In his post on Facebook (31 May) expressing his condolences for the passing of the former Thai Prime Minister and President of the Privy Council General Prem Tensulanonda, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong wrote, “His (Gen Prem’s) leadership also benefited the region. His time as PM coincided with the ASEAN members (then five of us) coming together to oppose Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia and the Cambodian government that replaced the Khmer Rouge.”
The Prime Minister’s remarks drew strong condemnation from both the Cambodian and Vietnamese government. Cambodia’s Defence Minister General Tea Banh and Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) legislator Hun Many have both openly rebuked PM Lee for his remarks. General Banh had reportedly requested that his Singapore counterpart, Minister Ng Eng Hen, to notify the prime minister to amend his statement as it “was not true and not reflective of the history [of the event]”.
“We cannot accept what he said. We have already clarified that Vietnamese volunteer troops came to liberate our people. We still consider that they came to save our people’s lives. It has been enormously meaningful for us,” General Banh said.
“It is not true at all because he (PM Lee) said that Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia. We want him to make a correction.”
As for Vietnam, local online newspaper VN Express reported that Ms Le Thi Thu Hang, spokesperson for Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Thursday (5 June) that Vietnam “regrets” that PM Lee’’s comments did not reflect history objectively, causing negative public opinions, adding that Vietname’s contributions and sacrifice in helping Cambodian people end Khmer Rouge’ genocide is true and widely recognized.
Ms Hang said that her ministry has gotten in touch with Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs over the matter.
The public demands an apology and correction
PM Lee’s post on 31 May has been shared over 7,400 times and garnered over 27,000 comments from all around the region including Vietnamese and Cambodian netizens.
There were countless Vietnamese netizens who were understandably upset over the comments, questioning why he felt the need to make a comment on that particular fraught time period in a post expressing condolences for the passing of the Thai dignitary. Netizens, Singaporeans and Vietnamese, called out the PM for his ‘incorrect’, ‘untrue’, and ‘disrespectful’ statement, hinting that he had sorely misinterpreted history. A majority demanded that the prime minister correct his statements.
One person highlighted that the PM Lee’s stance was inherited from his father, the late Lee Kuan Yew, who was openly against Vietnamese intervention in Cambodia. This user pointed out that Singapore has in fact recognised the Pol Pot regime (which saw the genocide of 1.8 million Cambodians between 1975 – 1979) as legitimate.
Peppered in the mass of angry comments from offended Vietnamese netizens were comments from a few Cambodians who appeared grateful that PM Lee spoke the ‘truth’ about what had happened back then between the two countries:
There were also a few thank-yous from Thai citizens for the condolences: