By Night, a Fierce Rebel

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Even posing beside a cannon, Chhun Yasith looks more tourist than terrorist. The self-styled commander of the Cambodian Freedom Fighters cuts a fairly unconvincing figure: a doughy, chino-clad little man mugging for the camera. And for a terrorist, Chhun Yasith, a 44-year-old American citizen, is not exactly secretive. He eagerly agrees to interviews, and his website lists his address and telephone number. Then again, how many resistance leaders have a day job as an accountant in Long Beach, California? Few took seriously the freedom fighters' first revolutionary statements two years ago vowing to topple Prime Minister Hun Sen's government in Cambodia. What was Chhun Yasith going to do, audit Hun Sen to death? But that impression changed Nov. 24 when some 70 rebels armed with assault rifles and rocket launchers—and wearing matching Cambodian Freedom Fighters T shirts—attacked government buildings in downtown Phnom Penh. Authorities crushed the raiders within an hour, but the firefight killed at least four people and terrified a nation still recovering from civil war. Though the attack failed to spark a revolution, as Chhun Yasith hoped, he says it succeeded in establishing the fighters as a force to be reckoned with. We're definitely going to try again, he tells Time, speaking over a mobile phone from his hideout in Thailand. There will be more operations. It won't be long. The freedom fighters' deadly debut may have pleased Chhun Yasith, but it is causing major headaches for his adopted country, the United States. Having berated and bombed countries like Afghanistan and Libya for sheltering terrorists, the U.S. now finds itself accused of doing the same. Prime Minister Hun Sen's government has issued a warrant for Chhun Yasith's arrest and demanded that the U.S. find, detain and extradite the Cambodian American and other exiles involved in the movement. Anything less, it suggests, would be superpower hypocrisy. We expect that America will recognize one standard for justice, not two, says government spokesman Khieu Kanharith. The U.S. State Department responds that it strongly deplores and condemns the attacks and will seek to prosecute those involved. The question is, where? Cambodia and the U.S. have no extradition treaty, but American diplomats in Phnom Penh have been quietly urging Washington to consider charging the fighters' leaders under U.S. law. If Chhun Yasith's own claims about the Nov. 24 attack are true, he could face three years in prison for violating the Neutrality Act, which forbids supporting military action against a foreign government during peacetime.The FBI has confirmed that it is investigating the movement. But if the U.S. Justice Department decides to prosecute, it could further complicate matters. Cambodia isn't the only country where U.S.-based exiles are working to undermine a recognized government. The California-based Government of Free Vietnam claims on its website to have a secret base of active soldiers somewhere along the border with Vietnam. And ethnic Hmong exiles in the U.S. support an armed insurgency in Laos, according to Robert Karniol, Asia-Pacific editor of Jane's Defence Weekly. Laos and Vietnam have long complained of the insurgents' links with exile groups in America, and action against the Cambodian Freedom Fighters could open the door to demands from other countries.In a way, Chhun Yasith's main crime might be that he's behind the times. He says he isn't worried about legal trouble in the U.S. because he has committed no crime. Hun Sen, he insists, is the real terrorist. When we attack the government like this, he says, it is not terrorism. We are talking about fighting for freedom. Once upon a time, Washington probably would have agreed with him. During the 1980s, the large Cambodian exile communities in California and Massachusetts were key bases of support for large armies on the Thai border that fought the Vietnamese-backed communist government, also led by Hun Sen. Those armies had Washington's approval and often its material support, and Chhun Yasith clearly sees himself as their legitimate heir. What he's trying to do is exactly what was happening before, says Cambodian political analyst Lao Mong Hay. But times are different now.Times are different because the world now recognizes Hun Sen as Cambodia's elected leader. Though he has been criticized for his human rights record and was accused of fraud in the 1998 elections, almost no one would say he should be removed by force. No one, that is, except Chhun Yasith.Survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime, Chhun Yasith's family emigrated to the U.S. in 1982, and he grew up hating communism. He joined the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, but left it in 1998 to form the Cambodian Freedom Fighters, saying that non-violent opposition was useless. Now, Chhun Yasith claims to have 500 members in the U.S. and up to 50,000 supporters in Cambodia, including soldiers who he says supplied the weapons for the November attack.Chhun Yasith spent the past month in Bangkok and on the Thai-Cambodian border, rallying his troops, he says, and sending messages to the 45 freedom fighters captured in the Phnom Penh raid. This unlikeliest of guerrilla leaders claims the fighters will strike again. But first, he has to return to the U.S. and his day job. It's tax season, he explains. I have to prepare returns for almost 3,000 clients.