Memorial stupa planned for those killed at island bridge
As hundreds of bodies were cremated across Cambodia yesterday, details remained scant as to how the government is seeking accountability for Phnom Penh’s greatest peacetime disaster.
At least 456 people lost their lives in a stampede late Monday as thousands poured onto Koh Pich island’s northern bridge, according to a government death count updated yesterday.
Officials had yet to stage a news conference on the matter yesterday, and little information was released about how exactly the government is investigating the catastrophe.
Both the Overseas Cambodian Investment Corporation, the private firm that operates the island, and the government have refused this week to take full responsibility for the events at the bridge.
Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said yesterday that there would be no news conference until Cabinet Minister Sok An, who is leading the government’s investigations into the disaster, deems it necessary.
“There won’t be any press conference,” he said. “If there will be, Sok An will decide.”
He said the committee had not yet reached any official conclusions as to how so many people were allowed to die.
However, a news report on Bayon TV reported that Social Affairs Minister Ith Sam Heng, who is part of the investigating committee, had blamed the swaying of the suspension bridge for starting the stampede.
And in a statement yesterday bearing the signature of Prime Minister Hun Sen, the government said it had decided “to build a stupa to commemorate the souls of the people who lost their lives during the incident on Koh Pich bridge on the night of Nov 22, 2010.”
Phnom Penh governor Kep Chuktema is responsible for selecting the location for the memorial, the statement added.
Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said yesterday the government would wait to hold a news conference until all the dead have been counted and returned to their families.
“We have to wait until all the bodies have been sent home and there is an exact number of dead,” he said.
Relatives of the dead and injured, however, remain in the dark as to what happened.
Meng Kiant, 28, was at Preah Kossamak Hospital yesterday looking after his brother and sister, who were both injured in the stampede.
“I think the police who were in power were unable to respond. They should have controlled the number of people going in and out,” he said. “The police thought the event was about entertainment. They did not think that anything like this would have happened.”
Several other victims interviewed yesterday called on the government to hold officials responsible for deploying police.
“We really need the explanation from the government,” said Chue Angmean, 54, whose granddaughter, daughter and two nieces were injured on Monday night. “All we know is that it was too crowded.”
Opposition members and human rights groups agreed that any meaningful investigation must set its sights beyond what triggered the stampede and how the victims died and also focus on those who let thousands of people pack the bridge.
“An investigation should look at the structural issues…at the system,” said Hang Chhaya, director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy.
“If you allow such a large crowd, you would have to have a number of safety mechanisms in place…and none of that, as you can see, had taken place,” he said. “Somebody is definitely responsible.”
SRP lawmaker and party spokesman Yim Sovann went a step further.
Event planners “must be suspended for a while,” he said, at least until the end of the investigation.
“Before you allow so many people to attend the event, you must consider the exits,” he said.
“The people in charge of planning the event and the people in charge of security must be held accountable.”
“In other countries, they must resign to show responsibility,” he added. “In this country, never.”
As the special committee charged with investigating the stampede is packed with government officials, Mr Sovann said he had little faith that it would hold other officials to account.
“The people on the committee are also the ones that planned the event…so I don’t think it can be independent,” he said.
“We have never seen such a complex independent [investigation] separate from the government,” said the Democracy Institute’s Mr Chhaya. “In Cambodia, we have no sense of what independent means.”
Without an independent investigation, “it means it will be another closed case…without consultation, without thinking, and that would just be a tragedy,” he said.
While acknowledging some major failings, police continued to refuse to take ultimate responsibility for security at the bridge Monday night.
On Tuesday, national police spokesman Kirth Chantharith conceded there were too few police at the scene to handle the crowd and that even they were undertrained.
Yesterday, Prum Sokha, a secretary of state for the Interior Ministry who is heading the investigation into the cause of the stampede, also acknowledged that the government had not looked into whether the bridges could handle the expected crowds.
“If there had been a study, we would have been able to avoid this,” he said.
Mr Sokha declined to say why that study never happened.
“Your question is too hard,” he said.
Phnom Penh governor Kep Chuktema hung up when telephoned by a reporter. Officials at the National Committee for Organizing National and International Festivals either deferred security questions to police or simply called the stampede an “unpredictable accident.”
In the first sign of accepting culpability for the tragedy, though, the island’s chief architect and project manager, Touch Samnang, conceded that the company bore at least some of the blame—along with City Hall.
“It’s the accident because we are not good with the management; we are not good with the [crowd] control,” he said.
Mr Samnang said he had no idea if anyone at the firm should be held accountable for the disaster.
(Reporting by Simon Marks, Neou Vannarin, Zsombor Peter and Phorn Bopha)