In a letter to Washington state Sen. Doug Ericksen and Washington state Rep. Vincent Buys, both Republicans, Prime Minister Hun Sen said he appreciated their understanding of “Cambodia’s ongoing socio-economic and democratic progress.”
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Cambodia’s prime minister says he has agreed to the resumption of U.S. military-led missions to search for the remains of Americans missing in action during the Vietnam War, following an appeal from two Washington state lawmakers who recently made a controversial visit to the country.
The long-running search program was suspended a year ago after the U.S. government stopped issuing visas to senior Cambodian Foreign Ministry officials and their families. The tit-for-tat move came amid sharply deteriorating relations between the two countries.
In a letter released Saturday addressed to Washington state Sen. Doug Ericksen and Washington state Rep. Vincent Buys, Republicans from Whatcom County who traveled to Cambodia this past summer, Prime Minister Hun Sen said he appreciated their understanding of “Cambodia’s ongoing socio-economic and democratic progress,” and was agreeing to remove the block “in the same compassionate spirit.”
He added that he was making the move even though the visa ban remains in place.
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Hun Sen and his inner circle have come under pressure from Western countries for a relentless crackdown on all opposition before te vountry’s general election this summer, a vote that was widely derided as a sham.
Ericksen and Buys, whose journey raised questions about whether they were being used to legitimize the July 29 election, issued a news release Saturday hailing Hun Sen’s decision on the MIA search program.
In addition to visiting Cambodia with other Washington state Republican lawmakers, Ericksen and Buys went to New York City last month to meet with Hun Sen while the prime minister was attending the United Nations General Assembly, they said.
They also wrote to Hun Sen on Oct. 2, asking for the search program to be allowed to continue.
“Families of those Americans who are missing in action have spent nearly 50 years seeking answers about their loved ones,” Ericksen said in the news release.
“I’m very happy our discussions with Prime Minister Sen played a part in hopefully offering comfort to parents, spouses and children of our service members.”
Earlier this month, the European Union said it was starting the process of removing trade preferences from Cambodia, a move that, if implemented, could badly hit the country’s key garment industry.
Washington state Reps. Drew MacEwen, from Union, Mason County, and Brandon Vick, from Vancouver, said they were invited on the trip by Ericksen to observe the election.
MacEwen said he’d talked informally with some Cambodian citizens, and “you could see that there was not a lot of enthusiasm for the legitimacy of the election.”
The two lawmakers cut their trip short after they said the U.S. ambassador to Cambodia “expressed grave concerns” to them about Cambodia’s election.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee later wrote the lawmakers with concerns about the trip and about an earlier visit to the country in May by Ericksen and others.
During the earlier tour, the lawmakers reportedly were asked to return as election monitors.
“You are attempting to lend credibility to the country’s oppressive regime and its sham elections,” Inslee wrote.
Ericksen, from Ferndale, and Buys, from Lynden, used campaign-surplus funds for that trip, according to state records.
In their Oct. 2 letter to Hun Sen, they congratulated the leader on his “successful trip” to the General Assembly.
“We hope that through your comments addressed to the world community, there may come a greater understanding and recognition of the unique struggles which Cambodia is seeking to overcome in its progress as a relatively young democracy,” Ericksen and Buys wrote.
“In order to send a clear message that Cambodia desires to improve relations with the United States, we humbly request that the Kingdom of Cambodia reactivate the (MIA search) program,” they added.
In Saturday’s news release, Buys described Hun Sen’s move as a “very strong gesture of Cambodia’s desire for better connections between our two nations.”
MacEwen and Vick said they paid their own way to Cambodia, declining an offer by a third party to reimburse them.
Sen. Michael Baumgartner, a Republican from Spokane who was on the May trip, said he used a mix of personal money and campaign-surplus funds.
In August, Baumgartner defended meeting with the Cambodian government as necessary for engaging in diplomacy.
American forces became involved in Cambodia as a consequence of the war in neighboring Vietnam. There was little involvement of ground troops, but U.S. planes maintained a long-running bombing campaign against communist fighters.
The U.S. government lists 48 Americans as still unaccounted for in Cambodia.