Inside View: Lon Nol’s Helicopter Exit Ahead of Khmer Rouge

The 1st of April is often referred to as April Fool’s Day. It’s expected that someone will be fooling someone else. What is providential for me is that April Fool’s Day of this year fell on a Tuesday. In 1975, Tuesday April 1 was the date I left Cambodia with President Lon Nol as the Khmer Rouge pressed their ferocious attacks against Phnom Penh from all directions. It was some 15 years before I could return to Phnom Penh. During that time, more than two million people in Cambodia died.

There’s much to say about events leading to the departure of President Lon Nol from Cambodia. But not much has been said—apart from the speculation—about that April 1 departure.

Maliciously, many journalists referred to it as a no-return flight and that Lon Nol was eased out from leadership. The word “fled” was much used. At 10 a.m., when I was climbing onto the helicopter, my former military chief briefer General Am Rong reached out for my hand and said to me: “He got us all to rise up and fight. Now he’s deserting us.”

Close presidential aides and family members saw it as the president’s trip to have a medical check-up with his American doctors at Tripler military Hospital in Honolulu, Hawaii, where he had treatment for his 1971 stroke which had left him semi-paralyzed. Prime Minister Long Boret, who gave his best to see the settlement of Cambodia’s war and who knew it better than anybody else, told me privately in the day prior to that departure that it was “un coup silencieux,” a silent coup to deprive the enemy from using Lon Nol as the major obstacle to a negotiated settlement.

For the rest of us in the Khmer Republic’s leadership, for the American ambassador to Cambodia John Gunther Dean and his mentor, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the departure of President Lon Nol on April 1, 1975, was a shot in the dark to give peace negotiations a chance and stop the war in Cambodia which had already taken more than half a million lives. I too had strongly hinted of that possibility and kept the hope of returning to Phnom Penh in three months’ time.

By this time, the enemy dry season offensive had lasted for three months, since the first enemy rocket blasted out Phnom Penh’s New Year celebration at 1 a.m. So far, the enemy was capable of maintaining efficient attacks against the government’s troops, with deadly consequences for the Khmer Republic. All major highways were now blocked and the Mekong River, once the lifeline for 80 percent of Phnom Penh’s vital foodstuffs, ammunition and petroleum, had been cut since late January. While supplies might have been adequate for a longer period of time, accessibility to the supplies themselves was becoming more difficult in the face of the tightening enemy noose.

As the enemy gained in strength, the Lon Nol government weakened internally through political infighting and corruption. The civilian and military arms of the government confronted each other almost on a daily basis. Our troops fought with under-strength units, often unpaid and short of ammunition, trying to stop the threatening advance of the enemy toward the city. In mid-March, Commander-in-Chief General Sostehene Fernandez briefed the cabinet that three to four hundred soldiers fell each day.

John Gunther Dean, the U.S. ambassador who arrived a year earlier from his post in Laos, correctly diagnosed the major causes of weakness on the government’s side and sought to convince the government to take the necessary steps to gain popular support and win, likewise, the support of the U.S. Congress, which was vital to gaining the funds needed. A request was submitted for $222 million in U.S. aid to feed the population, which had grown from a mere 200,000 in pre-war time, to some three million; and to carry the war into the rainy season when the fighting became bogged down. At that point, negotiation would become more of a possibility.

Although U.S. President Gerald Ford was committed to providing the Khmer Republic with that aid, it was uncertain that the U.S. Congress would support Ford. A war-weary American public and their Congress had had enough of Indochina. The towel was thrown into the ring. Some members of the U.S. delegation who visited Cambodia in March, in particular Congresswoman Bella Abzug, a democrat from New York, had let it be known that they would vote against provision of U.S. aid to Cambodia. A few sympathetic members of the U.S. Congress on that visit hinted they would support only humanitarian aid for the Khmer Republic. I wondered aloud to the U.S. congressional delegation how such aid could help feed a dead corpse.

As it became clear the military solution could not deliver victory, negotiations between the government and “the other side” became the principal objective. In fact, peace negotiations had been contemplated for several years and Lon Nol had floated several peace proposals to that effect. Offensive operation against the enemy was suspended at the end of 1971. The Chenla II Operation to open Highway Six to the North-Central province of Kompong Thom had ended in great disaster for the Khmer Republic’s troops. Some 7,000 soldiers perished in that ambitious operation against the North Vietnamese.

In view of the grave deterioration, we all worked in great secrecy. Quietly, to the delight of my American press counterparts, I even coined the phrase “smooth and orderly transfer of power,” in case I had to explain the change of regime. Plots and intrigues thickened. Whispers and rumors spread in the city of the departure of Lon Nol even faster than the decision we would make on the departure.

The cabinet met the previous week and appointed me ambassador-at-large with the mission to work on peace settlement. However, preoccupied during the early morning of April Fool’s Day, the president took the time to sign the official papers to empower Senate Chairman Sokham Khoy, a retired 70-year-old general with a distinguished military record, to serve as pro tem president of the Khmer Republic. While heads of political parties, of the army, of the Buddhist clergy signed a pledge to continue their recognition of Marshal Lon Nol as the president of the Khmer Republic, the president also took the time to sign my credentials empowering me to act on behalf of the Khmer Republic’s leadership in the negotiation effort with foreign dignitaries and heads of  governments.

But overall, there seems to be some truth in each case produced by the rumor mill. However, the hard truth of Lon Nol’s departure was included in the package of a “search mission” for a peace settlement to the Cambodian war. That war had already taken more than 500,000 lives and it had to stop. A $1 million budget was earmarked for the mission expenses. There would be fourteen of us. For my part, I would work alone with the president and would receive a $1,200 stipend some time during the month. I believed I would return to Phnom Penh in three months’ time, would see my mother and tell her why I could not take the time to say goodbye to her and to make arrangements for her to continue living in Phnom Penh.

At 8 a.m. sharp, I arrived at the Chamkar Mon palace, with a light suitcase of clothes, book notes and photo albums. A group of the Khmer Republic’s top leaders assembled there, some with tears in their eyes. Defense Minister General Sak Saukhan, with his new three stars shining brightly from each of his shoulders, walked briskly by me, winked, and went on to his business. The president was busy shaking hands and saying goodbye to his close relatives in the large room of his residence. I confirmed my presence with the prime minister, then met with the president’s brother, General Lon Non, and talked with him about the details of the trip. Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak, the major 1970 anti-Sihanouk coup leader, walked in and, gently looking straight into my eyes, shook my hands without saying a word before he stepped on to meet the president. Soon Lon Nol walked out with his wife toward the waiting giant helicopter while saluting the people in the Khmer way, wiping tears off his eyes with a white handkerchief, while from the porch of his residence, people waved him goodbye. Some collapsed quietly sobbing.

That’s what’s been on my mind as I keep asking the question whether anybody was fooling anybody else at that time, 40 years ago.

Chhang Song was Minister of Information for the Lon Nol-led Khmer Republic from 1974 to 1975. He now lives in Long Beach, California.

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