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Singapore ‘highly values’ relations with Cambodia and Vietnam: MFA after PM Lee's remarks on 1978 invasion

SINGAPORE — Singapore “highly values” its relations with Cambodia and Vietnam, its Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) said on Friday (June 7) after a recent Facebook post by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong mentioning Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in 1978 drew the ire of both Indochinese nations.

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen (front) inspecting an honour guard as Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong walks behind him at the Istana in Singapore, during a three-day official visit on July 26, 2010.

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen (front) inspecting an honour guard as Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong walks behind him at the Istana in Singapore, during a three-day official visit on July 26, 2010.

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SINGAPORE — Singapore “highly values” its relations with Cambodia and Vietnam, its Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) said on Friday (June 7) after a recent Facebook post by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong mentioning Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in 1978 drew the ire of both Indochinese nations.

Responding to media queries, an MFA spokesperson said: “Notwithstanding our differences in the past, we have always treated each other with respect and friendship.

“Bilateral relations have grown in many areas, and we worked together with other Southeast Asian countries to build a cohesive and united ASEAN (Association of South-east Asian Nations).”

The spokesperson noted that references to this chapter of Indochina’s history are not new. “They reflect Singapore’s longstanding viewpoint, which has been stated publicly before,” MFA said, adding that Mr Lee Kuan Yew had written about this in his memoirs.

ASEAN (then comprising Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand) also stated its position on Cambodia clearly in a joint statement that was circulated to the United Nations Security Council in 1979.

The statement affirmed the right of the Kampuchean people to determine their future by themselves, free from interference or influence from outside powers in the exercise of their right of self-determination, noted the spokesperson.

On May 31, Mr Lee wrote on his Facebook page that he had written to Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to express his condolences on the death of former Thai prime minister Prem Tinsulanonda on May 26.

He noted that General Prem’s time as Thai prime minister coincided with the ASEAN members 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. General Prem was resolute in not accepting this fait accompli, and worked with ASEAN partners to oppose the Vietnamese occupation in international forums,” Mr Lee recounted.

“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.”

Mr Lee also referred to the issue during his keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue last Friday when recounting the history of the region during the Cold War period.


Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen wrote on his Facebook page on Thursday night that he deeply regretted learning of Mr Lee’s comments.

“His statement reflects Singapore’s position then in support of the genocidal regime and the wish for its return to Cambodia,” he said.

“His statement is also an insult to the sacrifice of the Vietnamese military volunteers who helped to liberate Cambodia from the genocidal regime. His statement reveals to the Singaporean people and the world that the leader of Singapore had indeed contributed to the massacre of Cambodian people.”

The Cambodian prime minister said he would ask PM Lee if he considers the trial of Khmer Rouge leaders legitimate. Last year, two Khmer Rouge leaders were found guilty of genocide for the first time, in a tribunal backed by the United Nations.

Earlier, Vietnam’s foreign ministry reportedly said it had raised the issue with Singapore through diplomatic channels, while adding that Vietnam’s contribution and sacrifice in helping the Cambodians end Khmer Rouge genocide was true and widely recognised.


Singapore's position on the invasion is explained in an official document "Establishing Our Place in the World", which highlights some of the country's diplomatic strategies since independence, including how the Vietnamese action in Cambodia presented Singapore with a "moral dilemma".

Vietnam invaded its neighbour in December 1978 on the pretext of stopping the oppression of the Cambodian people by the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. During its nearly four years in power, the regime under Pol Pot implemented policies that killed about a quarter of Cambodia’s population.

The Vietnamese invasion overthrew that regime and installed a puppet government under Heng Samrin. That government had to consult Vietnam before it made any major decisions. 

While the Pol Pot regime had gained global notoriety for its brutality, Singapore held the view that it was the responsibility of the people of any country to determine who should govern them, and how they wanted to be governed, and no other foreign state ought to determine this.

Singapore refused to defend the Pol Pot regime. At the same time, it strongly contested Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia and did not recognise the regime set up by the Vietnamese.


At the UN General Assembly, Singapore together with other ASEAN member states galvanised support for the Khmer Rouge to be regarded as the rightful occupant of Cambodia’s seat at the UN, pending a resolution to the conflict. A UN resolution called for the withdrawal of Vietnamese troops and the recognition of self-determination, while avoiding a return to Khmer Rouge control. 

In 1979, 91 out of 152 UN members supported the resolution, increasing to 124 votes in favour (out of 159 members) in 1989.

Countries supported the resolution not because they were sympathetic to the Khmer Rouge, but because of the principle that no country should violate the sovereignty of another.

Vietnam eventually withdrew from Cambodia and the issue was finally resolved through the Paris Peace Agreement of 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. 


On Friday, the MFA spokesperson said that Singapore had no sympathy for the Khmer Rouge, and did not want to see the Khmer Rouge return to Cambodia.

In 1988, ASEAN sponsored UN General Assembly resolutions condemning the Khmer Rouge to ensure it would not be part of any eventual government in Cambodia, recounted MFA.

Singapore and ASEAN were keen to provide humanitarian assistance to the Cambodian people. ASEAN spearheaded the 1980 International Meeting of Humanitarian Assistance and Relief to the Kampuchean People, which took place under the auspices of the UN Economic and Social Council. 

“Prime Minister Lee had made reference to this history to explain how statesmanship and foresight helped to end the tragic wars that caused great suffering to the people of Indochina, and to bring about the peace and cooperation that the region enjoys today.”

“He also wanted to emphasise that regional stability and prosperity, as well as ASEAN unity, cannot be taken for granted. The current geopolitical uncertainties make it all the more important that ASEAN countries maintain our unity and cohesion, and strengthen our cooperation.”

MFA noted that while Singapore and Vietnam were on opposing sides in the past and have different views of that history, their leaders chose to set aside differences to forge a close partnership both bilaterally and in ASEAN.

Likewise, Singapore has worked hard to forge a good relationship with Cambodia following internationally supervised elections that elected a new Cambodian government, and to bring it into the ASEAN fold once it was ready, said the spokesperson.

Vietnam and Cambodia joined ASEAN in 1995 and 1999 respectively. 


In 2011, former deputy prime minister Wong Kan Seng detailed how the issue was one of Singapore's early tests as a country.

Mr Wong, who spoke at the Fourth S. Rajaratnam Lecture organised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Diplomatic Academy, said: "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 our foreign policy."

Mr Wong said that Singapore had to respond to the invasion or it "would have undermined our credibility and posed serious implications for our own security".

"The issue for us is that Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia was a clear case of violation of international borders and an act of external aggression, which would have established an undesirable precedent of international relations if left unopposed ... We had to respond." 

Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin wrote on his Facebook page on Friday that while Vietnam may not like some of the comments made by Mr Lee, “this doesn’t change the past as many view it”.

“Nor does it detract from us being good friends or neighbours today. We are committed to that,” he said.

The MFA spokesperson added that Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan made separate phone calls on Friday to Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Pham Binh Minh and Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Prak Sokhonn.

“Minister Balakrishnan explained these points to his counterparts. They agreed that notwithstanding the serious differences in the past, we have taken the path of cooperation, dialogue and friendship,” said MFA.

“Singapore is committed to building on our good relations with Vietnam and Cambodia, and hope that they can continue to grow from strength to strength, based on candour and trust.” CNA

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