Just as hard-working Whatcom County voters are returning their primary ballots, State Senator Doug Ericksen and Representative Vincent Buys are half a world away in Cambodia on another unofficial junket, supposedly to witness the sham Cambodian elections on Sunday, July 29, 2018.
This is Doug’s third trip to Cambodia in two years. He traveled on his own to its capital city in June 2016, spending $1236 from his surplus campaign funds to stay at the Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra, a lavish five-star hotel on the banks of the Mekong River. Then he returned to the city in May 2018 with Buys, retiring State Senator Michael Baumgartner (R-Spokane) and Washington State University football coach Mike Leach. Buys was no penny-pincher, spending $508 from his surplus funds in Phnom Penh and another $280 at the Sokha Beach Resort in the seaside town of Sihanoukville.
According to Ericksen, the first two visits were goodwill trade and cultural-exchange missions, but it is hard to identify what U.S. products might be sold to penurious Cambodians — especially from Whatcom County. Our dairy products are of little interest there, as the Cambodians rely on coconuts, not cows, to produce the “milk” in their diet. Given his political leanings, maybe Ericksen and company were just scouting a good site for a Trump hotel in Sihanoukville.
According to the Asia-Pacific journal The Diplomat, Ericksen claims that he and Buys returned “to view the [election] 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.” But a U.S. Embassy spokesman in Cambodia countered, “No official election observers from the United States government will observe the July 29, 2018, national election.”
On July 25th, in fact, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Cambodia Democracy Act, which imposes sanctions on Cambodian government officials for ruthlessly dismantling its democracy. While its constitution claims Cambodia is a democracy, it is in practice an authoritarian single-party state. The Cambodian Prime Minister, Hun Sen, is a former member of the bloodthirsty Communist Khmer Rouge party, which left 1.7 million dead during the 1970s. Many fear that Sen will resume the bloodshed once he has consolidated his power through this year’s elections.
The sham Cambodian election is plagued with serious problems: including the dissolution of the main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) government is cracking down on independent media coverage and has adopted repressive laws restricting speech, personal relationships and the people’s right to assemble. Members of opposition parties are subjected to intimidation, detention and surveillance.
“The Cambodian government over the past year has systematically cracked down on independent and opposition voices to ensure that the ruling party faces no obstacles to total political control,” said Brad Adams, Asia Director at Human Rights Watch. “Dissolving the main opposition party and banning many of its senior members from politics means that this election cannot possibly reflect the will of the Cambodian people.”
The dissolution of the CNRP party and a flurry of politically motivated criminal charges against CNRP leadership has led the United States to cut all electoral aid to the government. Late in 2017, the Trump administration imposed visa restrictions on a group of Cambodian officials who have participated in an ongoing crackdown on democracy in Cambodia. Yet Senator Ericksen and Representative Buys are in Phnom Penh on what Ericksen stated in an interview with the Phnom Penh Post as a trip to “strengthen cooperation.”
Last May, Meas Kim Heng, undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Ericksen had publicly expressed his desire to observe the election because, “He wants to see Cambodia and the U.S. have a good relationship, especially under the new foreign policy of President Donald Trump that the U.S. not interfere with the sovereignty of other countries.” Heng went on to say that Ericksen expressed satisfaction with the commune elections in 2017.
The United States and the international community are not sending official election observers to Cambodia. So, what are Ericksen and Buys doing in Phnom Penh?
Governments or elected officials who accept the rigged election results will be helping Cambodia move backwards towards the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. Ericksen and Buys are not in Cambodia on official state business.
Senator Karen Keiser, President Pro Tempore of the Washington State Senate was caught off guard when she was told by Chelsea Garbell, with The Diplomat about Ericksen’s Cambodia trip. Keiser told Garbell, “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 kind of trips.”
Yet Ericksen announced during his May meeting with Cambodian Senate President Say Chhum and Prime Minister Hun Sen, that “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.”
Which forces us to ask, what if that means supporting authoritarian dictatorships that strip a fledgling democracy of its Constitutional rights?
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