President of Khmer Republican Party, Lon Rith, son of former president of the Khmer Republic Lon Nol (1970-1975), sat down with Khmer Times COO Kay Kimsong to discuss past, current and future political issues in Cambodia. Mr Rith is the first child of Lon Nol born in Phnom Penh. He fled the country weeks before the Khmer Rouge took power in April 1975.
KT: Can you tell us about yourself?
Mr Rith: I grew up in Hawaii, where I was educated and I established an association to help Khmers in the US. I thought about helping Khmers back home when I was there as well. My father was from Prey Veng province and my mother from Kampot. I have four brothers and three sisters. I can tell you that 90 percent of my family members were killed and died during the Khmer Rouge era. The Khmer Rouge was able to take power from the Khmer Republic because they cheated my father.
KT: Why did you establish a political party, and why does it have a similar name to your father’s regime?
Mr Rith: The main reason I wanted to participate in politics is because I have seen that Cambodian people have faced many difficulties and live in poor conditions. I am here to help. If Khmer people received better services from the government, then I wouldn’t need to run a party; I could be a tourist. I chose the party’s name from many options and it just happened that way.
KT: How is Cambodia different than where you used to live?
Mr Rith: Where I used to live, if you had a good idea to start a business, you could follow your dream and become rich like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg. But here, if you have big dreams and a good idea, you better have someone powerful backing you, otherwise, you will have to pay many bribes and your great idea might even be stolen.
KT: You seem distraught over the current situation in Cambodia. How does your party plan to fix it?
Mr Rith: We have some ways to sort it out. The ministries need to help people, and listen to criticism because if people have good ideas for reforms, they should be taken into account. I want people to enjoy true democracy, which means people are fully aware of state revenue from taxes, from Angkor Wat, etc… It means full transparency and keeping the public informed, including on infrastructure spending. Nowadays, there is no transparency.
KT: Your father led the Khmer Republic Regime and fought against France to help Prince Sihanouk get independence, and he fought against Viet Cong and communism. So what is your stance?
Mr Rith: Today is 2018, my father’s time was the 1970s, and these are two very different periods. I know that in modern times, all countries in the region and around the globe have to live together peacefully. It is no longer a time of pointing weapons at each other. I don’t want to be fighting each other again.
KT: Some say your uncle General Lon Non was the mastermind behind a coup to take power from former head of state Prince Norodom Sihanouk. Is this correct?
Mr Rith: I don’t believe that my uncle had the ability to manage a coup, but for Prince Sirik Matak, what I heard, he had conflict with his cousin Samdech Sihanouk and had the idea to steal power. Even though I do not have detailed information, I dare to say Sirik Matak had connections to the US. My father was not involved with the US at that time. The story related to Samdech Sihanouk losing power, that was not my father, it was the National Assembly’s decision. If my father opposed the NA, that means my father opposed the constitution.
KT: What did you learn from your father regarding politics?
Mr Rith: There are many points which I have learned from my father – the way he worked, the way he studied, the way he made decisions. In general, my father was very strict and a disciplined person. He did whatever he said. He always told me to look forward to the longer term interests, not just what was right in front of me. I was just 17 when he was telling me these things and I didn’t pay much attention then, but in retrospect, it ended up having an impact on my life after I grew up and reflected on what he told me.
KT: Why did your father’s regime collapse and the Khmer Rouge come to power?
Mr Rith: I concede that there must have been corruption issues in my father’s regime. But please remember that during that period, we were fighting against the enemy for our nation. Nowadays, corruption remains in the meat and bones of society, but we are no longer at war, so why is there corruption? My father’s regime was at war, and yes there was corruption, but now we have peace, so corruption should not exist.