Lon Nol (Khmer: លន់ នល់; November 13, 1913 - November 17, 1985) was a
Cambodian politician and soldier who served as Prime Minister of Cambodia twice, as well as
serving repeatedly as Defense Minister. He proclaimed himself, after a coup against Norodom Sihanouk, acting Head of State of the ill-fated Khmer Republic, and was later its President.
Nol was born in Prey Veng Province on
November 13, 1913, to a family of mixed Chinese–Khmer descent. His father, Lon Hin, served as a district chief in
Siem Reap and Kampong Thom, after
making a name for himself 'pacifying' bandit groups in the area of Prey Veng. Nol was educated in the relatively
privileged surroundings of the Lycée Chasseloup-Laubat in Saigon, followed by the Cambodian Royal Military
Employment in the colonial government
Nol found employment with the French colonial civil service in 1937. He became a
magistrate, and soon proved himself as an efficient enforcer of French rule against a series of anti-colonial
disturbances in 1939. By 1946, he had risen to the post of Governor of Kratie
Province. He became an associate of King Norodom Sihanouk, and by the late 1940s, when he set up a right-wing,
monarchist, pro-independence political group, was becoming increasingly involved in the developing Cambodian
political scene. Joining the army in 1952, he carried out military operations against the Viet Minh.
After independence, Nol's nationalist 'Khmer Renovation' party (along with small right-wing
parties headed by Sam Sary and Dap Chhuon) became the core of the Sangkum, the organisation set up by Sihanouk to
fight the 1955 elections.
In the administration of Sihanouk, 1955-70
Nol was appointed the Army Chief of Staff in 1955, and commander-in-chief of the armed forces in
1960, as well as serving as Defence Minister. At the time, he was a trusted supporter of Sihanouk, his police being
instrumental in the suppression of the small, clandestine communist movement in Cambodia. He was appointed deputy
Premier in 1963. While Sihanouk - in an attempt to distance his country from the effects of the Second Indochina
War - was pursuing a foreign policy of "extreme neutrality", which involved association with China and toleration
of North Vietnamese activity on the eastern borders, Nol remained friendly towards the United States, and indicated
that he regretted the ending of American aid after 1963.
The 1966 parliamentary elections represented a major shift in the balance of power towards Lon
Nol and the rightist elements of the Sangkum, as conservative and right-wing candidates were overwhelmingly
elected. Lon Nol became Prime Minister, and the following year his troops were used by Sihanouk to
carry out a savage repression of a leftist-inspired revolt, the Samlaut Uprising, in Battambang Province.
Nol was injured in a car crash later in 1967, and temporarily retired from politics. In 1968,
however, he returned as Minister of Defence and in 1969 became Prime Minister a second time, appointing the vocally
anti-Sihanouk, and pro-US politician Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak as his deputy.
The 1970 Coup
Sihanouk later claimed that the 1970 coup against him was the result of an alliance between his
longstanding enemy, exiled politician Son Ngoc Thanh and Sirik Matak, with CIA support and planning. It seems
likely that Lon Nol initially intended to strengthen his position against the North Vietnamese with the ultimate
aim of preventing their troops (and those of the Viet Cong) from operating within
Cambodian borders, and wished to apply pressure on Sihanouk to achieve this. However, events rapidly developed far
beyond the original plan, and with the encouragement of Sirik Matak - who wished to
see Sihanouk deposed as Head of State - Lon Nol was ultimately to engineer Sihanouk's removal.
While Sihanouk was abroad during March 1970, there were
anti-Vietnamese riots in Phnom Penh. On 12 March, Lon Nol and Sirik Matak closed the
port of Sihanoukville, through which weapons were being smuggled to the viet Cong, to the North Vietnamese and
issued an impossible ultimatum: all PAVN (North Vietnamese) and NLF (Viet Cong) forces were to withdraw from
Cambodian soil within 72 hours (on 15 March) or face military action.
Lon Nol initially refused to countenance Sihanouk being deposed as Head of State; to force his
hand, Sirik Matak played him a tape-recorded press conference from Paris, in which Sihanouk blamed them for the
unrest and threatened to execute them both on his return to Phnom Penh. However, the Prime Minister remained
uncertain as to whether to instigate a vote in the National Assembly. On the night of 17 March, Sirik Matak,
accompanied by three army officers, went to the Prime Ministers's residence and compelled a weeping Lon Nol to sign the necessary documents at gunpoint.
A vote was taken in the National Assembly on 18 March in which Sihanouk was stripped of his power.
Lon Nol assumed the powers of the Head of State on an emergency basis. On 28 and 29 March there were large-scale
popular demonstrations in favour of Sihanouk in several provincial cities, but Lon Nol's forces suppressed them
with great brutality, causing several hundred deaths. The Khmer Republic was
formally declared that October, and Sihanouk - who had formed a government-in-exile, GRUNK, incorporating the
Khmer Rouge communists - was condemned to death in absentia. In the meantime, the
Cambodian Campaign of April 1970, in which US and South Vietnamese forces
entered Cambodian territory in pursuit of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops, had
irrevocably involved Lon Nol's regime in the Second Indochina War.
The Khmer Republic and the Civil War
The Khmer Republic (1970 - 1975) was founded in order to do away
with Cambodia's widespread corruption and to restore Cambodia's sovereignty in its eastern regions, occupied by
Vietnamese communist insurgents as a result of Sihanouk's "neutrality" policies. Despite its high aims, the
republic proved disastrous both militarily and politically. Lon Nol's health started to decline after he suffered a
stroke in February 1971. His rule became increasingly erratic and authoritarian: he appointed himself Marshal (a
title previously unknown in Cambodia) in April 1971, and in October suspended the National Assembly, stating he
would "no longer play the game of democracy". Backed by his forceful, ambitious younger brother Lon Non, Nol
succeeded in reducing the influence of Sirik Matak, In Tam and the other coup leaders: he also insisted on
directing many of the Khmer National Armed Forces operations personally.
The Khmer National Armed Forces (French: Force Armée Nationale Khmère), often abbreviated to
FANK, were the armed forces of the Khmer Republic, their Commander in Chief was General Sosthene Fernandez.
In time Lon Nol's regime became completely dependent upon large quantities of American aid that
towards the end were not backed by the political and military resolve needed to effectively help the beleaguered
republic. By 1975, the government was eventually reduced to holding little more than Phnom Penh. The FANK had run
out of ammunition. Nol was increasingly dependent on the advice of soothsayers and Buddhist mystics: at one point
during a Khmer Rouge assault on Phnom Penh, he sprinkled a circular line of
consecrated sand in order to defend the city. Finally, on April 1, 1975, Nol resigned and fled the country into
exile, as the Khmer Rouge had vowed to execute him.
The first priority of the Khmer Rouge after conquering Cambodia and overthrowing the Khmer
Republic was to execute all its leaders and high officials without delay, a fate that Lon Nol escaped.
Nol fled from Cambodia to Indonesia and first settled in Hawaii. He subsequently moved in 1979
to Fullerton, California.
He died on November 17, 1985.