On 31 May 2019, on his Facebook page, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong described about his letter to Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to express condolences on the passing of former Thai PM and President of the Privy Council, General Prem Tinsulanonda. He wrote, “ His leadership also benefited the region. 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…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.”
What is striking is his view in denouncing the regime change that toppled the 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.
This is nothing but being disrespectful to the Khmer Rouge victims and those who sacrificed their lives in deposing the genocidal regime of Khmer Rouge.
His view inherited from his father former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew who was resolutely against the Vietnamese intervention. Singapore regarded Vietnam as mini hegemon who was the proxy of the Soviet Union in their endeavour to impose communism to the region.
To put the fact straight, not only that Singapore has never denounced auto-genocide conducted by the Pol Pot regime, Singapore even recognised the rogue state and killing machine, provided military assistance, and mobilised international community to deny legitimacy of Heng Samrin’s regime and to deny any humanitarian assistance to survivors of the Khmer Rouge.
Singapore recognised the Pol Pot regime as legitimate and established diplomatic relations on 6 May 1976. Singapore invited Ieng Sary, the then deputy prime minister in charge of foreign affairs of Democratic Kampuchea for an official visit from 21 to 24 March 1977. Ieng Sary was received by President Sheares, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, Foreign Minister Rajaratnam and Culture Minister Jek Yeun Thong.
Singapore was the first Southeast Asian country that offered to provide military assistance to guerrilla forces to fight against Heng Samrin’s regime.
American, Singaporean, Malaysian and Thai officials held regular meetings in Bangkok to coordinate the Cambodian aid program, Lee Kuan Yew wrote in his book, “From Third World to First: The Singapore Story 1965-2000.” He said the Singapore representative “estimated that the United States dispensed a total of about $150 million in covert and overt aid to the non-Communist groups, Singapore $55 million, Malaysia $10 million and Thailand a few million in training, ammunition, food and operational funds.” But Lee Kuan Yew said those amounts were dwarfed by aid from China, which had long had antagonistic relations with Vietnam and sought to prevent Hanoi from turning Cambodia into a satellite state. Beijing spent “some $100 million” to support the non-Communist forces fighting alongside the Khmer Rouge to expel the Vietnamese, he wrote, and “10 times that amount on the Khmer Rouge.”
In Bangkok, the Americans provided the “coalition” with battle plans, uniforms, money and satellite intelligence; arms came direct from China and from the west, via Singapore.
In justifying Singapore’s stance in recognising Democratic Kampuchea, the then second deputy prime minister Rajaratnam wrote in a letter dated 30 July 1980 that, “The stakes are far higher than the number of skulls the Vietnamese have dug up and displayed to fuel moral outrage against the Khmer Rouge’s past…The obsession with Pol Pot’s past, to the relative exclusion of the possible decimation of a whole people through Vietnamese aggression and the destabilisation of the ASEAN region, is not a manifestation of the moral sense as an evasion of it.”
Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew tried to block humanitarian assistance to survivors of the Khmer Rouge. On 21 November 1979, he was quoted as saying that, “How does that help the outcome? How does it guarantee that food gets through to the Cambodians and not to just those Cambodians that Heng Samrin and his Vietnamese installers or backers consider worthy of survival? Are they prepared to let the Cambodian people die in order to force the world to recognise the Heng Samrin regime? Let’s put it to the test.”
He was quoted on 1 October 1981 criticising Vietnam’s intervention that, “There will be colonies in Asia after the white man has gone. There is one now in Kampuchea. It is a Vietnamese colony. Laos is another Vietnamese colony.”
Such position was also announced by minister of state Yeo Cheow Tong at the 41st United Nations General Assembly session on “the situation in Kampuchea” on 20 October 1986, who quoted Elizabeth Becker’s book that wrote, “Each year that control has produced humiliating orders from the Vietnamese overlords. Although Kampuchea does not produce enough rice to feed its own population, it is required to send rice and fish to Vietnam. Vietnamese is becoming the second language in government offices. The number of new Vietnamese settlers rises each year, following the pattern set hundreds of years ago when the Vietnamese settled what is now southern Vietnam. First come the Vietnamese equivalent of carpet baggers, petty merchants who now inhabit entire quarters of Phnom Penh. Then come the farmers and fishermen. The farmers settled in the disputed territory near the Vietnamese-Cambodian border, further blurring the divide. The fishermen moved up the waterways and are now clustered as far west as the Great Lake. If the pattern holds, the next group to settle will be demobilised Vietnamese soldiers who are given land in return for pacifying Cambodia.”
Whatever the arguments, the moral ground seen from the perspective of the Khmer Rouge survivors is nothing but unacceptable. What moral ground that is more important than Cambodian lives? What sovereignty is for if the population is annihilated? When one who never care about the genocide but suddenly try to prove themselves that they care for sovereignty of Cambodia, those people, in fact, forgot the sensible humanity when they ignored the killing of Cambodian people a while ago. That does not give them any credit as they claimed to have either when they tried so hard to punish the survivors and those who sacrificed blood to remove the genocidal regime.
What Singapore cared is only its own selective peace or that of the old five ASEAN members that Singapore tends to mention quite often recently by ignoring the other half of Southeast Asia which was put into bloodshed in those war times.
After all these forty years, the gut to mention about Singapore’s bravery in denying the toppling of Pol Pot’s regime is nothing but a complete disrespect to lives and souls of Cambodian peoples. The comment made by Lee Hsien Loong touched deeply on Cambodian wound by stirring the memory when the self-acclaimed high moral Singaporean government has never denounced auto-genocide conducted by the Khmer Rouge. Cambodian people can forgive but we can never forget our difficult times and we know clearly who were our friends in need. Singapore was not one of those. These Singaporean leaders should be invited to visit Toul Sleng Genocide Museum Archives, which were registered by UNESCO as Memory of the World International Register on 9 August 2010. Also, they can come to visit Cheung Ek mass graves and killing field if they still think that genocide was a fabrication.
Lee Hsien Loong’s comment reignited pain of Cambodian people and questioned moral responsibility and sensibility of a statesman towards millions of lives of Cambodian peoples. Singapore’s exclusive and selective peace and exceptionalism is despicable and Singapore should learn to acknowledge the other country’s existence and desire for peace just as much as its own. Singapore’s leaders should start to learn to acknowledge that ASEAN is now ten and not five as they often nostalgically recite. And Cambodia is among those ten, in case Singapore forgets.
Leap Chanthavy is a Cambodian Political analyst and commentator based in Phnom Penh