The recent visit by a group of Republican Washington lawmakers to Cambodia has raised questions about whether they were used to legitimize the sham elections of an authoritarian government.

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OLYMPIA — By the time they sat down with the U.S. ambassador in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh last week, Washington state Reps. Drew MacEwen and Brandon Vick already felt trepidation about their trip during the country’s elections.

The two Republican lawmakers say they, along with another state legislator, were invited by Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, to observe Cambodia’s July 29 elections.

But since they’d arrived, Vick, from Vancouver, learned that a resolution had passed the U.S. House threatening to sanction Cambodia’s authoritarian regime over the  upcoming vote. The government, ruled by Prime Minister Hun Sen since the mid-1980s, had broken up the opposition party and cracked down on news organizations in the country.

MacEwen, from Union, Mason County, 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.”

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And then the ambassador “expressed grave concerns” about the vote, MacEwen said. As he left the meeting, MacEwen said he turned to Vick and said, “Well, I’m out.”

Vick agreed. They both cut the trip short and returned home.

The visit by Washington state lawmakers to Cambodia has raised questions about whether they were being used to legitimize an authoritarian government’s false elections.

Gov. Jay Inslee this week wrote the lawmakers to express concerns about the trip, as well as a visit in May to the country by Ericksen and other lawmakers. During that earlier trip, the legislators were reportedly asked to return as election monitors.

Last weekend’s vote in the Southeast Asian country has been widely regarded as a sham election.

The Cambodian government had banned opposition leaders from holding office and expelled other members from elected positions, The Associated Press reported. The regime closed about 30 radio stations, cracked down on two independent English-language newspapers, and blocked more than a dozen websites just ahead of the polls.

In a statement this week, the White House said Cambodia’s elections were “neither free nor fair and failed to represent the will of the Cambodian people.”

In his letter, Inslee wanted to know who initiated contact with the Cambodian government, whether the legislators actually monitored the elections and whether they were compensated for their visit.

The trips “have left the impression among some that you are attempting to lend credibility to the country’s oppressive regime and its sham elections,” the governor wrote.

MacEwen and Vick both said they paid their own way to Cambodia — and that they had declined an offer by a third party to reimburse them.

Ericksen and the other lawmaker on the trip, Rep. Vincent Buys, R-Lynden, didn’t return requests for comment on Friday.

‘Zombie’ election observers

Regimes such as Cambodia’s can use visits by U.S. elected officials to give their governments credibility, said Lee Morgenbesser, a professor at the School of Government and International Relations at Australia’s Griffith University.

“Outside of Donald Trump, having American lawmakers lend credibility to a sham election is the gold standard for dictators all around the world,” Morgenbesser wrote in an email to The Seattle Times. He has written a book on elections in authoritarian countries in Southeast Asia.

“This is the basic strategy behind the employment of ‘zombie’ election observers — paying groups with formal-sounding names and eminent individuals with reputable associations to say the poll was free and fair,” he wrote.

In an article in The Diplomat, a magazine covering the Asia-Pacific region that reported on the visit in late July, another professor said Washington lawmakers were being used.

Sophal Ear, an associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College, told the magazine the politicians who visited were “playing right into the hands of the Phnom Penh authorities,” adding that “the only losers are the Cambodian people and Cambodian-American constituents whose interests have been ignored and violated.”

Election-monitoring groups such as The Carter Center did not participate in monitoring, said Jonathan Stonestreet, an associate director with the center.

The Carter Center in 2017 had hoped to participate, said Stonestreet, and even made a tentative visit to Cambodia in August last year. But that was before the government cracked down on the opposition party.

“Things started to fall apart in the fall, and when they disbanded the opposition party, that crossed one of our red lines,” he said.

May trip

Ericksen and Buys had also visited Cambodia in May, and used campaign-surplus funds for that trip, according to state campaign-finance records. Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, was on that May trip too, and said he used a mix of personal money and campaign-surplus funds to cover the cost.

Baumgartner, who did not make the return trip in July, said the earlier visit included meetings with Cambodian agricultural, telecom and transportation officials, as well as with Hun Sen himself. He called it a trade and friendship mission that also included a stop in Taiwan.

He defended meeting with the Cambodian government as necessary for engaging in diplomacy. Countries in that part of the world, he said, “are not bastions of Jeffersonian democracy.”

During that trip, Baumgartner said Cambodian officials “invited us to come back and watch the elections.”

He dismissed the concerns by Inslee, noting that Democratic lawmakers in 2016 visited Cuba, and said the governor’s letter should be construed as a political attack during election season.

The other lawmakers are up for re-election, and Baumgartner is retiring from the Legislature to run for Spokane County treasurer.

“Quite frankly, anybody complaining about this (May) trip is complaining for partisan political reasons,” he said.

Seattle Times staff reporter Jim Brunner contributed to this report.