A day after families across the country put 351 ghosts to rest—one for each person who died in a Phnom Penh stampede last week—Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday said no officials would be forced to resign over the disaster.
Declaring the government’s weeklong investigation into the deaths officially over, the premier revealed that Kong Sam Ol, Royal Palace minister and head of the government’s events planning committee, had offered to resign but was rebuffed last week.
“His Excellency Kong Sam Ol had prepared and handed me his resignation letter in the evening from his position as chairman” of the events planning committee, Mr Hun Sen said. “I did not accept it.”
“Nobody should be blamed for an unexpected stampede,” he said.
The decision effectively rejected calls from opposition parties and NGOs for the government to hold those responsible for security at the festival to account. Both groups decried the premier’s decree yesterday and continued their call for a new, independent inquiry into the event.
Taking aim at those critics, Mr Hun Sen told them to remember the 2001 terrorist attacks on the US, after which he said no US officials lost their jobs for failing to prevent the attacks.
“Did the president and the Bush administration resign after the Sept 11 attacks?” he premier asked during the inauguration of the Social Affairs Ministry’s new headquarters yesterday. “Did the mayor of New York city or Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld resign from their positions?”
Police officials throughout the week conceded that a number of shortfalls in handling crowds that flooded Koh Pich island on Nov 22 for the last day of the Water Festival, including a lack of police and under-trained officers.
Festivalgoers headed in opposite directions ran into each other over a narrow bridge connecting the island to the mainland, creating a mass of thousands that finally could not move and set the scene for a fatal stampede that finally broke out at about 9:30 pm.
Like those officials, however, Mr Hun Sen painted the scene as an ultimately unpredictable, almost natural disaster.
“We did not expect that people could fatally collide with each other like motorbikes and cars,” he said. “If anybody expected it and had told us, and we ignored it, I as prime minister would ask all the ministers to resign.”
The premier insisted, however, that no such resignations would come.
At a news conference at the Council of Ministers yesterday afternoon, Cabinet Minister Sok An brought an official end to the three committees the government set up in the immediate wake of the disaster to investigate its cause, identify all victims and examine the bodies of the dead.
Interior Ministry Secretary of State Prum Sokha, who headed the investigation into the cause of the stampede, said his committee concluded that the rush was triggered by people stuck in the crowd who began yelling that the bridge was collapsing.
That backed up the committee’s preliminary findings last week that the crowd panicked when the suspension ridge began swaying.
Health Minister Mam Bun Heng, who oversaw the government’s examination of the dead, also dismissed claims that the stampede started when frayed wiring on the bridge began electrocuting people.
According to numerous witness accounts, however, the bridge’s rails started giving off electric shocks once police started hosing the crowd with water.
Mr Sok An called the failure to foresee how events would unfold that night “the weakness of the government.”
Opposition lawmakers, human rights workers and international crowd control experts have said the government’s focus on what triggered the stampede missed the point—that the 351 deaths were a failure of planning.
“This is the responsibility of the people who planned the event,” said SRP lawmaker Yim Sovann, whose party has called for the suspension of Phnom Penh governor Kep Chuktema and police chief Touch Naruth.
“You attract more than a million people to the festival, so you should have mechanisms in place to prevent something like this,” he said. “You should have consultants who can tell you what to expect.”
With all the money that has come pouring in for the victims, including donations from the government, Royal Family and the company that operates the bridge, the prime minister said families were now entitled to claim nearly $13,000 for every death. He said the hundreds of others injured in the stampede were also in line for free ongoing medial care.
At the same time, he said the government would soon allow the Overseas Cambodian Investment Commission—the private firm behind Koh Pich island’s development—to reopen the bridge.
The SRP’s Mr Sovann, meanwhile, said the party would continue pressing for an independent inquiry of the events and call on officials to stand for questions at the National Assembly.
“We have to struggle for justice,” he said. “Otherwise, the culture of impunity will continue.”