Garcia trip to Cambodia stirs dismay: ‘Is the mayor choosing money over democracy and human rights?’

Mayor Robert Garcia made history when he became the city’s first sitting mayor to visit Cambodia last month.

His visit to the country was part of a trade delegation to Southeast Asia organized and funded by the Port of Long Beach. However, what was considered to be a momentous occasion meant to unite the two cultures through trade and tourism also raised concerns amid some members of the city’s Cambodian community.

“When I see the mayor [taking a trip to Cambodia] it hurts and I feel hopeless,” said an emotional woman in Khmer during a small gathering Monday night at a church in Cambodia Town.

Through a translator, the woman spoke about the frustration in seeing her city representative meet with a government still tied to the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia in the 1970s that resulted in many citizens fleeing to refugee camps and eventually settling in cities worldwide.

Long Beach is home to the largest concentration of Cambodians in the diaspora with an estimated 50,000 residents.

A longtime resident asked bluntly: “Is the mayor choosing money over democracy and human rights?”

Tippana Tith, who organized the meeting that turned out just over a dozen community members, including longtime community leaders, said the group’s goal is to meet with the mayor and port commission to educate them on the Cambodian government and express their concerns.

The Royal Audience with His Majesty Norodom Sihamoni, King of Cambodia, at Preah Moha Prasat Khmarin in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Posted by Long Beach Phnom Penh Sister Cities on Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Human Rights Watch said the country’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party, led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, is a party that “maintains power through violence, politically motivated prosecutions, repressive laws, and corruption.”

In its 2019 world report of the prior year, the nonprofit highlighted the “sham elections” held by Sen’s party last year after the CPP-controlled Supreme Court dissolved the main opposition party in 2017, forcing opposition party members to flee the country to avoid arbitrary arrest.

Media freedoms also collapsed last year.

“Threatening a massive, bogus tax bill, the government coerced the owners of the highly regarded Phnom Penh Post to sell to a Malaysian businessman with reportedly close ties to Hun Sen, making future critical reporting unlikely,” the report read.

Sen’s government also resorted to repressive laws to silence and arbitrarily restrict activities of human rights organizations.

Mark Taylor, the mayor’s chief of staff, said the trip was not only a chance for city officials to explore ways to increase trade from a region seen as one of the fastest growing markets in the world, but also offered the opportunity to renew a decades-old sister-city relationship with Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh.

Taylor said the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh helped plan the trip and staff briefed the delegation on the U.S. mission in Cambodia.

“Embassy staff supported our visit, advised us to focus on trade and economic development and refrain from foreign policy discussions,” Taylor said in an email. “They also asked us to continue working with them in our efforts moving forward.”

The port organized and funded the trip, said spokesman Lee Peterson. It included Garcia, Taylor, Port Executive Director Mario Cordero, Harbor Commissioners Bonnie Lowenthal and Lou Anne Bynum and three other port and harbor commission personnel.

Taylor said representatives from the Phnom Penh Sister City and Cambodia Town organization from Long Beach also traveled to Cambodia, but at their own expense. They participated in the Sister City signing ceremony and introduced city officials to Sister City members who live in Cambodia.

During their visit, Taylor said the delegation also met with the King of Cambodia, the head of the city of Phnom Penh, and officials from the ministries of Commerce, Public Works and Transportation, and the Environment. The group also met with leaders of the Phnom Penh Port, which they toured.

“The context for all of the meetings was to strengthen and increase economic and cultural ties between Long Beach and Cambodia through trade and our Sister City partnership,” Taylor said.

The group, which is calling itself the Cambodian American Concerned Community, is still hoping to receive more answers from the mayor and port commission about the trip and hope to shine a light on Cambodia’s current human rights violations that they are all too familiar with.

They worried about any laws implemented by the U.S. government, including Long Beach’s own congressman, Rep. Alan Lowenthal, that could have potentially been undermined by the trip. Lowenthal co-sponsored a bipartisan bill that passed last summer called the Cambodia Democracy Act, which enacted sanctions on Cambodian officials “responsible for undermining democracy” in the country, according to a press release.

Under the bill, anyone found in violation would have their U.S. assets frozen, financial transactions with the U.S. restricted and denied entry to the U.S.

“I have made no secret of the fact that I think Prime Minister Hun Sen wields almost dictatorial power,” Lowenthal told the Post. “He has used threats, coercion, violence, and outright murder to strip the Cambodian people of their rights and freedoms guaranteed under the Cambodian Constitution, destroy democracy, and subvert the rule of law.”

Citing that one in eight jobs in Long Beach are dependent on foreign trade, Lowenthal said he believed Garcia was doing “what he thinks was best for Long Beach.”

Lowenthal said he believes Cambodia’s preferential trade status with the U.S. should be “tied directly to their record on human rights and freedoms,” which is why he will soon introduce a bipartisan Cambodia Trade Act.

The bill will require the Trump administration to examine whether Cambodia’s preferred trade status with the U.S. “is deserved” in light of Sen’s ongoing oppression.

Tith said Friday that a closed door meeting with a handful of the group’s members is being scheduled with the mayor’s office.

“We just want to make sure they know,” Tith said.

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Stephanie Rivera is the community engagement editor for the Long Beach Post. After graduating from CSULB with a degree in journalism, Stephanie worked for Patch Latino and City News Service before coming to the Long Beach Post in 2015.