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A terrorist group by any other name

Members of the KNLF are seen through the window of a door as they await trial at the Supreme Court in December 2015.
Members of the KNLF are seen through the window of a door as they await trial at the Supreme Court in December 2015. Heng Chivoan

A terrorist group by any other name

For the past four years, the Khmer National Liberation Front has questioned the legitimacy of the ruling party. But does it deserve to be branded a terrorist group?

Four years ago, Sam Serey and his brother Yean Yoeurb founded the Khmer National Liberation Front (KNLF) and set up its headquarters in Denmark, where Serey claims to be a political refugee. A Cambodian nationalist organisation, the KNLF laid out its philosophy in numerous manifestos and pamphlets, accusing Cambodia’s government of being a dictatorship under Vietnamese influence.

In return, Hun Sen’s government branded the KNLF a terrorist organization in 2013 and began arresting its members. But the group persisted in October, the KNLF announced the formation of a “Khmer National Government-in-exile” with Serey as prime minister and Yoeurb, who was jailed in 2013 along with six other KNLF members, chosen to head economics and finance from prison.

In return, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court last month sentenced Serey in absentia to nine years in jail and sentenced 10 other alleged KNLF members to between five and six years for “plotting” to commit an attack. Seventeen KNLF members are currently behind bars.

Experts, however, have called into question the KNLF’s characterization as a terrorist group. Thus far, no evidence of a violent plot has ever been produced. Members have been apprehended handing out pamphlets and party memorabilia, but no bombs or weapons have been found. KNLF members adamantly deny advocating violence or plotting to topple the government by force.

“I want my country to have peace, and I hope the KNLF can achieve that,” says party member Samorn Chaoem, who is working a construction job in Bangkok and says he’s applying for refugee status with the UN. “It’s not true that we called for violence. We never did anything like that.”

The KNLF are one of many political organisations branded terrorists by the government, a tactic analysts say is used to delegitimise political opponents and demonstrate that the government is successfully cracking down on security threats. Since the 1990s, at least seven groups have been identified as “terrorist”. Most have never committed acts of violence.

“When the CPP needs a whipping boy, it’ll go after a group like the KNLF, make wild claims against them, and then try to link them to the mainstream opposition,” explains Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. “Anytime the government comes out with various claims of terrorism against marginal splinter groups that no one has ever heard of, everyone should take that with a grain of salt.”

According to Long Kim Khorn, a national security expert at the Cambodian Royal Center of Leadership, the government makes an example of groups like the KNLF to deter others from speaking out.

“All of the people who work in the national security sector are paranoid,” Kim Khorn says. “But the government isn’t concerned about the threat from this particular group. What they are concerned about is the idea of a colour revolution.”

An unexpected pardon
Sourn Serey Ratha, head of the Khmer Power Party (KPP), knows what it’s like to be accused of terrorism. Before the KPP became a registered political party in March 2015, Serey Ratha led the dissident Khmer People Power Movement (KPPM) from self-imposed exile in the United States. The group advocated for a nationalist, republican government that would overthrow the influence of Vietnam and the Cambodian monarchy.

In early 2015, Serey Ratha was convicted in absentia of incitement, plotting, and obstructing the elections. Three members of his group were convicted of similar crimes and sent to prison. The government said the men were helping to train armed anti-government forces in Thailand. They were arrested after handing out flowers and T-shirts during the hotly contested 2013 elections. The flowers allegedly had stickers on them calling on soldiers to “turn your guns against the despot,” a reference to Hun Sen. But Serey Ratha denies he ever advocated violence.

“I revealed a lot of truth about the country and educated people about their political rights,” he says. “That was why they labelled me a terrorist. I never had any guns or weapons.”

Eventually, Hun Sen decided that the men were not a threat and they were pardoned. At the time, analysts speculated that their return to the political scene was meant to detract support from the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) ahead of the 2018 general elections. Serey Ratha says he doesn’t know why the prime minister pushed for a pardon.

Today, the KPP is preparing to run in the 2017 commune elections.

“We don’t want war,” Serey Ratha says. “The Cambodian people have been hurt enough.”

Bombs and dissidents
The KNLF and the KPPM are not the only examples of groups charged with terrorism.

In 2009, a group called the Tiger Head Movement, also known as the Khmer National Unity Front, was linked to two alleged bombing attempts: one in front of the Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Monument in 2007, and another at the Defense Ministry in 2009.

A man named Som Ek was identified as the group’s leader and sentenced to 28 years in prison for the failed bombings. Three other alleged members got shorter sentences. All of the men have consistently maintained their innocence.

The year prior, three men were arrested for their involvement in the Empire Movement, which allegedly plotted to recruit members of the Muslim Cham community to reclaim Cambodian territory lost to Thailand and Vietnam.

Two men were sentenced to about five years in prison, but there was no evidence of weapons possession presented at the trial.

Although the branding of organisations as “terrorist groups” is often accompanied by scant evidence, there have been instances of violence perpetrated by dissident groups. In 2000, the Cambodian Freedom Fighters, an armed, anti-communist group based in Long Beach, California, attacked a CPP office. Eight people died in the incident and about a dozen were severely wounded.

Perhaps the earliest example of armed opposition was the Free Vietnam Movement, which in 1994 was accused of using Cambodian soil to build an army to attack the Vietnamese government.

According to Carlyle Thayer, an emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales, none of these organisations – violent or not – posed an existential threat to Cambodia’s government.

“All of these groups are cliques without mass support,” Thayer said in an email to Post Weekend. “They have been subject to repression in order to demonstrate that the Hun Sen regime is in control and as an object lesson to the political opposition and other would be anti-government groups.”

Analysts say the common thread between the groups is that their members rarely receive a fair trial.

Members often land in prison for their ideas alone, Kim Khorn says. “I don’t think there was a legitimate reason to put these people in prison,” he adds. “They don’t receive a fair trial because the authorities had the objective to prove they are terrorists.”

The branding and punishment takes not just a political but human toll. Last month, KNLF co-founder Yoeurb called his brother from Prey Sar prison, where he was serving a seven-year sentence. “At the time. I didn’t have the money and couldn’t send him anything,” Serey explains through sobs. “He just needed it to buy something to eat.”

Three days later, the 30-year-old Yoeurb was dead. Serey, who alleges that his brother was killed, says the body was never examined to determine the cause of death, but authorities say a police examination revealed that Yoeurb died from high blood pressure.

Today, Serey says he’s determined to continue promoting his “government-in-exile” from Denmark.

“I will try to lobby the international community to support us,” Serey says.

“My political goal is to have peace and freedom and democracy in Cambodia.”

Additional reporting by Vandy Muong and Kong Meta

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