On 31 May 2019, in a Condolence Message mourning the passing away of former Thai PM and Privy Council President General Prem Tinsulanonda, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Long wrote:
General Prem’s leadership has also benefited the region. His time as Prime Minister coincided with the five countries of ASEAN coming together decisively to resolutely oppose Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia and the Cambodian government that replaced the Khmer Rouge. Thailand was on the frontline, facing Vietnamese forces across its border with Cambodia. General Prem was resolute in not accepting this fait accompli. Supported by his able Foreign Minister, Air Chief Marshal Siddhi Savetsila, General Prem worked with ASEAN partners to support the resistance forces of the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea from Thai territory, and to oppose the Vietnamese occupation in international forums.
The condolence letter was also posted on the Facebook of Singaporean PM Lee Hsien Long on the same day. More seriously, the message was duplicated in his keynote address, presented at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Shangri-La Dialogue on May 31, 2019, which said:
Earlier, Vietnam had invaded Cambodia, thus posing a serious threat to its non-communist neighbours.
Such remarks are truly condemnable. First of all, condolence messages should not be politicized. After all, it is about the death of a leader or even common people. Secondly, making accusations against another country, a fellow member of ASEAN, without any provocation and digging a history with an one-sided view do not reflect good on the part of the Singaporean Prime Minister.
Hanoi is strongly opposed to such remarks by the Singaporean leader and researchers of Centre for India Studies specifically raise objections to biased opinion of PM Lee Hsien Long’s opinion on the role of Vietnam in Cambodia for the following reasons.
First, PM Lee Hsien Long has completely ignored the historical fact that the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia posed a serious threat to the safety and security of Cambodian people and posed a challenge to the security and stability of Southeast Asia. The Khmer Rouge regime committed genocide, killing 3 million people by execution, and a large number of people suffered from overwork, disease, famine and many other inhumane acts much below human dignity.
Secondly, instead of appreciating Vietnam’s role in saving millions of lives in Cambodia in the 1970s, the Singaporean Prime Minister has sought to point a finger of accusation. Singapore’s role during the genocidal activities of Khmer Rouge regime needs to be examined. It is important to note that the United Nations Organisation took due cognizance of the crime perpetuated by the Khmer Rouge.
In fact, in 1997, the Cambodian Government established the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) to look into various crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge, with the assistance of the United Nations. It was a court that included local as well as foreign judges and were completely impartial. It took long sessions and lots of time to examine all the events that led to crime against humanity in Cambodia committed by the Khmer Rouge.
On November 16, 2018, the ECCC gave its judgment. The ECCC established that several kinds of crimes were committed by the Khmer Rouge regime against the Cambodian people and some involved civilian Vietnamese as well. There were accusations against Nuon Chea, the deputy secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, and Khieu Samphan, the Head of State of Democratic Kampuchea, of the crimes against humanity. Top officials of the regime were directly involved in criminal activities and the judgment reflects that. The judgment has provided justice to millions of victims, and it is appreciated by the United Nations and international community as well.
Third, Vietnam sent its armed forces to Cambodia as a defensive act against the Khmer Rouge. During 1975-1978, the Khmer Rouge committed gruesome murders of people along the Southwest border of Vietnam. After being defeated by the Vietnamese armed forces, the Khmer Rouge rushed to the border areas between Cambodia and Thailand as well. The presence of the Vietnamese armed forces in the border areas of Thailand was for the purpose of chasing the Khmer Rouge’s remaining forces and was not at all against Thailand or its people. Vietnam armed forces stayed in Cambodia until 1989 to protect Cambodian people, and then the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia was established in 1992.
Fourthly, Cambodian leaders and people have appreciated the role of Vietnam. Hun Many, the son of former Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, and the Cambodian Member of Parliament, said on June 1, 2019, “While everyone was playing politics, Cambodians were praying for help. We wanted to be saved from the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, and it did not matter from whom and from where that help came from. It came in the form of the Cambodian People’s Party with the assistance of our neighbour Vietnam.”
On June 3, 2019, Cambodia’s Minister of Defence, General Tea Banh said “We considered that they [the Vietnamese] came to save our people’s lives…It is not true at all because he [Lee Hsien Long] said that Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia. We want him [Lee Hsien Long] to make a correction”.
The Singaporean leader’s remarks have hurt the sentiments of the Vietnamese people who expect an apology from Lee Hsien Long. The spokewoman of Vietnam, Madame Le Thi Thu Hang, said on June 4, 2019 that Vietnam regretted for the wrong viewpoint of Singaporean PM Lee Hsien Long on the Vietnam – Cambodia issue. She further said that “Vietnam is a proactive and responsible member of ASEAN. Vietnam has been cooperating effectively with other ASEAN member to construct the strength and solidarity of ASEAN, facilitating ASEAN in playing the central role in the region”.
While Indo-Pacific region aspires to promote economic growth, political stability and peace, such remarks by the Singaporean leader is unfortunate. Together with many opportunities for cooperation and growth, the Indo-Pacific region is embedded with many conflicts. The disrespectful viewpoint of Singaporean PM Lee Hsien Long distorted the truth, and provoked troubles between members of ASEAN, adding more to potential of conflicts in the Indo-Pacific region. The truth and history should be respected to build a civilized modern world, creating peace in the region.
It is important that the international community takes an appropriate view of the Vietnamese military activities against the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia from 1978 to 1989. All facts should be verified and analyzed before making any comment or statement.
*** The author is the Founding Director and the Chairman of Research Committee of the Centre for Indian Studies, a unit of Ho Chi Minh National Academy of Politics, Hanoi, Vietnam, and this article is in response to the Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Long’s remark about Vietnam’s role in the overthrown of Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. ***
William Shawcross, The Quality of Mercy: Cambodia, Holocaust, and Modern Conscience (Touchstone, 1985), p115-6.