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PM Lee’s condolence letter to Thai Gen Prem shows lack of diplomacy on S’pore part

Two weeks ago (31 May), Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong sent a condolence letter to Thailand on the passing of former Thai PM General Prem Tinsulanonda.

In his condolence message, PM Lee mentioned about Vietnam’s invasion into Cambodia in the late 70s, triggering unhappiness among Asean members Cambodia and Vietnam.

“As the President of the Privy Council from 1998 to 2019, General Prem continued to be a loyal and trusted source of advice and counsel to the King,” PM Lee wrote.

“His time as Prime Minister coincided with the five countries of ASEAN coming together decisively to resolutely oppose Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia and the Cambodian government that replaced the Khmer Rouge. Thailand was on the frontline, facing Vietnamese forces across its border with Cambodia. General Prem was resolute in not accepting this fait accompli.”

“General Prem worked with ASEAN partners to support the resistance forces of the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea from Thai territory, and to oppose the Vietnamese occupation in international forums. This effective collective resistance prevented a military invasion and regime change from being legitimised, and protected the security of other Southeast Asian countries,” he added.

Though technically correct, many Vietnamese and Cambodians saw the “invasion” as liberation of Cambodia from its own former murderous government, the Khmer Rouge, which wiped out an estimated 25% of its population. Many thought that PM Lee should not have dug up past differences given that Singapore is now friends with Cambodia and Vietnam.

General Prem blessed coup leaders who staged coup against popularly elected civilian government

In the same vein, that is why Singapore did not and should not mention some of the negative things General Prem did when officially communicating with Thailand, as Singapore also values Thailand as a good friend of Asean.

For example, would PM Lee have mentioned that General Prem as President of the Thai Privy Council gave his blessings to the military to stage a coup against Thaksin government, then a constitutionally elected civil government by the Thai people?

This was reported on Reuters on 26 May, “In his later years, Prem was accused by supporters of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra of siding with the royalist military establishment against the populist leader, who was ousted in a 2006 coup and now lives in self-imposed exile.”

Reuters quoted a Wikileaks cable detailing a meeting between then U.S. Ambassador Ralph Boyce and Prem after the 2006 coup. Prem was noted by Ambassador Boyce as being “unapologetic” for the putsch against Thaksin.

The U.S. Ambassador wrote in his cable to Washington, “While it does not appear that Prem was part of the coup planning, it seems likely that his blessing was sought a few days before the event.”

Reuters also noted that Prem recently made public statements in favor of coup leader Prayuth, who seized power in 2014 from an elected government linked to Thaksin.

Whatever is the case, if one wants to make friends with someone, one shouldn’t bring up the person’s unpleasant past. In international relationship, it’s called diplomacy.