On the evening of February 12, 1999, a man made his way through the potholed streets near Phnom Penh’s sprawling Russian Market, a ramshackle conglomeration of tin-and-plastic-sheeted stalls, propped by up by flimsy wooden beams and stretching an entire city block. It was the height of the dry season, when the temperature settled just above 80 degrees and stayed there, a nice night to sit in one of the many open-air coffee shops or karaoke bars, order a cold can of Angkor beer for half a U.S. dollar, and croon along with the latest hits from neighboring Thailand. The man approached an establishment popular with Phnom Penh’s Vietnamese population, filled with molded-plastic chairs clustered around cramped tables, and threw a grenade into the café. The explosion that followed sent furniture and people flying through the air.
The next morning the incident appeared in all the local newspapers—a remarkable fact given that violence in the war-numbed capital was hardly rare, and no one had died in the attack. It was not unheard of for veterans to commit random acts of aggression, especially if they’d consumed excessive amounts of rice whiskey and lost a competition for a favored prostitute.
When two attackers lobbed another grenade into a karaoke bar in Phnom Penh on March 3, this time killing one person and injuring 17, a Ministry of Interior official dismissed it as a revenge attack, unrelated to politics. It seemed a particularly plausible explanation that night because, in a separate incident, a 31-year-old man was shot in the head when he refused to hand over a karaoke microphone to five “would-be singers, suspected to be members of the military.”
Two days later, a rickety wooden shack was attacked in a residential neighborhood. Later that week a videogame house and another karaoke bar were targeted.
On April 18, after receiving an anonymous tip about another potential attack, Phnom Penh Police approached a grassy knoll along the Mekong River, passing wobbly canoe-like boats tied up along the muddy banks.
Five men clad in civilian clothes stood facing an oil-storage depot. These large containers of gasoline rested on a riverbank behind locked metal gates. Owned by an ethnic Vietnamese friend and financial supporter of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, they contained potentially millions of gallons of highly flammable fuel. One of the five men held a powerful East German antitank weapon. He had been trying for more than a half an hour to figure out how to fire it.
The police arrived just in time to thwart the attack and arrested all five men. Back at the police station, the men admitted they belonged to an obscure revolutionary group. The next day the name of the group that these men belonged to “the Cambodian Freedom Fighters” was featured prominently in the newspaper. The leader of the group went by the code name “the Thumb.”
In reality, the Thumb was an affable, bespectacled California accountant, a cousin of one of the men arrested on the Mekong. His name was Yasith Chhun, and although he would later deny involvement in these specific attacks, his struggle to launch a revolutionary movement in Cambodia would take him to the limits of American law—and possibly his own sanity. His unlikely journey from suburban climber to international dissident would eventually attract the attention of the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, exposing the sometimes thin border between passionate politics and unhinged extremism.
Chhun liked to think of himself as more than just an accountant, and in a way he was. People told him their problems and brought him their green-card applications. They had him translate American bureaucratese into Cambodian. They asked him what to do when their sons joined local gangs. Eventually, all of his visitors handed over their financials, looked across the desk at the Cambodian-American with the thick glasses and gold rings on his fingers, and asked if he could get them a refund.
One of the five men held a powerful East German antitank weapon. He had been trying for more than a half an hour to figure out how to fire it.
At the end of tax season, Chhun found himself alone, boxed in by lonely rows of file cabinets stuffed with paper-clipped tax returns. His thoughts returned, as they often did, to his birthplace, and atrocious images of his homeland flashed through his mind. He’d shake his head and ask “Why?,” addressing the God he’d embraced in a refugee-camp baptism 16 years before. Why couldn’t the people back home have democracy, capitalism, and peace, like his adopted country?
One afternoon at lunch, Chhun sat in his office watching the latest violence unfold in his native Cambodia. Prime Minister Hun Sen had taken power in a bloody coup in July 1997. Tanks had rolled into the streets of Phomn Penh, and gun battles raged for three days. The prime minister had recently held new elections, which were marred by bribes, voter intimidation, and killings. During protests in the aftermath, four people died and scores more were injured.
Watching the broadcast of these demonstrators being brutalized, Chhun was suddenly transported back in time. Memories of different oppressors, clad in the black pajamas of Pol Pot’s genocidal Khmer Rouge army, filled his mind. He remembered slaving with massive work crews digging irrigation ditches, eating leaves and grasshoppers to fill his empty stomach. He thought of the skulls and bones he’d seen in a muddy pond where he’d stopped one scorching day for a drink of water. He flashed back to the murder of his father.
These thoughts stayed with him as he locked up his fluorescent-lit office, climbed into his white BMW 745i, and headed home to a two-story house on the other side of town. The images of violence intruded upon him that night as a waitress poured red wine in his glass and cut off bloody slabs of top sirloin at his table at Green Field Churrascaria, the barn-like Brazilian barbecue joint where he took his kids to eat on special occasions. After he returned home, those same thoughts kept him awake.
That night, the 42-year-old accountant made his decision, one he later explained was inspired in part by Mel Gibson’s portrayal of the skirted William Wallace, face streaked with war paint, sword glinting in defiance as he charged English oppressors in the movie Braveheart. It was a choice that would enrage one of Asia’s longest-serving strong men, cause countless headaches for U.S. diplomats, and culminate in a pitched early morning battle in the streets on the other side of the globe.
Chhun decided that he would overthrow the Cambodian government. He would become a man who ran the typical immigrant journey in reverse, and unmake the American dream he'd struggled to create