After a 35-year absence from the country of his birth, Lon Rith, son of Khmer Republic leader Lon Nol, has returned to Cambodia with the intention of leading his little-known Khmer Republican Party to political success.
“Cambodia is my homeland as it is yours, and I feel that I want to visit and see all the Cambodian people here,” he said at a news conference in the VIP lounge at Phnom Penh International Airport immediately after landing Sunday morning.
“I always miss Cambodia, and I am happy to be here with all of you. After the coup, I know you had a bad regime. I was not here,” Lon Rith said.
A crowd of about 100 came to greet Lon Rith, who himself was accompanied by at least 10 bodyguards.
Lon Rith established the KRP in 2007 from the US, where he had been residing since leaving Cambodia at the age of 11 in 1973. The KRP officially threw its hat into the political ring for the coming elections in late February.
Lon Rith said he would like to apply lessons he has learned from living in the US to his governance in Cambodia: “It is up to the Cambodian people if they want a republican development system or they want the same regime as today,” he said.
Pan Kong, 52, a former Lon Nol soldier, who now lives in Prey Veng province, said he supports the KRP because he believes they can help poor military veterans like himself.
“Most of the supporters are former military and teachers of Lon Nol’s regime,” he said.
Pal Soun, 76, director of the KRP Battambang provincial office, compared Lon Rith to his father in terms of the integrity of their leadership.
“We want our country led like a Western country,” Pal Soun said, but added that he feared that Lon Rith’s late arrival could doom the party’s chances at the polls in July.
“It is too late, and the supporters are mostly poor,” he said.
Lon Rith claimed that he has supporters in every province and municipality, and said he remains hopeful that the KRP stands a chance in the elections despite his late arrival.
Koul Panha, director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said ties to Lon Nol will reflect positively on Lon Rith and help him stand out amid the nearly 30 small parties jockeying for position in Cambodia.
Koul Panha said he thinks the KRP could potentially win a few seats in the National Assembly. “Cambodian people know President Lon Nol,” he said.
But, he also predicted the Khmer Republican Party will face election difficulties because of time constraints and the election formula, which he said favors large parties.