Guerillas in our Midst

The headquarters of the Government of Free Vietnam (GFVN)
would fit right into the guerilla campaigns of 1930s China or modern-day
Colombia. Along the building's walls, reams of photos show Free Vietnam troops
training at secret Southeast Asian bases code-named "KC 702." On the top floor, a
shortwave radio transmitter broadcasts the GFVN's anti-regime programs into
Vietnamese cities and villages.

From this description, you might expect the GFVN, founded in 1995 and
dedicated to overthrowing the Vietnamese state, to be located in some hidden
jungle redoubt. It's not. Rather, it sits on a mundane commercial street in the
Los Angeles suburb of Garden Grove, down the road from a Costco. But the
innocuous surroundings belie the group's dead-serious intent. Over the past three
years, GFVN members have been implicated in a half-dozen attacks on Vietnamese
government targets around the world. Some of these assaults involved homemade
explosive devices similar to the bomb deployed by Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma
City.

The GFVN, which claims over 6,000 members (including many former South
Vietnamese soldiers), is only one of several U.S.-based Southeast Asian dissident
groups that have begun to give Washington officials heartburn. As the war on
terrorism widens and the Bush administration demands cooperation from Southeast
Asian governments, it finds its mission complicated by these dissidents, who
straddle a fine line between pressing for change in their homelands and planning
illegal, violent, and often counterproductive attacks from American shores.

Another group that has drawn significant attention in both Southeast Asia and
Washington is the Cambodian Freedom Fighters (CFF), a Long Beach-based group
founded in 1998 and registered as a corporation with the state of California. CFF
leader Chhun Yasith, a Cambodian-American accountant who describes himself as "a
Cambodian Moses, who will lead my people out of slavery," has used his contacts
inside Cambodia to create a loose alliance of antigovernment forces; Yasith
claims that the CFF has at least 500 active members in the United States and
Cambodia. Though some Western diplomats once laughed at Yasith's forces, in
November 2000 his men launched a B-40 rocket attack in Phnom Penh, Cambodia's
capital, which killed at least eight people. After the incident, Yasith returned
to the United States through Thailand; he couldn't keep his tax clients waiting
too long.

Though the attack failed to dislodge Cambodia's government, Yasith has not
given up. "We are on a mission from God," he says, "and we have plans drawn up
for another coup attempt in Cambodia in which we will attack the whole country
this time." Meanwhile, several other Vietnamese and Laotian groups based in
America have been accused of involvement in armed conflicts in their homelands.

Though the neutrality act forbids U.S. citizens from supporting
military action against foreign nations during peacetime, American officials had
until last fall tolerated -- and occasionally may have encouraged -- these
groups. On the wall of its headquarters, the GFVN displays a photo of the group's
leader with President Clinton. Other snapshots picture GFVN members chatting with
high-ranking American Special Forces officers, while the group's literature
claims that in the early 1990s, the then-U.S. ambassador frequently visited a
school in Cambodia that trained people for a previous incarnation of the GFVN.
"We got a lot of sympathy from individual members of the American government,
even if they couldn't openly support us," says GFVN spokesman Le Chi Thuc.
Questioned about the armed dissident groups from Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, a
U.S. State Department official says: "The position of the United States is that
we don't support efforts to overthrow those governments by force."

To some extent, it's understandable that the United States has
tolerated these groups. Many members of dissident organizations like the GFVN
fought alongside U.S. troops during the Vietnam War, earning them the enduring
sympathy of American veterans, some of whom have developed close ties to
Southeast Asian exile organizations. And the United States openly backed CFF
precursors that fought Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen in the 1980s; Hun Sen
was then allied with Vietnam and Hanoi and Washington had not yet re-established
relations. Human-rights violations by the ruling governments in Laos and Vietnam
gave the United States still more reason to be sympathetic toward the dissidents;
Laos's military, for instance, has allegedly killed ethnic minorities in "special
areas" closed to foreign observers. "Compared to the brutal regimes in Hanoi and
Vientiane [the capital of Laos], groups opposing those governments often are seen
as fighting a good fight," says Philip Smith, a lobbyist for nonviolent groups
opposed to Laos's government. And Hun Sen, though now democratically elected
(whatever the shortcomings of Cambodia's process), still rules Cambodia. Yet one
U.S. official with extensive knowledge of the region replies: "Though they're
hardly perfect, these Southeast Asian governments are seen as legitimate in a way
that a totalitarian state like Iraq isn't, and Cambodia is a democracy, though a
flawed one."

Since September 11, america's relationship with these dissidents
has become more problematic. According to sources familiar with U.S.-Southeast
Asia politics, America's ambassadors to Laos and Vietnam feel that exile groups
like the GFVN make it difficult to improve still-cool diplomatic ties. Indeed,
over the past seven months, the Cambodian, Laotian, and Vietnamese governments
repeatedly have called America hypocritical and encouraged Washington to crack
down on the armed dissidents. "My government has asked the FBI to investigate
these groups several times," says Vanyuang Tan, a political officer at the
Cambodian embassy in Washington. "We handed over weapons used by the CFF,
documents found in Cambodia naming CFF members in the United States. How can
America focus on terrorism and not care about these exile groups?"

Some Asia experts agree. "You can't call for a war on terrorism and
then act like cooperation is a one-way street. The United States has to make a
statement that all terrorism is wrong," says Carlyle Thayer, a Southeast Asia
specialist who previously worked at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies,
a Hawaii-based think tank funded in part by the U.S. government. Or as one
American government official with knowledge of U.S.-Cambodia relations puts it:
"Washington has to take a stronger line against the CFF. Otherwise we won't be
able to get Cambodia's help in fighting terror or to support serious groups that
are trying to create a rule of law in Cambodia."

Indeed, nonviolent organizations pushing for liberalization in Southeast Asia
are concerned that armed dissidents' actions might precipitate a crackdown on
civil society. Some nonviolent organizations have proven effective:
Hmong-American groups have successfully pushed Congress to block closer U.S.-Laos
economic ties. According to one source with extensive experience in Cambodia,
armed groups command only limited support inside the country, and many people
attend CFF recruiting meetings out of desperation or boredom. But aid workers in
Cambodia say that peaceful groups more popular than the CFF are now in danger of
being harassed by Phnom Penh security forces, which have been put on heightened
alert. In response, Yasith says that "using nonviolence in Cambodia is like
talking to a buffalo, since neither ever works."

Though none of these Southeast Asian nations are hotbeds of al-Qaeda activity,
the United States still needs their assistance. One source who has attended
meetings between Laotian and American officials says Vientiane has overhauled its
money-laundering laws in the past six months. According to Rohan Gunaratna, a
terrorism expert at Scotland's University of St. Andrews, Cambodia in particular
has developed into a weapons bazaar for terrorists; Gunaratna believes the United
States should closely monitor exile groups like the CFF in order to obtain Phnom
Penh's cooperation in battling the weapons trade. Some American officials are
following Gunaratna's advice. Though the FBI declined to comment, CFF and GFVN
members say that the bureau has been investigating their organizations. And last
fall, FBI agents arrested Van Duc Vo, a California-based GFVN representative
accused of planning to bomb the Vietnamese embassy in Bangkok. A U.S. court
charged Vo with using weapons of mass destruction in a foreign country.

Despite Vo's arrest, the dissident groups don't appear too
concerned -- and perhaps they shouldn't be. According to Gunaratna, with so much
attention being paid to Islamic groups, American law enforcement is not
investigating the Southeast Asians very thoroughly. In fact, the United States is
considering providing political asylum to a group of Thailand-based dissidents
who attacked a Laotian border post in July 2000 and instigated a clash in which
at least six people were killed.

The U.S. war on terrorism doesn't seem to have caused the exile groups
to rethink their activities, though it might have inspired a new semantic
caution. Although GFVN leader Nguyen Huu Chanh once told Time magazine that he
had planned several attacks on Vietnamese targets, Thuc says that GFVN
headquarters provides "strategic thinking" that inspires violence against
Vietnamese government facilities, but the organization does not issue orders,
oversee assaults, or solicit funds in America for violent activities abroad.
According to Thuc, although GFVN supports "attacking any government buildings or
military targets inside Vietnam, as long as ordinary citizens are not hurt," it
also backs nonviolent protest.

The CFF indulges in slightly more openly militant rhetoric. "We want to stop
Cambodians from killing each other, but sometimes you need war to make peace,"
says CFF Vice President Sokhom So, who is based in Virginia. "The U.S. government
has never given us a red light, and we take that as a green light." Yasith
agrees. "We will keep going. We don't ship weapons to Cambodia -- we capture
arms inside Cambodia, and we don't organize operations from Long Beach," he says.
"Terrorists are based in Pakistan or somewhere. Terrorists don't live in
California."

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