The Facts Around the Statement PM Lee Made Regarding Vietnam’s Invasion of Cambodia

By June 5, 2019Current

TL;DR- “We had no sympathies for the Khmer Rouge regime. It was an issue of principle.”

Recently, former Thai prime minster and influential royal adviser General Prem Tinsulanonda passed away. Normally, this would not really concern Singapore much. But, somehow, it became an incident that is affecting Singapore.

How come?

When a prominent foreign dignitary passes away, our prime minister would usually post something on his Facebook page.

Similarly, PM Lee posted something on his Facebook page about the passing of General Prem. In the post, PM Lee mentioned that when he was prime minister of Thailand, General Prem’s leadership benefited the region.

General Prem meeting SM Lee Kuan Yew at The Istana in 1998 (Credit: National Archives of Singapore)

Specifically PM Lee said this:

“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. Thailand was on the frontline, facing Vietnamese forces across its border with Cambodia. General Prem was resolute in not accepting this fait accompli, and worked with ASEAN partners to oppose the Vietnamese occupation in international forums. This prevented the military invasion and regime change from being legitimised. It protected the security of other Southeast Asia countries, and decisively shaped the course of the region.”

PM Lee probably mentioned this to let Singaporeans know how General Prem’s work provided Singapore with a more stable regional environment to develop in.

But in so doing, PM Lee angered the Vietnamese. Le Thi Thu Hang, spokeswoman of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for Vietnam, said Vietnam “regrets” that the statement did not reflect history objectively, causing negative public opinions.

But what exactly was it that Vietnam did?

Back in the late 1970s, Cambodia and Vietnam did not get along. Even though both were communist, Cambodia was aligned with China, while Vietnam was aligned with Russia. And since China did not get along with Russia, so Cambodia did not get along with Vietnam. It did not help that Cambodia conducted a number of military raids into Vietnam.

Things came to head when Vietnam launched a full-scale invasion of Cambodia at the end of 1978. After successfully invading Cambodia, Vietnamese forces stayed on in Cambodia until February 1990.

Generally speaking, a country invading and occupying another is something that is frowned upon by the international community. And expectedly, Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia saw more countries against than for it.

Eighty countries continued to recognize the legitimacy of the government deposed by they Vietnamese. In contrast, only 29 countries established relationship with the new regime put in place by the Vietnamese.

So why are the Vietnamese so aggrieved by PM Lee’s statement?

That is because Pol Pot, the prime minister of Cambodia who was ousted by the Vietnamese invasion, was a dictator who slaughtered over a million of his own people.

During its nearly four years in power, Khmer Rouge implemented policies that killed about one quarter of Cambodia’s population.

Skulls of victims of the Khmer Rouge at the Choeung Ek memorial, a mass grave in Phnom Penh. (Credit Reuters)

The Vietnamese had insisted that they invaded Cambodia to liberate the Cambodians from a cruel despot.

It is undeniable that the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia did drive out Pol Pot.

But did Vietnam invade Cambodia out of the goodness of their hearts?

Bernd Schaefer, a German historian of the Cold War era, found evidence that Vietnam “did not primarily act because they wanted to end the genocide. They wanted to get rid of an anti-Viet Nam government, and put in a pro-Viet Nam government. And in doing so, they got rid of the Khmer Rouge government.”

Bernd Schaefer found this evidence after studying the East German secret police and diplomatic files on Cambodia and Vietnam. Next to the Soviet KGB, East Germany’s Stasi secret police was the main training partner of Vietnam’s secret police.  And between 1978 and 1990, communist East Germany’s diplomats had wide access to political reporting from Communist ambassadors stationed in Hanoi and Phnom Penh.

The Cambodians initially saw the Vietnamese as liberators. But when the Vietnamese continued to stay in and ran the affairs of Cambodia, the Cambodians started to resent the Vietnamese presence.

Many Cambodians started to consider the Vietnamese as occupiers.

To make matters worse, the regime installed by the Vietnamese had to seek approval from Vietnam for any major decisions. And Vietnam ran Cambodia to the ground.

What did all of these have to do with Thailand?

Thailand, which shared an 800km border with Cambodia, had historically feared Vietnam’s expansionism. Immediately after the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, Thailand demanded that Vietnam withdraw from Cambodia and allow Cambodians to democratically elect a government that was free from foreign intervention.

ASEAN, which then only comprised five founding members – Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, Malaysia, and Singapore – supported Thailand’s position. Furthermore, ASEAN viewed Vietnam’s invasion and subsequent occupation of Cambodia, which received strong Soviet support, as an intolerable threat to the region’s security and stability.

First ASEAN meeting in Bangkok on 08 August, 1967. Far right is Singaporean Foreign Minister S. Rajaratnam.

There’s an old (and very important) document from our MFA. It was a speech by Former Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng at the S Rajaratnam Lecture back in 2011. He detailed the situation, Singapore’s position and the actions taken by ASEAN when Vietnam invaded Cambodia.

He’d said, “… from the outset, our involvement in the Vietnam-Cambodia War was not about our relationship with Vietnam.  We had our own priorities to attend, and no wish to interfere in the affairs of others or tell them how they should order their house.”

“We had no sympathies for the Khmer Rouge regime. It was an issue of principle.”

“The issue for us is that Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia was a clear case of violation of international borders and an act of external aggression, which would have established an undesirable precedent of international relations if left unopposed.”

So. What are the facts?

Did Vietnam liberate Cambodia from a genocidal despot? Yes.

Did the eventual Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia ruin the Cambodian economy and resulted to the deaths of millions of Cambodians? Yes.

If Thailand and the rest of ASEAN had not opposed Vietnamese’ occupation of Cambodia back then, would Vietnam, with the support of Soviet Russia, have done more to destabilize the region?

We will never know for sure.

But it is likely.

That would not have been good for Singapore. And that is why PM Lee said what he did in his Facebook post.

(Featured image via)


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Jake Koh

Author Jake Koh

Recovering sushi addict, I'm a man of mystery and power, whose power is exceeded only by his mystery.

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