Hun Sen’s Man in Washington (State)
Cambodia’s strongman has found an unlikely American voice.
BY CHARLES DUNST | JULY 16, 2019, 1:47 PM
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, inearly 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.
Hun Sen has turned to word games to help keep up perceptions.
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 headedby 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.”