Lon Rith, the eldest son of Marshal Lon Nol, was born on 18 March 1962. It was a time of conflict in the Indochina region that dragged Cambodia into the United States’ war with the Viet Cong. Eight years after Mr Rith was born, the National Assembly, led by his father as Prime Minister, removed Prince Norodom Sihanouk as head of state. Marshal Nol later became President of the Khmer Republic, which lasted five years. Many blame his father’s regime as a prelude to the Khmer Rouge genocide that saw nearly two million Cambodians die. Critics also called the removal of Prince Sihanouk a coup d’état. Mr Rith, president of Khmer Republic Party, sees things differently.
KT: Can you tell us a bit about your early life?
Mr Rith: I was born in Phnom Penh on 18 March, 1962. When I was a little boy, my father sent me to study and live with one of my uncles in France, and then Washington DC in the US. But, I always visited Cambodia during vacations until the fall of the Khmer Republic government. I reunited with my father when he came to Hawaii in 1975.
KT: Historians have recorded that Marshal Lon Nol, your father, led a coup against Prince Sihanouk in 1970. What can you say about that?
Mr Rith: Please allow me to clarify and inform all people. I dismiss the statement that my father led a coup against Prince Sihanouk. He neither led nor started the removal of the Prince. In fact, it was not even a coup. Both chambers of Parliament did not trust the Prince as the Head of the State at that time. My father was a general, and he only followed the decision made by Parliament.
KT: What led to King Sihanouk’s removal as the Head of State?
Mr Rith: Prince Sihanouk declared Cambodia a neutral country, but little by little, he was turning to the communist countries. He had allowed the Viet Cong to found military bases in the country and formed the Ho Chi Minh trail across it. When the US learned that there were Viet Cong forces in Cambodia, the US bombed the country to chase Viet Cong away. I have read historical documents and found out that Prince Sihanouk opened the door for the US because he learned that allowing Viet Cong to be in Cambodia was a grave mistake. People were tired of it and with the Viet Cong, and they called for their withdrawal. To get rid of all his involvement, Prince Sihanouk later brought up an excuse that he had to go to France for medical reasons. While abroad, the nation called for his return, but he ignored it. So both chambers of the Parliament finally decided to vote for his removal.
KT: Was your father anti-Sihanouk? If not, what made him turn against Prince Sihanouk?
Mr Rith: No one loved Prince Sihanouk more than Lon Nol. My father received his position and honour from Prince Sihanouk. He was a true royalist and never supported anyone apart from Prince Sihanouk. But one day, when his boss turned to communism, he stood by the people’s side because he thought that communism was not good for Khmer people or the world. There was a large portrait of the prince at our house in Phnom Penh. On the day the National Assembly voted to remove Prince Sihanouk, before leaving the house for the assembly, my father stood before the picture of the prince, took off his cap, and bowed to it. It is also possible that Prince Sirik Matak, my father’s second in command, led the coup because he was very influential, and had not gotten along well with Prince Sihanouk, thanks to a royal family line dispute.
KT: Another theory says the CIA backed Marshal Lon Nol against Prince Sihanouk. Can you explain that?
Nothing like that happened. My father still stressed the neutrality of the country. The New York Times wrote about his stance on 24 March, 1970. Please allow me to quote him. Our position is the Geneva agreement, and it specifies that we are simply neutral. At this crucial moment for our country we are again asking for the Geneva agreement. But if you want to be precise, I tell you we have never had any contacts with any foreigners, not only the CIA, but with no other foreigners either. I heard from my father’s supporters that one or two days after that, an official from an Asian Embassy secretly came to meet my father and made him an offer that as long as he still carried on Prince Sihanouk’s [pro-communist] policies, the that government would put the prince in house arrest, and my father could have anything he wanted. But, my father was not corrupt, and he replied that he could not do it because it was a matter that affected Cambodian people and Parliament, who wanted Viet Cong out of the country. It was the Communists, who started the war. Prince Sihanouk joined them and later Khmer Rouge.
KT: What factors do you think led to the fall of Khmer Republic?
Mr Rith: First, it was the corruption of the civil and military officials in the Khmer Republic government. Some of them even sold weapons to Khmer Rouge forces. Second, it was the fact that guerilla forces were fighting under the name of Prince Sihanouk, who were calling people to join them. My father could not do much at that time because of his bad health. Otherwise, he would have prevented that because he was a great leader and would have done anything to solve problems.
KT: What was he doing from the moment he arrived in the US until the last day of his life?
Mr Lon Rith: My father had done a lot for the country, but he did not let many people know because he was a very modest man. I myself had not known about it until I went through his papers after his death. Two months after the Khmer Rouge came into power, he secretly started organising a front to liberate the Cambodian people from Khmer Rouge. He wrote to the United Nations, American presidents and rich Americans to offer aid to Cambodian refugees and bring them to the US.
KT: What were the most remarkable words your father ever spoke shortly before his death in 1985?
Mr Lon Rith: Once, shortly before his death, my father says, ‘I do not know what I can do to awaken the Cambodians’. My father was not a traitor; people who knew him were impressed by his honesty. He deserves to be called a hero.