Phnom Penh Governor Pa Socheatvong on Monday accused unnamed NGOs of paying a group of well-known protesters from the city’s Boeng Kak and Borei Keila neighborhoods to demonstrate on behalf of their various causes and urged them to set the women “free.”
His claims came two days after five of the women in that group were arrested and detained for several hours for handing out leaflets urging city residents to “Say No” to a pending law that critics fear the government will use to muzzle non-government groups that criticize the ruling CPP.
Though the women started out demonstrating against the forced evictions affecting their neighborhoods, they have since taken on a broad range of causes.
“I want to ask some NGOs and civil society organizations, can you please free these people from Boeng Kak and Borei Keila? They use this group as professional and all-purpose protesters,” Mr. Socheatvong said during a speech during the inauguration of a new elementary school in Chroy Changva district.
“The groups led by Tep Vanny from Boeng Kak and Chhay Kimhorn from Borei Keila are professional protesters…. Each of them is paid $5 to $10 per day.”
Contacted by telephone later Monday, the governor refused to name the NGOs he accuses of paying the women, claiming that he did not want a confrontation. Asked to produce evidence backing up his claims, he replied, “open your eyes.”
Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor for Licadho, one of the rights groups that has supported the protesters, denied directing or paying them to demonstrate.
“No one is hiring them to protest; it’s against our principles,” he said. “As for joining protests about things besides land conflicts, they have the freedom and right to do so without anyone forcing them or pressuring them.”
Ms. Vanny, who has been repeatedly jailed and convicted for protesting, also denied the governor’s accusations.
She said the group does, however, receive charitable donations from Cambodians living abroad.
“We struggle and hide our hunger, but those who sympathize with us help us,” she said. “It is charity from Cambodian communities overseas. They don’t feed us so that we protest, but they help us in the name of charity, sympathy and understanding.”