Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha (L) is arrested and escorted by police at his home in Phnom Penh on September 3, 2017. Photo: AFP/Stringer

Late last week, The Seattle Times reported that Doug Ericksen, a Washington state senator, is to be paid US$500,000 over a 12-month period to lobby US lawmakers on behalf of the Cambodian government, especially “to promote improved relations between the USA and the Kingdom of Cambodia and legislation that promotes improved relations.”

Ericksen was one of a handful of international politicians who showed up at Cambodia’s general election last year despite most Western nations boycotting the ballot and not sending their own official monitors. Ericksen went on to the describe the election as “amazingly transparent” and “incredibly well conducted,” whereas most of the international community considered it illegitimate and a sham, and even the White House described it as “neither free nor fair and failed to represent the will of the Cambodian people.”

This is chiefly because the main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was forcibly dissolved by the Supreme Court months earlier for allegedly planning a color revolution – ironically enough, with the support of the US. No evidence has ever been presented to show that such a coup was planned, but it still led to the arrest of party president Kem Sokha on treason charges. He has been in pretrial detention for close to 20 months.

In response to how the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) stage-managed last year’s ballot, as well as its other human-rights abuses, American lawmakers are considering economic and targeted sanctions on Cambodia, the probable reason the Washington state senator was hired to lobby against these measures. (The money is being funneled through a company, PacRim Bridges LLC, that Ericksen set up with another former state representative.)

News of the lobbying deal sparked invective from political analysts and social-media pundits. Some called Ericksen’s acceptance of the money unethical and perhaps even illegal. “Washington State Sen. Doug Ericksen is precisely what ‘pay to play’, dictatorship supporting scumbags look like. Praising #Cambodia PM #HunSen as a ‘democrat’ and then taking $500,000 US from him. If you like him so much, Doug – move to Phnom Penh!” tweeted Phil Robertson, of Human Rights Watch. Others noted the irony; the Cambodian government has for months been saying it doesn’t care about the thoughts of foreign capitals but it is now paying good money to change their opinions.

There are suggestions making the rounds that the $500,000 Ericksen received is actually compensation for the panegyrizing comments he made about Cambodia’s general election last year, and not a payment for actual lobbying work. If true, it would raise the question of whether the dozens of other foreign lawmakers who visited Cambodia during last year’s general election have also received some reimbursement from Phnom Penh.

The US has strict laws on its lawmakers receiving money from abroad, which must be disclosed under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. But the likes of Russia, Turkey and Britain, from which other politicians arrived last year to “inspect” (or, rather, erect) the election, don’t expect such transparency from their own lawmakers. So is Ericksen’s payment just the tip of the iceberg, and how much money has the Cambodian government paid out to other ingratiating foreign politicians?

On the other hand, the $500,000 payment to Ericksen could simply be for his lobbying. But this raises its own questions, such as why would the Cambodian government pay this sum to a mere state senator, rather than to a national-level lawmaker or a professional and experienced lobbying firm on K Street? And why would it pay this amount to a lobbyist who is so blatantly in bed with the Cambodian government, something that will surely affect any of his lobbying efforts?

Granted, Ericksen worked on US President Donald Trump’s campaign team in Washington state and has some function in the federal Environmental Protection Agency. But he’s a lightweight, a state legislator who will have little influence when it comes to the US Congress debating sanctions on Cambodia. By comparison, when the Vietnamese military-run firm Viettel in 2017 wanted a point-man in Washington, DC, it hired the respected lawyer Stephen Ryan, a partner at McDermott Will & Emery – at the time, he also happened to be the personal lawyer of Michael Cohen, Trump’s embattled former personal attorney.

The CPP government might well respond that it isn’t the only party spending money on US lobbyists. This journalist revealed in mid-2018 that the now-dissolved opposition CNRP (through its American arm) also paid a US lobbying firm – the rather respected BerlinRosen – some $300,000 over two deals to manage its publicity campaign and appeal to US lawmakers. But the money the CNRP spent came from the party’s private donors, whereas the money Ericksen was paid came from Cambodia’s state budget. Deputy Secretary of State Ouch Borith’s name is on the agreement, after all.

For Cambodians, this ought to matter – indeed, the $500,000 is taxpayers’ money. It might appear a trifling sum (a mere fraction of the $2.2 billion of tax collected last year), but it is just one of many trifling sums that the government spends without oversight and accountability and which, after a while, add up to quite a significant outlay. It seems necessary for the government to explain openly and clearly why this money was handed to Ericksen and what it thinks he will do with it on behalf of Cambodia. After all, this $500,000 (or $41,660 per month) could have been spent on a children’s hospital, say, or to buy more electrical power from Laos, as Cambodia has been suffering from daily electricity cuts for weeks.

In the end, it was either an iniquitous financial gift to an American lawmaker for his fawning comments (a rather good bang-for-the-buck for Ericksen) or it was an extortionate investment in an American lawmaker who has so little power in US politics that the deal becomes futile. In any case, it is yet more money flowing out of Cambodia on a frivolous and unnecessary transaction that could have been better spent inside Cambodia.

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