The King, his Prime Minister and the riddle of the poison pen letter

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The Independent Online

From the lofty heights of the French Pyrenees, an indignant old man appears to have been busy firing verbal missiles at a country on the other side of the world.

The target of his pen is the South-east Asian nation of Cambodia and, in particular, the government of Hun Sen, the Prime Minister. Although the writer holds no apparent position of power or influence, his criticisms have touched enough raw nerves to cause a spat at the highest national level and a demand from the Prime Minister himself for an end to the attacks.

So who is this formidable scribe, this modern-day Swift? He is Mr Ruom Ritt, the world's most mysterious correspondent.

No one knows much about him, except that he is usually billed as a close childhood friend of Cambodia's King Norodom Sihanouk and that, like the King, he is 80 years old.

And this is not the only feature the two men have in common. The King is also a prolific writer with a caustic nib. An actor, director and producer of his own movies during the 1960s, he has long had a reputation for creative flair.

The two have exactly the same writing style, the same eccentric punctuation habits, the same detailed inside knowledge of Cambodian affairs and the same political opinions. In fact, so great is the similarity that Cambodians and political observers have concluded that the letter writer roosting in his French mountain lair does not exist and that the King is in fact Ruom Ritt.

Ruom Ritt's words have for some time been published in a monthly news bulletin with a small circulation, which is produced by the Royal Palace to circulate news of the King's activities.

Under the 1993 constitution, King Sihanouk - who ruled for 15 years before being deposed in 1970 - can "reign but not govern". But there is no ban on him airing his views. Alongside the posed photos of the King's official appearances and assorted formal announcements, the bulletin reprints photocopied newspaper clippings showing the monarch's jottings and exclamation marks in the margins. His comments, at times, are impassioned - flashes of sadness or anger at Cambodia's problems, be they corruption, political assassinations or smuggling. Next to one report on crooked officials selling off government documents, he scrawled, microscopically: "This is scandalous and miserable."

In one edition, a letter appeared under Ruom Ritt's name asking the King to list the achievements of Hun Sen's government. The King trotted out some token compliments, comparing the Prime Minister to the mighty Angkorian kings of 1,000 years ago, and said he expected the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) to win this month's parliamentary elections.

Then came the kicker. "Without accusing them of any corruption," opined the monarch, "certain leaders and cadres in the CPP have become extremely rich." He cited the sale of "thousands and thousands" of Cambodian artefacts to wealthy Khmers and foreigners.

The Prime Minister has finally had enough. Irked that the King - who enjoys huge popularity among the country's population - appears intent on meddling, he declared that Ruom Ritt had "insulted me and the government for half a decade" and called for a halt to letters published under his name.

He also asked, pointedly: "Who is Ruom Ritt? How does he know how to write such smart letters, as if he lived here and knew everything that goes on?"

The King - who is in China for medical tests - wrote to Ruom Ritt asking him to send only personal letters from now on. A letter bearing Ruom Ritt's name duly dropped in the Prime Minister's in-tray, apologising profusely.

This is not the first time that the King's literary alter ego has been in trouble. In 1997, the King said he had ordered Ruom Ritt to stop writing a column for his bulletin called "Smile of the Month" because it upset the government. The Prime Minister has asked the King to give him Ruom Ritt's address - a suggestion that the monarch, predictably, declined. But Hun Sen stopped short of declaring the letter writer to be a mythological figure, not least in deference to the fact that the monarch has denied this.

Yesterday, The Independent asked Prak Sokhonn, the Prime Minister's political adviser, to state categorically who he thought Ruom Ritt was. The aide laughed, and said: "That's a question I am not able to answer. Ruom Ritt did send a letter to the Prime Minister, so I am a bit confused. But I have no means of verifying whether he is the King or not."

Perhaps Hun Sen has found a solution. Not long ago, a letter appeared in the Phnom Penh Post denouncing Ruom Ritt and urging the dignity of the Prime Minister to be protected. The report pronounced Hun Sen to be a "beloved and great hero" who had achieved more than any kings in Cambodia. It was from the Pagoda Boys Association, which supports the Prime Minister's party. But the signature was that of Mr Ruom Rik (sic).

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