The latest political debate in Phnom Penh is over the 'dispute' between Prime Minister
Samdech Hun Sen and our revered monarch, HM King Norodom Sihanouk, over the role
of His "childhood friend" Ruom Ritt.
The Royal Palace publishes a monthly bulletin, the BMD, in which HM's activities,
pictures thereof, letters He receives and/or writes, as well as His comments often
written in the margins of newspapers clippings are being reprinted.
One of HM's most loyal readers and interlocutors is Mr Ruom Ritt, whom HM refers
to as His "childhood friend", now an 80-year-old retiree living at the
foot of the Pyrénées range in Southeastern France.
The latest series of exchanges between HM the King and Mr Ruom Ritt seem to have
irritated the Prime Minister to the point that the latter has made it known in no
uncertain terms to the King. The King promptly apologized to the Prime Minister for
causing him anxiety and promised not to allow Mr Ruom Ritt's correspondence to be
printed in the BMD.
It seems that the PM more and more feels that HM is interfering with the business
of government, a prerogative that the PM feels belongs to him alone (and collectively
to the cabinet).
In his many letters to the Monarch, Mr Ruom Ritt has expressed some strong opinions
about political affairs in the Kingdom, prompting the King to cut him off several
times in the past for having stepped out of bounds.
However, the PM stopped short of accusing the King of having created this Ruom Ritt
character. He went on to suggest that the King give him the address of Ruom Ritt
so that he could contact him directly without having to deal with the King.
But the King politely declined stating that He would not want his friend to be killed
like the late Haing Samnang Ngor, the medical doctor-turned-actor who won an Oscar
for his role in the movie "The Killing Fields".
The Ruom Ritt incident does not promise to be the last one in the days ahead leading
up to the July election. In any case, if in fact the PM insists on going after Ruom
Ritt, whether a fictitious character or not, the incident promises to be quite explosive.
Given the fact the King enjoys a tremendous amount of popularity among the common
people in Cambodia who comprise the vast majority of the population, and the very
powerful Prime Minister who has at his disposal all the forces in the country, one
should wish that it would not come down to open confrontation.
In our opinion, the 'conflict' between the Prime Minister and HM the King over Mr
Ruom Ritt stems from an irregularity in the basic law of the country. According to
the Constitution, "The king of Cambodia shall reign but shall not govern."
However, there is no stipulation whatsoever which expressly forbids the Monarch from
making remarks on any issue. Therefore, nothing seems to prevent Him from expressing
his views on any issue, especially issues that He feels of importance to the nation.
Thus, whether the King chooses to do it in His own name or whether He prefers to
express His views under a borrowed one is irrelevant to the discussion. The only
relevant thing is whether His or His friend's writing contributes to improving things
for Cambodia and Cambodians.
The King might as well express His views as a Khmer citizen, as long as He does not
exercise the very act of governing, which is expressly forbidden, and He would still
be within His prerogatives.
In fact, the King is required by the Constitution to act as the "...guarantor
of the national independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity..." of
Cambodia as well as "...the protector of rights and freedom for all citizens..."
Furthermore, the Constitution requires that He be the "...arbitrator to ensure
the faithful execution of public powers." But what does He have to enforce all
of these roles except His words? Or, perhaps more appropriately, by issuing official
requests to the government?
Yet, should He wish to do something in between, there is no special provision for
it. This is perhaps why the King (as a good Khmer) chooses to write 'Persian letters'
(lettres persannes) instead (if indeed this Ruom Ritt character is a fictitious character
of His creation), so that He does not seem to criticize directly the Prime Minister
over certain actions the King feels strongly about. Short of a formal mechanism to
offer criticism, it seems that 'Persian letters' are as good as any other means to
During the era of the Sangkum Reastr Niyum, one will recall that there was the existence
of a 'shadow government' (contre gouvernement) destined to keep the official government
accountable for its actions. There was also the existence of the institution of the
National Congress which convened twice a year to review and discuss actions of the
government or individual ministers. Such an institution does in fact exist on the
books (Articles 147, 148, and 149 of the Constitution) but so far it has never been
All of the above in fact highlights some of the flaws in our Constitution, something
that perhaps is useful to debate upon and if need be, amend accordingly. Indeed,
in order for the Monarch to successfully play the above roles attributed to Him,
at least a few things need to happen:
1) The King must have a veto power to stop any action of the executive branch
that He deems does not correspond to the interests of the nation. For that matter,
the Monarch of Thailand, a neighboring kingdom with similar constitutional monarchical
system, is given that power even though He rarely exercises it. This in a way is
an additional tool to check the power of the executive branch, especially when it
controls a wide majority in the parliament.
2) The King must be allowed to have a say in matter of national security. The intent
of Article 7 is not so much to muzzle the King on affairs of state but rather to
keep Him neutral and above party politics. The rationale is that by making Him independent
of partisan politics, His advice would not be tainted with partisanship, thus even
more valuable and authoritative when it comes to issues of national security such
as the independence and sovereignty of the nation, its territorial integrity, or
the well-being and human rights of its citizens.
- By a member of the Funcinpec discussion group - Phnom Penh