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Cambodian Follies of Ericksen and Buys

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Like the Cambodian national elections they supposedly attended as “observers” in late July, the most recent attempt of Sen. Doug Ericksen and Rep. Vincent Buys to curry favor with its brutal, authoritarian dictator Hun Sen is a sham. After nearly 50 years, there is little to no chance of finding any remains of downed U.S. pilots in the overgrown Cambodian jungle. This is yet another gross political ploy.

Our Whatcom County tag team defied the U.S. President, State Department, and Congress by visiting Cambodia during the rigged July 29 election, widely condemned by the U.S. government and European Union. Despite the fact that the primary opposition political party had been banned outright from this election, Ericksen publicly praised it as “legitimate and fair,” as quoted in a Seattle Times editorial.

Just in time for our November elections, Ericksen and Buys visited New York to meet with Hun Sen after he recently gave a speech to the United Nations General Assembly defending his repressive political actions as necessary to ensure peace, stability and prosperity for Cambodia. Shortly after their visit, Hun Sen sent a letter to them stating that he would be happy to resume military-led missions to search for the remains of U.S. servicemen missing in action since the early 1970s.

In an article in the Khmer Times Sen stated, “As we have discussed before… my government… agrees to resume this important POW/MIA field mission, regardless of the U.S. visa restrictions now in place.” But he acknowledged the program had been operating successfully for decades. It was suspended in retaliation for the United States banning visas for Cambodian Foreign Ministry officials.

In a press release Ericksen stated, “Families of those Americans who are missing in action have spent nearly 50 years seeking answers about their loved ones.” And he added that he is “very happy that our discussions with Prime Minister Sen played a part in hopefully offering comfort to parents, spouses and children of our service members.”

But neither the State Department nor the U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia has commented on the letter to Ericksen and Buys. A spokesperson for the State Department said the Department has not received any notification from Cambodia that the POW/MIA program has been reinstated.

For more than two decades, the United States has conducted recovery activities with the governments of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. According to the Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, joint searches began in 1988 in Cambodia and Laos. Officials have interviewed thousands of witnesses and conducted in-depth research of military records in all three countries in a valiant attempt to locate the remains of missing Americans.

Archaeologists and anthropologists use forensic science and related techniques in efforts to find the remains of servicemen who have been lost for decades. Initially they scanned aerial photographs to locate crash sites. A downed military aircraft leaves a wide swath of destruction in the jungle canopy when it falls to earth. But after five decades, the jungle has grown back, making it much more difficult to find any remaining sites.

That doesn’t mean they should stop looking. As a military brat who grew up on Air Force bases during the Vietnam War, I remember well the heartbreaking pain of family members who had just been told that their beloved husband or father was missing in action. I don’t know anyone who grew up on a base during those years who doesn’t want the remains of every MIA serviceman to be returned.

But that doesn’t mean we have to give Ericksen and Buys any credit for this work. Curiously, they didn’t appeal to Hun Sen until just before the ballots were about to be distributed for the November general elections. That speaks of political calculation, not of any serious concern for families of MIA servicemen.

Ericksen and Buys are obviously trying to cover the tracks they left in the political mud by cozying up to an authoritarian dictator. Having allowed themselves to be used by Hun Sen to help him legitimize the sham July election, they lack the common sense to know when to cut their losses and call it a day. 

Elisabeth Britt is a public policy analyst in Bellingham. Content was assisted by Michael Riordan, author of several books about science, technology and public policy. He lives in Eastsound.

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