The Asean region has specific rules of engagement and a policy of non-interference in the affairs of member states but this is eroding in the face of the disruptive era with the power of social media. This is a useless spat over the overly destructive Khmer Rouge.
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has a taste of this formidable force after his Facebook post referring to the Khmer Rouge regime became a regional affair with Cambodia and Vietnam reacting strongly to his comments.
With comments that seem to indicate Singapore’s rejection of the removal of the Khmer Rouge regime, in Cambodia and Vietnam the feeling is the neighbouring republic’s leader is insensitive to the genocide of 1.7 million Cambodians.
In Cambodia, the people are still living with the echoes of the killing fields and the stories of brutal executions and mass graves that has left its mark on the country and still escapes reasoning.
Years after the removal of the Pol Pot regime, the country lived in abject poverty leaving children, men and women digging in piles of rubbles and later on in land fills to find food to fill their bellies.
This is a country that was hit by the worst man-made disaster leading to long term poverty and physical and mental disorder.
From Cambodia’s strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself an ex-soldier of the Khmer Rouge who defected to join the overthrow of the regime of Pol Pot, to the Vietnamese government, Lee is getting a lesson in history.
Hun Sen accused Lee of supporting genocide. Historically speaking, Singapore was against the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge which ended four years of horror.
But in Vietnam, it is a sense of confusion that gripped the officials taken aback by the statement.
Hanoi regretted that some contents in the remarks of Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the 18th Shangri-La Dialogue and on his Facebook page did not objectively reflect the historical truth. The Vietnamese authorities say Lee’s statement caused negative impacts on public opinions, adding that it is regrettable.
The extent of the frustration in Vietnam can be measured with the diplomatic note wired to the Singaporean Ambassador in Hanoi.
In Phnom Penh, the frustration is both with the lack of understanding of the country’s turbulent past and the support Lee seems to have for a brutal regime.
Singapore speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin says Vietnam’s and Cambodia’s objections does not change history and Singaporean officials are saying it was an illegal invasion none the less.
PM Lee, in his condolences on the death of former Thai premier and Privy Council president Prem Tinsulanonda last month, mentions how the then five Asean members – Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore – came together to oppose “Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia and the Cambodian government that replaced the Khmer Rouge”.
He said Gen Prem was resolute in not accepting the invasion and regime change, and worked with Asean partners to oppose the Vietnamese occupation in international forums which, according to Lee prevented the military invasion and regime change from being legitimised, as well as protected the security of other Asean countries.
In former deputy PM Wong Kan Seng’s view the invasion of a smaller country by a larger neighbour, the deposition of a legitimate government by external force and the imposition of a proxy by a foreign power became a direct challenge to the fundamentals of Singapore’s foreign policy and opposing the invasion was a question of principle. Singapore had no sympathies for the Khmer Rouge regime, says Wong who spoke at the S. Rajaratnam Lecture organised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Diplomatic Academy.
While Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia’s Pol Pot triggered another fissure in Asean unity, the grouping’s policies came under pressure when Malaysia took Myanmar to task over its handling or rather mishandling of the extreme violence against Rohingya Muslims.
There was heated debates between Malaysian and Myanmar on the breaking of the ruling of non-intervention and the issue has split the two nations on rights issues.
The issue of human rights and democracy are regular topics in Cambodia particularly in its relations with the West.
Hun Sen last year lashed at Western governments for supporting the Khmer Rouge overthrow of General Lon Nol’s US-backed regime. The Khmer Rouge established an ultra-Maoist regime in Cambodia in 1975.
Without naming the US, Cambodia’s PM lambasted a democratic country that supported Pol Pot, who used to kill people with no regard for respecting human rights, in Hun Sen’s words.
The US tried to keep a seat at the UN for Pol Pot’s regime after it was defeated by the Vietnamese forces and this is one of Hun Sen’s favourite statements on Washington’s past ‘mistakes’ with regards to Cambodia.