Hun Sen’s Man in Washington (State)

Cambodia’s strongman has found an unlikely American voice.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen waves during the Cambodian People's Party ceremony to mark the 40th anniversary of the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime in Phnom Penh on January 7.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen waves during the Cambodian People's Party ceremony to mark the 40th anniversary of the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime in Phnom Penh on January 7. TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP/Getty Images

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia—Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is having trouble making friends in the United States under President Donald Trump.

While past Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama pursued tentative cooperation with Cambodia, the United States—when it is paying attention to Cambodia at all—has grown increasingly frustrated with the Hun Sen government’s authoritarianism and alignment with China. The White House has issued repeated rebukes, even cutting aid to Cambodia. And in May, three U.S. senators—Lindsey Graham, Dick Durbin, and Marco Rubio—introduced a bipartisan bill prescribing financial penalties if Cambodia does not “protect its sovereignty from interference” by China and reverse its crackdown on the political opposition.

Unable to find purchase in Washington, Hun Sen, for domestic political purposes, has turned to an unlikely next best: Washington state.

Doug Ericksen, a Republican who represents Washington state’s 42nd legislative district in the state senate and served previously as one of Trump’s campaign deputies, in early April registered with the U.S. Justice Department as a foreign agent of the Cambodian government, cementing his status, several years in the making, as Hun Sen’s American defender-in-chief.

As relations between Phnom Penh and Washington began to sour—a rift accelerated by Hun Sen’s imprisonment of opposition leader Kem Sokha in 2017—Ericksen, a run-of-the-mill state-level Republican lawmaker, began turning up more and more in Cambodia and in Cambodian media. During visits to Cambodia beginning in 2016 that predate his formal registration as a lobbyist, he lent his voice to pro-government media outlets, which used his remarks to counter an increasingly unified chorus of Western criticism. The audience in mind is domestic: Cambodians, according to Noan Sereiboth, a blogger who leads the Cambodian youth political discussion group Politikoffee, “want the relation[ship] with the U.S. [to be] closer.” Public opinion polling tells a similar story. Hun Sen wants and perhaps needs to show that he enjoys U.S. support, even as official relations grow poorer.

To that end, as the White House condemns him and the U.S. Senate mulls economic penalties for Cambodia, Hun Sen has turned to word games to help keep up perceptions. Even in the United States, the distinction between Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital, and Washington state, in the Pacific Northwest, is the subject of occasional confusion. In Cambodia, that confusion is augmented by an understandable lack of familiarity with U.S. geography and encouraged by the Cambodian government and media, which refer to Ericksen as a senator, not as a state senator.

In a correspondence reviewed by Foreign Policy, a Cambodian journalist seeking a comment from Sophal Ear, a Cambodian American professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College, called Ericksen a “Senate member of Washington D.C.” and “D.C.’s Senate member.”

“Even an independent news source … gets the distinct idea that Ericksen is some kind of D.C.-based senator,” said Ear, who believes that Ericksen was chosen for his current role because he can be easily confused for a national figure. “If they’re not sure, I can’t expect the Cambodian people to have any clue.”

While Ericksen’s Washington state is home to a relatively sizable Cambodian population—the 2010 U.S. Census recorded around 23,000 people of Cambodian descent living there—his outreach to Hun Sen’s Cambodia has done little but aggravate this community.

“A lot of Cambodian Americans that live in Washington state, we feel ashamed that Senator Doug Ericksen supports the corrupt, illegal Hun Sen government,” Hoeun Voeuk, who fled Cambodia in 1980, told the Seattle Times.

During a visit to Cambodia in March, during which he had yet to register as a foreign agent, Ericksen met with and lauded Hun Sen—an exceedingly unusual encounter for a state-level lawmaker. Upon Ericksen’s return to the United States, Cambodia’s deputy secretary of state signed documents confirming that the Hun Sen regime would pay PacRim Bridges, a firm headed by Ericksen and former Washington state representative Jay Rodne, around $41,000 per month, or $500,000 per year, for an indefinite number of years. The pair, according to Justice Department filings, will meet with U.S. officials “at both the federal and state levels, and administrative officials to promote improved relations between the USA and the Kingdom of Cambodia.”

Foreign Policy reached out several times to Ericksen and his staff, by phone and email, in attempts to seek comment on his years of involvement with Cambodia, but never received a response. “[It’s] 100 percent legal,” he told the Seattle Times of his lobbying arrangement. “I am just trying to make my way in this world.” The newspaper’s editorial board called on Ericksen to break his Cambodia deal or step down.

By aligning himself with Hun Sen, Ericksen has repeatedly contradicted U.S. foreign policy toward Cambodia. In June 2016, on his initial visit to the country as a state senator, Ericksen in an interview with the pro-regime outlet Fresh News lent support to Hun Sen’s criticism of the media—“Many of the things we hear might not be accurate about Cambodia with regards to certain aspects of the government”—and undermined then-President Barack Obama’s efforts to confront the Cambodian prime minister for supporting China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea. “That’s an important decision for the government of Cambodia,” Ericksen said, “[a]nd not for the United States to weigh in on.”

When Mark Butler, a member of the Australian Parliament, criticized Cambodia in August 2016, Phay Siphan, a Cambodian government spokesman, made use of Ericksen in refutation. “I hope that Mark Butler clearly understands what U.S. Sen. Doug Ericksen has raised and reminded the United States of not interfering in the internal affairs of Cambodia,” he said.

The state senator’s support for Cambodia’s leader has since become even less subtle. While the United States and European Union declined to offer election monitors and pulled funding from the country’s July 2018 sham elections, Ericksen opposed this Western alliance and traveled to Cambodia to observe, joining officials from Russia, Laos, and Vietnam, along with representatives from anti-EU European populist parties.

Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party took all 125 available National Assembly seats in the vote, primarily because a regime-controlled court had dissolved the Cambodia National Rescue Party, the main opposition. Human Rights Watch called the elections “meaningless” and “fundamentally flawed.” Ericksen praised them: “It was very free, very fair. Everybody got a vote.”

The Ericksen affair seems to reflect Hun Sen’s growing recognition that his grip on power is strengthened by recapturing some semblance of the genuine popularity he once enjoyed.

In October 2018, Hun Sen credited Ericksen with influencing his decision to resume searches for U.S. war dead, which the prime minister had previously suspended to rebuke the Trump administration. Local media flooded the country with news of this Cambodian-American cooperation, hailing Ericksen as a hero.

“It’s clear [Hun Sen] wants to have his cake and eat it too,” Ear, the Occidental College professor, told Foreign Policy. “[He] bash[es] America while purveying the illusion that America seeks out Cambodia.”

The Ericksen affair seems to reflect Hun Sen’s growing recognition that his grip on power is strengthened by recapturing some semblance of the genuine popularity he once enjoyed, particularly in light of his seeming plans for patrimonial succession.

A portion of the voting public made its discontent obvious in the 2017 local elections, ahead of which the prime minister promised to “eliminate 100 or 200 people”—a not-so-veiled threat of violence—if his party did “not win elections at all stages.” Even under these prejudiced conditions, the since dissolved opposition still managed to secure about 44 percent of the vote—a seeming sign that Cambodians have not entirely resigned themselves to Hun Sen’s lifelong rule.

Many Cambodians are also skeptical of the Chinese presence in their country, which is increasingly rapidly—sometimes with deadly consequences—under Hun Sen’s watch.

“Cambodians worry [about] the influx of Chinese into Cambodia and many more investments by Chinese,” Sereiboth told Foreign Policy. “It is a big concern for the local people.”

China-Cambodia trade, according to U.S. officials, is heavily skewed in China’s favor. But Hun Sen’s generosity toward China comes with a reward: political and financial support that has allowed him to solidify his grip on power.

As Western governments turn away from Cambodia amid the prime minister’s increasing authoritarianism, China’s support comes as a lifeline—one that allows Hun Sen to continue his brutal crackdowns. And given the U.S. Senate’s recent bipartisan rebuke, he is likely, through Ericksen, to try to convince his people that Cambodia is somehow capable of maintaining fruitful relationships with both the United States and China.

But people know to read between the lines. “Cambodians are smart,” Ear said. “They know that when pro-government news bashes someone, that someone is probably good. And when it praises someone, that person is probably bad.”

“Everything,” he added, “has to go through a prism first to be translated into truth.”

Charles Dunst is a visiting scholar at the East-West Center in Washington and an associate at LSE Ideas, a foreign-policy think tank at the London School of Economics. Twitter: @charlesdunst

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