On the corner of one of Phnom Penh’s busiest roads this week, motorcyclists pulled over one by one holding out crumpled banknotes to a group of blind performers who were belting out a score of traditional Cambodian songs.
The group, like many others across Phnom Penh, has been defying a citywide ban imposed earlier this month that prohibits disabled people from performing on the roadside.
“We can’t let them do this anymore; it affects the aesthetics of our city,” reasoned City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche.
“If they want to show off their talents, they have to ask for permission first and we will consider whether and to what extent we can allow them to do their job,” he said, noting that a space for such authorised performances had yet to be found.
He added that renewed orders would be given to district authorities to enforce the ban.
But for many disabled performers, stopping is simply not an option.
“Now we still sing on the road because we don’t know what to do besides performing,” said 17-year-old Cheuy Oddom, who has been blind since birth.
“We have a low education and no restaurants will let us sing, so we still have to do it even though the authorities have banned us.”
Sitting under a tree earlier this month to escape the afternoon sun, Oddom played notes on his keyboard as he attempted to find the key for his group’s next performance.
He has been performing on the streets for about a year in a three-person group that includes his sister, 16-year-old Cheuy Sreypov, who is also blind.
Oddom said his parents borrowed $2,000 to buy instruments for the group, landing them in a debt that they are still paying off.
“We perform to live and to pay off the debt. If we don’t perform, our stomachs will be empty.”
Sreypov, who is the singer of the group, said that with little support available from the government and with their family unable to offer any more financial support, performing is the only way the group can survive.
“People hand over money, fruit juices and mineral water to us, the disabled people,” she said, adding that the group earns between $20 and $30 a day.
If the group gave up on performing, Sreypov said they would be reduced to living on the streets and begging for money, which is also not looked upon kindly by authorities who regularly conduct “street sweeps” that see such people arrested and held in notoriously ill-equipped and abusive detention centres.
“We, the disabled people, are jobless and we know it is inappropriate to unfold our hands and beg for money, so we sing,” she said.
Many Phnom Penh residents, for whom the disabled performances have become a staple of life in the city, have supported those defying the ban.
“Those disabled people use their natural talents to make an honest living. They should be valued,” said university student Chea Serei Vattana.
“I think that if we cannot let them sing at the traffic lights, the government should tackle the issue by improving their living standards so they don’t need to perform.”
But Em Chan Makara, director of the Ministry of Social Affairs’ Disability Action Committee, defended the decision to ban the performances, which he said affected “safety, public order and the city’s beauty”.
“When they perform at traffic lights, it leads to many issues relating to accidents, and it’s inappropriate.”
He said the ministry has a centre for the disabled and would pay people who volunteer to stay there an allowance of 5,000 riel (about $1.25) a day.
Disability advocates say this is not good enough.
Ngin Saoroth, executive director of the Disability Action Council, said that street performances are a show of disabled people’s “abilities and their rights”.
Outside of the performances, he said more needs to be done to offer disabled people support. “The law has set out the policy [of giving a $5 monthly stipend] for disabled people, but no one has received it yet.”
Without adequate support, many of the city’s disabled residents feel abandoned by the government and forced to defy its orders.
“We only sing and play musical instruments to earn a living, and if the authorities ban us from performing like this, we do not know what to do in the future,” said 24-year-old blind musician Khan Daleak as he prepared for his next performance.