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Man Indicted in Phnom Penh Attacks Active in GOP Causes

Long Beach accountant Yasith Chhun, whose group is labeled a terrorist organization, raised funds to elect Republicans.

June 03, 2005|David Pierson | Times Staff Writer

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."

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