​Lon Nol's Cambodia '72: absolute power, absolute lies | Phnom Penh Post

Lon Nol's Cambodia '72: absolute power, absolute lies


Publication date
10 April 1998 | 07:00 ICT

Reporter : Post Staff

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The 1972 elections saw 1970 coup-leader Lon Nol "legitimized"

at the polls. Academic Steven Heder, continuing his series on elections in

the last half-century, describes the '72 elections: guns and bald-faced lies.

If the last elections under then-Prince Sihanouk in 1966 bore some resemblance

to those of 1946-1951, the balloting processes conducted in 1972 in the Khmer Republic

resembled the elections of 1955.

These processes included a referendum on a constitution and elections for a president,

a lower representative chamber and a senate.

Just as the elections of 1955 had been engineered to confirm the supremacy of Sihanouk,

those of 1972 were rigged to confirm the supremacy of his former armed forces chief

Lon Nol, whose feats at suppression of electoral opposition to the Prince had helped

recommend him to Sihanouk back in 1955.

The major difference was that although Sihanouk had enjoyed significant popularity

in 1955, Lon Nol in 1972 was very unpopular. Rampant corruption, repeated battlefield

defeats and repression of dissenting political voices had increasingly discredited

him in the two years since the coup against Sihanouk.

Moreover, he appeared to have been physically and mentally incapacitated by a stroke

in 1971.

Therefore, the election rigging in 1972 had to be much more extensive and blatant

than in 1955 in order to ensure the desired results.

It appears that voter turn-outs were exaggerated and tallies in favor of Lon Nol

were vastly pumped up or simply fabricated.

The experiences of the constitutional referendum and presidential election in this

regard contributed to the decision of almost all the opposition to boycott the National

Assembly elections.

Lon Nol thus achieved in the course of a few months what Sihanouk had taken several

years to get: unopposed National Assembly elections.

In engineering the coup against Sihanouk, its authors had relied on the National

Assembly elected in 1966 to formally depose the Prince as chief of state. The main

architect of the coup was Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak, then deputy premier, but at

the crucial moment he also obtained the support of then Lieutenant-General (later

self-proclaimed marshal) Lon Nol, who at the time was premier.

Sirik Matak and Lon Nol continued in these posts after the coup, while the president

of the Assembly, Cheng Heng, became chief of state in place of Sihanouk, in accordance

with existing constitutional provisions.

However, in 1971 Lon Nol stripped the Assembly of its legislative functions, transformed

it into a constituent assembly and began ruling by decree. This provoked a bitter

conflict with its post-coup president, In Tam.

In Tam had risen through the ranks of the civil service in the 1950s and 1960s to

become governor of various provinces and a senior police official. In 1968, he had

won a by-election to take the place of the "disappeared" Hu Nim in Prey

Chhor district of Kampong Cham, and thereafter joined the cabinet for the first time.

In 1971, he had rejoined the cabinet as first deputy premier with responsibility

for the Interior Ministry, security, religion, "national concord", justice,

agriculture, public works and rural development.

Meanwhile, he began working with some elements of the old Democrat Party to organize

a new political movement with this name.

His growing popularity had led Lon Nol to sack him after only four months in office.

He became one of the harshest critics of what he described as Lon Nol's "one-man

rule", and by 1972 enjoyed a reputation of being the one man who could inspire

enough popular confidence to restore legitimacy to the post-coup political system.

During 1971 and into 1972 Lon Nol also came into increasingly intense conflict with

Sirik Matak. By 1972, he was relying upon support within the army to fight off pressure

from various quarters to step aside in Sirik Matak's favor, perhaps by assuming a

ceremonial post and leaving his rival in real charge of the government.

In March 1972, amidst signs that students and monks were mobilizing against him,

Lon Nol forced Cheng Heng to resign as chief of state and transferred the powers

of that office to himself. At the same time, he announced that he was "terminating

the mission of the constituent assembly", complaining that it had put provisions

into the draft constitution which he did not like.

These included provisions incorporated by In Tam which gave parliament extensive

powers vis-a-vis the executive.

Lon Nol then dismissed Sirik Matak and the rest of the cabinet, and declared he was

reserving all governmental powers to himself.

Finally, he proclaimed himself President and formed a new cabinet in which Sirik

Matak and his other main protagonists played no role.

Many of the appointees were relatively junior figures who could be expected to due

his bidding without question.

At the end of March, Lon Nol said a new constitutional draft was being prepared under

his personal supervision, and it was published in early April with provisions for

a strong presidential executive. At the same time, plans for a popular referendum

to approve it and for the election of a president and a bicameral parliament were


The constitution draft was opposed by many veteran politicians and in student and

intellectual circles, but they were prevented from widely propagating their views,

while state teams toured the provinces at government expense urging people to vote

in favor of it.

After the referendum, Lon Nol claimed 1,560,000 Cambodians had cast ballots for the

draft, and 96% of those voted "yes". Six days later, he revised the percentage

upwards to 97.3%. Both the turnout figures and the proportion of the favorable vote

were undoubtedly inflated.

Meanwhile, Lon Nol had also proposed a presidential election in June. In Tam and

three other candidates registered to oppose him in May.

The other candidates included Sim Var, the veteran ex-Democrat who had turned against

the party when it veered left under Pol Pot's influence in 1955 and had held numerous

cabinet posts, including several prime ministerships, under Sihanouk. Elected to

the National Assembly in 1966 against Sihanouk's wishes, he had been deputy premier

in the first post-coup government, but he was then exiled to a post as ambassador

to Japan because of conflicts with Lon Nol. He had nevertheless been mentioned as

a possible replacement for the marshal at the head of the government.

The challengers also included another member of the original Democrat provisional

leadership committee of 1946, Huy Mong, who had been dismissed as governor of Siem

Reap in 1955 to clear the way for repression of the Democrats there. He had later

become head of the armed forces' Veterans' Association and enjoyed some influence

in military circles.

The fourth candidate was Kaev An, a law professor who had been dismissed from the

post of Dean of the National University's Faculty of Law and Economic Science for

criticizing Lon Nol's constitutional draft. His dismissal had triggered student protests

which had grown into large-scale demonstrations against Lon Nol. A violent attack

by army troops on students barricaded in the faculty in April 1972 had triggered

another wave of demonstrations which were continuing when Kaev An registered as a

candidate. His most important campaign plank was the advocacy of some sort of political

rapprochement with Sihanouk to end the civil war in the country. As he declared during

his campaign: "We want peace. The people believe that when Sihanouk returns,

this will be one of the ways in which peace can be achieved."

Lon Nol headed off any threat from Sim Var through the terms of a decree he issued

on presidential candidacy requirements. With Sim Var in mind, he included a provision

that candidates' spouses must be Cambodian citizens by birth. This disqualified Sim

Var, whose wife was Japanese. The military officer who was minister of interior duly

enforced the decree.

Huy Mong soon dropped out in protest against a government ruling that opposition

candidates would not be allowed to use state radio or television to present their

views. He was apparently also subjected to intimidation.

In Tam and Kaev An, however, stayed in the race. Most accounts agree with one contemporary

assessment that "In Tam enjoyed widespread support. In his years as a civil

servant, he had never become rich or joined a political party, and his common touch

had endeared him to many."

Initially, however, Lon Nol reportedly felt so "secure in the inevitability

of victory" that he was "scarcely lifting a finger" to campaign against

either In Tam or Kaev An. Nevertheless, it soon became clear that In Tam posed a

real threat, and that even though Kaev An began as virtual unknown, he too was garnering


Campaigning to "restore democracy and national reconciliation" and end

corruption in the military, In Tam successfully organized his local support. In addition

to his student support, Kaev An attracted rural backing because of his call for the

return of Sihanouk. In response, Lon Nol began touring the provinces in military

aircraft, while his supporters dispensed large amounts of cash to potential voters

via the officially-sponsored Red Cross.

Meanwhile, influence was brought to bear on those establishing voter lists with a

view to eliminating In Tam and Kaev An supporters from them. In Tam got no joy from

his complaints that Lon Nol had appointed the officials in charge of overseeing the

election, that provincial governors were forbidding their subordinates from voting

for him, and that soldiers were roughing up his supporters.

The leader of students who demonstrated in support of In Tam in Takeo province was

soon arrested, and In Tam's campaign representative in Pursat was murdered. In Svay

Rieng, Kaev An's home province, Lon Nol appointed a new military governor to blunt

the possibilities that Kaev An would do well there.

A few days before the ballot, the state apparatus was geared up for a final push

in favor of its chief.

Government planes dropped Lon Nol leaflets and government troops put up Lon Nol posters.

To calm popular fears that Lon Nol was physically disabled and mentally unbalanced,

the government issued a statement explaining that three American doctors had examined

him and found his condition to be "normal", that he "had not lost

his concept of space and time" or his memory, and had passed Rorschach "ink

blot" tests.

On polling day, some In Tam and Kaev An supporters found that they indeed were not

on the voter lists, or that they could not vote for other reasons.

In Phnom Penh, the Interior Ministry fiddled the list by substituting phony names

for those of known opposition voters. In Kampong Cham, members of In Tam's family

were taken from their home and prevented from voting.

The voting procedure itself made fraud easy.

Voters were issued with photographs of the candidates. They placed the photograph

of the one they wanted to be president in an envelope which was deposited in another

envelope, and were supposed to discard the rest into a bin.

However, there were shortages of photos of In Tam and Kaev An.

Moreover, government officials could and did stuff discarded or unused Lon Nol photos

into spare envelopes.

Opposition poll-watchers were prevented from entering government offices and military

barracks where civil servants and soldiers voted. Many government troops voted three

times or more.

In some constituencies, particularly in Phnom Penh, in Lon Nol's old haunts in Battambang,

and in Svay Rieng, officers cast votes in the names of "phantom" soldiers

who existed only on paper so that their commanders could pocket their pay. In Phnom

Penh ballot boxes containing majorities for In Tam were sequestered and his ballots


After polling closed, the ballot boxes were removed for counting under the supervision

of a commission headed by a former provincial governor appointed by Lon Nol. The

governor later wrote that he had accepted the job only because he was afraid that

if he did not, Lon Nol would transfer him to an insecure area, and that he "hid"

the real results.

In Phnom Penh, the count during the night, which was conducted on the premises of

the Ministry of Interior, gave In Tam 51% of the vote.

At this point, Lon Nol's brother, Lon Non, intervened.

He surrounded and sealed the area with troops and insisted on personally "verifying"

the figures. When a Cambodian newspaper, Sangkruoh Cheat, began to print the story

for the next day's edition, all copies were seized and burned.

In Kampong Chhnang province, In Tam's poll watchers were kept away from the ballot

booths by threats and were denied access to the governor's mansion, where the counting

was conducted.

Lon Nol was credited with 80% of the vote.

Foreign press accounts indicated that voting on polling day was light, and confirmed

that early results had In Tam leading.

The next morning, however, Lon Nol was declared the winner with 52% of the vote,

which by the afternoon was increased to 58%. His share was later raised to 60% and

then lowered to 55%, with 579,000 of the 1,060,000 votes said to have been cast.

In fact, the semi-official newspaper Le Republican had published the results the

day before the election, "predicting" that Lon Nol would win 60% of the

vote. An edition of the more official Khmer-language Prayoach Khmaer had declared

Lon Nol the winner in an edition printed while counting was still in the earliest


In Tam and Kaev An both tried to challenge the results, and their complaints were

put before the provisional Constitutional Court which Lon Nol had established in

May. The head of the court was Au Chheun, who as Minister of Interior in the late

1940s and early 1950s had helped prevent the Democrat Party from using the state

apparatus to win elections.

At the time of his appointment, he was acting as an adviser to Lon Nol, and all except

one of the court's members were openly associated with the army chief.

The court predictably declared Lon Nol the winner, dismissing as inconsequential

the irregularities which it implicitly admitted had occurred. The one member who

was not a Lon Nol man resigned.

Most evidence suggests that in the absence of fraud, In Tam would have won. However,

there are also indications that while he would have won in the towns, Kaev An might

have taken the provincial vote and been the overall winner.

In either case, there seems little doubt that Lon Nol in fact lost, perhaps in reality

gaining only something like 20% of the vote.

US President Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger publicly congratulated

Lon Nol on his election as President. Nixon wrote to Lon Nol praising him for his

"determination... to build democracy" in Cambodia, while resisting the

"aggression by North Vietnam that the US said was the cause of warfare in Cambodia".

The US backed the farce because it believed Lon Nol was more staunchly anti-communist

than In Tam and Kaev An, and that it could rely upon him not to undermine the US

position in Indochina.

Although Lon Nol was declared the winner, the election had in fact shown that his

regime was facing more overt opposition than had previously been thought possible.

Even the official count of votes for Kaev An suggested widespread support for his

advocacy of an end to the war.

In mid-July, Lon Nol decreed a law that scheduled elections for the lower house of

a new National parliament for early September.

Lon Nol's party for these elections was the Social Republicans, while In Tam headed

up the reborn Democrats and Sirik Matak the Republican Party.

However, Lon Nol's electoral law gave disproportionately many seats to electoral

districts in which he had done well in the presidential ballot and disproportionately

few to those where he had done badly.

As a result of such gerrymandering, the Social Republican Party was given the opportunity

to win a majority of the seats in the Assembly with only one-eighth of the popular


Lon Nol also decreed a new press law giving him wide powers to muzzle the print media.

This rendered meaningless his declaration that he would allow the reopening of Sangkruoh

Cheat and six other Cambodian newspapers that had been shut down since his election

for criticism of him or the election or other opposition views. Even newspapers which

had supported Lon Nol for president described his decree as "a code of fear".

The Democrats and the Republicans immediately protested against the electoral law,

demanding amendments and calling for the establishment of a neutral government to

oversee the electoral process.

They threatened to boycott the elections unless their demands were met.

In July, the editor of Sangkruoh Cheat was arrested for violations of the new press

law, a second newspaper was also closed and copies of a third seized. Later, two

newspapers associated with Sirik Matak were shut down.

Meanwhile, the police began spying on and harassing Democrat Party leaders. Government

resources and personnel, particularly at the provincial level, were mobilized to

ensure the population was organized to vote for the Social Republicans.

As the official campaign opened in early August without any change in the electoral

law, the Republicans were "in deep debate" about whether to boycott, and

the Democrats were split on the issue.

On the required date, the Republicans put forward names of candidates to contest

all 126 seats up for election, and the Democrats put forward 116 candidates.

However, on registration day, Sirik Matak announced that the Republicans were "withdrawing

confidence" from the government on account of "unconstitutional and anti-democratic"


Four days later, In Tam, who had at first favored participation, announced the withdrawal

of the entire Democrat Party slate.

The field was left open to the Social Republicans and several small parties which

Lon Nol had originally set up in hopes of siphoning off votes from the Democrats

and Republicans.

In the event, a few Democrat candidates contested seats, apparently because a split

in the party about participation had never been finally resolved. In the districts

where they appeared to be gaining a majority, ballots were destroyed and some Democrat

officials were detained.

Generally speaking, the turn-out was light, although military units and civil servants

were organized to deposit ballots en masse in Phnom Penh and the provinces.

The government claimed that 1,316,000 people voted - 78% of the registered electorate

- and that 98% of those voted for the Social Republicans, thus giving them every


Neither figure had any credibility.

In a follow-up ballot for an upper house, a very small proportion of people other

than civil servants voted in the midst of general apathy.

Although in reality perhaps as few as 10% of registered voters participated in important

constituencies, the government later claimed that 972,000 people had voted in a 72%

turn-out, and that 96% of the votes had gone to the Social Republicans.

Lon Nol's electoral manipulations could not reverse his political fortunes or those

of the Khmer Republic. Three years later, in April, 1975, it collapsed in the face

of the Cambodian communist military pressure.

(After the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, In Tam was one of the first exiled

politicians to try to make some sort of peace with the State of Cambodia. During

UNTAC he revived the Democrat Party, that polled poorly and got no seats. In Tam

is alive and living in Phnom Penh. Kaev An was last heard of living in France as

an exile, still claiming to be President of Cambodia.)

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