Cambodia, Singapore and Vietnam have agreed to move on from the controversy caused by remarks from Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and follow the path of cooperation, dialogue and friendship.
The foreign ministers of the three countries had separate telephone conversations on Friday after Lee’s comments questioning the legitimacy of Cambodia’s first post-Khmer Rouge government drew ire from the Kingdom and Vietnam over the past week.
On May 31, Lee took to Facebook to express his condolences on the passing of former general Prem Tinsulanonda, who was Thai prime minister from 1980 to 1988.
“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."
“This prevented the military invasion and regime change from being legitimised. It protected the security of other Southeast Asian countries, and decisively shaped the course of the region,” Lee said.
On Friday, the three foreign ministers talked separately on the phone agreeing to move on from the controversy, one born of different historical perspectives, strengthen relations and cooperation and “leave the past behind”.
Singaporean Minister of Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan told his Cambodian counterpart Prak Sokhonn that Lee had expressed his understanding of the suffering of Cambodians under the Khmer Rouge regime, and that there was no malice intended from Singapore.
He said Lee’s message was just recalling the challenging situation at that time, as previously stated publicly.
Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement on Friday saying Balakrishnan had also spoken with his Vietnamese counterpart Pham Binh Minh by phone to clarify Lee’s remarks.
“While Singapore and Vietnam were on opposing sides in the past and have different views of that history, our leaders chose to set aside differences to forge a close partnership both bilaterally and in Asean,” the statement said.
The three ministers agreed that notwithstanding serious differences in the past, they have chosen the path of cooperation, dialogue and friendship, it added.
The statement added: “Singapore is committed to building on our good relations with Vietnam and Cambodia, and hopes that they can continue to grow from strength to strength, based on candour and trust.”
Meanwhile, the Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation said on Friday: “Despite different perspectives on the historical facts, the two foreign ministers concurred that both countries are committed to strengthening the spirit of friendship and good neighbourliness.
“Both countries will endeavour to make every effort to leave the past behind and continue to engage in further productive dialogues."
“In order to prevent any further misunderstandings in the present and in the future, Cambodia will endeavour to avoid digging into the past."
“Both countries will work together to build a cohesive and united Asean, which is the will of both the leaders and the people of Asean.”
Kin Phea, the director-general of the Institute of International Relations at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said Asean countries had been victims of the ideologies contested during the cold war and salt should not be rubbed into old wounds.
“All should be focusing on development and how Asean has a common identity, working together towards a community that has a common destiny,” he said.
He used the US-Vietnam war, France’s 90-year colonisation of the Kingdom and the historical loss of Cambodian territory to Vietnam, including an island the size of Singapore, as examples of history to be avoided.
He said bringing up such topics would only hinder international cooperation and development.
“Cambodians, as well as Asean’s leaders, should not unearth the dead bodies that have been buried because this brings only suffering and prevents regional cooperation and development,” Phea said.
Chheang Vannarith, president of the Asian Vision Institute, said each country involved in the controversy held a firm position on the past and so should look to the future together to find solutions to regional problems and focus on the common interests of the three nations rather than complex history.