Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made a provocative post on Facebook last week when he eulogized a former Thai leader for “opposing Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia and the Cambodian government that replaced the Khmer Rouge” and therefore “preventing the military invasion and regime change from being legitimised”, with this contentious comment on Cambodia’s internal affairs simultaneously endorsing one of the bloodiest governments of the 20th century, putting pressure on the already-beleaguered government in Phnom Penh that came to power afterwards, and ultimately being a sign of fealty to his country’s American geopolitical patron.
Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is in hot water after making a provocative post on Facebook last week while eulogizing a former Thai leader. He wrote that former Thai PM and President of the Privy Council General Prem Tinsulanonda “opposed Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia and the Cambodian government that replaced the Khmer Rouge” and therefore “prevented the military invasion and regime change from being legitimised”, which was a contentious comment on Cambodia’s internal affairs that got him in a lot of trouble after both Phnom Penh and Hanoi loudly protested his depiction of these seemingly controversial events during the last decade of the Old Cold War.
For those readers who are unfamiliar with what happened during that time, Soviet-backed Vietnam invaded Chinese-backed Cambodia in response to regular border provocations coming from its neighbor, which marked a climax of sorts in the infamous Sino-Soviet split. The end result was that the Khmer Rouge was overthrown and replaced by a pro-Vietnamese government, though the West and many regional countries continued to recognize the Khmer Rouge as the legitimate government of the country owing to the foreign circumstances of its demise despite the genocide that it carried out against its own people in pursuit of its ultra-radical ideological agenda.
At the time, the non-communist countries of the region were afraid of the so-called “domino effect” that might eventually lead to the creation of a “Greater Vietnam” through what they feared would be Hanoi’s “sphere of influence” in the rest of Indochina following the US’ military retreat from the region, with ietnam’s humanitarian intervention (which is what the country portrayed its campaign in Cambodia as being) being seen as proof of this theory in practice. It’s for that reason why realpolitik prevailed over principles and the US, Thailand, Singapore, and others continued to support the Khmer Rouge for geopolitical reasons, which is what Lee was referring to in his Facebook eulogy to General Prem.
His contemporary comments are just as relevant in the New Cold War as they were for the Old Cold War because of the effect that they had of implying that the current government in Cambodia is a foreign-backed puppet regime, a weaponized narrative that Prime Minister Hun Sen is extremely sensitive about after it’s been used to delegitimize him over the past couple of years during a now-failed Color Revolution attempt. Cambodia has nowadays returned to being China’s closest partner in Southeast Asia in site of Hun Sen having literally come to power on the back of Vietnamese tanks, which speaks to his geopolitical pragmatism but nevertheless obviously makes him a target of the US’ regime change operations.
It’s because of Cambodia continuing to loyally side with China that ASEAN has been unable to promulgate any meaningful resolutions multilateralizing the South China Sea dispute like the US wants, which is yet another reason why America wants to carry out regime change against Hun Sen. In pursuit of this, it’s also been fearmongering that he’ll allow China to set up military facilities in the country too, which while having been officially denied by Beijing nevertheless puts the regional countries that have been convinced to fear the so-called “China threat” on edge. It’s with this context in mind why Lee’s comments about Cambodia and all that they imply are seen as extremely provocative by the country’s government.
In addition, with Singapore being a decades-long American ally and one of the regional states most concerned about the rise of China (partially because it’s afraid of losing its geostrategic importance if the Belt & Road Initiative‘s overland routes render the Strait of Malacca redundant in a few decades’ time), it makes sense why it would indirectly advance the US’ goals in this respect through the provocative post that Lee recently made. The downside, however, is that while this scandal drew renewed attention to Hun Sen’s legitimacy, it also risks undermining the “networked region” that the US envisages creating and which it elaborated upon in its “Indo-Pacific Strategy Report“.
By implicitly expressing such strategic fealty to America and reveling in the ignoble distinction of having supported the Khmer Rouge during the “good ole’ days” of the Old Cold War, Singapore might have unwittingly complicated the US’ regional plans by making it more politically difficult for Vietnam to “network” with the city-state like Washington wants to have happen as part of its grand plan to “contain” China. One Facebook post won’t make much of a geopolitical difference in the larger scheme of things, but it nevertheless signified that more divides the US’ regional partners than unites them, especially when it comes to their recent historical memory about seemingly controversial events such as Vietnam’s liberation of Cambodia.
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