On January 7, 1979, Cambodian revolutionary armed forces and Vietnamese volunteer soldiers advanced to liberate Phnom Penh. (photo: VNA)

Astounding insensitivity and troubling response of the Singapore govt on comment regarding Vietnam invasion of Cambodia

by Brad Bowyer

In his Shangri La Dialogue Speech on 31st May, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong mentioned that Vietnam invaded Cambodia, thus posing a serious threat to its non-communist neighbors during what he termed the Indochina wars as part of the wider Cold War going on in the late 70s.

He brought it up again in his condolence letter and Facebook page post regarding the death of former Thai Premier General Prem Tinsulanonda when he talked of the then five countries of ASEAN coming together decisively to resolutely oppose Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia.

He also noted:

“This effective collective resistance prevented a military invasion and regime change from being legitimized, and protected the security of other Southeast Asian countries”

The Cambodian response has been quick and clear. In the Khmer Times journalist Leap Chanthavy had the following to say when referring to PM Lee’s statements: –

“What is striking is his view in denouncing the regime change that toppled the Khmer Rouge and denying the legitimacy of the new Cambodian government that saved lives of the remaining four million Cambodians with support from the Vietnamese forces.

This is nothing but being disrespectful to the Khmer Rouge victims and those who sacrificed their lives in deposing the genocidal regime of Khmer Rouge.”

Yesterday, it was reported that Cambodia’s Defence Minister Tea Banh has reached out to our Defense Minister Mr Ng Eng Hen asking PM Lee to change his remarks.

He said “We cannot accept what he said. We have already clarified that Vietnamese volunteer troops came to liberate our people,” Gen Banh said. “We still consider that they came to save our people’s lives. It has been enormously meaningful for us.”

With Mr Lee’s letter as a screenshot posted on his Facebook on Friday, CPP lawmaker Hun Many said that people should not forget the atrocities and crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge.

“Whether it was a realist geopolitical or national interest perspective of the moment, one should not overlook nor forget the atrocities and crimes against humanity, especially the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge regime.”

“By the same token, the world should not forget how much Cambodians suffered then. Within the time span of 3 years 8 months and 20 days and because the world turned the blind eyes on us “Khmer” that close to 3 million innocent victims died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge,”

So far, we have heard no response from PM Lee or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on this.

Not only were these remarks by our PM insensitive and uncalled, it also highlights what, I consider was, a dark moment in our history where we sided with Pol Pot regardless of the evil he was committing for our own regional political purposes.

Not only did we recognize and support Pol Pot’s regime diplomatically and with state visits for his key people during his reign of terror, we funded them and supported them in their attempt to resist local and Vietnamese liberation after he was finally overthrown. We tried to block humanitarian aid and the legitimization of the replacement government under Heng Samrin and to my knowledge have never yet denounced the atrocities that were committed during that time.

Others in the world have recognized their errors in any support they may have given Pol Pot during these times. While there are still some academics debates on the numbers of deaths nobody now denies the genocide that happened in Cambodia and many have gone on to publicly denounce it in one form or another, but we have said nothing.

I have been to one of the Genocide Museums and it is a horrifying experience.

Aside from the mass of human remains you see you are also up close with conditions that people were held and tortured under and surrounded by so many graphic descriptions of what happened. You can even meet one of the few who survived internment there and it is hard to internalize what they went through as their fellow inmates were screaming and dying and they could have been the next victim at any moment.

You also find out that the Vietnamese are seen as liberating heroes to many of the people who lived through those terrible times.

Now I can understand if it is difficult for the PM and his government to acknowledge any wrongdoing by their predecessors but you would have thought that they would have had the diplomatic sense to stay silent on the matter and not to drag this sorry episode up again for whatever misguided reason they felt justified in doing so.

In a way our position is akin to supporting Hitler and the Holocaust that he perpetrated and which nobody in the world could say is an acceptable position so how is it any less wrong because it was an Asian Holocaust?

I hope we can take the necessary steps to acknowledge the error, apologize to our ASEAN neighbor and make the revision in the published statements as soon as possible.

At the very least put this questionable past behind us and think twice before we make such insensitive statements in the future.

In times of change, we need to be viewed with a certain standing and have all the friends we can get and this diplomatic mess really does nothing to help that or instill confidence for how we will find our place in the changing geopolitical landscape ahead.

This post was first published as a Facebook post on Brad Bowyer’s Facebook page and reproduced with permission.