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Sen. Michael Baumgartner defends meeting with autocratic Cambodian leader Hun Sen

State Sen. Mike Baumgartner and other legislators were wrong to meet with Cambodia’s autocratic prime minister, because the visit could be easily exploited, an exiled leader of that country’s former opposition political party said.

“The world’s democratic countries are condemning (Prime Minister) Hun Sen,” said Sam Rainsy, the head of the now disbanded Cambodian National Rescue Party, during a recent visit to Western Washington.

Baumgartner, a former U.S. foreign service officer, disagreed. The visit by him, two fellow Republican legislators and Washington State University football coach Mike Leach, was a trade mission to discuss export opportunities for state businesses, he said.

“I have met a good number of foreign leaders, and very few of them are running Jeffersonian democracies as we might like,” the Spokane Republican said.

Sam, a former member of Parliament who was forced into exile earlier this year by the ruling regime, was in Seattle and Lacey late last month to visit Cambodian-American communities. In an interview with The Spokesman-Review, he said Hun, a former member of the Khmer Rouge who has ruled for 33 years, was exploiting the presence of American officials in the Southeast Asian country.

Cambodian news organizations showed pictures of the legislators and Leach shaking hands with Hun or sitting around a large table with his cabinet.

“There is no free press in Cambodia, everything is controlled by Hun Sen and his cronies,” said Sam, who now heads the Cambodian National Rescue Movement. “I think they are being used as tools. It is sad that some legislators played into Hun Sen’s propaganda.”

The United States imposed visa restrictions on the Cambodian government officials in December, and cut military aid to the country in February over “anti-democratic” actions by Hun Sen and his government that included dissolving the National Rescue Party, giving their seats to members of his own party and charging Sam with treason.

But Baumgartner said the Washington group checked with the State Department, the National Security Council and the U.S. ambassador in Phnom Penh before meeting with Hun Sen and other members of his government. Their visit had nothing to do with national policy issues, but a chance to look for opportunities to increase trade with Washington state, he said.

“It’s always better for people to talk than to be isolated,” Baumgartner said, adding it was his third time in the country in 10 years. He was aware of Hun Sen’s history of being part of the Khmer Rouge, which took over the country after the United States withdrew from Southeast Asia, before he joined Vietnamese forces that overthrew the Khmer Rouge.

“The world is a complicated place,” Baumgartner said, adding he was impressed with technical knowledge of the cabinet officials they met.

Increased trade with Cambodia fits into the Trump Administration’s national security strategy of “Principled Realism,” he said. It differs from the “Democracy First” policy of the Bush and Obama administrations, he added.

After the meetings, Baumgartner said, he believes there’s an opportunity for Washington to increase dairy exports to Cambodia and develop food processing operations there. Like most Southeast Asians, Cambodians don’t have much dairy in their diet, but the government is interested in expanding that as a way of improving child nutrition.

The group also visited Taiwan. Leach, who went along at Baumgartner’s invitation, talked with officials in both countries about WSU, which is interested in increasing the number of students from Pacific Rim countries.

The trip wasn’t funded by the state Commerce Department or any trade organization, he said. Baumgartner paid his own expenses, but hopes to get reimbursement for some costs through his surplus campaign fund account. State law allows legislators to cover some activities connected with their official duties from that account.

After two terms in the state Senate, Baumgartner announced he was stepping down at the end of this term to run for Spokane County treasurer this year. He’s allowed to put unspent campaign funds in a surplus account, and currently has more than $162,000 of the $207,700 he raised left in the re-election account.