Vietnam Prime Minister criticises PM Lee’s comments on Vietnam’s “invasion” of Cambodia at 34th ASEAN Summit

Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc criticised Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong for his comments on Vietnam’s march into Phnom Penh, Cambodia in January 1979 which uprooted the ruthless Khmer Rouge regime.

Mr Phuc was reported to have said that PM Lee’s claim was incorrect and had offended both Vietnam and Cambodia. He also was quoted saying that history has proven that the statement made on Vietnam’s position in the Khmer Rouge fight to be inaccurate.

This was said on the sidelines of the 34th ASEAN Summit in Bangkok, Thailand on Saturday.

On 31 May, while sending condolences to Thailand on the death of former Thai PM General Prem Tinsulanonda, PM Lee 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.”

Mr Phuc reportedly said that such a prejudice like this negatively affects Vietnam and Cambodia, especially the families of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese voluntary soldiers who sacrificed themselves to help the Cambodian people end the genocide by the Khmer Rouge to rebuild their country.

PM Lee reached out to Prime Ministers of Vietnam and Cambodia.

Straits Times reported that PM Lee was the one who reached out to the Vietnam Prime Minister and also the Cambodia Prime Minister who shares the same view on the matter.

PM Lee was quoted saying, “I stated my position and explained why I had spoken about the period of the Cambodian war and Singapore’s perspective on the matter. He explained forthrightly Vietnam’s position on this matter.”

“Naturally, the two positions are different and we do not expect to change their minds, and they do not expect us to change our minds on this matter.

“But both of us have moved beyond that to become friends and partners… The best way to move forward, in our view, is on the basis of candour and honesty about what has happened in the past, so that we can develop trust and we can work more closely together and trust one another,” he said.

Earlier in response to media queries, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement to say that PM Lee 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.

Earlier this month when PM Lee’s comment first garnered traction, Vietnam’s Ambassador to Cambodia, Vu Minh Quang, had already issued a criticism.

He wrote on his Facebook page, “Invade or liberate. Occupy or protect. It does not matter (if) the cat is black or white.”

“Nothing forgotten. Nobody forgotten. This year 2019 we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the liberation of Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge Genocide Regime. We put the past if full of pain and hatred behind, to look forward to the future, but it does not mean we have forsaken lessons of history,” wrote the envoy.

During the Khmer Rouge regime, a quarter of the Cambodia’s population then was killed by the government between 1975 and 1979. Vietnam was invaded by the regime in several instances and had tens of thousands of people killed as a request. As a result of the escalating conflict, Vietnamese soldiers marched into Phnom Penh in January 1979 during a counteroffensive on the southwestern border and removed the regime.