Two of 100 armed police who confiscated kites from 150 people demonstrating outside Parliament for freedom of expression.
A protest against the government's constraints on freedom of expression never got off the ground on November 27 as 100 heavily armed riot police obligingly helped demonstrators outside the National Assembly make their point by confiscating their plastic kites bearing the words "Freedom of Expression.".
"Without wind a kite cannot fly," said Kek Galabru, president of Licadho, a human rights NGO. "Without freedom of expression you cannot have development or democracy."
The symbolism was lost on municipal officials charged with preventing the demonstration, who offered a litany of excuses for seizing the kites before they had even been launched, said Ou Virak, spokesman for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR).
"It is laughable," he said. "They had no legal reason to forbid us from flying kites, so they used any excuse."
Initially claiming the kites posed a risk to overhead air traffic and a terrorism threat to the nearby National Assembly building, officials at the scene had police confiscate the kites from the 150 demonstrators who had gathered in the park opposite the National Assembly, Virak said.
The event, to raise awareness of the need for a law guaranteeing people's right to peaceful protest and to highlight the importance of amending the recent law limiting parliamentarians' freedom of speech, was redefined as a terrorism threat by local officials, Galabru said.
"They were afraid of us using the kites to drop grenades on the National Assembly," she said.
Pa Socheatevong, deputy governor of Phnom Penh, said on November 28 that it was the failure of the organizers to correctly apply for permission from the Phnom Penh Municipality that obliged authorities to prevent the demonstration.
"Civil society just sent a notice of the event to City Hall, which is not enough," he said. "It seems [the event organizers] look down on the authorities. They have to write a letter asking for permission."
But organizers say such a request for permission was unnecessary.
"We didn't ask permission but we informed them that we were coming," Galabru said. "It is a park you know. People come to sit, picnic, everything. Flying a kite there would not affect public order or disrupt traffic."
Virak said a letter sent by the event organizers to City Hall on November 21 outlining the kite-flying plans received no response.
"According to the law you are only required to give three days notice," he said. "If the authorities don't respond then [you can] consider permission to be granted."
But Socheatevong said City Hall did not receive the letter until November 24 - a Friday - and by then it was too late for City Hall to grant permission for the demonstration on Monday 27.
"They did not give enough time to give them permission," he said. "That is why we cannot allow them to fly the kites - and NGOs have to understand and respect the law."
Sam Rainsy Party parliamentarian Mu Sochua said freedom of assembly and expression are fundamental, constitutionally guaranteed, rights in Cambodia and in preventing the demonstration, the government has violated these basic principles.
"You can find three hundred thousand ways to complicate the situation if you want to," she said. "But freedom of assembly and freedom of expression are constitutional rights that should be upheld, full stop."
The November 27 crackdown is part of a broader, systematic campaign on the part of the government to crack down on Cambodia's growing democratic movement, she said.
"This is a policy now of the Royal Government of Cambodia - local authorities receive clear orders to crack down on the rights of the people, the liberty of citizens," she said. "This cannot be accepted."
Both CCHR's Virak and Licadho's Galabru said that organizing events has become noticeably more difficult since the anti-Thai riots in 2002.
"Since then hardly any public protests have been approved," Virak said. "The municipality always has an excuse not to give permission."
Galabru said the 2002 riots were simply an expedient excuse to restrict citizens' freedoms.
"They were waiting for some good reason, an excuse," she said. "They found a good excuse in the anti Thai riots; since then, if workers want to demonstrate to claim their rights they don't allow it."
Sochua said such draconian attempts at social control are the hallmark of a government flailing to maintain power.
"This is a sign that the government is worried," she said. "Crackdowns in any country if done in this way are a sign of weakness, a sign of fear that the movement for democracy has gone all the way down to grass roots."
The movement for democracy within Cambodia is expanding rapidly at grassroots level, and with it comes discontent with the current system of governance, she said.
"The people are no longer willing to accept oppression as a way of life," Sochua said. "At village level people are standing up, they are marching to the offices of the commune, to the offices of the local governor, to assert their rights."
This is a new challenge for the government and they are not sure how to respond, but their current policy of repression will prove counterproductive, she said.
"Authorities are not confident about how to deal with the democracy movement and the easiest way is for them is to crack down," she said. "Such crackdowns have a negative impact, not on democracy, but on the kind of governance they want to impose on the people.
"The more they crack down on the democracy movement the stronger it will become."