Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

Why Is a Washington State Senator Lobbying for Cambodia?

Ericksen argues that the United States should forge closer ties with Cambodia. Critics cringe at a legislator lobbying for a foreign government.

By Cristina Maza for
Why Is a Washington State Senator Lobbying for Cambodia?

In this Dec. 14, 2016, file photo, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen walks through the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Credit: AP Photo/Heng Sinith

In the humid month of July, 50-year-old Washington State Senator Doug Ericksen checked into the Raffles Hotel Le Royal, a luxury hotel in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, just a 15-minute walk from the edge of the Tonle Sap River.

His business partner, the 53-year-old lawyer and Republican Party politician Jay Rodne, was with him. The men spent a little over $900 each for their stay in the nearly 100-year-old building replete with swimming pools and private garden courtyards.

Despite the hotel spa and tropical surroundings, this wasn’t a summer holiday for the two longtime political operatives.

Ericksen and Rodne jointly launched a lobbying firm called Pac Rim Bridges in November 2017. Since then they have visited Cambodia at least three times to meet “clients,” according to documents filed with the Justice Department. The trips are part of their effort to “promote improved relations between the USA and the Kingdom of Cambodia.” The men registered as foreign agents to represent the Kingdom of Cambodia in April 2019.

Photographs of their visits show high-level meetings with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, Minister of Commerce Pan Sorasak, Minister of Transport Sun Chanthol, and Ministry of Agriculture official Eng Cheasan, among others. The men are seen smiling in boardrooms and shaking hands with politicians in the lobbies of government offices.

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Cambodia’s strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen is paying Ericksen and Rodne’s company $500,000 a year to help improve relations with the United States. The decision to hire the two men appears to be based on the erroneous assumption that Ericksen’s role as a state senator working from Olympia, Washington would grant him access to decision-makers in the power center of Washington, D.C. on the other end of the country. Cambodian media have repeatedly referred to Ericksen as a senator, ignoring the fact that he operates at the state and not the federal level.

The Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to requests for comment from The Diplomat.

Ericksen, however, insists that he has clearly communicated his role as a state senator to the Cambodians he works with.

“I’m a state senator from Washington State and I’ve never tried to misrepresent that in any way at any time,” Ericksen told The Diplomat. “And obviously if I were a U.S. senator I couldn’t be a lobbyist for… I couldn’t be advising a foreign country as a consultant.”

But regardless of why he was hired, the relationship between Ericksen and the Kingdom of Cambodia is controversial. Ericksen is a sitting state senator lobbying for a foreign government. Hun Sen’s regime is accused of human rights violations and a harsh crackdown on democratic norms. In the period that Ericksen has been affiliated with Cambodia, opposition leaders have languished behind bars, independent newspapers have been closed or co-opted, and international organizations have been kicked out of the country.

In late 2017, in the run up to the 2018 general elections, Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the country’s main opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), for allegedly conspiring with the United States to topple the government.

When the United States and the European Union refused to send international observers to monitor the elections, deeming them too problematic, Ericksen traveled to the country and gave his stamp of approval. He was subsequently slammed in an op-ed in the Seattle Times, which claimed that he won the $500,000 contract from Cambodia because of his praise for the country’s government.

Ericksen argues that the Seattle Times’ editorial board was trying attack him for political purposes by taking his comments out of context. But he still has glowing praise for Cambodia’s 2018 elections.

“The structure of the Cambodian election was excellent. The photo identification that was required to vote, the ability to vote in private, the multi-parties that were on the ballot, the counting process. All of those things were done incredibly well and incredibly efficiently,” Ericksen told The Diplomat. “I was not there to comment on the political aspects that led up to the election with regards to the Cambodian National Rescue Party. That was not my role.”

Some analysts, however, argue that Ericksen is being used to whitewash Cambodia’s rapidly worsening image.

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“The entire Cambodian government arrangement with State Senator Ericksen has been quite murky from the get-go,” said Phil Robertson, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, which monitors the political situation in Cambodia.

“Why would Cambodia be interested in a state senator who can’t deliver anything in the nation’s capital and wasn’t even influential enough to get a good job with the Trump administration when it took power?”

Is It Legal? 

Ericksen was elected to the Washington State Senate for the third time in November 2018, winning by a slim margin. He also worked briefly as the communications director for the Environmental Protection Agency’s transition team as President Donald Trump was transitioning into office. Despite not landing a full-time job in the administration, Ericksen has positioned himself as a vocal defender of the president.

Back home in Washington, he also represents a substantial number of Cambodian-Americans. His constituency includes a little over 20,000 people of Cambodian descent, according to the most recent census data. But it was a backpacking trip he took with his family that launched his career as a lobbyist for Cambodia, according to Ericksen’s telling.

“I was planning on taking my wife and two daughters on an eight-week backpacking trip to Thailand, and I got a phone call that there was a Cambodian delegation coming through our capital city of Olympia,” Ericksen describes.

“So I was chatting with one of the delegates and I told him I was going to Thailand, and he said I should visit Cambodia,” Ericksen remembers. “It wasn’t like it was a formal invitation. It just spurred the thought in my mind: yeah, I’ve never been to that country and it would be kind of interesting to go.”

So in 2016 Ericksen took his first trip to the Kingdom of Cambodia. He spent two weeks in the country meeting with elected officials and businesspeople, among others, he says.

His advocacy and vociferous praise of the country has earned him criticism ever since.

But while the optics of a sitting state senator lobbying for a foreign government have been the subject of some criticism, what Ericksen is doing is completely legal. There is no law prohibiting Washington state legislators from working as foreign agents at the federal level. Most lawmakers in Olympia hold second jobs because the legislature doesn’t run all year,. Ethics rules only prohibit lawmakers from lobbying their fellow legislators.

“The legislator can’t take on a job that is impacted by his or her official duties in Washington [state]. It has to be a legitimate arms-length contract. It can’t count as a prohibited gift, and it generally can’t involve a contract with the state,” explains Joshua Rosenstein, a lawyer who focuses on the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

“In most places, ethics restrictions only apply to lobbying representatives of their own chambers.”

Over the past several years, high-profile members of the Trump campaign have run afoul of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) and been charged with failing to register as foreign agents for countries like Ukraine and Turkey. Ericksen, however, is checking all of the boxes to ensure that he doesn’t meet the fate of individuals like former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, one of the highest-profile individuals to be recently charged with violating FARA.

As a result, Ericksen’s lobbying efforts take place in plain sight. The reports he submits regularly include lengthy descriptions of whom Ericksen is talking to and about what.

But Ben Freeman, director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy, argues that just because something is legal doesn’t mean it’s ethical.

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“Even if Senator Ericksen isn’t directly cashing in on his office, he’s making money as a foreign agent while serving as an elected official,” Freeman said.

“At the very least this poses a lot of questions about potential conflicts of interest,” Freeman added. “It’s fair to say his constituents would prefer he fight for their interests, not a dictator’s. Do we really want our representatives to be on the payroll of foreign powers?”

Why Hun Sen Hired a Lobbyist 

Cambodia today is beset with escalating political turmoil. In November, exiled former opposition leader Sam Rainsy threatened to return to Cambodia to challenge Prime Minister Hun Sen’s rule. The government, in a show of force, deployed 20,000 troops to the Thai border in case Rainsy followed through with his promise.

The U.S. relationship with Cambodia has also been strained over growing concern about democratic backsliding and Cambodia’s deepening relationship with China. In 2018, the Trump administration announced that it was cutting funding to Cambodia because of violations of democratic norms. The European Union, too, has threatened to deprive Cambodia of key trade benefits due to democratic backsliding and the government’s disregard for human rights and the rule of law.

“The Cambodian government has long had a bad reputation in Washington — mostly for good reason — but things have become considerably worse in the last couple of years,” explains Sebastian Strangio, author of the book Hun Sen’s Cambodia. “Its recent political crackdown, coinciding with its embrace of China, has attracted attention beyond the small number of congressmen that usually focus on Cambodia.”

Strangio believes this turn of events prompted Cambodia’s ruling party to seek an ally in Washington for the first time.

“For years, the Cambodian opposition have been able to shape American perceptions through persistent lobbying of policymakers and members of Congress,” Strangio added. “The Cambodian government has long neglected this game of perceptions. It has now realized, perhaps belatedly, that it needs to have its own voice in Washington in order to shape the narrative in its own favor.”

Is Anybody Listening? 

By hiring Ericksen, Cambodia’s government appears to be grasping at straws. And the state senator, unencumbered by laws that would prohibit him from lobbying on behalf of a foreign government, is taking full advantage of the situation to make money.

But Ericksen isn’t just kicking up his heels and letting the cash roll in. Pac Rim Bridges is engaged in serious lobbying work.

Rodne has emailed colorful fliers that outline Cambodia’s commitment to consolidating a pluralistic democracy. The fliers, sent to dozens of congressional staffers, also claim that Cambodia is ending violence against children and maintaining a “healthy” GDP.

In dozens of meetings with congressional representatives and staffers, Ericksen has talked about Cambodia’s economic development and its “efforts to lift its people out of poverty.” He discussed the importance of continuing to allow Cambodia to enjoy tariff reductions for its garment industry due to its status as a developing country.

In his meetings, Ericksen brought up the Cambodia Democracy Act of 2019, a bill that passed the House of Representatives and promotes free and fair elections, political freedoms, and human rights in Cambodia, and which sanctions all Cambodian individuals believed to have undermined democracy. He talked about democratic backsliding and the arrest of opposition leaders, and he brought up Cambodia’s growing relationship with China.

Ericksen argues that the United States should forge closer ties with Cambodia and recognize all of the progress the country has made since the fall of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. He says that the country in an anomaly in Southeast Asia because it is advancing women’s rights and upholding religious tolerance.

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Ericksen also asserts that, by outlawing the opposition CNRP, Hun Sen wasn’t banishing his only real competition from the political process, but was in fact protecting the rule of law.

“I believe that the Cambodian government would argue that there were violations of the Cambodian constitution with regards to foreign interference in the run up to the [2018] election,” Ericksen told The Diplomat. “I think it’s interesting that the Cambodian government took action against what they believed was foreign collusion of the opposition party.”

And Ericksen is urging members of Congress to visit Cambodia to see the country’s progress with their own eyes. But it’s unclear whether anyone is listening to him.

Since Ericksen began his lobbying efforts, the Cambodia Democracy Act passed the House of Representatives and Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas introduced a bill that would require an assessment of whether Cambodia should continue to enjoy preferential trade conditions.

Brian Kaveney, communications director for Republican Representative Ted Yoho of Florida, noted that Ericksen reached out to his boss in June over the congressman’s outspoken criticism of Cambodia.

“The meeting didn’t last very long because [Yoho’s] views are pretty well known,” Kaveney said. “He’s no fan of the Hun Sen regime because they’re stifling the opposition and that hurts the people of Cambodia.”

Another congressional staffer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that his boss met with Ericksen and, on a separate occasion, with the U.S. ambassador to Cambodia, but that both meetings lacked substance.

Meanwhile, Yoho’s opinions on the subject didn’t budge following his meeting with Ericksen. He was the congressman who sponsored the Cambodia Democracy Act.

A Private Citizen From Washington State 

The United States, however, is interested in bolstering its flailing relationship with Cambodia. Patrick Murphy, a career diplomat with expertise on Southeast Asia, was appointed ambassador to Cambodia in August, signaling that Washington, D.C. is ready to take the relationship seriously even in an era when hundreds of diplomatic posts remain vacant. Murphy has pledged to promote democracy and “reconciliation” between the nearly obsolete opposition and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.

Trump directed a letter to Hun Sen in early November, urging him to return Cambodia to “the path of democratic governance.” Hun Sen expressed satisfaction with the letter and claimed that he believes that Trump is not seeking regime change in the Southeast Asian nation.

“The U.S. is trying to stop Chinese encroachment into Cambodia [from] turning the country into a Chinese zombie state,” said Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at California-based Occidental College.

China has quickly become Cambodia’s largest financial and military donor. And unlike the United States or the EU, Beijing does not require that its beneficiaries respect human rights or democratic norms. Instead of upholding the rule of law or political pluralism, Cambodia has responded to the influx of Chinese money by blocking the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) from condemning Chinese expansion in the South China Sea and supporting the One China policy promoted by Beijing.

Cambodia and China have also reportedly signed an agreement that would allow Chinese military personnel to use the Ream naval base near the southern coastal city of Sihanoukville.

Cambodia has denied that the agreement exists, but U.S. officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, have expressed concern about the deal.

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Over the summer, the State Department invited a delegation of Southeast Asian journalists to visit the United States. The reporters chosen for the trip were all investigating China’s influence in their home countries.

Ericksen, too, has specifically brought up U.S. concerns about China’s influence in Cambodia during his meetings with congressional staffers.

“I think the rise of China around the world should be concerning to America,” Ericksen told The Diplomat. “That’s why I believe we should work on improving relations with countries like Cambodia, encouraging U.S. investment, working on better bilateral trade agreements.”

Meanwhile, however, both the State Department and the U.S. embassy in Phnom Penh distanced themselves from Ericksen’s work.

“Doug Ericksen is a private citizen from Washington State,” said Emily Zeeberg, a spokeswoman for the U.S. embassy in Phnom Penh.

Cristina Maza is a freelance journalist covering foreign policy and international affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @CrisLeeMaza .