Lon Nol, the former Cambodian president who took power in a coup in 1970 and was overthrown by the repressive Communist Khmer Rouge regime in 1975, died Sunday in Fullerton. He was 72.
A staunch anti-Communist, Lon Nol replaced the 1,100-year-old Cambodian monarchy under Prince Norodom Sihanouk and formed the first Khmer Republic.
After the Khmer Rouge takeover, Lon Nol first lived in Hawaii, and then moved in 1979 to a four-bedroom home in the hills of Fullerton with his wife, Sovanna, and several of his nine children.
Early Sunday morning, according to his son, Lon Rith, Lon Nol appeared to suffer "some heart problems" at his home and was rushed to St. Jude Hospital in Fullerton, where he died.
In the last several years, he lived quietly, his son said, "confined to a wheelchair part of the time," partly paralyzed from a stroke suffered in 1971.
Sophon Chhoeng, president of the Cambodian Buddhists Assn. of Orange County, said Lon Nol had, because of his health, been unable to play an active role in the Cambodian emigre community, which numbers an estimated 12,000 in Southern California.
But his advice was often sought, Chhoeng noted, and when last he saw Lon Nol at the former president's home, Lon Nol "was weeping and he said he missed Cambodia very much."
Born Nov. 13, 1913, of Khmer and Chinese ancestry, Lon Nol was the son of a minor government official in a Cambodian province near the Vietnamese border. He attended an upper-class secondary school in Saigon where one of his fellow students was Sihanouk, who was king when Cambodia won independence from French rule in 1953 and later assumed the roles of prime minister and head of state.
Entered Civil Service
After graduating in 1934, Lon Nol entered the civil service and held a number of increasingly important judicial, administrative and military posts. A six-star general, he became both premier and defense minister under Sihanouk.
Unhappy with Sihanouk's neutralist policy in the struggle between Communist and non-Communist nations in Indochina, Lon Nol conspired with other anti-Communist officials and ousted Sihanouk in a coup in March, 1970.
After Lon Nol took control and renamed Cambodia the republic of Kampuchea, United States and South Vietnamese troops entered the country in an effort to eliminate Communist supply bases. After they withdrew in June, the Communist camps were destroyed, but insurgent fighting increased.
Lon Nol, confronted with the task of leading an 35,000-man army more used to ceremonial extravaganzas under Sihanouk than military action, recruited 150,000 young recruits, exhorting them to defend Buddhism against "atheist Vietnamese Communist aggressors."
But despite U.S. military aid, his inexperienced soldiers were no match for the Communist guerrillas. By mid-1973, the insurgents controlled more than 75% of the country.
Lon Nol was also unable to cure the country's domestic problems, such as inflation and internal corruption. He left the country about two weeks before the fall of Phnom Penh and flew to Hawaii, where he had purchased a $103,000 home. He and his wife purchased the Fullerton home for $190,000.
He later denied published reports that he had sent, or tried to send, millions of dollars worth of gold out of Cambodia to finance his exile.
The destruction that followed his ouster under the Khmer Rouge leadership of Pol Pot was portrayed in the 1984 Academy Award-winning movie "The Killing Fields."
Between one million and three million Cambodians are believed to have died, starved or been murdered between 1975 and 1978, when the Khmer Rouge government was toppled by Vietnamese troops.
The Vietnamese installed the client regime of Heng Samrin, which remains in power.
Bitterness in Exile
In interviews since his exile, Lon Nol expressed bitterness and said he still considered himself the Cambodian leader. "The fact is I am president of the Khmer Republic," he said in one interview in 1979.
Lon Nol is survived by a brother as well as his wife, five sons, four daughters and six grandchildren.
Services will be held at noon Saturday at the Neels Brea Mortuary in Brea, a mortuary spokesman said. Visitation will he held Thursday and Friday between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. Burial arrangements were not complete.