Former refugee gets life term over failed Cambodian coup

Yasith Chhun never made a secret about his plans to overthrow Cambodia’s government.

The Long Beach man boasted to reporters about his role in a rebel attack in Phnom Penh in 2000 that resulted in the death of at least three people. In interviews, Chhun denounced the government as tyrannical and said his group, Cambodian Freedom Fighters, would try again.

Chhun and his supporters drew up plans for another attempted coup from his office, where he worked as a tax accountant. He also held two fundraisers for his group on the Queen Mary. The charismatic man cultivated an image as America’s freedom fighter and even gained support among several Republican politicians.

In 2008, Chhun was convicted of orchestrating the Cambodian attack, as well as a series of small-scale “popcorn” attacks aimed at karaoke bars and fuel depots that killed at least six people, including innocent bystanders.

Chhun’s saga ended Tuesday when he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.

Chhun, wearing a green windbreaker under chains around his waist, addressed the court in a tearful speech in which he talked of his suffering under the Khmer Rouge genocide that took the life of his father.

“I am not lucky like Americans who are born in this country,” he said. “I was, unfortunately, born in Cambodia.”

He said that after coming to the U.S. as a refugee in 1982, he felt he could no longer stand by as his native country descended into political chaos. He said he was moved by a video he saw of a woman whose son was shot during a protest for free elections, and became frustrated when his attempts at orchestrating nonviolent protests did not result in change in Cambodia.

“I had to do something for that country,” he said, the anger rising in his voice as he wiped away tears. “I’ve been punished because I failed, that I’m not good enough to overthrow that government.”

Judge Dean D. Pregerson said he did not believe Chhun was an “evil human being” and that he had the “misfortune of being born in a place where terrible things were happening.”

But Pregerson said Chhun’s prison term was the consequence of his actions. “I do not want to be the person who does not say to all those groups that, if you conspire against the U.S., that the U.S. will tolerate or be lenient to you,” Pregerson said.

During the 10-day trial, prosecutors said Chhun, a naturalized U.S. citizen, travelled to the Cambodia- Thailand border in 1998 to meet with Cambodian military personnel opposed to Prime Minister Hun Sen, who had recently come to power after a bloody coup.

Shortly after, Chhun formed the Cambodian Freedom Fighters group and was appointed president.

The group was plotting for “the violent overthrow of the Cambodian government,” prosecutors said. The faction in Cambodia was to acquire weapons, while Chhun was responsible for raising funds.

Prosecutors said Chhun hid on the Cambodia-Thailand border while the attack was carried out in the event the coup was successful and Chhun could possibly lead the new government.

About 100 members of the Cambodian Freedom Fighters attacked the Ministry of Defense building and military police headquarters. Police stopped the assault before it reached the residence of Hun Sen.

The Cambodian government convicted 38 group members, including at least two U.S. citizens, for taking part in the attack. Chhun, who evaded capture, was convicted in absentia. The U.S. government began investigating Chhun in 2001.

Like many Cambodians living in the U.S., Chhun suffered greatly under the hands of the Khmer Rouge regime, in which an estimated 1.7 million people were killed between 1975 and 1979.

During the sentencing hearing, Chhun’s attorney showed a video interview with Chhun’s mother who recalled her son’s horror at seeing his father murdered by the Khmer Rouge. The video also showed an interview with Dr. William H. Sack, who studied post-traumatic stress disorder in Cambodian refugees, who said that the events of Chhun’s life triggered him to do something against the government of Hun Sen.

Still, Chhun was a controversial figure in Long Beach’s Cambodian community for his outspoken rhetoric against the current government, though many supported his desire for a more democratic Cambodia.

Sokhom So, an acquaintance of Chhun and a former member of the Cambodian Freedom Fighters, said that he did not believe the life sentence was fair. “He’s a good man,” he said. “He tried to free people. I don’t think Yasith Chhun has bloody hands.”

Chhun’s attorney, Richard Callahan Jr., said he would appeal the sentence.

“I’m tired from this political stuff,” Chhun said on Tuesday. “I lost everything…. I don’t know my life’s meaning.”