in the judicial process most likely comes as little consolation to the 26 CFF suspects who were tried by the Phnom Penh Supreme Court beginning Oct 19 and found guilty.

The second trial was filled with plot twists and startling revelations that one UN official described as “symbolic of everything wrong with Cambodia.”

Twenty-eight suspects in the second trial were charged with terrorism and/or membership in an armed group, in connection with last November‘s attack.

The suspects—who had been detained for more than a year without trial—entered the Supreme Court on Oct 19 looking pale and sickly. Several suspects limped into the courtroom because they were suffering from beriberi, said one UN official.

Although the second CFF trial was not as high-profile as the June trial, it nonetheless attracted UN monitors, human rights workers and members of the international press who crammed themselves into the Supreme Court .

The suspects’ testimony during the October trial was similar to that of the first trial. Several claimed the police intimidated them or beat them into confessing to CFF membership; others said CFF members forced them at gunpoint to carry weapons during the raid. Most of the suspects said they were merely poor farmers who came to the city after CFF members offered them jobs in Phnom Penh.

There were some new revelations. One suspect, Tep Simoly, testified that he was a government agent working undercover for the Ministry of Defense, but that now the government essentially refused to help him.

Claiming that he regularly gave reports to Hour Sareth, deputy commander of intelligence for the Ministry of Defense, Tep Simoly said he spent months gaining the confidence of Chhun Yasith and eventually rose to the rank of Deputy Division Leader in the CFF.

Although Defense Ministry officials denied that Tep Simoly was a government agent working undercover in a letter drafted by he ministry, judge Sek Sethamony called Hour Sareth to court. Hour Sareth never appeared at the trial.

Another suspect, Duong Sopheap—who admitted to membership in the CFF—testified on the fourth day of the trial that the government offered him an immunity deal in return for evidence against CFF suspects. Several advisors to Hun Sen, including General Mol Roeup and Om Yentieng, reportedly met Duong Sopheap at the Cambodian embassy in Bangkok after Duong Sopheap fled the country following the attack. He testified that Mol Roeup paid for his airline ticket back to Cambodia.

Adding to his claims was a letter from King Norodom Sihanouk to Ministry of Justice Iv Tong, requesting amnesty for Duong Sopheap. Another letter admitted into evidence, from Mol Roeup to investigating judge Pong Se, confirmed that a pact was made between Duong Sopheap and the government.

Despite this evidence, the judge sentenced Duong Sopheap to seven years in prison. Tep Simoly received 15 years. In all, 26 of the 28 suspects in the second trial were convicted of CFF membership and sentenced to between three and 15 years in prison.

“I promise that one day the CFF will set these prisoners free, and they will be honored by the Cambodian people and the democratic lovers around the world,” Chhun Yasith wrote regarding the trials and convictions.

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