Authorities in Phnom Penh have decided to take aim at the centerpiece of many a child’s birthday party or afternoon outing.
Expressing concerns about the potential for helium tanks to explode and burn, injuring passersby—helium is inert and non-combustible—Daun Penh governor Kuoch Chamroeun said vendors in the district would no longer be allowed to sell balloons in areas popular among tourists, including around Independence Monument, the Royal Palace and the riverside.
The annoucement came two days after four balloon sellers were arrested alongside activists protesting for the release of jailed anti-eviction campaigner Tep Vanny, although officials said the order was unrelated to the arrests.
Balloon sellers near Independence Monument said they were given an entirely different reason for the ban: the potential for terrorism.
In a video of Mr. Chamroeun speaking to reporters on Tuesday morning, he says the helium tanks used by balloon vendors could explode and cause stampedes.
The tanks “will cause explosions that will frighten people,” he said. “This would cause a stampede and the gas explosion would burn and injure others.”
City Hall spokesman Mean Chanyada echoed the concerns, saying the balloon sellers affect “public order.” While conceding that the vendors were not flouting any particular law, he said authorities were attempting to beautify open areas while keeping them safe.
Balloon sellers near Independence Monument said they were told to vacate the area by Daun Penh authorities on Monday, but were given a different justification for the order.
“The reason they gave was that they were afraid the tanks could be used for terrorism as they are outside Samdech’s [Mr. Hun Sen’s] house,” said In Preng, 40.
“They said that if someone was planning an act of terrorism, they could shoot the tanks and cause them to explode,” he said.
Still, Mr. Preng said he and other vendors would continue taking their chances.
“Police come every day and we have to run away. We always have to keep our eyes open,” he said.
The decision to crack down on balloon sellers received a mixed reception among locals and tourists on Tuesday evening.
“It can affect the beauty of the parks, but it is their business,” said Sout Khom, a 52-year-old moto-taxi driver sitting on a bench near Independence Monument.
“If they are not allowed to sell here, and are only allowed to sell in the middle of the forest, who is going to buy from them?”
However, Sin Sav, a 58-year-old musician sitting next to Mr. Khom, was supportive of the government’s hard-line stance, similarly confusing helium for a combustible gas.
“They contain explosive substances,” he said. “They don’t look good in the parks.”
A German tourist relaxing on the riverside, who gave his name only as Tom, said the balloon sellers were as innocuous as their balloons.
“It is not an explosive gas,” he said. “Take a shop cooking on the street, they have barbecue on the street. It is the same” level of danger.
(Additional reporting by George Wright)