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The Lonely War 

The California accountant who tried to overthrow a foreign despot

Thursday, May 5 2011
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Long Beach accountant Yasith Chhun stood before Judge Dean D. Pregerson in a Los Angeles courtroom on June 22, 2010. The judge noted that the bespectacled Cambodian-American wasn't a "bad man," just someone who had the misfortune to be born in a place where terrible things were happening.

Still, Pregerson chose to sentence Chhun to life in prison for his pitiful attempt to overthrow the despotic government of Cambodia.

How does a judge condemn someone who isn't a bad guy to life behind bars? As Chhun's defense attorney Richard C. Callahan said, comparing Chhun's punishment with that given to criminals who committed far more serious crimes, "None of this makes any sense."

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Indeed, many exiles living in the United States are being celebrated for trying to foment revolutions in their home countries of Libya, Iran, Iraq and elsewhere. But unlike those Americans, Chhun fell into one of those eddies of U.S. foreign policy that swirls with contradictions.

While his sentence might not make sense, the trajectory of Chhun's life does. Its logic was crafted in war zones and under autocrats in Cambodia. It is infused with a survivor's frustrated anger at mass killers who avoid justice, and a survivor's guilt over having escaped the authoritarian shadow that endures in his homeland.

It is the story of an American dreamer and scarred immigrant who bought into our country's creation myth about militiamen who rose up against tyranny to claim freedom.

All of this gets at why, amid the tax forms in his strip-mall accountancy office, a man inspired by a Disney movie plotted to become his homeland's George Washington.

PLOTTING

Only in California could the seeds of Yasith Chhun's idealistic crimes take root on the Queen Mary. The ship's art deco staterooms may harken back to an era of pre–World War II Hollywood celebrities, but Chhun felt a different sort of nostalgia, one for family, friends and a country that he'd lost. In 1999 and 2000, his California- registered nonprofit group, the Cambodian Freedom Fighters, hosted a pair of fundraisers on the ship to help liberate their homeland — by any means necessary.

Prosecutors believe they raised a total of about $300,000, some of which was used to support the overthrow of Hun Sen, Cambodia's longtime leader.

To many Cambodian exiles, Hun Sen's name is roughly equivalent to Fidel Castro's for Cuban-Americans in Miami, or Augusto Pinochet's for Chilean-Americans. Chhun called the revolutionary plan that he assembled with an associate "Operation Volcano," a military assault on pillars of Hun Sen's power in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital.

After the extended deadline for income tax filing passed in June 2000, Chhun and other Cambodian-American "freedom fighters," including co-plotter Richard Kiri Kim, traveled to the Thai-Cambodian border. They met with Cambodian army commanders to instigate a mutiny that would lead to the arrest of Hun Sen and other leaders. Chhun tasked insurgent commanders with recruiting soldiers — which in Cambodia usually means hiring poor farmers — and with bringing together weapons. Chhun gave them money for supplies, including food, clothing and communications equipment. Then he returned home to his family and his accountancy.

Months later, on Oct. 10, 2000, Chhun and approximately two dozen other men traveled on tourist visas back to their "base" (otherwise known as a rental home) and made final preparations. From there, on Nov. 23, 2000, Chhun called Kiri Kim, in Cambodia, and gave the order: Operation Volcano should blow.

THE ATTACK

In the predawn darkness on Nov. 24, 2000, about 70 well-armed men emerged from the colonial yellow railway station in the center of the Cambodian capital. Most of the insurgents advanced down the dusty Boulevard de Russie. A much smaller group of men moved on a military barracks about 10 miles away, on the edge of town.

With red armbands and headbands, and carrying AK-47s, grenades and launchers, those men might have made for an imposing urban gang if some weren't wearing flip-flops. As a revolutionary force, they didn't exactly compare to Hun Sen's spectacularly well-armed personal bodyguards, who numbered in the thousands. And as commander in chief, Hun Sen could call in tens of thousands of fighters from Cambodia's armed forces, if necessary.

The dozens of aspiring revolutionaries threw a grenade at a gas station and shot its guard, also wounding an officer named Ngy Sarath, who was passing by on a motorcycle. They shot divots into the facades of a number of government buildings and, when a military police vehicle carrying eight armed men drove directly toward them, opened fire, sparking a prolonged gun battle against government troops. Among the many explosions and errant shots, 49 bullets struck the front of the truck, which may have been the high point of the coup attempt. The firefight came to an end when government tanks arrived and insurgent commander Mow An gave the order to retreat. It was over before dawn.

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