Why are state legislators from Washington state in the United States cozying up to the Cambodian regime?
For those citizens eager to participate in the democratic process in Cambodia, tickets to the July 29, 2018 elections are now available on Eventbrite. The page says that the elections signal the “rebirth of democracy” and touts that they are “universally described as transparent, free, fair and in compliance with international standards.”
In reality, Sunday’s elections will be anything but free and fair, with Cambodia’s authoritarian ruler of 33 years, Prime Minister Hun Sen, all but guaranteed to sweep the polls. In November, the government disbanded the only viable opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), after accusing it of conspiring with the U.S. State Department-funded National Democratic Institute (NDI) to overthrow the government.
CNRP’s leader Kem Sokha is in prison on charges of treason and his predecessor, Sam Rainsy, is in self-imposed exile to avoid arrest. Twenty parties are on the ballot for July 29, but none of them are considered to be a viable opposition, and many Cambodians are considering skipping the elections altogether.
The Cambodian government has asserted that 220 observers from 52 countries will be coming to observe the elections, among them members of the European Council on International Relations and the European Council of Tourism and Trade, both headed by the Romanian Anton Caragea who also runs the World Election Monitoring Organization (the Eventbrite sponsor). Caragea was named a “goodwill ambassador for tourism” by Hun Sen in 2016. Of the 107 registered domestic election observers, the most prominent, the Union of Youth Federations of Cambodia (UYFC), is headed by Hun Many, the prime minister’s son and a CPP legislator.
Lee Morgenbesser, a lecturer at Griffith University in Australia, has previously described these organizations as “shadow” election observers with a history of certifying elections that are not considered free or fair. Shadow election observers provide tremendous value, in that they subvert the assessments of professional observer groups while seemingly complying with international standards. A representative from LICADHO, the Cambodia League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, has stated that “LICADHO is not monitoring or documenting this noncompetitive July 29 elections to avoid legitimizing.”
In this context, the curious May and July trips made by legislators from Washington State in the United States to Cambodia raise a number of eyebrows. In early May 2018, Washington State Senators Doug Ericksen and Michael Baumgartner, and Representative Vincent Buys, along with Washington State University football coach Mike Leach, traveled to Phnom Penh on what was billed as a tip to “strengthen cooperation.”
All three legislators used surplus campaign funds or personal funds to pay for the trip, and Leach was there as a private citizen and did not attend most of the high-level meetings. The three legislators met with Cambodian Senate President Say Chhum and Prime Minister Hun Sen. Senator Ericksen expressed a desire to return for the July 29 elections, exhibiting a weak grasp of the concept when he said, “we will look forward to working with Cambodia to make sure their elections are free and open, but it’s up to Cambodia to make decisions for how they want to run their country and handle their internal politics.”
Cambodian state media incorrectly referred to the legislators as U.S. Senators from Washington, raising their statures significantly. Sophal Ear, an associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College, explains that “Cambodians have no conception of the difference [between Washington State and Washington D.C]. This is getting deep into the weeds, especially in a country for which democracy has been systematically destroyed since last year. They are playing right into the hands of the Phnom Penh authorities.”
President Pro Tempore of the Washington State Senate Karen Keiser, who recently traveled to Cuba on a healthcare-oriented mission with other legislators, was surprised to hear about the nature of the Cambodia trip. “I don’t know how it even works just to do that. Trips that I’ve been aware of have been led by the Governor who does trade and economic trips, or the Lt. Governor and a delegation of legislators, private and public folks. As far as I know those are the only official kinds of trips.”
Ericksen, aside from serving as a Senator for Washington’s 42nd District, was also one of the Donald Trump presidential campaign’s top deputies in Washington and served for a time as a member of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) transition team, raising questions among his constituents about his ability to be in both Washingtons at once. Former Senator Don Benton, another longtime Washington Republican legislator, was also tapped to join the EPA transition team. Benton has since become director of the U.S. Selective Service.
Interestingly, Benton has also had a long-standing interest in Cambodia. In 2014, he traveled on a trade mission to Phnom Penh, where he praised the efforts of the ruling family to stamp out corruption, and advised American businesses to do more in Cambodia, because it is geographically “right in the center of that economic community.” Benton corresponded several times with Hun Sen, the first in 2015 criticizing “baseless attacks” the CNRP had made over Hun Sen’s border dispute with Vietnam, and the second time in 2016, criticizing Californian Congressman Lowenthal’s bi-partisan resolution condemning political repression and rights abuses by the Cambodian government.
In that letter Benton wrote,
I want to again congratulate you for keeping your country free, safe and prosperous for the last 30 years. The economy and quality of life for all Cambodians has increased dramatically under your leadership, which is why you continue to be re-ejected by a wide margin despite your detractors’ lies and misinformation campaigns.
He promised to continue to share the “real truth of your successes” with his colleagues in Congress and the private sector. Earlier on April 12, 2016, Benton had participated in a meeting in Olympia between then Lt. Governor Brad Owen, Cambodian Ambassador Chum Bun Rong, Hun Manet, and a number of other Cambodian diplomats. Senator Ericksen was also present at that meeting.
Prior to the May 2018 trip, Ericksen had traveled on his own to Cambodia in 2016, and on October 31, 2017 he met again with Ambassador Bun Rong at a private meeting in Olympia.
This week, Senator Ericksen is back in Phnom Penh as promised, joined by Representative Buys Brandon Vick and Drew MacEwen. According to a staffer in Representative Buys’ office, the four men are in Cambodia now “talking about comparative election processes” as well as trade and agriculture. She also said she believed “Cambodian officials paid for the trip.”
When asked to comment on the nature of his trip, Ericksen wrote, “We are here with an open mind to view the process and meet with members of the National Election Committee, government members, majority and minority party leaders, other election observers and members of the public.”
When asked about the presence of these legislators, Arend Zwartjes, spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia, stated “No official election observers from the United States Government will observe the July 29, 2018 Cambodian national election. This decision is in line with U.S. statements since November 2017 expressing deep concern over political developments in Cambodia.”
Ericksen stated that the delegation was also there to improve trade and cultural relations and spread friendship between Washington State and the Kingdom of Cambodia. When asked to speak about his meeting with the Cambodian Ambassador, he said only that “since 2016 I have had the opportunity to meet with many leaders from Cambodia in the private and public areas.” Commenting on Cambodia’s long and “complicated” relationship with the United States, he continued, “the USA and Cambodia share many common goals and values and we are hopeful that relations between the nations will improve.” One might be curious to know what those common goals may be.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia Division at Human Rights Watch, offers one option. He states that these legislators “have put their hand up to serve as cogs in Hun Sen’s propaganda machine… Their presence here shows they hold in contempt the principles of free and fair elections, an independent media, and a neutral election administration—because all those things are lacking in Hun Sen’s Cambodia.”
While Ericksen specified that no U.S. public funds or Cambodian government funds were used to finance the trip, he did not respond to a written request for clarification as to whether or not private individuals had funded the trip.
Sophal Ear describes these legislators’ presence in Phnom Penh as “the Russian version of U.S. Senators being in Moscow on 4th of July.” “These aren’t necessarily fools,” he adds. “They weren’t tricked. They are willing participants. Seems to be mutually beneficial somehow; the only losers are the Cambodian people and Cambodian-American constituents whose interests have been ignored and violated.”
Sameth Mell, former chair of the Cambodia American Council of Washington who now leads Spean Rajana and the Coalition of Immigrants, Refugees and Communities of Color, was upset “that they aren’t contacting the Cambodian Americans in Washington State” a community of close to 26,000 people. “It’s disappointing and offensive that these men would think about profit before the needs of the community. It’s just profiteering and opportunistic.”
These trips to Cambodia do not follow the tone or tenor of other Washington-state organized delegations to foreign nations. That these gentlemen would have the audacity to serve as shadow election monitors for an election that is so obviously tipped in support of an authoritarian ruler, while they ostensibly compare election best practices, boggles the mind. The documented trail of association between the Cambodian regime and Senator Ericksen and his colleagues should be troubling for those they have been elected to represent, and all those in favor of free and fair elections in the U.S. and around the world.
Chelsea Garbell is an MPA candidate in International Policy and Management at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service. She tweets @chelgarbell.