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Cambodia's bizarre freedom fighters

By Verghese Mathews - posted Wednesday, 6 July 2005

Even in the ever murky and uncertain world of intrigues and terror, of regime changes and terrorist acts, there cannot be a more bizarre episode than that which occurred in Phnom Penh in the wee hours of November 24, 2000 - some nine months before the carefully planned September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington shocked an unbelieving world.

The Phnom Penh attack was far different - it was unbelievably pathetic. About 80 members of a rag-tag band calling itself the Cambodian Freedom Fighters (CFF), launched what was to all intents and purposes an audacious offensive to "... liberate the Cambodian people from the communist government of Hun Sen".

The leader of this quixotic attempt was American-Cambodian Chhun Yasith, a small town accountant, more adept it would later appear at juggling figures and de-frauding the US taxman than at leading revolutions or bringing about regime changes.


In the event, the CFF attacked the buildings housing the Ministry of Defence and the Council of Ministers, as well as the military police headquarters in downtown Phnom Penh using hand grenades, assault rifles and rocket launchers.

The CFF obviously had some inside help to have reached that far - to obtain, transport and store the weapons. Moreover, from several accounts the CFF had actually believed that it would be joined in popular support by a grateful people. The CFF was so confident that it had even planned to make an appropriate announcement later that morning over local television of the expected regime change.

Their delusion was short-lived. The then popular governor of Phnom Penh, Chea Sophara, a bold and dynamic hands-on politician, spearheaded a decisive counter attack which routed the CFF in all of a couple of hours. About 40 were arrested while the rest, including the leader Chhun, escaped. Meanwhile, much of Phnom Penh slept through the whole sorry affair.

The foolishness of the incident should not detract from the seriousness of the objectives. No government can be expected to tolerate such an action.

Several others were subsequently arrested in a mopping-up operation leading to civil society allegations that the government had exploited the opportunity to arrest some of its opponents - a charge which the government has vehemently denied.

It needs to be noted here that the CFF was not an unknown quantity. Cambodian security agencies had for some time known of the existence of this California-based organisation and had been gathering information of the leadership and of the group's contacts in Cambodia, the US and along the Thai border.


This was not a difficult task as the CFF loved media exposure, was ever willing to talk and even had its own website.

Founded in November 1998 and registered as a political organisation in the State Department's California office, the CFF was disarmingly candid in the open declaration of its intention of toppling the Hun Sen Government which it declared remained a puppet of the Vietnamese.

The Cambodian security assessment in November 2000 was that the CFF neither had the infrastructure nor the expertise to launch a credible attack in Cambodia for some time to come. The security agencies were not wrong there but they had woefully underestimated the capacity of the CFF to delude itself and create the kind of mischief of November 24, as a result of which lives were unnecessarily lost that morning.

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Article edited by Patrick O'Neill.
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An edited version of this article was first published in the Singapore Straits Times on June 13, 2005 with the title "A sad, foolhardy attempt at revolution.

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About the Author

Verghese Mathews, a former Singapore ambassador to Cambodia, is a visiting fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

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