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At 82, Cambodia's former monarch takes a throne for blogging

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- ''I thank you for insulting me."

Thus blogged former King Norodom Sihanouk, to a critic of his support of gay marriage.

He didn't share any of the insulting e-mail messages with his readers, but noted:

''My country, Cambodia, has chosen to be a liberal democracy since 1993," he wrote.

''Every Cambodian . . . including the king," he added, ''has the right to express freely their view."

It was one of thousands of commentaries that fill the website of the royal blogger, offering Sihanouk's views on anything from environmental rape to Hollywood stars and killer spouses to the rough-and-tumble vagaries of Cambodian politics.

Sihanouk has been a giant on the Asian political scene for 50 years. He took on the French empire to win independence. During the Vietnam War he was such a nuisance to Washington that he was ousted in a US-supported coup. He backed the Khmer Rouge until its regime turned on him.

At 82, he is Cambodia's lion in winter, cancer-stricken and undergoing treatment in China, his former place of exile where he still has a home. Yet he's as sharp-tongued and loquacious as ever. The man who grew up on cowboy movies has taken to the World Wide Web with equal gusto.

For at least three years he has been posting his opinions, historical documents, and exchanges with diplomats or Cambodian politicians. He abdicated in favor of his son Sihamoni last fall, and is in and out of the hospital, but the Internet keeps him in the public eye in a style that may be unique on the world stage.

Sihanouk's website, www.norodomsihanouk.info, incorporates his blog in French, Khmer, or English, and attracts about 1,000 visitors daily from around the world. After serving as king, president, and prime minister at various times, he calls himself ''a senior citizen who hasn't any official power," but his views remain relevant enough to be summarized in the Cambodian press for the benefit of the many Cambodians who are too poor to have access to the Internet.

His site doesn't have all the technical bells and whistles that fit the purist definition of a Web log -- the term from which the world's 10 million bloggers derive their title. But, said David L. Sifry, whose company Technorati tracks blogs, Sihanouk is making ''incredibly innovative use of the Internet to be able to communicate directly with the people of Cambodia and the people of the world."

Such an accomplishment is not a surprise. Sihanouk has always seen himself as a communicator and a trendsetter. He has been a moviemaker, painter, composer and singer, and has led a jazz band and fielded a palace soccer team.

His charm and self-dramatizing pronouncements are still evident on his blog. After the 2003 national elections, he described the losses suffered by Funcinpec -- a party led by one of his sons -- as ''shameful," comparing it to Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo.

Then came the about-face: ''Papa presents you and Funcinpec his humble apologies, with sincerity and great regret for the writings."

In another posting, he waxed nostalgic for Ken Maynard, a Hollywood star in the 1920s and '30s. He ''was my idol as a cowboy 'dispenser of justice.' He had an incomparably beautiful 'white' horse who was as intelligent as a man and behaved like an angel." He never missed a Maynard movie in Phnom Penh.

The postings aren't all so benign. He has angered Prime Minister Hun Sen with critiques of Cambodian society and politics penned by Ruom Ritt, a supposed childhood pen pal. Sihanouk has claimed he lives in France but has also referred to him as ''my alter ego." The plug was recently pulled on Ritt after Hun Sen, also a former Khmer Rouge soldier, publicly wished the mystery man an early demise. To readers who asked to have him back, Sihanouk blogged on April 15 that ''Ritt, my alter ego, has just received, for the third time in the space of a few years, an 'atomic bomb' that obviously kills our desire to continue writing about Cambodia today. . . . Thank you very much for your noble understanding."

Sihanouk often lets fly with his views on Cambodia's social ills -- illegal logging that threatens to turn the country into a ''tiny Sahara without oil," the trafficking of Cambodian women for prostitution in other Asian countries where they ''suffer, are humiliated," their impoverished parents helpless to intervene.

After watching TV images of gay weddings in San Francisco in February 2004, he wrote that Cambodia should do the same, never expecting that his input ''would become the source of endless 'earthquakes' throughout the world."

Along with ''innumerable messages of sympathy, 'congratulations' . . . thanks, I received and, without doubt, will receive messages of disapproval, contempt, insult."

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