Vietnam and Cambodia object to PM Lee’s remarks on conflict against Khmer Rouge as ‘invasion’

Vernon Lee
Senior Editor
Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaks during the opening of the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue summit in Singapore on 31 May 2019. (PHOTO: AFP via Getty Images)

SINGAPORE — Vietnam and Cambodia have raised objections to comments by Singapore’s Prime Minister (PM) Lee Hsien Loong describing the 1978-1989 Indochina conflict as an “invasion”.

Paying tribute to former Thai PM General Prem Tinsulanonda following his passing on 26 May, Lee said in a post on his Facebook page last Friday (31 May) that General Prem was PM when the then five members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) opposed “Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia and the Cambodian government that replaced the Khmer Rouge”.

Noting that Thailand was on the frontline of the conflict, Lee said that “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,” he added.

Lee also spoke about the conflict later in the day in his keynote address at the 18th IISS Shangri-La Dialogue held in Singapore. He said the invasion posed “a serious threat to its non-communist neighbours”.

Le Thi Thu Hang, a spokesperson for Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in a tweet on Wednesday that Vietnam “regretted” Lee’s remarks.

“Vietnam regretted that some contents in the remarks of Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the 18th Shangri La Dialogue and his Facebook page did not objectively reflect the historical truth, causing negative impacts on public opinions,” she said.

“As an active and responsible member of Asean, Vietnam has and will continue working with other members to build a strong Asean community of unity and solidarity (and) playing a central role in the region.”

Hang added that her ministry has discussed the matter with its Singapore counterparts, according to a report by the Vietnam Express.

Cambodian Defence Minister Tea Banh, who attended the Dialogue, criticised Lee’s remarks upon his return to Phnom Penh, the Khmer Times reported. General Banh said that he had raised the issue with Singapore’s Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen.

“It is not true because he said Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia. We wish for him to make corrections. It is not true,” General Banh added, according to the report.

Vietnam and Cambodia have long maintained that the conflict was to “liberate” Cambodians from the massacres carried out by the Khmer Rouge. Up to 3 million Cambodians were estimated to have died under the brutal rule of the Khmer Rouge.

The conflict also led to a month-long border war between China and Vietnam in early 1979. Beijing had given considerable political and military backing to the Khmer Rouge when it was in power. Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping had said that the war was to “teach Vietnam a lesson”.

Led by Asean, with the support of the US and China, the international community isolated Vietnam and the Cambodian government that Hanoi had installed after it overthrew the Khmer Rouge.

Asean, Vietnam and Cambodia began mending fences after the end of the conflict. Vietnam joined the grouping in 1995, followed by Cambodia in 1999.

Yahoo News Singapore has reached out to Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs for comment.

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