Yasith Chhun often boasted to newspapers and magazines about masterminding an attack on government buildings in Cambodia and his plans to overthrow the Southeast Asian country’s communist regime.
The U.S. State Department declared the group he headed, the Cambodian Freedom Fighters, a terrorist organization in 2001.
But that label didn’t stop Chhun, 48, from gaining friends among GOP stalwarts, such as Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of Huntington Beach and the National Republican Congressional Committee, which raises funds for electing Republicans to Congress.
Before his federal indictment this week on charges of plotting to overthrow the Cambodian government, the Long Beach accountant had raised $6,550 for the National Republican Congressional Committee and was invited to sit on the group’s Business Advisory Council, which has tens of thousands of members nationwide, said Carl Forti, a spokesman for the committee.
Rohrabacher said he was aware of the State Department’s concerns about the Cambodian Freedom Fighters but remained a supporter of Chhun and his allies because of their passionate efforts to topple the Cambodian government led by Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“The State Department quite often will worship at the altar of stability and not consider liberty and justice as part of the equation,” the congressman said in a phone interview. When “you talk about a dictator like Hun Sen, you don’t want stability, you want change. Let’s hope our State Department is not condemning anybody who would act to eliminate Hun Sen.”
But Rohrabacher said he would not support activities that cost civilian lives.
Chhun attended the annual meeting of the National Republican Congressional Committee’s business advisory council in Washington, D.C., last year. Forti said the committee did not know Chhun’s group had been designated a terrorist organization, saying it was impossible to do background checks on all its members.
“At this point, the gentleman hasn’t been convicted of anything,” Forti said. If he is a terrorist, “it’s something we need to look at. Clearly, we wouldn’t want any leader of a terrorist organization being members of our business advisory council.”
Chhun, a U.S. citizen, has never made a secret of his role in the 2000 attack on several government buildings in the capital, Phnom Penh. He spoke openly about it to newspapers and magazines, where he was portrayed as a would-be revolutionary who ran his resistance movement out of his tax office in Long Beach.
Federal prosecutors allege that Chhun raised money in the U.S., then provided weapons to Cambodian Freedom Fighter members. The attacks killed three of Chhun’s group members and injured at least eight government officials.
He spoke to Time magazine from a hideout in Thailand shortly after the failed coup attempt, saying: “We’re definitely going to try again. There will be more operations. It won’t be long.”
He later repeated the assertion to the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times. He told the New York Times last year that the FBI had questioned him about the attacks but that he told the agents he planned more violence. “We won’t stop. We’ll have more plans in the future,” he said.
“Next time,” he said, “we will attack the whole country.”
There is no indication that Cambodian Freedom Fighters carried out additional attacks.
Chhun’s lawyer, Leonard Matsuk, said Thursday that his client was a fundraiser for the organization and not its mastermind. Chhun and other members want to see freedom in their country “like Cubans wanted Fidel Castro out of their country,” Matsuk said.
Experts say it is not uncommon for staunch anti-communist immigrants to align themselves with the Republican Party, which has gained large support among the Vietnamese in Orange County and the Cubans in Florida.
“It’s strictly ideological. The Republicans are seen as anti-communist, mainly because of [President] Reagan,” said Frank Gilliam, a professor of political science at UCLA. “The party’s underlying themes of individualism, self-reliance, freedom from government intervention naturally plays to those victimized by state-sanctioned redistribution of property and limitations of individual freedoms.”
Sakphan Keam, an English-Khmer translator in Long Beach, said many of the city’s Cambodian Americans equate the Republican Party with reform overseas, a belief that was strengthened by President Bush’s invasion of Iraq.
“Any Cambodian who lives here thinks the Republican Party supports change in Cambodia,” Keam said.
Gilliam said that despite Chhun’s public pronouncements, he was probably too obscure for the National Republican Congressional Committee to recognize him as a potential terrorist.
“You have to be very careful where the money comes from,” he added. “The less you know, the more due diligence you need to do. The mainstream knows less about these [ethnic] communities.”
The indictments, which were returned by a federal grand jury Tuesday in Los Angeles, allege that Chhun formed his group in 1998 “for the purpose of staging a violent overthrow of the Hun Sen regime.” He is charged with attempting to kill the prime minister, attack government buildings and launch small-scale attacks on karaoke bars and fuel depots in an effort to galvanize opposition to the Phnom Penh government.
The indictments allege that Chhun raised money for the overthrow effort in California, including two fundraisers on the Queen Mary in Long Beach. The U.S. attorney’s office believes that Chhun collected between $100,000 and $200,000.
Chhun could face up to life in prison if convicted of attempting murder in a foreign country, three years if convicted of attempting to overthrow a friendly foreign government and 25 years if convicted of conspiracy to damage foreign property.
Federal prosecutors also allege that Chhun defrauded members of Long Beach’s Cambodian American community. Chhun and his wife, Sras Pech, 39, were charged with recruiting Cambodian Americans who were on welfare and other government assistance programs to file fraudulent tax returns to obtain tax refunds.
Chhun’s group is well known in Cambodia, where 38 of its members, including at least two U.S. citizens, were convicted of participating in the 2000 attack on government buildings in the capital. Chhun evaded capture but was convicted in absentia.
Chhun, like many in Long Beach, fled Cambodia because of famine, disease and civil war brought forth by Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge. Nearly 2 million people died at the hands of the communists during the 1970s.
Long Beach has become a central migration point for Cambodians. The neighborhood north of downtown is considered a Little Phnom Penh, with restaurants, shops and a temple lining the streets. This is where Chhun operated his tax preparation business and where some of his anti-government activities were based.
Chhun is a more controversial figure within his own community. Though many praised his opposition to the government, they questioned his means. Some community leaders said they considered Chhun more of a fringe figure.
Times staff writers Tonya Alanez and Nicholas Shields contributed to this report.