Doubt Grows Over Resignations of Officials Involved in Koh Pich Disaster

Government officials yesterday hinted that the resignation of government officials in the aftermath of Monday’s stampede that killed hundreds on a bridge at Koh Pich island was unlikely, as the practice does not fit with Cambodian custom.

On Monday night at least 347 people died after visiting attractions on Koh Pich island when they were crushed or suffocated on a connecting bridge during a stampede.

After the disaster, the government formed an investigating committee led by Cabinet Minister Sok An devoted to monitoring causalities, distributing compensation and studying the root causes of the incident.

But, its findings have so far only blamed the victims for Monday night’s tragedy, saying that they panicked when the bridge swayed, and officials have avoided pinning the responsibility on a particular institution or person from within the government.

All over the world, high profile tragedies frequently result in resignations.

Indeed, after North Korea shelled a South Korean fishing community and military base on a disputed island on Tuesday, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak yesterday called for the resignation of his Defense Minister Kim Tae-young amid criticism the military’s response to the attack was insufficient.

Even in China’s party-controlled communist state, the head of the country’s quality watchdog, Li Changjiang, resigned after melamine-contaminated milk killed six young children and poisoned thousands more in 2008.

However, according to National Police Commissariat spokesman Kirth Chantharith, similar actions are unlikely here.

“We have respective customs and respective best practice. Cambodia is Cambodia,” Mr Chantharith said by telephone yesterday. “For the other country it is not the same policy, custom or law.”

Mr Chantharith said that the resignation of any officials would only be confirmed once the government’s investigation into Monday’s stampede has been completed.

“I want to emphasize for this event the police will study and will learn from this event to prepare better for the next year,” he said. “We have to learn what is bad, what is good, what we cannot do and what we can do.”

Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, also said that officials resigning from government positions during times of heightened criticism were not habitual behavior in Cambodia.

“I learn about the Korea too this morning. In Cambodia we don’t have such customs like that,” he said, referring to the resignation of South Korea’s defense minister. “We abide ourselves with the rule of law.”

He added that any responsibility handed down for the stampede will be concluded inside the investigation committee’s report, yet to be released.

“It is too early to say anything,” he said. “We don’t want to stipulate things beforehand.”

Prum Sokha, chairman of the sub-committee to investigate the cause of the disaster, could not be reached for comment.

In the aftermath of Monday’s disaster the opposition SRP party instantly called for the suspension or resignation of Phnom Penh officials, who oversaw this year’s water festival.

Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodia Defenders Project, said the government should include experts in crowd control within its committee in order to find out exactly who was at fault.

“Otherwise how can they find the responsible people?” he asked.

On Wednesday, Social Affairs Minister Ith Sam Heng, who is in charge of the government’s committee looking into the cause of the stampede, said that the swaying of the bridge was the principal reason behind the disaster.

Touch Samnang, an architect for the Overseas Cambodian Investment Corporation, the firm that operates Koh Pich island, said he did not know if the investigation would result in any job losses.

Susi Tan, Koh Pich’s project manager, said she did not know when the investigation would be finished, and how far it would go in laying blame.

“No, I don’t know anything until the government answers,” she said.

Ms Tan again attempted to distance OCIC from responsibility for crowd control issues and said it was the first time the company had to manage such a large crowd in the island. “We did our best,” she said.


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