Waging War From California
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- Armed with antiquated AK-47 assault rifles and
rocket-propelled grenade launchers, the ragtag band of self-proclaimed
freedom fighters set off shortly after midnight, marching in columns along
one of this city's main boulevards to storm the Defense Ministry.
It was supposed to be the first stage of Operation Volcano, a quixotic plan
concocted by a Cambodian American accountant in Long Beach, Calif., to
topple the government here by recruiting peasants with no military training
to attack military installations and other strategic locations across the
But the 50 guerrillas were quickly repulsed by scores of heavily armed
government troops behind a three-foot-thick stone wall ringing the
ministry. When the shooting ended an hour later, three rebels and a
civilian lay dead.
Although the raid last November was a spectacular failure, the accountant,
Yasith Chhun, has vowed to try again. "We'll be back," he said. "We're
planning another one."
A little more than a quarter-century after Communist forces swept to power
in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, fringe groups of U.S.-based dissidents have
stepped up militant campaigns to force political change in the three
countries. Their ranks are relatively small and their attacks have not
amounted to much, but the groups are viewed as significant security threats
by Southeast Asian governments, which accuse the United States of doing
little to clamp down on violence-minded emigres.
The Government of Free Vietnam, an exile organization headquartered in
Southern California that wants to overthrow the leadership in Hanoi, said
it has secret bases along Vietnam's border with Cambodia and Laos where
rebel fighters are training.
The group's leader, Nguyen Huu Chanh, one of the most wanted men in
Vietnam, boasted in an interview that his supporters placed several bombs
around Hanoi last month to protest the arrest of a prominent dissident.
Chanh said the bombs, whose timing devices were not operational, were
intended to send a message about the group's growing clout.
Vietnam recently sentenced several members of the organization to long
prison terms for attempting to blow up landmarks and government buildings
in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. Thai authorities said that in
response to the convictions the group planted two bombs outside the
Vietnamese Embassy in Bangkok last month.
Vietnamese officials also contend that recent anti-government protests by
members of the Montagnard ethnic group in the country's Central Highlands
were instigated by Montagnards who live in the United States. The
Montagnards were recruited by the CIA during the Vietnam War and fought
against North Vietnamese forces alongside U.S. and South Vietnamese troops.
Although American Montagnard leaders denied the Vietnamese allegations,
U.S. officials said telephone and e-mail communication between Montagnards
in the United States and those in Vietnam played a role in sparking the
In Laos, the biggest anti-government attack in years -- a raid on a customs
post last year by fighters who briefly raised the old royalist flag --
reportedly was partially funded by Laotians living in the United States.
Exile leaders said they have stepped up their efforts to overthrow
governments because of political changes across the region -- and in
The ruling Communist Party in Vietnam recently appointed a general
secretary who is regarded as more moderate than his predecessors, while the
party's counterpart in Laos has been beset with factional infighting for a
Although Cambodia has a democratically elected government, critics like
Yasith Chhun contend that Prime Minister Hun Sen won because of rampant
"Part of what's going on is an attempt to push these governments because
they see this as a moment of political transition," said a U.S. diplomat in
Southeast Asia. "But it is also an opportunity for them to test the Bush
administration, to see how far they can push things."
The diplomat said exile leaders may hope "to get more sympathy from members
of the new administration who believe [President] Reagan conquered
communism in Europe and now Bush can do the same thing in Asia."
There also is the age factor. Many of the people who fled Indochina in the
1970s are now well into their sixties and seventies. "They want to see
their country be free before they die," said Le Chi Thuc, a spokesman for
the Government of Free Vietnam. "They have nothing to lose now."
Thuc and his boss, Chanh, a compact man who speaks with a sergeant's
intensity, insisted that they are not terrorists. "We don't want to kill
people," Chanh, 50, said in an interview in his Garden Grove, Calif.,
office. "We've had enough war. We just want to get rid of the Communists."
In the years immediately following the Communist victories in Cambodia,
Laos and Vietnam, many exiles were involved in paramilitary groups based in
Thailand that sought to destabilize the new governments with quiet
assistance from the United States. But those efforts had largely faded away
by the late 1980s. Even unofficial U.S. support for those actions had ended
by the 1990s, when Washington established diplomatic relations with all
Although the exile groups have elaborate plans for political
destabilization, and say they have thousands of supporters, Western
officials and analysts are not sure whether to take them seriously. The
attacks in Phnom Penh and at the Laotian customs post failed, and the
attempted bombings in Vietnam were foiled without a single blast.
"They talk big, but they're relatively incompetent," said a Western
diplomat in Bangkok. "But then again, it's dangerous to say that they pose
no threat. They do have followers and weapons and money -- and they are
committed to their cause."
The exile activity has nonetheless alarmed Southeast Asian governments.
"We believe them when they say they will try to attack again," Col. Sim
Hong, the deputy military police commander in Phnom Penh, said of Yasith
Chhun's group. "They are a threat to our peace and stability."
The Southeast Asian organizations are not nearly as large or as well funded
as Cuban exile groups in Florida. Their support among Vietnamese and
Cambodian immigrants in Southern California is mixed, and some community
leaders deplore the violent tactics. But analysts said they have enough
money and members to stir up trouble.
The Government of Free Vietnam operates out of a 10,000-square-foot office,
where it hosts community gatherings and produces an anti-communist
short-wave radio program. Elaborate organizational charts are tacked to the
walls, and leaders boasted that they have a "transition plan" to run
Vietnam as soon as they assume control. Le said the group has enlisted
several former South Vietnamese army officers to help train troops and
Yasith Chhun's group, the Cambodian Freedom Fighters, appears far
scrappier. Although he said they have 500 members in the United States and
tens of thousands in Cambodia, there is little to suggest that his
windowless office is the drafting room for a revolution except for a lone
machine gun near the door and a homemade resistance flag tacked to the
wall. The file cabinets are filled with tax records, not battle plans.
A law called the Neutrality Act prohibits American citizens or residents
from using force to overthrow a foreign government. In an effort not to run
afoul of U.S. authorities, exile leaders said they coordinate their
operations from other countries, often Thailand. "Our office in the United
States is not directly responsible for what happens in Vietnam," Le said.
"It's only a liaison office. We don't want to put the U.S. government in a
But it has, say American diplomats and political analysts. Even though the
State Department has condemned the attacks and the FBI has launched
investigations, it appears to some political leaders in Indochina that the
insurgencies have the support of the U.S. government.
"In countries like Cambodia, there is little distinction between the
individual and the state," said Kao Kim Horn, a political analyst in Phnom
Penh. "The perception is that Washington is behind this, or at the very
least, it is dragging its feet in investigating."
The FBI is looking into the Cambodian Freedom Fighters -- the bureau sent
an agent to Phnom Penh to investigate the November attack on the Defense
Ministry -- but has not taken any legal action.
In Cambodia, however, justice has been swift. Last month a court convicted
Yasith Chhun in absentia. It also sentenced two other Americans of
Cambodian descent captured during the raid -- an aid worker from Oregon and
a travel agent from Long Beach -- as well as 27 Cambodian citizens for
their involvement in the assault.
Cambodian leaders have urged the United States to extradite Yasith Chhun,
who admitted organizing the attack and directing the operation from a
hideout in Thailand. These days, the soft-spoken 44-year-old, who looks
more like an accountant than a field commander, is back in his Long Beach
office, where he eagerly showed visitors a spreadsheet listing the 291
intended targets of Operation Volcano, including hospitals, bridges and the
homes of top officials.
"How can the United States say it promotes democracy and peace around the
world if it lets these groups operate?" Chea Sophara, Phnom Penh's
governor, asked in an interview.
The State Department has said that it "strongly deplores and condemns" the
attack, but U.S. authorities have ruled out handing over Yasith Chhun
because Cambodia and the United States have no extradition treaty.
In addition, a U.S. official said, "it's not easy to establish these groups
are carrying out activities that are illegal."
Chanh, the leader of the Government of Free Vietnam, said his organization
is trying to create a new "incident" that will lead people in Vietnam to
rise up against the government. Such an event, he said, will be accompanied
by paramilitary action from his group.
"Look at Tiananmen Square," said Chanh, referring to the peaceful
pro-democracy protests in China that were crushed by the military. "You
cannot fight a communist regime with just demonstrations."
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