Introduction by Amanda Oon

Words are weapons. They can form alliances. They can send signals. And in the case of one condolence letter sent by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, they can spark diplomatic conflict over key events in ASEAN’s history. 

Lee’s 2019 letter, which was shared on his social media, praised Thailand’s position on the frontline in facing off Vietnam’s 1978 “invasion” of Cambodia to expunge the iron grip of Democratic Kampuchean forces. The letter sparked retaliation from both Vietnam and Cambodia, rocked the Red Dot’s international relations with both countries and led Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to accuse Lee of supporting genocide. 

In an extract from his upcoming book, An International History of the Third Indochina War, Ang Cheng Guan dissects the debate. A professor of the international history of Southeast Asia in the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University, Guan attempts to present an inclusive and dispassionate historical analysis of a critical time in the region’s modern political development.

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, left, Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, centre, and Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen attend the opening ceremony of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit in Vientiane on 6 September 2016. Photo: Roslan Rahman/AFP

Excerpt by Ang Cheng Guan:

On 31 May 2019, Singapore’s prime minister Lee Hsien Loong sent a condolence letter to his Thai counterpart Prayut Chan-o-cha on the passing of former Thai prime minister and Privy Council President General Prem Tinsulanonda, who passed away on 26 May 2019, aged 98. The condolence letter was also posted on the prime minister’s Facebook. It would have been one of those innocuous diplomatic letters which friendly countries occasionally send, except that in this case, it caused a brief diplomatic incident between Cambodia as well as Vietnam and Singapore. Both Cambodia and Vietnam took issue with Lee’s recount of General Prem’s contribution to the region during his tenure as prime minister from 1980 to 1988, which coincided with the Third Indochina War.

The disputed paragraph in the condolence letter is as follows. 

According to Prime Minister Lee, “General Prem’s leadership has benefited the region. 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. Supported by his able Foreign Minister, Air Chief Marshal Siddhi Savetsila, 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. Eventually the invasion forces withdrew, a peace settlement was signed, and internationally supervised elections were held to elect a new Cambodian government. This decisively shaped the subsequent course of Southeast Asia. It paved the way for Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos to join ASEAN, as partners in promoting the region’s peace and development”. 

It should also be noted that Prime Minister Lee in his speech at the opening of the 18th edition of the Shangri-La Dialogue, also on 31 May 2019, of which the first part of his speech was a survey of the international history of Southeast Asia, also referred to the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia as one milestone.

General Tea Banh (Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of National Defence of Cambodia) when he arrived in Singapore for the Shangri-La Dialogue asked Singapore’ Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen to inform Lee to “make correction on his remark” as it was “not true and not reflective of the history…It is not true at all because he said that Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia. We cannot accept what he said. We have already clarified that Vietnamese volunteer troops came to liberate our people…”

Leap Chanthavy, a political analyst based in Phnom Penh, berated Lee for “being disrespectful to the Khmer Rouge victims and those who sacrificed their lives in deposing the genocidal regime of Khmer Rouge” and “denying legitimacy of the new Cambodian government that saved lives of the remaining four million Cambodians with support from the Vietnamese forces”. She reminded readers that “Singapore has never denounced auto-genocide conducted by the Pol Pot regime…even recognised the rogue state and killing machines, provided military assistance, and mobilised international community to deny the legitimacy of Heng Samrin’s regime to deny humanitarian assistance to survivors of the Khmer Rouge”.

Youk Chhang (Executive Director, Documentation Centre of Cambodia and a survivor of the Khmer Rouge’s killing fields) remarked that Lee’s words “showed there was a need to establish an ASEAN peace and human rights education programme for the region – starting with Singapore…”

On 6 June 2019, Cambodia’s prime minister Hun Sen in his Facebook post wrote that he “deeply regretted Lee’s remarks” and accused Lee of supporting the Khmer Rouge genocide. Hun Sen said that Lee’s statement “is an insult to the sacrifice of the Vietnamese military volunteers who helped to liberate Cambodia from the genocidal regime” and also “reveals to the Singaporean people and the world that (the) leader of Singapore has contributed to the massacre of Cambodian people”. He ended by asking whether Lee considered the trial of the Khmer Rouge leaders legitimate?

The Vietnamese too were upset by Lee’s condolence letter. The spokeswoman of Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Vietnam regrets that the statement “did not reflect history objectively, causing negative public opinions” and revealed that her ministry had “discussed” with her Singapore counterpart over the matter. She also said that “Vietnam’s contribution and sacrifice in helping (the) Cambodian people end Khmer Rouge’s genocide is true and widely recognised”.

Although both Cambodia and Vietnam disagreed with Lee’s interpretation of the history, Lee’s statement created much more furor in Cambodia than in Vietnam. It clearly touched a raw nerve in Cambodia. As Kimkong Heng noted, Cambodians “have been divided, so divided over their differing interpretations of their country’s historical events. Some historical facts such as the Liberation Day on 7 January has been over-politicised. Two conflicting narratives prevail and dominate the social and political discourses in the Kingdom”. Those who were critical or against the Hun Sen government generally held the view that 7 January “marked the invasion and occupation of Cambodia by Vietnam”.

Ang Cheng Guan is a professor of the international history of Southeast Asia in the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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