Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s recent comments have touched on a raw nerve and awoken sleeping dragons.
His denouncement of the regime change that toppled the Khmer Rouge in 1979, and his denial of the legitimacy of the Cambodian government under Heng Samrin that saved the lives of over four million Cambodians with support from the Vietnamese forces, has been all over the media.
His comments suggest an insolence to the more than 1.6 million Khmer Rouge victims and to those who sacrificed their lives in ousting the genocidal regime under the leadership of Pol Pot and his ultra-Maoist policies.
His comments have come across as supporting an autocratic and repressive rule by a dictatorial figure.
Until now, Singaporean politicians have never condemned the auto-genocide conducted by the Pol Pot administration.
Led by Lee Kuan Yew’s own strategic agenda for the region, Singapore provided military assistance and denied offering humanitarian assistance to the survivors of the Khmer Rouge who went fleeing into Vietnam and Thailand.
Pushing its might in the region, Singapore instrumentally rallied the global community to deny legitimacy of Heng Samrin’s pro-Vietnamese- communist regime.
Singapore was sadly also the first Southeast Asian country that offered to provide military assistance to guerrilla forces based in Vietnam to fight against Heng Samrin’s regime.
Lee’s comments regrettably come as no surprise since these were the very same views held by his father.
Lee Kuan Yew had frequently and openly expressed his disdain against the Vietnamese intervention.
Politically, Singapore saw Vietnam as a “growing force” and a “rogue nation”.
To it, Vietnam was viewed as trying to impose communism on the region.
Prime Minister Lee’s views clearly cannot be taken as the Singaporean position, however, as so many Singaporeans have taken to social media to express their utter distaste over the comments.
With this week marking the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen massacre, I recall previous controversial comments that have come from the political benches.
Many of these are to the revulsion of Singaporeans.
In 1989, Lee Kuan Yew notoriously made a statement in support of the Tiananmen massacre that riled me.
It was utterly insensitive to the feelings of millions of Chinese people who were yearning for democracy in China.
The comments deeply hurt the feelings of the families who lost loved ones who were brutally crushed to death by rolling tanks.
It is unfortunate that our politicians have got away with so much in the past with things said and done.
There is a clear way forward, I believe. By educating people on their human rights and teaching them how to stand up and collectively rebut such views and statements is the way to go.
Politicians too need human rights awareness and training.
Some of them come into office oblivious of internationally protected rights and of historical knowledge.
This recent spat is a stark reminder as to why the region needs to constantly engage with the human rights community and non-governmental organisations.
In a perfect world, such statements would be avoided and not tolerated.
I firmly believe that I speak alongside the many Singaporeans who have expressed moral outrage at the comments made by the prime minister.
Many Singaporeans share the disgust of the horrors of the crimes against inhumanity that occurred not only at the Killing Fields but elsewhere in the region during those trying historical years.
I sincerely hope that the tensions do not escalate further between the two countries.
If an apology is sought by the Cambodian side, I am optimistic that Singaporean diplomacy will grant this graciously somehow.
Our leaders need to be acutely aware of the several landmines of sensitivities in the region.
More so now when political and trade stability is critical for the progress of Asean’s 10 countries and all the communities in it.
The rest of the world is watching Asean as a single trading unit.
We need to get our internal squabbles out of the way through mutual respect and recognition.
M Ravi is a Singapore-based international human rights lawyer. His extensive work on various human rights topics can be found on his website at www.mravilaw.com.