PM Seeks Address, Justice From Letter Writer

In a surprise concession to Prime Minister Hun Sen, Ruom Ritt—the mysterious pen pal of King Norodom Sihanouk—has apologized for his years of strident criticism of the premier, blaming creeping old age and ignorance for what he called his “serious mistake.”

However, Hun Sen said on Monday he wanted “justice” and not an apology from Ruom Ritt and has asked King Sihanouk to provide him with the address of his childhood friend, who claims to live in France’s Pyrenees Mountains.

Ruom Ritt’s biting, caustic letters blasting the failings of the Hun Sen government have been published for several years in the King’s monthly publication of official correspondence.

However, King Sihanouk said earlier this month that his friend’s letters would no longer appear in print, as they had caused him “major problems.”

Though diplomats and government officials believe Ruom Ritt is in fact King Sihanouk writing under an assumed name, Hun Sen said he did not believe such speculation, which has also greatly angered the Cambodian monarch.

But Hun Sen did say that the King’s publication of Ruom Ritt’s critical writings, had caused “confusion.”

“Ruom Ritt [has] insulted me and the government for half a decade,” Hun Sen said during a speech in Kompong Speu prov­ince on Monday that was broadcast on Apsara Radio.

“Who is Ruom Ritt?… Why does he know how to write a letter so smartly, like he stays around here and knows the situation well? If I want anything, I want justice,” Hun Sen said.

“The issue is the King praises the prime minister and the gov­ern­ment, but the King prints Ruom Ritt’s articles…attacking the government. This makes confusion…and looks like the King and premier do not get along well,” he said.

Hun Sen noted that the meaning of the Khmer words ‘Ruom Ritt’ means to “squeeze and tighten” to death, and that the letters written by the King’s pen friend allowed the “opposition party to attack the government.”

Hun Sen said he wanted to stop that opportunity. “Now I cut the cancer part out,” he said.

Hun Sen’s angry outburst followed a weekend of letters traded with Ruom Ritt and King Siha­nouk that were subsequently read on national television.

In a letter sent to King Sihanouk on Friday requesting Ruom Ritt’s address in France, Hun Sen said he had long ignored Ruom Ritt’s “unfair” criticism but was now forced to respond directly to the latest tirade, which accused him of criticizing the King in his speeches. Ruom Ritt responded on Sunday, claiming he was now a “confused” 80-year-old and having lived in exile in France for the past 33 years was ignorant of events in present-day Cambodia.

Because of his “enormous pride,” Ruom Ritt said he had dared write letters scolding the government.

Lauding Hun Sen as a “pure and great patriot,” Ruom Ritt poured praise on the prime minister in amounts almost equal to his previous criticisms.

“I would like to apologize to you for making a serious mistake,” he wrote.

The King also reportedly re­sponded from China over the weekend, saying Ruom Ritt preferred to keep his whereabouts a secret to avoid assassination.

Officials at the Royal Palace said on Monday they had not seen Ruom Ritt’s letter to Hun Sen, and could not comment on its content.

Hun Sen replied to Ruom Ritt on Sunday saying he had not asked for an apology, but only sought his address so that he could converse directly with his chief critic in order to avoid turning the “small flame” of criticism into a “dangerous fire” or a conflict too “difficult to solve.”

An Asian diplomat said on Monday that many foreign and local officials believe that Ruom Ritt is the King, and that Hun Sen is engaged in a war of words with the monarch.

“They criticize each other strongly at a distance,” said one Asian diplomat.

Hun Sen’s challenge to Ruom Ritt may be a warning to other critics as the July election draws closer, the same diplomat said.

(Addi­tional reporting by Yun Samean )

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