More than 100 armed police blocked NGO workers and lawmakers from flying kites in front of the National Assembly on Monday morning claiming the colorful demonstration could have interrupted air traffic or hoisted airborne explosives.
The officers, many armed with riot shields, electric batons, AK-47 assault rifles and tear gas, confiscated some 70 kites from the peaceful protestors who were trying to highlight the need for freedom of expression.
“We are afraid for the security of airplanes,” government spokesman and Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said of the police crackdown on the kites.
Kites can only be flown safely in nearby Hun Sen Park and a field in Russei Keo district’s Toek Thla commune, the ministers added.
The kite flying, organized by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, was aimed at getting the Assembly to adopt a law guaranteeing people’s rights to peaceful protest and the need to amend a law curbing the rights of free speech of lawmakers.
The organizers also want the Assembly to scrap jail terms for those charged with disinformation, the criminal charge that has now become fashionable since the Assembly removed jail terms from the defamation law.
CCHR Executive Director Pa Nguon Teang said the police operation exposed the government’s totalitarian tendencies.
“The authorities have shown their dictatorial nature. They are destroying the foundations of freedom of expression,” he said.
Interior Ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak said the kites posed threats to more than just aircraft.
Rogue elements could have attached grenades to the kites and staged an attack on parliament, he declared.
“We are afraid of grenades on the kites because that area is a protected area.”
CCHR staff initially tried to run away from the police and hold onto their kites, which bore the words “freedom of expression,” but surrendered them after a short chase. Police then collected the kites in a large pile, before driving them away on two trucks. No one was arrested.
The confiscation took place after negotiations collapsed between Pa Nguon Teang, Licadho President Kek Galabru, SRP lawmakers Son Chhay and Keo Remy, with Daun Penh Deputy Governor Pich Socheata.
“We are sad. The confiscation has affected freedom of expression and democratic principles,” Kek Galabru said after Pich Socheata announced that the kites could not be flown.
Kek Galabru warned that the government’s reputation was suffering because of its failures to act in a democratic manner. She also accused authorities of treating NGO workers like terrorists.
Pich Socheata said the kites were blocked because City Hall had not given the green light. She also said the kite dangers were not aircraft or grenades, but motorcycles and the public.
“If you had been given permission to fly the kites, I would have provided security for you,” she told Pa Nguon Teang. “If you fly the kites, at least 100 motorbike drivers will stop to watch the kites and this will affect security,” Pich Socheata maintained.
Authorities were simply upholding the law, and had not undermined Cambodia’s democratic process, she said. “We didn’t use any violence,” she added,
Keo Sivorn, chief of flight operations and air safety at the Secretariat of Civil Aviation, said kites in front of the Assembly would not cause planes to crash.
“The National Assembly is not a route for landing planes. Kites cannot fly high enough to crash into a plane,” he said.