Thursday, July 08, 2010

Geopolitics behind a Cambodian conviction

Jul 8, 2010
By Sebastian Strangio
Asia Times Online

PHNOM PENH - Early on November 24, 2000, about 70 gunmen slipped into the center of Cambodia's capital city. After drinking and singing traditional songs at a karaoke bar, one unit of men moved towards a series of government buildings armed with AK-47 rifles, grenades and B-40 rocket launchers.

After seizing control of the city's railway station, they sprayed bullets at the Ministry of Defense and Council of Ministers and lobbed a grenade as a nearby gas station. The Cambodian military engaged the attackers in a firefight, scarring many nearby buildings with bullet holes. They quelled the ragtag militia, leaving eight dead and around 14 wounded, after an hour of fighting.

In the wake of the attack, an obscure group calling itself the Cambodian Freedom Fighters (CFF) took credit for the violence. The group's ethnic Khmer leader, Chhun Yasith, a Long Beach, California-based accountant, at the time made no attempt to hide his intent to overthrow the government of Hun Sen, Cambodia's long-serving prime minister. Despite the failure of the "coup" attempt, Yasith boasted that he would continue working to topple the "tyrannical" regime by force. "Next time," he told a journalist in 2004, "we will attack the whole country."

The 53-year-old Yasith's threat came to an abrupt legal end last month, when a US district court judge sentenced him to life in prison for his role in the attempted coup. In a hearing at the court on June 22, prosecutors said the CFF was ordered to carry out "popcorn" attacks on soft targets such as karaoke bars and nightclubs before launching the all-out assault to overthrow the government on November 24. The CFF leader was charged with violating the US Neutrality Act, a 200-year-old law banning military operations against nations with which the US is at peace.

A tearful Yasith told the court he felt he had to do something for his native country and that he formed a rebel militia to avenge the murder of his father by the communist Khmer Rouge. "I've been punished because I failed, that I'm not good enough to overthrow that government," the Los Angeles Times quoted him as saying. Chhun Yasith's attorney, Richard Callahan Jr, said he would appeal the sentence.

Cambodian officials welcomed the sentence, describing the November 2000 coup attempt as a "clear terrorist act". "We applaud the decision taken by the US government to prosecute Chhun Yasith," Foreign Minister Hor Namhong told reporters after signing an agreement with Japan for the construction of a new bridge across the Mekong River. "We welcome the elimination of terrorism and not just terrorism in Cambodia and the US, but in all regions where it threatens people's security."

The decision comes at a time of warming US-Cambodian relations after years of open antagonism and follows on a similar court action against another California-based group that threatened to overthrow by arms Laos' communist regime. President Barack Obama has initiated policies to counter-balance China's rising commercial influence in the region, including last year's reclassification of Cambodia and Laos as no longer Marxist-Leninist states that opened the legal way for US Ex-Im Bank loans and financing.

Later this year, the US is scheduled to hold its first joint military exercises with Cambodia, in an operation to be known as Angkor Sentinel. Earlier, the two sides enhanced security-related cooperation after high-profile terror suspects were found to have traveled freely in Cambodia.

Accountant cum rebel

Some have long questioned whether the CFF had the capacity to carry out the attack on its own. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy, the president of the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), charged that Hun Sen orchestrated the "coup" as a pretext to crack down on government critics. He told the Phnom Penh Post in December 2000 that the reaction to the coup had "killed many birds with one stone".

About 200 people were detained in the 12 days following the attacks, many without warrants as required by Cambodian law, US rights lobby Human Rights Watch reported in December. Yasith was tried in absentia in Phnom Penh in June 2001 and sentenced to life imprisonment. Richard Kiri Kim, a fellow US citizen who directed the CFF forces in Phnom Penh, was captured following the attack and remains in prison on a life term.

Rainsy described Yasith, a member of the SRP until he was thrown out for misusing party funds in mid-1998, as a man too taken with wine and women to orchestrate a coup. "He didn't have enough money to pay for his airport tax or his last hotel bill," Rainsy was quoted as saying. "He is not a serious guy."

Indeed, Yasith was an unlikely armed militia leader. A Time magazine article from 2001 described him as "a doughy, chino-clad little man", while a reporter for The New York Times said he looked "more like a bowling pin than a warrior". But the bespectacled Yasith, who arrived in the US as a refugee from Cambodia in 1982 and lost family members to the murderous Khmer Rouge regime, harbored a steely resolve to overthrow Hun Sen's government.

In October 1998, a year after bloody factional fighting saw Hun Sen vanquish many of his opponents in the royalist Funcinpec party, Yasith traveled to the Thai-Cambodian border where he joined with anti-government dissidents and founded the CFF. The group's aim: to liberate Cambodia from "communist dictators and Vietnamese puppets".

After the failure of the 2000 coup attempt, Yasith boasted that he would continue working to topple the government by force and that non-violent political action would not succeed against Cambodia's authoritarian regime. He held fundraisers - some aboard the Queen Mary, the former cruise ship moored in Long Beach, California - where attendees vowed to overthrow Hun Sen's government by force and pledged tens of thousands of dollars towards the cause.

The CFF - like similar radical anti-communist Vietnamese and ethnic Hmong groups - was the most radical manifestation of the latent anti-communism underpinning America's Indochinese diaspora. Carl Thayer, a professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Sydney, has described the CFF as "a fringe group nurtured in the hot house of anti-communist emigre life in the United States". He added, "I do not think the CFF has much support among the Cambodian diaspora in the US."

Congressional allies

But the relationship between Yasith and the US government, which notably did not arrest him until 2005, was at one stage cosier. In a 2004 New York Times profile of the CFF, then journalist Joshua Kurlantzick argued that the tacit support of conservative American congressmen and the George W Bush administration's pursuit of regime change in Iraq and Afghanistan provided "political cover" for the CFF's activities. "The Bush administration's stand on regime change in rogue nations has created a moment in which the murky, often secretive advocacy of insurgency abroad has suddenly gained credence," Kurlantzick wrote.

The group was also helped by the open advocacy of "regime change" in Cambodia by prominent members of the US government. In June 2003, Kentucky's Senator Mitch McConnell and two colleagues introduced the Cambodia Democracy and Accountability Act to the House of Representatives, a law that promised the resumption of full foreign assistance to Cambodia providing that Hun Sen was "no longer in power".

Words of support from Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher - who told Kurlantzick that the US should "evaluate the chances of any type of armed resistance" against Hun Sen - also provided implicit sanction for the CFF's activities. "Now that the White House has embraced the idea of regime change in Iraq and other rogue nations, the Cambodia hawks are getting a hearing, and the CFF remains free to plot in Long Beach," Kurlantzick concluded.

Yasith's arrest in 2005, however, marked a policy shift and an end to the relative impunity enjoyed by California-based Indochinese rebel groups. Although many such organizations, including anti-communist Vietnamese groups, "skirted the classification of terrorist" in the years after the September 11, 2001, attacks, warming relations between Phnom Penh and Washington caused a waning US tolerance for the CFF.

As the two countries gradually put their Cold War enmities behind them, Cambodia's cooperation in the US's global "war on terror" could easily be linked to Cambodian "terrorist" groups operating in the US. "No doubt there were pressures going both ways: Cambodian cooperation for US action against the CFF," Thayer said.

As US relations have warmed with communist Laos, US law enforcement has also taken a conspicuous hard turn against Hmong exiles who fought alongside the US during the Vietnam War.

In June 2007, the Department of Justice arrested nine ethnic Hmong exiles and a retired US colonel for planning the so-called "Operation Tarnished Eagle", an alleged armed plan to overthrow Laos' communist regime.

Although the charges against General Vang Pao, the Hmong's former insurgent leader and still widely respected among the Hmong diaspora, were dismissed the following year, the former US soldier and 11 Hmong still face charges. On June 24 this year, a grand jury in Sacramento, California, handed down an updated indictment alleging the group attempted to "acquire and furnish military arms, munitions, material, personnel, and money to insurgents in Laos to conduct military operations against the government of Laos".

In sentencing Yasith last month, District Court Judge Dean Pregerson gave a good indication of changing US government attitudes towards Indochinese rebel groups. "I don't think Mr Chhun is an evil human being," he said of the defendant. "I think he's had a tragic life - and had the misfortune of being born in a place where terrible things were happening."

He also said that for organizations advocating violence against America's new Southeast Asian allies there would no longer be lenience. "I do not want to be the person who does not say to all those groups that, if you conspire against the US, that the US will tolerate or be lenient to you."

Sebastian Strangio is a reporter for the Phnom Penh Post in Cambodia.


Anonymous said...

I told you so:
The US are unreliable an "ally" not to be trusted. I hope this lesson is not lost on the anti-government khmer politicians who swear only by the US, wishing they come to their rescue. DO NOT HOLD YOUR BREATH, brothers and sisters.

Anonymous said...


Son of a farmer said...

SihanoukVarman & SenVarman are evidently Khmer heroes, they both are continuously saving us from Democracy!

I'm GAY said...

Like I said no Khmers can be Daniel Ellsberg, if one Khmer like Yasith tried, he had to broadcast his attack strategies to his enemy to do something against him.

I cannot blame him because he didn't have any military skill, only accounting. I blame the recruiter.

CFF may be organized by somebody in the US before Yasith but it was infiltrated by Hanoi's espionages, and Ly Diep is one of the esp. Khmers cannot do anything secretely because our community is being infiltrated by Yuon already.

It was a strategy designed to lure the Khmer nationalists out from their nest. When Hanoi flew to Washington to make a deal, Yasith and his group were all jailed. Now Hanoi comes after Rainsy because of the border issues.

No Khmers and SEA politicians can match with King Sihanouk in longevity, extraordinary popular and bright ability to play good and dirty of politics, then survive and turns on top.

Some condemned and despised him, but too many love him. I know the cold fight between Yuon and KHmers are not yet over.

Yasith will soon be released when the policies change toward Hanoi.

Anonymous said...

Yasith has the gut for his purpose in life.The impact of having lost relative to KR and continued abuses drove him to desperation, that is to topple the Hun Sen government.He had his goal and took his risk that he could die for the cause rather than imprisonment.

USA launched an attack on Iraq, and what is the difference between his inacomplished coup,that happened truely from his heart and his soul.

You may die but your spiritual life will live forever.
Good on you!

Anonymous said...

I am still trying to find the puzzles in Yasith's words.
He told the court:
"I've been punished because I failed, that I'm not good enough to overthrow that government," the Los Angeles Times quoted him as saying. Chhun Yasith's attorney, Richard Callahan Jr, said he would appeal the sentence."

He is punished by the US in the US court because he failed the mission??? or He fell into Viets' trap like in K-5?

Anonymous said...

He won't get any support by going in guns blazing and scaring normal citizens nearby.