Around 150 performing artists took their cues outside the Bassac Theater in Phnom Penh on Wednesday morning, protesting the theater’s pending move to a new location on Mao Tse Tung Boulevard and the Culture Ministry’s offer of $300 compensation per artist.
The artists, who have been told to vacate the theater by the end of the month, said they want $700 each—the same amount offered to Royal University of Fine Arts staffers when their north campus was moved from central Phnom Penh to Russei Keo district in 2005.
Several artists, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they had been discriminated against by the ministry for protesting and were prevented from performing abroad in Italy, Korea and China as a result.
Khim Sarith, secretary of state for the Culture Ministry, denied artists’ claims of discrimination and said the protesters had misunderstood the terms of the deal—which he said only entails the theater being rented to tycoon Kith Meng rather than sold.
“No one dares to sell the Tonle Bassac theater. It has been rented for development by the private sector,” he said, adding that the RUFA transfer was different because the land was swapped in that case, not rented, and because staffers were moved farther away.
Khim Sarith said the theater would be returned to the government after a designated period of time, the length of which he did not know.
In 2005, the Culture Ministry agreed to a deal transferring land around the 1960s landmark to Kith Meng in exchange for renovating the building, which was partially gutted by a fire in 1994 but still serves as a rehearsal space for hundreds of artists.
Ieng Sithol, director of the Khmer Actress Association, said Wednesday that artists will consent to the move if offered an appropriate amount of money.
“We request $700, equal to what was offered the staff at the [Royal] University of Fine Arts when it was sold,” he said.
He said that performing artist Kea Kanha, who refused the offer of $300, was taken off the list of those able to perform in Korea and replaced with someone of inferior skill.
Khim Sarith said artists should be happy with the deal as it stands.
“At the [Bassac] theater, they train themselves on the grass and under a leaky roof,” he said, adding that the new space—which he said should be ready by late this month or early next month—will have performance auditoriums where artists will be able to generate incomes from performing.
Khim Sarith said the compensation money refused by artists will be put toward future development projects, and artists will receive a thank-you note.
(Additional reporting by Emily Lodish)