PM Lee’s Facebook post in which he paid tribute to the late Thai PM General Prem received significant flak from top government officials in Vietnam and Cambodia, as well as Vietnamese and Cambodian netizens. To understand the massive backlash, one needs to look at the history of Cambodia and Vietnam, and why PM Lee’s comments have evoked such painful memories.
The Khmer Rouge Government
Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), popularly known as the Khmer Rouge was in power between 1975 and 1979.
The Khmer Rouge military grew in strength in the jungles of Eastern Cambodia during the late 1960s, supported by the North Vietnamese army, the Viet Cong and the Pathet Lao.
Despite a massive American bombing campaign, the Khmer Rouge won the Cambodian Civil War when in 1975 they captured the Cambodian capital and overthrew the government of the Khmer Republic.
Following their victory, the Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot, renamed the country as Democratic Kampuchea and began a forcible eviction of the country’s urban centres.
Its attempts at agricultural reform through collectivisation led to widespread famine while its insistence on absolute self-sufficiency, even in the supply of medicine, led to the death of many thousands from treatable diseases such as malaria.
The regime also murdered hundreds of thousands of their perceived political opponents. Ultimately, the Cambodian genocide led to the deaths of 1.5 to 3 million people, around 25% of Cambodia’s population.
Khmer raids on Vietnamese villages
The Khmer Rouge’s brutality extended to its treatment of neighboring countries. Highly xenophobic, the Khmer Rouge regime pursued a policy of racial purity, seeking to purge Cambodia of its domestic minorities and external nationalities.
Relations between the Khmer Rouge regime and Vietnam soured as a result of years of border conflicts and the flood of refugees entering Southern Vietnam.
Fearing a Vietnamese attack, Pol Pot ordered a pre-emptive invasion of Vietnam on April 18 1978. Khmer forces crossed the border and looted nearby villages. In Ba Chúc, An Giang Province, Khmer forces murdered over 3,000 Vietnamese villagers, leaving only 2 alive.
As a result of these events, Vietnamese leaders decided to remove the Khmer Rouge-dominated regime of Democratic Kampuchea by the fall of 1978, perceiving it as being a threat to Vietnam.
Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia
On Christmas Day, 1978, 150,000 Vietnamese troops invaded Democratic Kampuchea and overran Khmer forces in just 2 weeks. Vietnam’s invasion and subsequent occupation ended the genocide and allowed international aid to flood into the country, sparing the population from further starvation and disease.
On January 8 1979, the pro-Vietnamese People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) was established in Phnom Penh, marking the beginning of a ten-year Vietnamese occupation.
The problem with PM Lee’s remarks
PM Lee in his facebook post asserted that Vietnam’s invasion and the subsequent regime it installed was illegitimate. General Prem was Thailand’s army chief at the time of the invasion and rallied ASEAN members to condemn the invasion. Eventually, 5 ASEAN members – Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, and Singapore issued a joint condemnation of Vietnam’s invasion.
ASEAN diplomats, with the support of China and the United States also lobbied for Vietnam to be isolated internationally. Vietnamese forces eventually withdrew from Cambodia in 1989.
Cambodian and Vietnamese netizens and key government officials pointed out that PM Lee’s Facebook post notably failed to mention the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge and their incursions into Southern Vietnam that forced Hanoi to invade in the first place.
Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen’s fifth son, legislator Hun Many, told the Phnom Penh Post that his father’s Cambodian People’s Party had, with the help of Vietnam, saved more Cambodians from suffering.
Covert support for the Khmer Rouge
Additionally, PM Lee’s remarks also brought to light the controversy of the Vietnam-Cambodia War where the Khmer Rouge was covertly supported by several ASEAN members (Singapore included) as well as China and the United States.
A WikiLeaks dump of 500,000 U.S. diplomatic cables from 1978 document shows that the administration of President Jimmy Carter was torn between revulsion at the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge and concern with the possibility of growing Vietnamese influence should the Khmer Rouge collapse.
Following the Khmer Rouge’s eviction, Singapore was one of the first ASEAN members to offer military aid to rebel groups fighting Vietnamese occupation forces.
At the time, the concern among Singapore’s leaders and several ASEAN members was the threat of Vietnamese aggression and Soviet influence in the region.