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Sovantha gifts raise eyebrows

Thy Sovantha arrives at the Phnom Penh court in April. Yesterday, the social media star’s announcement of $3 million in donations to students prompted calls for transparency.
Thy Sovantha arrives at the Phnom Penh court in April. Yesterday, the social media star’s announcement of $3 million in donations to students prompted calls for transparency. Pha Lina

Sovantha gifts raise eyebrows

Social media star Thy Sovantha’s announcement that she has received $3 million from international donors to fund a series of university scholarships yesterday prompted calls from civil society leaders for transparency about the source of the money.

The claim of receiving $3 million, which is meant to fund 1,000 students, was made on the former opposition activist’s Facebook page on Sunday, and comes a week after leaked messages purported to show Prime Minister Hun Sen pledging Sovantha $1 million. Sovantha, who earlier this year turned on the opposition in favour of the ruling CPP, did not respond to requests for comment yesterday about the source of her funds, and her recent postings about the money only referred to unspecified “international donors”.

“We need some transparency about where she got the money from,” said Koul Panha, director of elections monitor Comfrel, who said Sovantha and her NGO could be in violation of the laws otherwise.

“According to the NGO Law, they need to report information about this amount of money . . . and sometimes, if the money is from public funds, I think that can be questioned a lot from the Ministry of Finance.”

Transparency International Cambodia director Preap Kol said in an email that it would be highly irregular for international donors to hand out such a large amount to a new organisation founded by a 22-year-old, as is the case with Sovantha’s Youthful Social Affairs NGO.

“Based on my nearly 20 year[s] of experience in the NGO sector, any credible international donor would only fund a new organization after proper assessment and scrutiny of the potential grantee,” Kol said.

“Even if they decide to provide funding, they would not give as much [of] amount at once or for the first time,” he said. He added that any “credible organisation” would disclose the identities of its major donors.

Sovantha, who has this past year transformed from the biggest pro-opposition social media activist in the country to one of the opposition’s most aggressive critics, also took to Facebook with a post yesterday threatening deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha.

She said if Sokha did not pen a public apology to her over allegedly defamatory remarks he made about her in the leaked phone calls that ultimately helped spark the legal case against him earlier this year, she would file a complaint accusing him of sex trafficking. (In a separate set of leaks – this one purporting to show conversations between Sovantha and Hun Sen’s son – the social media starlet appears to discuss with Hun Manith, a military intelligence official, how best to discredit and destroy the opposition.)

CNRP officials did not respond to requests for comment, but legal expert Sok Sam Oeun said trafficking is a criminal offence and only a prosecutor can decide to lodge such a complaint.

“She can only initiate and give evidence to the prosecutor,” Sam Oeun said, asking why Sovantha would ever consider not filing a complaint if she was aware that such a crime had in fact occurred.

“I don’t know whether she has some evidence or not; or why she knows? Maybe she was an accomplice because she knows this from the inside.”

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