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.”
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.
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.
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.
News reports at the time claimed that eight insurgents had died and 14 people (passersby and military police) had been wounded. But the court in Los Angeles was told that just three insurgents died, and it received tragic testimony that a bullet came through a wall and felled one bystander in his home. The man collapsed into the arms of his wife, the mother of their newborn, and died.
If the attack was destined to fail, it isn't just that the rebels were poorly trained, insufficiently armed and far too few, or even that the plan was absurd. (News reports indicated that some insurgents got high on rice wine and perhaps even opium to screw up their courage. That couldn't have helped.)
The real problem was that Operation Volcano blew into a trap. The government obtained the ragtag bunch's attack plan well before they arrived; Kiri Kim made the mistake of sharing copies of the plan with some of his men in a country where selling such information to authorities is lucrative.
Hun Sen wasn't just ready to defeat them; he was ready to use them. A day after the attack, authorities had rounded up at least 58 people, some of whom Chhun referred to as his heroic colleagues. Cambodia's strongman quickly raised the specter of terrorism emanating from U.S. soil, warning his enemies in both countries that they would be put on trial. “Do not think that you can escape,” he warned. “The United States is cooperating with us.”
Officials at the American Embassy in Phnom Penh, however, were circumspect. One official there told The Cambodia Daily that the rebels were “the gang that couldn't shoot straight.” Many of the supposed insurgents testified in court that they had been physically intimidated into making false confessions.
American skepticism only increased in September 2001, after the 9/11 attacks, when Hun Sen promised to collaborate with Washington in the antiterror fight — and then he arrested another 64 “terrorists,” including a host of peaceful political opponents who supposedly were linked to Operation Volcano. (Chhun didn't know who they were.) At least five members of the political opposition remain in prison more than a decade later. Chhun's attack was, as democratic opposition leader Sam Rainsy tells the Weekly, “the greatest gift to Hun Sen.”
CAMBODIA'S PRINCE OF EGYPT
I contacted Yasith Chhun soon after Operation Volcano. Speaking via cellphone from a “secret location” near the Cambodian border, he told me he was “very regretful” about the deaths in Phnom Penh, but he didn't see any other way to change Cambodia.
A zealous anti-communist, Chhun was convinced that Hun Sen — who had already morphed into a nouveau riche, postcommunist, Mafia-style kingpin — remained a Maoist ideologue. “We will never change the nature of the Communist dictatorship with rallies,” Chhun said. “Communists are like cows. The cow never respects what we say. We sing a song, the cow never listens, never understands, so we have to use force or guns.”
His peculiar bovine theme likely made more sense to rural Cambodians. But the odd mix of Chhun's Cambodian and Angeleno lives became even clearer when I asked him what triggered a Long Beach accountant to launch the overthrow effort. It was, he said, “God's mission” for him to free his people. God communicated to Chhun, a Buddhist-born convert to the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, via the animated 1998 Disney film The Prince of Egypt. Chhun interpreted the film's message as he saw it: “Moses tried to liberate the slaves of Egypt. Like him, I am not afraid of anything.”
If necessary, Chhun could handle punishment for his efforts, he said, but he doubted it would be necessary. He was fighting against tyranny, and what could be more American than that?
In California, Chhun ate to his stomach's content, drove an air-conditioned car, raised his children and tallied the incomes of American taxpayers, but he was haunted by Cambodia. “I have a business in Long Beach with 3,000 clients,” Chhun told me. “I earn almost a million dollars a year. I have kids, a wife and a family to take care of. So why am I coming here to suffer? Because I cannot ignore the bloodshed of my people.”
Perhaps more than anything, the fate of Chhun's father, Yem Kong, defined such bloodshed for him. Upon seizing power in 1975, the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia ordered the executions of nearly every person linked to the previous U.S.-backed military regime. Yem Kong was particularly vulnerable. He hadn't merely been an active supporter of that government: He had reported on the Khmer Rouge revolutionaries' rural activities.
Chhun's family were evicted from their home in a town in Banteay Meanchey province in the northwest, and his siblings were sent off to work camps. Chhun was a sickly child, so he was permitted to stay with his parents. They moved to a collectivized farm and labored there until one day, while Chhun was bathing in a nearby river, a dozen armed Khmer Rouge soldiers arrived. “They pulled my father out of the hut,” Chhun wrote in a letter to the judge, “and beheaded him.”
It wasn't a clean beheading, Chhun told Dr. William H. Sacks, who provided a psychiatric report to the court. The head was “almost severed but still partially connected by skin.” Chhun's mother collapsed onto her husband's corpse in grief, but the Khmer Rouge warned her not to cry for a man who deserved such a fate. They told her that she would be executed, too, if she acted as an enemy spy.
Then a soldier turned, ominously, toward the young Chhun. “Are you his son?” the soldier asked.
“No,” Chhun responded. “I'm a visitor.”
Chhun and his mother later carried Yem Kong's body, with his head, to the nearby forest, where they wrapped it in a cloth and buried it near a mango tree. As Chhun recounted the saga to Dr. Sacks three decades later, he wept profusely.
After the execution of his father, Chhun was sent to a work camp, where he toiled day and night in rice fields as one of the millions of slaves of the Khmer Rouge's “people's revolution.” Chhun supplemented his rice gruel by eating grasshoppers, termites, snakes and even rats. Still, he lost so much weight that he came to look like a skeleton wrapped in taut skin.
“I cried every night, getting only a few hours' sleep, and I kept asking myself why I had to be born in Cambodia, and not in the United States,” he wrote to the judge. “I couldn't understand why I had to be punished and tortured as an innocent young man who was just growing up.”
Later, the Khmer Rouge used him on suicide missions. They shackled him to a rocket launcher and forced him to crawl toward enemy lines to fire at Vietnamese enemies; strapped his body to a machine gun and tripod to hold it steady; and forced him to search murky forest soil for landmines. One time, Chhun told Dr. Sacks, he stepped on a mine. It blew him into the air. Somehow he was only slightly injured, but it killed a man who was with him.
As the Khmer Rouge regime weakened under the weight of its self-destructive nationalist paranoia, Chhun rediscovered his mother, alive. In memory of his father, they went to place a ceremonial rice cake at a Buddhist temple, but Chhun was so famished that he “stole” the offering, scraped the ants off and ate it, he told the psychiatrist.
By the start of 1979, as the Khmer Rouge crumbled in the face of a fast-moving assault by its former Communist patrons in Vietnam, Chhun fled like hundreds of thousands of others toward the Thai border region. He began to understand the true scale of the Khmer Rouge's terror. There were too many corpses to count. He witnessed executions by clubbing, suffocation in plastic bags and stabbing with bamboo sticks — none of which required the squandering of bullets better used to fend off the Vietnamese.
But it was only later that Chhun discovered the full impact of the Khmer Rouge's Talibanesque interpretation of Maoism. The regime's mismanagement, incompetence and cruelty — which included torturing improbable confessions out of “enemies of the people” and then doing the same to the people accused in those confessions — caused the deaths of more than one Cambodian in five, nearly 2 million people. During the nearly four-year Khmer Rouge reign of terror, two of Chhun's aunts and seven of his immediate cousins starved to death. Besides his father, his uncle and other close family members were executed.
While the Khmer Rouge was responsible for its many crimes — and Vietnam and the United States certainly prepared the terrain as they sucked neighboring Cambodia into their war — no one was held responsible in any credible courtroom. To Chhun, Cambodians were victims of the worst crimes imaginable, but decades passed with no sign of justice.
The Communist Vietnamese forces that ousted the Khmer Rouge in 1979 were seen initially as liberators, at least until they installed a pliant regime and remained a highly visible foreign presence, when they graduated to “occupiers” whose ceremonious withdrawal only came in 1988.
The most enduring figure in the Vietnamese-friendly government was a former low-level Khmer Rouge commander who fled to Vietnam to avoid internal purges. The Vietnamese chose the young man, Hun Sen, as Cambodia's “foreign minister” and then promoted him in the mid-1980s to prime minister. He has retained that title for more than a quarter-century.
The result, for many middle-aged Cambodians, is that Hun Sen embodies the unresolved horrors of the Khmer Rouge, the national humiliation of the Vietnamese occupation and the stunningly corrupt political system that he oversees today.
For Chhun, Hun Sen became a natural stand-in for his personal tragedies and Cambodia's enduring suffering.
After the Khmer Rouge fell, Chhun reached a desperate, overcrowded Kao I Dang refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border, where he spent a year and a half. After a seven-month stint in a refugee center in the Philippines, he was granted refugee status by the United States. In 1982, he arrived in Georgia and eventually migrated to California, became an American citizen and went to college. But like so many of his exiled compatriots, he couldn't leave behind the instability and horrors that defined his adolescence and early adulthood.
Chhun became an accountant, dealing with the arithmetic of clients' incomes and calculating their civil responsibility to their government in the form of tax payments. The firm logic of numbers likely provided solidity to a young man who had little. He didn't just move to a world of strip malls and traffic jams; it was more basic than that. There was electricity and running water, private property and a government that tried to work for the people rather than enslaving them.
Like many exiles in America, Chhun became a Republican supporter, drawn by the party's anticommunist rhetoric.
Long Beach was in the process of becoming the world's largest Cambodian city outside of Southeast Asia, now with more than 50,000 Khmers. Many are former “boat people” or refugee-camp survivors who lost everything and, in some cases, everyone. Even though they were Angelenos, many remained obsessed with the fate of their homeland and the relatives who didn't get out.
In the mid-1990s, Chhun began to engage in activism on behalf of a rising reformist party in Cambodia. His newfound political engagement might have been empowering if it hadn't coincided with a wave of political violence, as Hun Sen further consolidated his grip on power at the expense of democracy.
On March 30, 1997, grenade throwers working in cahoots with Hun Sen's bodyguard troops nearly assassinated an opponent, Sam Rainsy, when they threw four grenades into a crowd of peaceful protesters he was leading against the nation's corrupt courts. The attack killed 16 people, while hit men fled into one of Hun Sen's bases across the street; his bodyguards, armed to the teeth, protected their flight.
Several months later, Hun Sen drove his co–prime minister, Norodom Ranariddh, who had won the U.N.-sponsored elections, from Cambodia after several days of pitched battles on the streets of Phnom Penh. Soon after, dozens of corpses of tortured prisoners — Hun Sen's political and military enemies — surfaced in shallow pits.
For Chhun, Cambodia's democratic experiment was over. He created the Cambodian Freedom Fighters and started to prepare Operation Volcano.
That last step — regardless of its ineptitude — helped him to recover a portion of his dignity, according to the psychiatric report. “I heard the voice of my father saying, 'I'm proud of you. You can stand up and be a man again,' ” Chhun told the psychiatrist. That restored man, Dr. Sacks summarized, “had fantasies of being a new General Washington.”
Operation Volcano became a tool of Hun Sen soon after its failure. Less than two months later, he accused the United States — “the master of the fight against international terrorism” — of ignoring a terrorist attack on Cambodian soil that was planned in America. “What is the real value of the U.S. suggestion to Cambodia to offer cooperation against international terrorism?” the prime minister asked.
Hun Sen even cited past U.S. bombing campaigns against Libya in the 1980s and Afghanistan in the '90s that were intended to punish them for sheltering terrorists. The strongman insisted the United States must hand Chhun over to Phnom Penh. Despite the rhetoric, Hun Sen's uneasy relations with Washington meant there was little hope of retrieving one of his opponents from U.S. soil.
At the time of Hun Sen's comments, Chhun was settling back into life in Long Beach. After all, the 2001 tax season was approaching. Agents from the FBI's Los Angeles bureau dropped in on Chhun, who openly admitted that he was the CFF leader — no surprise, given that he had issued a press release immediately after Operation Volcano sputtered. He didn't merely explain the details and goals of Operation Volcano; he told them he hoped to continue his efforts.
In Chhun's recollection, the FBI warned him against traveling to Cambodia, for his own safety. (He chuckled about their advice and noted that he was more concerned about Hun Sen sending an assassin to kill him in California.) At the end of the friendly meeting, Chhun saluted the FBI's Don Shannon and told the agent that he was always welcome.
Chhun's office was located north of downtown Long Beach in an area known as Little Phnom Penh, featuring a temple and an array of shops and restaurants. When I stopped in shortly after the FBI did, the accountant wore a crisp white business shirt and eyeglasses. More cheerful than any revolutionary I had ever met, Chhun still believed he might one day succeed in ousting Hun Sen.
“Even though I am in Long Beach, I can do it by remote,” he said, gesturing to a cellphone. Chhun argued that all Cambodian people crave a society like the one he lived in here in Los Angeles. “There is a good chance that we can start building a freeway of freedom, so that the Cambodian people can walk on that freedom.”
The FBI visited Chhun again in 2003, for another chat, even though there was no indication that Chhun — never a discreet man — had been involved in any new revolutionary activities. The statute of limitations on an array of possible charges was ticking away. But clouds were gathering.
In the months and years that followed the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration oversaw a massive overhaul of security, intelligence and foreign policy. Washington's emboldened “war on terror,” to the exclusion of many other American interests and values, included an emphasis on preventing Southeast Asia from becoming a “second front.”
In short order, cooperation between Washington and Phnom Penh surged. President George W. Bush removed Cambodia from the list of major illegal drug–producing countries despite little substantive progress. In 2002, with the United States, Cambodia joined a regional antiterrorism agreement that involved sharing information and intelligence, destroyed three dozen SA-3 air defense missiles (so that they wouldn't end up in the hands of terrorists) and brought its border stations into the computer age. Phnom Penh also arrested a handful of alleged members of Jemaah Islamiyah, a group that Washington had linked to al-Qaida and that the Bush administration hardly wanted to see develop a foothold in the region.
In that context, federal agents showed up at Chhun's home on a June day in 2005 and arrested a man whom they had left free to fill out tax forms for four and a half years after Operation Volcano.
A federal grand jury indicted Chhun on four conspiracy charges on May 31, 2005 — a day before the statute of limitations ran out on several charges. The accusation involved the Neutrality Act, a 200-year-old law that prohibits working from American soil to overthrow a foreign leader or government that the United States is at peace with. It could lead to a maximum prison sentence of three years. (Chhun had suggested to me that, since he wasn't involved in securing weaponry and because his significant actions were conducted in Thailand, there was no violation.)
But the indictment included more menacing charges: conspiring to kill and damage property in a foreign country, and the use of weapons of mass destruction outside of the United States. (“Weapon of mass destruction,” it turns out, can refer to any explosive or incendiary device, bomb or even a grenade.)
A new U.S. ambassador to Cambodia, Charles Ray, communicated his gratitude, via the FBI legal attaché in Bangkok, to staff in the Los Angeles division of the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Beyond issues of justice, Ray's note says, “This case is a very important achievement for U.S. relations in Southeast Asia, and is key to building regional cooperation in counterterrorism.”
Soon after Chhun's arrest, Deputy Director of the FBI John Pistole visited Phnom Penh, where he told senior Cambodian officials that the FBI would train local police on counterterrorism matters, and he gave a number of awards for “important contributions” to the prosecution of Cambodian Freedom Fighters.
Defense attorney Callahan argues that pre-9/11, American officials saw Hun Sen as a “murderous despot” and Chhun's efforts to oust him were tacitly accepted, until Washington pivoted and Chhun became “an expendable pawn” in U.S. efforts to gain an antiterror ally in the region. “Hun Sen didn't change,” Callahan summarizes, “the world did.”
In 2008, Chhun was found guilty on all four charges.
THE MESSAGE OF LIFE
The following year, the prosecution prepared a court brief that called for a harsh sentence: “The United States cannot allow her citizens and residents to plan and execute violent attacks against foreign citizens or governments. U.S. foreign policy must speak with one voice and unauthorized violent attacks against foreign entities, no matter how well intentioned, subject the United States to broad international and political ramifications, including possible retaliation.”
The defense argued for a five-year sentence, which would amount to time served, citing Chhun's tragic history, his exemplary time in jail and his law-abiding years between his return from Cambodia and his arrest.
But, like the prosecution, the judge wanted to send a message — not to potential émigré revolutionaries from repressive countries, ranging from Algeria to Zimbabwe, but to foreign governments themselves. “We, as a great nation, cannot send the message to other countries that it's OK to be lenient when people attempt to kill Americans,” the judge concluded, noting that the United States must therefore reciprocate by treating homeland-focused revolutionaries on American soil “very, very harshly.” So last June, Judge Pregerson sentenced Chhun to a lifetime behind bars.
A lifetime. That's what made no sense to Callahan.
The irony that the judge was calibrating the scales of justice to induce foreign leaders to cooperate with Washington was particularly salient in a case in which Chhun was convicted for getting in the way of the United States' evolving foreign policy
But there was a far more cruel irony in Chhun's life sentence. Just one month later, a mixed Cambodian and international tribunal focusing on crimes against humanity in Phnom Penh finally sentenced the first Khmer Rouge figure for horrific crimes committed more than three decades earlier.
Kaing Guek Eav, known as “Duch,” was the meticulous overseer of an elementary school turned torture center, the notorious Toul Sleng, where 12,273 prisoners died. Most were executed — including with shovels, to spare bullets. Some were pulled apart on medieval-style racks. If the sadistic prison boss lives 19 years beyond the moment when he was sentenced, he will be free.
Yasith Chhun, meanwhile, isn't known to have ever fired a bullet to overthrow Hun Sen, a man who has thrived thanks in part to well-documented coercion, torture and the assassinations of his enemies.
I wrote to Chhun after his sentencing. I wanted to know whether the contrast between his sentence and the one given to Kaing Guek Eav shook his faith in American justice.
“It breaks my heart to say it, but yes,” Chhun wrote from the jail cell at the Metropolitan Detention Center downtown. “I continue to believe in the American system of justice with all my heart.”
But, he added, “In my case, it failed.”
THE PRICE OF FAILURE
A decade after 9/11, Washington is in the midst of another epochal sea-change in regard to its interactions with autocrats. The Obama administration is offering various levels of support for popular movements seeking to topple repressive regimes across much of North Africa, the Middle East and countries farther afield.
It is difficult to imagine the former Yasith Chhuns of prerevolutionary Tunisia and Egypt or the active ones of Syria or Iran, who work from American soil, being prosecuted for efforts to overthrow the corrupt and brutal regimes back home.
The question is: How long will it take for Washington's still-evolving response to the “Arab Spring” to trickle down into the interpretations of judges the way that 9/11 did?
Chhun recently sent me a repentant response. Imagine it being written by a revolutionary Libyan or Iranian in exile: “I feel very strongly that our efforts to save Cambodia were justified, since years of protests and peaceful demonstrations had failed,” Chhun wrote after six years in detention. “During my incarceration, I have come to realize that while my intentions were honorable, I was not properly equipped to carry out the mission and should not have attempted it.
“I do feel remorse for those who suffered in battle, and I also feel great sadness for the people of Cambodia who continue to struggle under the Hun Sen regime,” he wrote.
Chhun doesn't regret trying to overthrow Hun Sen; he only regrets being incapable of succeeding.
While it is up to the appellate court to decide whether Chhun's punishment is suitable, one thing is clear: A decade after Operation Volcano, many others have suffered. Some of their suffering was triggered by Chhun's actions, but the greatest victimizer of Cambodians today remains Hun Sen, with whom the United States continues to have productive relations driven by realpolitik.
Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy says that he normally makes annual visits to the five activists from his political party, who remain in Cambodia's Prey Sar prison for trumped-up charges related to Chhun's Operation Volcano.
But Rainsy can no longer visit them. He was convicted in absentia on politically motivated charges and sentenced to 14 years in prison by a Cambodian court. That is why he lives in exile in Paris. In other words, Hun Sen no longer needs Operation Volcano to undermine his peaceful opponents.
“Yasith Chhun was a boon to Hun Sen, and [Chhun] ended up in prison because Hun Sen really exploited this case,” says Rainsy, who believes that emissaries of Hun Sen easily gained Chhun's confidence and then manipulated him. The Cambodian Freedom Fighters “weren't truly professional terrorists. [Chhun] is more of a clown. He didn't really threaten Hun Sen at all, and his actions allowed the regime to neutralize people that they didn't like for purely political reasons.”
Ultimately, the case has also allowed Cambodia's leader to demonstrate — with an assist from a federal court in Los Angeles — that his reach now extends all the way to Long Beach.