Like Norodom Sihanouk, Lon Nol was educated at the French lycee in Saigon. He was of sino-khmer extraction, though in later life he sought to deny it, maintaining that he was an authentic “black khmer” without Chinese blood. Nol was born into a wealthy land-owning family in Prey Veng province, bordering Vietnam, in November 1913. In 1937, he became a magistrate in the French colonial administration, and subsequently a provincial governor. But most of his career was spent in the security forces – first as Chief of Police (in 1951), then four years later as army Chief of Staff and finally, in 1960, as Army Commander. He was ardently anti-communist and represented the right wing of Sihanouk governments. Lon Nol’s military intelligence was credited with the liquidation of the first CPK leader, Tou Samouth, in 1962. He served twice as Prime Minister, from 1966-67 and again from 1969. A Frenchman who worked with him wrote that he was “silent as a carp... with all the subtlety of a bulldozer in the forest” (Charles Meyer, quoted from Short, 2007). Sihanouk was convinced of Lon Nol’s loyalty – and not without reason: Nol initially resisted Sirik Matak’s plans for a coup. But, like Sihanouk himself, he was extremely superstitious, and was swayed by the prophesies of Buddhist soothsayers who told him that his destiny was to wage war against the unbelievers in Vietnam. Matak finally presented him with an ultimatum: either to join the coup, or be treated as an enemy. In the early hours of March 18, Nol reluctantly acquiesced in the plot and Sihanouk was deposed (Osborne, 1994: 212-214; Chandler, 2000: 200-206). It could be considered as a strategic error of the first order. Nol and Matak had expected the United States to pour in troops and weaponry to bolster their regime, just as it had in South Vietnam, failing to realize that America’s goal was to extricate itself from the Vietnam quagmire, not to be dragged in deeper. When Kissinger’s military assistant Alexander Haig told Nol there was no possibility of US troops being sent, Nol wept openly (Short, 2007: 286). His new regime was nonetheless acknowledged by Washington and Nol authorized American and South-Vietnamese troops to operate on Cambodian soil. Sihanouk didn’t accept the situation and fought back, forming an alliance with the Khmers Rouges: a phase of civil war ensued, with foreign involvement on both sides. The Lon Nol regime was also marked by violent vexations, pogroms and massacre against thousands of Vietnamese civilians.
On the October 9, 1970, Lon Nol proclaimed the Khmer Republic, thus putting an end to a monarchy existing for nearly twelve centuries. After two years as Premier, during which Khmer Rouge and Vietcong units occupied two thirds of the country, Lon Nol, who has acquired the rank of marshal, was sworn in as Head of State and defence minister. By then he had suffered a debilitating stroke, which left him in no state to run anything, let alone a war. This suited Nixon and Henry Kissinger fine, and attempts to replace him were firmly resisted in Washington. The Lon Nol regime is described as inefficient, penetrated with corruption and carrying on military strategic mistakes. Lon Nol seemed unable to handle the problem and surrounded himself with clairvoyants and mystics. While he occupied himself with setting up a bureau to teach his troops “traditional Khmer-Mon occult practices of warfare”, and drawing a magic line of sand around Phnom Penh to protect it from the communists, the US completed its dispositions for withdrawal (Shawcross, 1979). An energetic, capable Cambodian administration might have complicated that task: the incapacitated Lon Nol was just the man Washington needed. Only when it was too late to make any difference, on April 1, 1975, was Nol finally allowed to resign and fly to Indonesia, then to Hawaii, taking with him a million dollars from the Cambodian National Bank. He died in exile in California in 1985.
CHANDLER, David, 2000 (4th ed.), A History of Cambodia, Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.
MARTIN, Marie-Alexandrine, 1989, Le Mal Cambodgien, Paris: Hachette.
OSBORNE, Milton, 1994, Sihanouk. Prince of Light, Prince of Darkness, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
SHAWCROSS, William, Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia. New York: Pocket Books, 1979.
SHORT, Philip, 2007, Pol Pot. Anatomie d’un cauchemar, Paris: Denoël.