In the Shadows

KNLF President Sam Serey, center back, with alleged armed members of the group, in an undated photograph posted to the National Police website in 2014

In the Shadows

With at least 16 of its members in jail, the Khmer National Liberation Front is on the government’s radar. But just what is this obscure group? George Wright and Ouch Sony report

By George Wright and Ouch Sony

June 23, 2017

Decked out in army fatigues and brandishing AK-47 assault rifles, a group that appears to be soldiers pose for a photograph deep in the jungle in Thailand.

The man standing at the center of the back row, however, is not a soldier. He’s Sam Serey, the president of the Khmer National Liberation Front (KNLF), a government-branded terrorist organization accused of plotting to bring down the Cambodian government.

According to Mr. Serey, the photograph—released in 2014 by the Cambodian National Police—was nothing more than a photo opportunity with a friend in the Cambodian military. He insists that his organization is non-violent, fighting without arms for “peace, freedom, democracy” for Cambodia.

Yet the government accused his group of engaging in terrorist activities, including planting bombs in Phnom Penh.

At least 16 KNLF members are currently incarcerated in Cambodia’s jails, some serving up to nine years for convictions relating to plans to overthrow Prime Minister Hun Sen. Mr. Serey, himself, was convicted in absentia in December for plotting to commit an attack and sentenced to nine years, a term he has yet to serve since he remains in exile in Denmark, where he fled to in 2010.

Another member, Hin Chan, was convicted on charges of conspiracy to commit treason in 2015.

Last month, the KNLF was back in the news when police raided a news conference in Phnom Penh, being held alongside the little-known Inter-Races High Commissioner Organization, and arrested two men after the Interior Ministry claimed the KNLF had not obtained permission for the event.

While one man was released after police concluded he was not involved with the group, the second man, Thuy Vy, was charged with incitement to commit a felony and sent to Prey Sar prison. He remains there, awaiting trial.

Som Sovannara, a member of the KNLF, in a screenshot from a video from Canada in which he warned of a coup against Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government.

All charges against the KNLF, Mr. Serey and a follower say, are politically motivated.

The government would beg to differ. And political analysts wonder whether they’re just a group of rogue dissidents with no real credibility.

Depending on whom you believe, the KNLF is either a harmless fringe pro-democracy political group in Cambodia or a dangerous underground movement attempting to sow discontent through whatever means necessary.

It all begs the question: What is the KNLF?

The seeds of the KNLF were planted some time ago.

Its founder, Mr. Serey, now 40, had been flirting with anti-establishmentarianism as far back as 1998, when he claims to have been a member of the Sam Rainsy Party.

According to the KNLF website, Mr. Serey was once the director of the now-defunct International Institute for Development Human Resource in Cambodia and a lecturer at the also-now-defunct Wan Lan University in Phnom Penh in the early 2000s.

The website also claims that he has written three books about Khmer leadership, published in Thailand, which have been banned in Cambodia by “the dictatorship government of Hun Sen.”

At some point, he began delving into dissident politics, which came as something of a surprise to his father, who says his son showed little early interest in the topic.

His father, 66, who asked not to be named because of his son’s legal status, had other ambitions for his son. “I wanted him to be a doctor because being a doctor makes it easier to treat us when parents or relatives fall sick,” he said.

Mr. Serey claimed that his father was a member of the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front, which was founded in 1979 to protest against the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia, and that the KNLF was linked to this group.

The KNLF website says that Mr. Serey “helped train the political leadership, political view, politics and democracy to Cambodians” and that his “students” were monks in Cambodia and Thailand. The veracity of these claims is difficult to verify.

By 2005, however, Mr. Serey says that his anti-government rhetoric caught the eye of Mr. Hun Sen and he claims that he was forced to flee to Thailand.

During his time there, Mr. Serey learned that the premier had agents operating across the border in an effort to track him and his supporters down, he said.

After a brief return to Cambodia in 2010, Mr. Serey said he was eventually granted asylum in Denmark with his wife and daughter.

Imprisoned KNLF members arrive at a court hearing in Phnom Penh in 2015. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

Two years later, he founded the KNLF with a mission to “free the Cambodian people from the Vietnamese neo-colony and dictatorship regime under Hun Sen” through international law.

Though he now calls Copenhagen home, Mr. Serey is still orchestrating the activities of the KNLF more than 9,000 km away in Cambodia.

Speaking from his home last month, Mr. Serey said he recently graduated with a masters degree from the University of Southern Denmark, but was currently looking for work and living off a state grant.

He said that despite his desire to remove the ruling CPP from power, he has no plans to wage violent revolution in his home country.

“They said that we created an armed force to overthrow the government and charged us with terrorism, but it’s not true. We work peacefully, only with books and pens, as I have always claimed,” he said.

Despite Mr. Serey’s claims that the KNLF is dedicated to the peaceful removal of Mr. Hun Sen, the group has been involved in a number of controversies.

There was the photo in the Thai jungle with Mr. Serey posing with the soldiers—the police say they were KNLF members—and their guns. Mr. Serey is not armed. Around the same time, National Police spokesman Kirth Chantharith said the KNLF had “hundreds of armed forces” embedded in Cambodia.

Mr. Serey denied that the image was of KNLF members.

“I just took a picture with my friend who was…in the training school for the government. It’s not that I’m a soldier, I just wanted a photo to have with him but they took that photo to claim and to accuse us,” he said.

“There’s no connection with KNLF.”

In July last year, Som Sovannara, a KNLF member in Canada, uploaded a video to YouTube with a backdrop of camouflage material claiming his “unit” in Cambodia’s southwest wanted the rest of the country to prepare for a coming coup to overthrow the “dictatorial regime led by Hun Sen.”

Mr. Serey admitted that Mr. Sovannara was a KNLF member, but refuted the claim he was calling for a violent coup.

“Actually, he called for peaceful change like it says in our declaration. He just used different names besides KNLF to make the people interested,” he said.

“This is a tactic to make the ruling party react against us or make the people interested,” he said, adding that KNLF members have a right to express their individual opinions.

Mr. Serey claims the KNLF movement boasts 6,000 members, mainly in Cambodia and Thailand, but also across the Cambodian diaspora in Europe and North America.

However, a check of the group’s Facebook page reveals that it only has 270 likes, while its Twitter account, which has been inactive since July 2014, has only 15 followers.

In October, Mr. Serey hatched his latest project: a “government in exile.”

Scoffed at in most quarters, the main objective of his “government” is to have the U.N. strip Cambodia of its General Assembly seat, with Mr. Serey claiming that 36 countries would “stand with us.”

Mr. Vy, who was charged with incitement last month in Phnom Penh, was its “minister of agriculture.”  Mr. Serey is the self-appointed “president.”

So far, Mr. Serey concedes his “government” has yet to get off its feet, and its members are carrying out similar low-level activities as the KNLF—gathering thumbprints of support, disseminating anti-government literature and writing news statements.

Vorn Vuth, a KNLF member and the exiled government’s “prime minister” in Thailand, said his primary job was distributing Mr. Serey’s book, “The Root of January 7,” and collecting thumbprints of supporters across the border.

“The communist regime will not stand for long…because most Cambodians have clearly understood about democracy,” Mr. Vuth said, in reference to the CPP.

“We have never had armed forces or been a group causing terrorism as Mr. Hun Sen has accused us,” he said.

The KNLF isn’t the first group the government has branded terrorists since the turn of the millennium.

In 2000, three men accused of being part of Khmer Serey, or Free Khmer, a shadowy anti-government movement supposedly embedded in the forests of Eastern Cambodia, were found murdered in Kratie province.

In 2006, authorities started targeting a group, the Tiger Head Movement, accusing it of handing out anti-Hun Sen leaflets in Phnom Penh and Takeo province.

The group was later accused of masterminding two bomb plots in Phnom Penh—one near the Vietnamese Friendship memorial in 2007 and another near the Defense Ministry in 2009—and four of the group’s leaders were sentenced to between 20 and 28 years in prison. Neither of the bombs went off and those involved have maintained their innocence.

The government has claimed the KNLF was born out of the Tiger Head Movement, and accused it of also being behind the bomb plots.

Mr. Serey denied any involvement in the bomb plots and accused the government of planting the devices as a pretext to target him and other dissidents.

“Actually, Hun Sen’s authorities themselves put a bomb in order to arrest me and accuse me of [being a] terrorist,” he said.

“Luckily, I could escape. I have a voice to protest for justice. Otherwise, it would be unjust like other Khmer people that they fabricate the evidence and put them into prison,” he said. “If I could not have escaped, I would be arrested to be their scapegoat.”

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said the KNLF was simply the latest anti-government group to be branded “terrorists” despite there being scant evidence.

“To date, the Cambodian government has hurled ‘terrorist’ accusations against the KNLF but singularly failed to provide any evidence to back up those claims,” Mr. Robertson said in an email.

“​The KNLF serves as a convenient scapegoat for PM Hun Sen to use to claim that there is a terrorist plot against him, or to justify various actions that he wants to already take, like forcing all NGOs and community groups to register with the government,” he said.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan remained tight-lipped on the government’s reasons for its pursuit of the group’s members.

“This is a secret. I cannot give any exact evidence to a reporter,” he said.

“We are paying attention to this group…. We cannot let them have any network to hold activities in Cambodia,” he added.

“It is a terrorist group.”

  Despite Mr. Serey’s grandiose goals, concrete plans as to how they will be implemented are thin on the ground, with lots of soundbites and talk of lobbying the likes of the U.N. and E.U. to help rid Cambodia of Mr. Hun Sen.

Political analyst Cham Bunthet said tactics employed by the KNLF, and a handful of other organizations urging political change from outside the country, were rash and counterproductive.

“The way they run the campaign is very extreme, reckless and there’s no clear grounds or clear goals, no clear policy or target for what you want,” he said.

“To change the government? Change to what? Change people? In what way? To me, the way they…try to do it is irrational and it’s not beneficial. It doesn’t promote the long-term interests for those who support them,” he said.

Sophal Ear, a political analyst and associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles, said he believed the KNLF holds little sway in Cambodia, and that the government’s pursuit could actually play in its favor.

“I don’t think there’s much there, but the authorities are taking such a hardline approach, it will draw attention to the group,” Mr. Ear said in an email. “The more people are thrown in jail the more of sway it could eventually have.”

“The problem is not the KNLF. The problem is that they cannot throw everyone in jail and throw away the key. The more they do this, the more society will reach a tipping point.”

Mr. Bunthet said the government’s legal crusade against the KNLF was just another example of its inner anxieties.

“If I can say it in one word: fear.”

Mr. Serey’s father has already lost one son because of the activities of the KNLF. Yean Yoeurb, 30, also a KNLF member, died in December in Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison, where he was serving a sentence after being arrested in Thailand and convicted of plotting to overthrow the government.

Despite government claims that he died of a heart attack, Mr. Serey accused authorities of poisoning his younger brother.

Meanwhile, Mr. Serey remains in Denmark, where he can safely espouse his political views out of reach of the Cambodian government and without fear of repercussions.

Back in Cambodia, his father, who speaks to his son about twice a month on the phone, said he wished he’d drop his political crusade.

“I don’t know what their principles are,” he said. “I don’t want to have this kind of thing. I don’t understand it.”

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