Fire Destroys Sihanoukville’s Phsar Leu Market

A fire blazed through Sihanouk­ville’s Phsar Leu market Wednes­day night, destroying all but 10 of the market’s almost 1,400 stalls and wiping out the merchandise and livelihoods of thousands of small vendors.

No one was injured in the fire, which started at around 11:30 pm and continued until early Thursday morning, Sihanoukville Governor Say Hak said Thursday evening.

Say Hak said that police have de­termined that the fire was caused by the carelessness of one of the vendors, though a local rights worker and vendors are calling for a criminal investigation of the blaze.

“The strong wind, which started two days ago, blew fire from one of the vendor’s charcoal cooking stoves,” he claimed, adding that the vendor, who he declined to name, did not properly extinguish the coals.

Say Hak said that firefighters were unable to stop the massive blaze until it had almost completely destroyed the market because it began in the center of the market.

“Phsar Leu is very narrow and as the fire started in the middle of the market the fire trucks could not get to it easily,” he said.

“I am very sorry this happened, but I will solve the problem with the vendors,” he added, but did not elaborate.

Ny Chakrya, head of the monitoring section for local rights group Adhoc, said that witnesses claimed they saw an unidentified man enter the locked market 10 minutes be­fore the blaze began.

“The [court] prosecutor must in­vestigate the case—who started the fire?” Ny Chakrya said.

In May 2004, hundreds of Siha­noukville market vendors shut their stalls and went on strike for three days to protest the municipality’s plans to forcefully move them from the old market to the Siha­noukville Trade Center.

The vendors complained at the time that the new market was poorly designed and resembled a prison more than a center of commerce.

Ny Chakrya said that vendors also opposed moving to the new market because the cost was too high.

“They don’t want to pay for a place in the new market. They have paid for a place in the old market already,” he said.

Var Sok Nget, 37, a representative of the market vendors, said by telephone that fire engines arrived at the scene 10 minutes after the blaze started, but firefighters did no­thing until the fire had gotten out of control.

He added that 500 female vendors will journey to Phnom Penh today to protest outside Prime Min­ister Hun Sen’s house.

Municipal fire-fighting police chief Kim Sok denied that his firefighters were slow to react and claimed that strong winds and a lack of manpower contributed to the leveling of the mostly wooden market.

“We only have nine fire-fighters—how could we stop the fire?” Kim Sok said, adding that he was uncertain what caused the fire, but that it began in one of the market’s bathrooms.

The scene at the market Thurs­day morning was one of desperation as hundreds of vendors clamored to salvage what they could of their stock.

“Please help us—we have lost everything,” 30-year-old clothing vendor Khieu Pheark said by telephone, adding that he had lost around $1,200 in merchandise.

Grocery seller Lim Keam, 57, said she had lost around $10,000 worth of goods that she had just finished stocking in preparation for the Chinese New Year in February.

“I have seven children. How can I feed them?” she asked.

This is the second time in nine months that a fire has completely destroyed a major Cambodian market.

In April, Pursat town’s Phsar Thmei was razed in a 16-hour-long inferno that destroyed 700 privately owned stalls and stock worth millions.

Following the fire, more than 100 Pursat vendors traveled to Phnom Penh to protest outside Hun Sen’s house, claiming that the market’s operator, Pursat Thmei Investment Co, had been pressuring them to renegotiate their lease agreements shortly before the market suspiciously burned down.

Sun Kim Heng, marketing director for Pursat Thmei Invest­ment, said Thursday that reconstruction of a $200,000 roof for the market was completed Wed­nesday with funds donated by Hun Sen.

However, more construction needs to be done and negotiations between vendors and the company are still unresolved.

“This problem between the company contracts and the market sellers is still going on,” she said.

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