Yasith Chhun seemed to have swallowed whole the early 2000's rhetoric about "regime change." He was the leader of an outfit called the Cambodian Freedom Fighters formed for the express purpose of overthrowing the Cambodian government under Prime Minister Hun Sen.
He was the mastermind - if that is the right word - behind "Operation Volcano." In November, he and his cohorts staged a comic opera putsch in Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh, attacking buildings housing the Ministry of Defense, Council of Ministers and the army headquarters - comic except that eight people died in the attacks.
Last month Chhun, a naturalized American citizen, learned the hard way that regime change is not something for amateurs. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole for violating the Neutrality Act, which makes it a crime to "engage in a military expedition against a nation with which the United States is at peace."
Chhun had never tried very hard to conceal his activities. When Joshua Kurlantzick, then the foreign editor for The New Republic, interviewed him at his Long Beach, California accountants office, he recounted that Chhun openly discussed future attacks on the telephone in front of him.
The amateur conspirator dabbled in Republican Party politics and was close to Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, so he probably thought that his actions were in sync with powerful interests in the U.S. government and that he had their tacit approval and support.
There was certainly some reason for him to believe so. An element in the Republican Party harbored, and perhaps still does, a virulent animosity to Hun Sen, whom it believes is a communist dictator and participant, as a member of the Khmer Rouge, of the 1975-1979 genocide (Hun Sen was formally with the Khmer Rouge but switched sides after the Vietnamese invasion in 1979). In the vanguard is a highly influential group called the International Republican Institute (IRI), one of several interest groups formed during the time of President Ronald Reagan and officially dedicated to "advancing democracy, freedom self-government and the rule of law worldwide."
To hear the IRI tell it, Cambodia is a kind of second-tier member of the Axis of Evil, and Hun Sen a kind of Kim Jong-il junior without nukes. Cambodia, they argue, should be viewed in the same category as Myanmar or Zimbabwe, although these comparisons do not seem to be accepted by the rest of Asia.
This group's animosity to Hun Sen partly dates back to 1997, when some grenades were tossed into an opposition party rally, killing more than a dozen members of the Khmer National Party (now the Sam Rainsy Party). Also wounded was an American who was working for the IRI in Cambodia.
This group is well-connected to conservative think tanks and to Republican Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, who used his influence to block U.S. participation in the International War Crimes Tribunal convened in Phnom Penh to bring the genocide perpetrators to justice on the idea that no tribunal would be trustworthy under Hun Sen. (The tribunal was eventually organized and convened in 2009 - no thanks to the U.S. - and is expected to render its first judgment against the alleged torturer known as "Comrade Deuch" by the end of July.)
When Chhun was initially arrested in 2005, his supporters put on a brave face. "Unless these guys have been planning some kind of attacks on civilians [the prosecution] is wrong-headed," declared Rep. Rohrabacher. But on his being sentenced to life last month, nobody came to his defense, save his lawyer and, ironically, the judge.
"I don't believe Mr. Chhun is an evil man," said Judge Dean Pregarson, who noted he had led a "tragic" life that included seeing his father beheaded by the Khmer Rouge. But he imposed the maximum sentence saying it was a necessary deterrence to future filibustering operations.
Indeed, Chhun isn't the only Southeast Asian émigré from the Vietnam War era to run into trouble for violating the Neutrality Act. Gen. Vang Pao, former commander of CIA-supplied Hmong fighters in Laos, was arrested in 2007 for his "Operation Tarnished Eagle" against the current Laotian regime.
Charges were dropped against Vang Pao presumably because of his advanced age, past services and prestige in the Hmong community in the U.S., and the fact that the alleged conspirators didn't go beyond trying to acquire weapons. However, nearly a dozen others still face charges.
The entire climate has changed since the early part of the decade. With the rise of China, Washington considers it imperative to try to counter Beijing's intrigues in Southeast Asia. The U.S. maintains diplomatic relations with both Cambodia and Laos and no longer classifies them as "Marxist-Leninist." Later this year, the U.S. will hold its first joint military maneuvers with Cambodia called Angkor Sentinel.
As for Cambodia, Chhun and his merry band simply handed Hun Sen a reasonable excuse to arrest opponents for being coup plotters and to occasionally tweak the United States for "harboring terrorists."