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A view on Ruom Ritt

A view on Ruom Ritt

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."

(Article 7)

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..."

(Article 8).

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

do it.

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


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