Less than two weeks before Phnom Penh kicks off the biggest festival on its calendar, and a year after 353 people died in a stampede at the same event, details on what authorities have planned for this year’s Water Festival remain thin.
Attendance will surely dip below the more than 1 million revelers the festival typically draws to the city while much of the country continues to recover from the worst flooding it has seen in more than a decade. But with few clear lessons learned from last year’s stampede disaster, some still worry that security arrangements for the three-day festival will be lacking come Nov 9.
Last year, 353 people were crushed, trampled and drowned to death after revelers heading on and off Diamond Island had packed a short, two-lane bridge so tightly that bodies were stacked one on top of the other for hours in an immobile mass. Once the crowd’s panic finally boiled over, the stampede ensued.
At the time, Prime Minister Hun Sen called it the deadliest single loss of life to hit the country since the 1979 fall of the Khmer Rouge.
The next day, he set up a committee packed with government officials to find out why the stampede happened. But some opposition lawmakers and non-government groups criticized the effort for conscripting many of the very people responsible for planning and running the event at which so many people died, and for avoiding any independent voices.
As those observers expected, when Deputy Prime Minister Sok An announced the findings of the investigation, he spoke only of what may have triggered the stampede. The committee, he said, concluded that the rush began when some youths in the crowd started yelling that the swaying suspension bridge was about to collapse. It never did.
Dismissed by the committee were witness accounts stating that the combination of frayed electrical wires with the water police were spraying on the packed bridge had sent electrical currents through the metal rails.
Even worse, the critics said, was the committee’s failure to address how organizers allowed the crowd to reach the point where a deadly stampede could even happen.
A report of the investigation was never released to the public.
Authorities admitted to some shortfalls in police staffing and training, but used words like “unpredictable” and “unexpected” in talking about the stampede, never seeming to take on any genuine responsibility for what happened.
When Mr Hun Sen finally closed the weeklong investigation, he said no one would be reprimanded or held responsible for the deaths of so many people.
This year, details about the government’s plans for the Water Festival are scant.
Though the prime minister two weeks ago canceled the boat racing that makes up the heart and soul of the festival—a safety precaution against high flood waters—he said the attendant concerts and events would still go ahead.
On Wednesday, the general secretary of the National Committee for Organizing National and International Festivals, Khhin Ketana, said details of its plans for the Festival would be released on Friday. Those plans turned out to be leaflets advising the public on how to greet the retired King when he celebrates his 89th birthday on Monday.
At the Interior Ministry, which ultimately has to sign off on security arrangements, National Police spokesman Kirth Chantharith said authorities had learned a lot from 2010’s disaster.
“The most [important] lesson learned…is how to prepare the crowd, how to organize the crowd, how to order the people to escape,” he said. “The second lesson, how to help the people if something happens. The third lesson, we are better prepared to disseminate the plan to the public beforehand.”
He said police had also undergone more training over the past year. But pressed for details on the training, lessons learned, and how they would be applied this year, Mr Chantharith said he could offer none because the Interior Ministry had yet to finalize this year’s plans—and did not know when it would be finalized.
Even though he expected only a quarter of the usual crowds this year, maybe less, Mr Chantharith said it was no reason for planners to let their guard down.
“Even [with] fewer people, the police have to be ready,” Mr Chantharith said.
But opposition SRP lawmaker Son Chhay said he has seen no sign of that planning. Like the investigation into the stampede, he said, it seemed to be taking place beneath a shroud of secrecy.
“They seem to treat everything as top secret in this country,” he said.
Immediately after last year’s investigation into the stampede, he asked the National Assembly to form a new, more inclusive committee that would look for any mistakes organizers may have made in planning the event, one that would summon testimony from both the organizers and independent experts. No surprise to Mr Chhay, National Assembly President Heng Samrin said no.
“We wanted to look at who was responsible to do what and where were these officials when the event happened,” Mr Chhay said.
With those questions never answered, he said future festivals that go off smoothly will owe their fortunes more to luck than proper planning.
He faulted the government for not turning to independent crowd control experts for help, all the more important, he added, when civil servants rise through the ranks more through kickbacks and connections than merit.
“So they do not have the ability to manage such serious responsibility. Those who are usually qualified are not in the right position,” he said.
“We cannot afford to have 100 people die every time we celebrate something.”