S'pore's MFA clarifies PM Lee's FB post that sparked fury in Cambodia & Vietnam

The Cambodian PM has earlier accused PM Lee of supporting the Cambodian genocide with his comments.

Kayla Wong | June 07, 2019, 10:56 PM

Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) has provided explanations to the contents of Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's May 31 Facebook post which has incited anger in both Cambodia and Vietnam.

PM Lee's statement reflects Singapore's longstanding position: MFA

In response to media queries, Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) released a statement on Friday night, June 7.

Steering clear of the sensitive words "invasion" and "occupation", the MFA spokesperson referred to the events from 1978 to 1989 as a "painful chapter of Indochina's history", and said PM Lee's statement reflects Singapore's "longstanding viewpoint" which was articulated publicly numerous times before.

For instance, Singapore's founding prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, wrote about Singapore's stance regarding the matter in his memoirs.

Asean at that time, which consisted of the original five founding nations, namely, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, had also stated its position on Cambodia "clearly" in a joint statement that was circulated to the United Nations (UN) Security Council.

The statement "affirmed the right of the Kampuchean people to determine their future by themselves, free from interference or influence from outside powers in the exercise of their right of self-determination".

The spokesperson said that "Singapore highly values its relations with Cambodia and Vietnam", and have always treated each other with respect and friendship.

Singapore has "no sympathy" for Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime

Despite Asean's collective opposition to the pro-Vietnamese government installed after the Khmer Rouge regime was ousted, Singapore had "no sympathy" for the regime.

The spokesperson also reiterated that Singapore did not want to see the Khmer Rouge regime return to Cambodia.

This was seen in Asean's actions in sponsoring resolutions in the UN General Assembly that condemned the Khmer Rouge to "ensure it would not be part of any eventual government in Cambodia".

Asean also spearheaded a programme that provides humanitarian assistance and relief to the Kampuchean people.

Why did PM Lee mention the events of 1978 to 1989 in his FB post?

According to the spokesperson, PM Lee made reference to this part of history in his Facebook post in order 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".

Singapore is committed to building good relations with both Vietnam & Cambodia

Nevertheless, PM Lee also wanted to emphasise that regional stability and prosperity, as well as Asean unity, "cannot be taken for granted".

The spokesperson further explained that while Singapore and Vietnam were "on opposing sides in the past and have different views of that history", leaders of both countries have chosen to set aside differences to "forge a close partnership both bilaterally and in Asean".

The same can be said for Cambodia.

Following its elections that elected a new Cambodian government, Singapore has "worked hard to forge a good relationship with Cambodia", bringing it into the Asean fold once it was ready as well, the spokesperson noted.

Earlier on Friday, June 7, Singapore's Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan has also made separate phone calls to Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Pham Binh Minh, as well as Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Prak Sokhonn.

After Vivian explained the aforementioned points to his counterparts, they agreed that notwithstanding "the serious differences in the past", they have taken "the path of cooperation, dialogue and friendship", the spokesperson added.

You can read MFA's full statement here.

What did PM Lee say?

In offering his condolences on the passing of former Thai prime minister Prem Tinsulanonda, PM Lee praised his leadership at a time when Asean has come together to oppose "Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia and the Cambodian government that replaced the Khmer Rouge".

He subsequently referred to the Vietnamese action of installing a new government in Cambodia as an "occupation".

PM Lee later mentioned the matter briefly as well in his keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual high-profile security summit.

While describing the formation of Asean, he said Vietnam had “invaded Cambodia, thus posing a serious threat to its non-communist neighbours”.

Both Cambodia & Vietnam objected to PM Lee's statement

Both Cambodia and Vietnam had taken offence at PM Lee's remarks.

Rather than the terms "invasion" and "occupation", they prefer the term "liberation" to refer to the events.

Vietnam's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cambodian Defence Minister Tea Banh have raised objections with his comments, with both saying they have raised the issue with their Singaporean counterparts.

Cambodian PM expressed "regret" over the statement

A day before MFA released its statement, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said he deeply regretted PM Lee's comments in a strongly worded Facebook post written in Khmer and later translated to English by the Khmer Times.

"His statement reflects Singapore's position then in support of the genocidal regime and the wish for its return to Cambodia," he said.

He added that PM Lee's statement was an "insult to the sacrifice of the Vietnamese military volunteers who helped to liberate Cambodia from the genocidal regime", and had "indeed contributed to the massacre of the Cambodian people".

Not so straightforward

The Cambodian-Vietnamese war has remained sensitive to this day.

Occidental College associate professor Sophal Ear, who survived the Khmer Rouge regime, told the South China Morning Post (SCMP) that PM Lee’s statement was “factually correct” and that “Vietnam had invaded Cambodia”.

However, things are not as simple when it comes to the parties involved.

Within Cambodia, Phnom Penh “wants to rewrite history” and have everyone who opposed the Vietnamese-backed regime in the 1980s apologise as anyone against them was seen as being pro-Khmer Rouge.

There is also the idea in Cambodia that the country is somewhat subservient to Vietnam, Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations told SCMP.

Top image credit to The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images