How much political capital Lon Nol, founder of the ill-fated Khmer Republic, still has in Cambodia is debatable. But his son, Lon Rith, founder and president of the Khmer Republican Party (KRP), thinks his family tree will stand him in good stead for this July’s national elections.
The 46-year-old father of four has not lived in Cambodia for nearly four decades, but now he’s back with a new political party and a self-professed desire to bring “true democracy” to the Kingdom.
Although he left the country just before his father’s 1970 coup against then-head of state Prince Norodom Sihanouk, Rith says he has “pleasant memories” of the “good times” in Cambodia during that period.
Unsurprisingly, King Father Norodom Sihanouk hated Lon Nol, who died in exile in America in 1985, and the passage of years has done little to ease this animosity. On April 26, less than a week after Rith arrived in the Kingdom, Sihanouk issued a statement reiterating his disgust with the Lonnolians who were, he claimed, “world champions in matters of corruption.”
Rith stops short of admitting the abolition of the monarchy was a mistake – “let’s just say that that’s history,” he says – but he does claim he would not repeat such a move. “In this day and age you have to do things diplomatically,” he said.
He spoke to the Post’s Sebastian Strangio at his party’s modest headquarters in downtown Phnom Penh, where photographs of his late father line the walls.
Lon Rith, president of the Khmer Republican Party, plays down his political ties to the past, saying, “Don’t think of us as republicans.”
What has prompted you to return to Cambodia?
I am Cambodian. And just like any other Cambodian, I want to help my country and give everybody a chance to prosper. I believe that there are quite a few things that our party can do to help the people.
What are the core principles of the KRP?
We want to be able to elevate the people, give them a voice, and give them not just hope but the basic needs and necessities: food, education, jobs and a higher standard of living. There are always ways to improve the current system. I, who have lived abroad, have seen how different countries have established democracy and I want to bring that same system here to Cambodia.
Critics say you’ve been away so long you don’t know Cambodia well enough to govern. What is your response?
I don’t mind them criticizing me. I believe that if I had come here when I was in my 20s, the way I would have approached things would have been very different. Before you do something you have to know what you really want to do; you don’t just jump into it on an impulse. The KRP is a result of a long process of thought and the realization of what I can do to help my country.
Where will the KRP get its support?
No party wants to win support with just money. In order for the party to make a difference, you need [to speak with] the people’s voice, and that’s where we draw support, from the people. I believe that Cambodians – regardless of their ethnic backgrounds or their beliefs – all want democracy. And I believe that the KRP can help turn that idealism into a reality.
Do you anticipate success in the July elections?
We feel that we have a very good chance to win a few parliamentary seats and to establish a base amongst the Cambodian people. And if the people want to make a difference and want us to help them, we welcome them with an open heart. I believe that we do have support in Cambodia, and I believe that we will genuinely be able to help people.
What do you remember about growing up in Cambodia in the 1970s?
After I left Cambodia [in 1969], I visited my family every vacation until the country fell and I know what my father tried to do. I personally assisted him, not back in Cambodia, but after the country fell. And I did get some experience seeing the Khmer Republic at the time, [watching] what my father did and how [the Republic] functioned. My main recollection was staying with my parents at our home and
going on outings with my father.
What do you think were the greatest successes of the Khmer Republic?
I believe that the Khmer Republic lifted up the people, elevated their pride as nationalists. They did things that no other country at the time would have done. Even though there was a civil war going on, many people did all they could in order to prevent the situation that came afterwards. And I have to give them credit for that.
Do you think history has judged the Khmer Republic harshly?
I believe that the history has not been fully in the open, not for the general public. This period in history is critical, not just because it’s part of the history of Cambodia but because it’s part of the history of the world. Suppose the period from 1776 until the end of the (American) Revolution was erased from American history, and it only continued after the country moved forward, forgetting the period where Americans fought for their freedom – that’s what it amounts to if you erase the era between 1970 and 1975.
Do have a message for Cambodian voters before the elections?
I want to tell the Cambodian people that we are here to help them out. We’re not here as a political party – don’t think of us as republicans. First of all, we’re all Cambodians. And secondly, we want to be able to establish a country that gives the people a voice in the elections. We want to be able to give everyone a fair chance, and we want not only democracy but we want to bring about true democracy, which would help everyone regardless of class, ethnicity, religion or gender.