Phnom Penh governor Pa Socheatvong on Sunday presided over the fifth anniversary of the 2010 Water Festival stampede that claimed 353 lives, in what the government has called the single largest loss of life in Cambodia since the Khmer Rouge.
The tragedy occurred on the final night of the festival when two large crowds heading in opposite directions formed an immobile crush of bodies on the main bridge leading on and off Koh Pich island. Many of the people stuck in the crowd—mostly young, out-of-town revelers—suffocated beneath the bodies stacked on top of them; others were trampled underfoot once panic ensued.
At a memorial stupa erected next to the since-demolished bridge, Mr. Socheatvong on Sunday handed out $50 donations—courtesy of Prime Minister Hun Sen—to each of the 73 families who lost relatives in the stampede and came to the anniversary, conceding that the government was caught completely off guard by the tragedy.
“Even though this event happened five years ago, the tragedy is still remembered clearly by our people in Phnom Penh and the provinces,” he said.
“We consider November 22 to be a remembrance day, and we cannot forget it because it was a serious accident. The stampede happened because we were careless because we never had an event like this before.”
In the days following the stampede, police officials admitted to a number of shortcomings in their handling of the crowds that flooded Koh Pich that night, including a dearth of officers and a lack of training. They also blamed the island’s private owner, the Overseas Cambodian Investment Corporation, which in turn put the onus back on the city.
But after an ad hoc committee packed exclusively with government officials wrapped up an investigation of the events within a week, Mr. Hun Sen declared that no one would be held accountable “for an unexpected stampede.”
The committee, which never released its report to the public, concluded that the stampede was triggered by someone in the crowd who yelled out that the swaying suspension bridge was about to collapse. The opposition party’s efforts to launch a second, independent investigation into the stampede’s root causes were shot down.
Moun Phally, who lost two daughters during the stampede—Choeun Thearak, 20, and Choeun Many, 30—made the trip from Takhmao City in Kandal province to attend Sunday’s anniversary.
“I grieve for the death of my two daughters,” she said through tears. “Sometimes I lose consciousness when I remember the deaths of my daughters. It is a heavy sadness in my life.”
The government has organized the boat races that anchor the three-day festival in Phnom Penh only once since the stampede. It canceled this year’s races, which were scheduled to begin Tuesday, claiming that drought conditions had made the Tonle Sap too shallow and required that the government focus its resources on helping affected farmers.