PM Lee Hsein Loong generated some bad press recently when he posted an excerpt of his controversial condolence letter on the passing of former Thailand Prime Minister and Privy Council President General Prem Tinsulanonda in which he touched Vietnam’s intervention in Cambodia in the late 70s, describing as an ‘invasion’.
The PM’s post garnered heated attention on social media having been shared over 7k times and eliciting over 24k comments, mainly from irate netizens who slammed the Premier’s remarks as disrespectful and untrue. The masses demanded that the PM apologise for his insensitive remarks and clarify his statement.
In response to media queries, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement to say that the PM was making reference to the history of Singapore’s relations with Cambodia and Vietnam, specifically 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”
The MFA spokesperson said, “Singapore highly values its relations with Cambodia and Vietnam. Notwithstanding our differences in the past, we have always treated each other with respect and friendship”
“His [PM Lee’s] references to this painful chapter of Indochina’s history are not new. They reflect Singapore’s longstanding viewpoint, which has been stated publicly before. Our founding Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, wrote about this in his memoirs. ASEAN (then comprising five members) also stated its position on Cambodia clearly in a joint statement that was circulated to the UN Security Council in 1979, that ‘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 statement emphasised that “Singapore had no sympathy for the Khmer Rouge, and did not want to see the Khmer Rouge return to Cambodia” and added that Singapore and ASEAN were keen on providing humanitarian assistance to the Cambodian people and worked with the UN to ensure that the Khmer Rouge wouldn’t end up the eventual government of Cambodia.
Singapore funded Cambodian factions against the Vietnamese
What the statement doesn’t say is that Singapore along with America, Malaysia, and Thailand provided substantial financial aid to non-Communist groups in Cambodia which funded training, ammunition, food, and operational funds. The non-Communist groups, it must be noted, was in a coalition with the Khmer Rouge.
In his book From Third World to First: The Singapore Story 1965-2000, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew said that American, Singaporean, Malaysian and Thai officials held regular meetings in Bangkok to coordinate the Cambodian aid program.
Mr Lee wrote:
The US Congress would not support a significant aid programme. Our representatives on the Thai-Malaysian-Singapore-US group that met regularly in Bangkok to coordinate our programme estimated that the US dispensed a total of about US$150 million in covert and overt aid to the non-communist groups, Singapore US$55 million, Malaysia US$10 million and Thailand a few million in training, ammunition, food and operational funds.
Mr Lee also notes in the book that Singapore gave the non-communist resistance groups in Cambodia the first few hundreds of several batches of AK-47 automatic rifles, hand grenades, ammunition and communication equipment.
It’s important to note that aid was afforded to Cambodia after a unified resistance movement was formed as proposed by Singapore who was Chair of ASEAN at the time.
Back in 1981, the Washington Post reported an announcement by Singapore of plans to form a ‘unified Cambodian resistance movement’ for which Singapore would provide weaponry of the three factions can form a ‘coalition government in exile’.
The resistance movement was of course resisting Vietnamese military presence in Cambodia which had driven the Khmer Rouge out of Phnom Penh following a reign of terror and forced labour under Pol Pot that lasted nearly four years and killed over 1.8 million people.
Singapore’s then deputy Prime Minister Sinnathamby Rajaratnam had stressed that since the heads of the non-communist factions are “not members of any government,” it was difficult to aid them “legally.” However, “once they are in a government, we can give aid. We can give arms as we do to any government,” he said.
The three factions that Singapore wanted to back included two non-communist groups – the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front and a group led by Prince Norodom Silhanouk, former Cambodian head of state – as well as the communist Khmer Rouge. Singapore proposed that each faction would unite against the Vietnamese while retaining their own identities in an exile government.
In a written statement, Singapore had called for a coalition to exert ‘military pressure’ on Vietnam to withdraw its troops from Cambodia. It added that while there was reluctance on the part of the non-communist groups to enter into a coalition with the Khmer Rouge, they addressed those concerns by ensuring that each group as autonomy within the coalition to “propagate its own distinctive political program and philosophy for the future of Cambodia”
Furthermore, Singapore proposed that the coalition would be ‘automatically dissolved’ once Vietnam withdrew, making way for a new government chosen by the people via a UN-supervised elections as stipulated in UN resolutions on Cambodia.
Not just humanitarian aid
So we can clearly see the choices Singapore made as a nation to aid the Cambodian resistance movement which included the Khmer Rouge. While Singapore emphasised that they – as well as other ASEAN nations and the US – were reluctant to provide aid to any group involving the Khmer Rouge, that wasn’t always tenable.
Before ASEAN stepped in with aid, China was the biggest backer of Cambodia’s resistance. They had provided about US$100 million to the non-communist forces in Cambodia and about 10 times that amount to the Khmer Rouge, said Lee Kuan Yew in his book. The Khmer Rouge was well funded.
So while ASEAN (then comprising five members) stated in a joint statement to the UN Security Council in 1979 that they “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”, Singapore still decided to actively involve themselves in backing the Cambodian resistance.
While the MFA spokesperson clarified that Singapore has never supported the Khmer Rouge and that Singapore was keen to provide humanitarian assistance to the Cambodian people, Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s own book proves that they were part of an aid programme that did support the communist group after all and provided more than just humanitarian aid.
PM Lee’s condolence letter ultimately opened a can of worms on the complicated history of ASEAN which hasn’t always been so peaceful.