Two weeks after police rounded up blind and disabled performers begging for money on streets around Phnom Penh in a bid to prevent traffic congestion, the performers were back on the streets on Wednesday, defiantly defending their right to earn their keep.
At the corner of Sihanouk Boulevard and Street 164 near Olympic Stadium, two blind siblings, Chhoeuy Tola, 17, and Chhoeuy Srey Pov, 16, said they had come to the city from Kandal province to help support 10 other siblings, three of whom are also blind.
Ms. Srey Pov, the youngest, said she and her brother rented a room for $30 a month in Stung Meanchey commune and earned 30,000 to 60,000 riel (about $7.50 to $15) a day singing at traffic lights.
“I know the authorities banned the disabled [and] blind people from performing along the street, but we cannot stop, because we are poor,” Ms. Srey Pov said. “We have no job apart from selling our voices.”
“I do not think our performance affects public order like they claim, because we perform only as part of our free speech. It’s better for us to sell our voices than follow people to beg for money from them.”
Mr. Tola, who was arrested along with his sister in the late June roundup, said he could not understand why the authorities were striving to impoverish them.
“It’s currently really hard for us to buy food to eat because City Hall is hunting us. It’s like the city is trying to kill us. We only want livelihoods, but it seems that they are destroying our rice pots,” he said.
“If they want us to stop singing along the street, the government must find jobs for us first,” he added. “A lot of normal people cannot find jobs. We are blind people. How can we change our lives?”
“Why don’t the police and security guards use their time to arrest thieves?” Mr. Tola said. “Why are they using their time to catch us?”
At the corner of Sihanouk and Monireth boulevards, Chan Manh, 30, who leads the Chanh Manh Blind Disabled Performers group—which currently boasts eight members—agreed that his crew had no other choice but to perform.
“When they order us to stop, it’s like they are killing us,” said Mr. Manh, who plays a portable keyboard. “We’re back in the traffic because we have no jobs to earn any income.”
The Social Affairs Ministry offers a monthly stipend of 150,000 riel (about $36) to the disabled—if they do not perform in public—but Mr. Manh said it was simply not enough to live on in Phnom Penh.
City Hall spokesman Mean Chanyada declined to comment. Sorn Sophal, director of the municipal social affairs department, said the disabled singers were not causing as many traffic problems as before, but they still should not be on the streets.
“We went to observe them. We saw they now seem to be more orderly than before. When we educated them, they seemed to listen to us. We don’t want to use violence against them,” Mr. Sophal said.
“The important thing is that right now we are thinking about a better solution for them.”