June 10, 2019
STATESMEN, no less than ordinary citizens, should be careful about what they post on their Facebook page. A seemingly harmless post by a high government official can stir up animosities that date back even to the Cold War.
Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has stirred up old sensitivities and acrimony in Indochina and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) because of remarks he wrote on his Facebook page.
Lee made the comments in an online tribute to Thailand’s former prime minister, Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda, who died last month. Prem had been the leader of Thailand at a time when Singapore, Thailand and other members of Asean opposed Vietnam’s invasion and occupation of Cambodia in 1978.
Lee wrote online: “General Prem was resolute in not accepting this fait accompli, and worked with Asean partners to oppose the Vietnamese occupation in international forums.
“This prevented the military invasion and regime change from being legitimized. It protected the security of other Southeast Asia countries, and decisively shaped the course of the region.”
The post promptly provoked a strongly worded Facebook post by Cambodia Prime Minister Hun Sen, who said he deeply regretted Lee’s remarks and accused him of supporting the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia.
Hun Sen wrote: “(Lee’s) statement reflects Singapore’s position then in support of the genocidal regime and the wish for its return to Cambodia.”
To comprehend this top-level quarrel, it’s important to place it in perspective.
The Vietnamese invasion and 10-year occupation of Cambodia ended the regime of infamous communist leader Pol Pot, which devastated Cambodia for more than three years from 1975 to early 1979, and led to the deaths of almost a quarter of the Cambodian population.
Southeast Asia was deeply riven by Cold War animosities at the time. Singapore and Thailand were part of the pro-Western Asean, which was set up in the 1960s partly to block the spread of communism.
Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge were backed by China while Vietnam was supported by China’s communist foe, the Soviet Union.
In a statement, Singapore’s foreign ministry says the city state had no sympathy for the Khmer Rouge and that Lee’s references reflect its longstanding viewpoint.
Hun Sen was a junior member of the Khmer Rouge who fled to Vietnam when the group split. He returned to Cambodia with the Vietnamese army that intervened in late 1978 to oust Pol Pot and he rose to power in a government set up by Vietnam.
Lee made similar comments at a security forum in Singapore over the weekend, as he noted how Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia had posed a serious threat to non-communist countries in the region.
On Tuesday, Vietnam’s foreign ministry said it had raised the issue of Lee’s comments with Singapore.
“Vietnam finds it regrettable that certain elements of the speech did not view history under an objective lens, causing negative impact on the public opinion,” Vietnam spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang said in a statement.
Singapore declared in turn that it highly values its relations with Cambodia and Vietnam.
“Singapore had no sympathy for the Khmer Rouge, and did not want to see the Khmer Rouge return to Cambodia,” Singapore’s foreign ministry said in a statement.
“Prime Minister Lee had made reference to this history to explain how statesmanship and foresight helped to end the tragic wars that caused great suffering to the people of Indochina, and to bring about the peace and cooperation that the region enjoys today,” it said.
Through the 1980s, Singapore along with other Asean members and Western countries recognized a three-faction “coalition government” in exile, which included the Khmer Rouge. The factions battled Vietnamese forces in Cambodia from sanctuaries on the Thai border.
Vietnam withdrew its forces from Cambodia in late 1989, paving the way for a 1991 treaty that officially ended the war. Vietnam joined Asean in 1995 and Cambodia joined in 1999.
This brings matters up to date. Vietnam and Cambodia are now full-fledged members of Asean, and relations among members have been harmonious until this latest dust-up.
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