My sympathies should be with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. What he thought was going to be a routine walk in the park became unplanned and unnecessary diversions into a mini minefield. The first “misstep” came at the Shangri-La Dialogue, the second when he commented on Facebook on the passing of former Thai Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda.
He had said at the Shangri-La Dialogue that Vietnam’s 1979 invasion of Cambodia posed a serious threat to its non-communist neighbours, as he recounted the formation of Asean.
He expanded on the point a second time when commenting on Prem.
“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 (the original group of Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore) to oppose the Vietnamese occupation in international forums,” PM Lee recounted.
“This prevented the military invasion and regime change from being legitimised. It protected the security of other South-east Asia countries, and decisively shaped the course of the region.”
The comments sounded like yet another grand big picture look back at the tough growing up years. Not to the Cambodians, at least not to its leaders, and to a certain degree, the Vietnamese.
The Vietnamese made some noises but were calmer. Its foreign ministry reportedly said it had raised the issue with Singapore through diplomatic channels. Vietnam’s contribution and sacrifice in helping the Cambodians end the Khmer Rouge genocide was true and widely recognised, it added.
The Cambodians were not so calm. Prime Minister Hun Sen wrote on his Facebook page that he deeply regretted learning of Lee’s comments.
“His statement is an insult to the sacrifice of the Vietnamese military volunteers who helped to liberate Cambodia from the genocidal regime (of Pol Pot). His statement reveals to the Singaporean people and the world that the leader of Singapore had indeed contributed to the massacre of Cambodian people.”
Strong words, coming from no less than someone who has been PM since 1984 and is perhaps one of the more recognised faces of Cambodia since Norodom Sihanouk and the infamous Pol Pot but is also not quite recognised as an advocate of democracy and human rights. So, to be fair to PM Lee, it is a bit rich of Hun Sen to portray himself as a kind of liberator, even acting on behalf of the liberating Vietnamese.
I quote from Wikipedia: In 1987, Amnesty International accused Hun Sen’s government of torturing thousands of political prisoners using “electric shocks, hot irons and near-suffocation with plastic bags”.
Hun Sen has perhaps been living all these years under the shadow of being regarded as a proxy of Hanoi. Maybe he is really not. There is now an even bigger protector to his country’s north. That fact was more or less evident in the role played by Cambodia within Asean.
Remember how in 2016, Cambodia twice scuppered an Asean consensus by preventing the group from mentioning the arbitration ruling that roundly dismissed Beijing’s claims to the South China Sea as having no legal basis.
Asean failed to agree on maritime disputes in the South China Sea after Cambodia blocked any mention of an international court ruling against Beijing in the group’s statement.
The ruling by the court in The Hague denied China’s sweeping claims in the strategic international sea passage, through which more than $5 trillion in global trade passes each year.
Hun Sen’s attack on Singapore may be a delayed payback for casting doubts about its less than Asean-friendly stance.
There was a time when Cambodia was an active, supremely confident player on the world scene. Under Norodom Sihanouk, it had a high profile as an emerging country which commanded respect as a leading Third World force.
Singapore had a very close relationship with Phnom Penh. I think the late Lee Kuan Yew, who was friendly with Sihanouk, developed warmer links with Cambodia than with Vietnam. On a visit to the Cambodian capital in 1967, he turned to Sihanouk and said: “I hope, one day, my city will look like this.”
When Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge in 1975, local TV did a rare Breaking News flash (this was before Channel NewsAsia or CNA), the way that the SAF silent recall codes were announced: “Khmer Rouge takes over Phnom Penh”. The only other such flash was shown when Workers’ Party’s J B Jeyaretnam won the Anson by-election in 1981. Even the more significant victory by the People’s Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong over the South Vietnamese forces in Saigon the same year as the fall of Phnom Penh had no similar treatment by SBC (MediaCorp’s earlier name).
These are very different times. The leaders of Singapore and Cambodia do not visit each other that frequently anymore as friends or as close neighbours, though it must be said that Hun Sen had such great respect for Lee Kuan Yew that he came for his funeral.
That seems to be the high estrangement price that Singapore is paying for thinking and acting like it is part of East Asia or the Middle Kingdom when its place is rightfully and inevitably right here – in South-east Asia. It is not just a matter of having good ties. It is more that of committing our future to this region, above all other places.
Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.