Cambodia’s government on Tuesday defended its decision to hire a U.S. state lawmaker to lobby on behalf of its interests in Congress, amid a low point in relations between Washington and Phnom Penh prompted by democratic rollbacks in the Southeast Asian nation.
PacRim Bridges LLC, a company owned by Washington state Senator Doug Ericksen and Jay Rodne—a former Washington state representative who left office earlier this year—will be paid U.S. $500,000 annually by Cambodia’s government “to promote improved relations between the USA and the Kingdom of Cambodia,” Politico reported last week, citing a U.S. Justice Department filing.
State lawmakers are rarely involved in foreign affairs, and the awarding of the contract came after Ericksen traveled twice to Cambodia last year, including during July to observe elections widely considered unfree and unfair amid a crackdown by the government on the country’s political opposition, NGOs and independent media.
Cambodian authorities had arrested opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) President Kem Sokha in September 2017 on charges of “treason” and the Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP two months later, paving the way for Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
Ericksen at the time praised the transparency of the ballot and said it was “incredibly well conducted,” but the U.S. government has since leveled travel bans on Cambodian officials deemed responsible for curbing democracy, while lawmakers have proposed legislation that would require the Trump Administration to review the preferential trade terms under which Cambodia exports U.S. $180 million of goods to the United States each year.
On Tuesday, CPP spokesman Sok Ey San dismissed criticism over the arrangement, saying it would help to foster a better relationship between Cambodia and the U.S.
“I think it is a good idea to ask help from foreigners to defend Cambodia and its people’s interests,” he said.
“It is better than asking foreigners to destroy us,” he added, referring to allegations against Kem Sokha that he conspired with the U.S. to topple Cambodia’s government—charges that both the opposition leader and U.S. officials have denied. No evidence has been offered for the accusation.
Ericksen also defended the contract in an interview with the Seattle Timeslast week, calling it “100 percent legal” and noting that state legislators serve part time and are expected to hold outside jobs.
He has said that the deal is not a lobbying contract, and that he will be acting as a consultant in the arrangement.
Analyst Kim Sok told RFA’s Khmer Service on Tuesday that Hun Sen’s government hired PacRim Bridges to divert public attention over the European Union’s threat to end tax-free entry for Cambodian exports into the European market under the Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme—also prompted by concerns over restrictions on democracy in the Southeast Asian nation.
“This is a not a solution, it’s an exaggerated situation meant to cheat the people,” he said.
“This is Hun Sen political warfare—using money to hire Ericksen.”
CNRP Deputy President Mu Sochua, who is living in self-imposed exile, dismissed Sok Ey San’s suggestion that the opposition had ever “hired foreign firms to destroy Cambodia.”
“We are a party and we are not the government,” she said.
“Hun Sen’s government is using the national budget to hire an American politician for help.”
Sok Ey San’s comments came as Hun Sen’s son, Hun Manet, who is deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) and the commander of the army’s infantry, attends a Pacific Area Special Operations Conference on counter-terrorism in Honolulu, Hawaii, at the invitation of the U.S. government.
Sok Ey San said that the April 8-12 visit signaled improved relations with Washington, adding that Cambodia’s government is working on [improving] diplomacy and economy—basically all aspects, as long as it will strengthen cooperation between the two countries.”
The trip to the U.S. is the second for Hun Manet since an incident in April 2016, when his bodyguards allegedly assaulted a court clerk who tried to serve him with a summons for a lawsuit for “wrongful imprisonment” brought by a U.S. citizen of Cambodian descent who had been jailed for “incitement” after taking part in anti-government protests in Phnom Penh two years earlier.
In a statement, the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia confirmed Hun Manet’s trip to Hawaii, saying he had been invited “in his capacity as the head of the National Counter Terrorism Special Forces (NCTSF), as one of approximately 36 commanders of counter terrorism units from countries in the Indo-Pacific region.”
“The United States has worked with the Cambodian military for years on a wide variety of trans-national issues, including counter-terrorism, maritime safety, training troops for peacekeeping operations, combatting threats to international maritime security, and responding to natural disasters and humanitarian crises,” the statement said.
“We have been clear with the Cambodian government that it must strengthen democratic institutions and better protect human rights before our mil-mil cooperation can reach its full potential.”
Cambodia’s Defense Ministry abruptly suspended annual “Angkor Sentinel” joint exercises with the U.S. military and abandoned counter-terrorism training exercises with the Australian military in 2017.
The government had claimed it was too busy preparing security for commune elections in June that year to take part in the exercises, but they have yet to be reestablished.
Observers said at the time that the moves indicated Cambodia was pivoting away from Western influence in favor of better relations with other countries on the rise in Asia, such as China.