Wefie with Cambodian PM Hun Sen, Vietnamese PM Nguyễn Tấn Dũng, and Laotian DPM and Foreign Minister Thongloun Sisoulith. (Photo from PM Lee's Facebook page in 2016)

Cambodian Govt to call up Singapore Ambassador over PM Lee’s controversial remarks

The Khmer Times reported today (6 Jun) that the Cambodia government would be calling up the Singapore Ambassador soon to discuss the controversial remark made by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong last week.

PM Lee, while sending condolences to Thailand on the death of former Thai PM General Prem Tinsulanonda, wrote on his Facebook page, “Thailand was on the front line, facing Vietnamese forces across its borders with Cambodia. [Then] General Prem was resolute in not accepting this.” And added, “This prevented the military invasion and regime change from being legitimized. It protected the security of other Southeast Asia(n) countries, and decisively shape(d) the course of the region.”

Khmer Times quoted Cambodian Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Ket Sophann saying that his ministry is aware of PM Lee’s comment and that it will soon speak with Singaporean embassy officials.

“We know about this issue,” Mr Sophann said. “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs will have a talk with the Singaporean embassy in Cambodia.”

Another Cambodian Government spokesman Phay Siphan said that PM Lee’s statements were a “geography issue”, noting that heroes fought to liberate the country from the Khmer Rouge massacres.

“The Khmer Rouge Tribunal and the Win-Win movement reflect the efforts of Prime Minister Hun Sen and other heroes who liberated people from the massacres carried out by the Khmer Rouge,” Mr Siphan said. “These two things are a reflection of truth in Cambodia.”

While political analysts said PM Lee’s remarks may be factually correct, Phnom Penh officials made it clear they felt his account was not politically correct. The analysts said PM Lee’s post would be offensive to PM Hun Sen, who was installed in 1985, during the era of the Vietnamese-controlled People’s Republic of Kampuchea.

Political analyst Lao Mong Hay said, “Whether – and to what extent – the bilateral relations between the two countries will be affected will depend on the way both sides handle the incident.”

Vietnam also unhappy

Apparently, in addition to posting his insensitive remarks online, during the Shangri-la Summit last week, PM Lee also said, “After the Cold War ended, the US became the sole superpower. Southeast Asia entered a new phase. The Indochinese wars finally ended, and the communist countries opened up.”

“Earlier, Vietnam had invaded Cambodia, thus posing a serious threat to its non-communist neighbours,” he added.

The use of the word invasion in PM Lee’s comments prompted Cambodian Defence Minister General Tea Banh, who was present in Singapore when PM Lee made the comments, to lash out against PM Lee upon arrival at Phnom Penh International airport on Monday (3 Jun).

Gen Banh said he has raised the issue with Singapore’s Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen. “It is not true because he said Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia,” Gen Banh added. “We wish for him to make corrections. It is not true.”

Yesterday, Vietnam joined in to criticise PM Lee for making the controversial remarks. In a tweet, Vietnam’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said that its government “regretted” some of the remarks made by PM Lee.

“Vietnam regretted that some contents in the remarks of Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the 18th Shangri La Dialogue and his Facebook page did not objectively reflect the historical truth, causing negative impacts on public opinions,” it said.

“As an active and responsible member of Asean, Vietnam has and will continue working with other members to build a strong Asean community, [based on] unity and solidarity, and playing a central role in the region.”

As of yesterday, neither PM Lee nor Singapore’s Foreign Affairs Ministry had reacted to the backlash from the Cambodian and Vietnamese governments.