Opposition Continues Call for Suspensions, Resignation

Opposition lawmakers yesterday continued pressing for the suspension or resignation of Phnom Penh officials who oversaw this year’s Water Festival for their parts in a Monday night stampede that killed more than 300 revelers.  City officials, meanwhile, continued to deny they were responsible for the tragedy.

The opposition also expressed concern that the committees established to handle the accident are composed almost entirely of government, police and municipal officials. Pung Kheav Se, director-general of Koh Pich island’s developer, is also a member.

By the government’s latest count, 347 people were trampled to death after thousands of festival-goers packed a bridge leading to Koh Pich.

On the floor of the National Assembly yesterday morning, SRP lawmaker Son Chhay called for the suspension of officials responsible for security at Water Festival.

SRP lawmaker Yim Sovann said his party was asking specifically for Phnom Penh governor Kep Chuktema and police chief Touch Naruth to be suspended, at least until the government completes its investigation of the disaster.

“We are asking those in direct charge of organizing the festival and those in charge of security…we are asking [for] them to be suspended,” he said. “We have to find out the real cause. If we find negligence, if we find they are incompetent, the next step is resignation.”

But the request, he said, was met with “no response from the government. They kept quiet.”

Mr Sovann said the party would continue to call for suspensions as well as requesting that government officials appear before the Assembly next week to answer questions about the event.

“We need somebody to be responsible for the tragedy,” he said. “Many people died.”

Human Rights Party president Kem Sokha went a step further.

“What happened is the responsibility of the organizers. Who is the organizer of the ceremony should resign first,” he said. “I think the governor of Phnom Penh…. If he is a good leader, he should resign now.”

With only three seats in the Assembly, Mr Sokha said he could not raise the issue on the floor but would sent Prime Minister Hun Sen a letter asking for a committee independent of the government to investigate the event.

Opposition lawmakers and NGOs have expressed concerns that the current committee-established on Tuesday and packed with government officials from top to bottom-will fail to look beyond the immediate cause of the stampede. They say it is equally important to find out how thousands of people could have crammed onto a bridge designed to handle only a few hundred.

“I don’t believe they can accuse themselves,” Mr Sokha said of the committee members, who include Mr Chuktema and other city and police officials.

Nearly three days after the tragedy, there were few indications that the committee was looking at anything beyond the initial trigger of the stampede.

On Wednesday evening, Social Affairs Minister Ith Sam Heng appeared on television to issue the committee’s initial findings. He said the rush was set off by those in the crowd who were started when the suspension bridge started to sway.

Committee members could not be reached yesterday.

Mr Chuktema, the city’s governor, could not be reached either.

In an interview with the Al Jazeera news network broadcast Wednesday, however, he described the deaths as an anomaly, part of an otherwise well-run festival.

“We managed the crowds throughout Phnom Penh,” he said. “It was only at this site that there was a problem.”

Mr Naruth, Phnom Penh’s police chief, said he saw no resignations in the near future.

“Not yet, since we think the authorities tried their best to protect people around the area,” he said yesterday.

Over the past few days, however, National Police spokesman Kirth Chantharith conceded that officers in the area that night were both overwhelmed by the crowd and under-trained. The Interior Ministry’s Prom Sokha, now heading the special committee investigating the cause of the disaster, said a study of how much traffic the area could handle would have prevented the fatal stampede, but he had no answer as to why that study never happened.

Mr Naruth yesterday refused even to talk about the conditions that led to the stampede, instead praising the police for their response to the mayhem that followed.

“We helped a lot of people,” he said. “If we had not helped, more people would have lost their lives.”

Government officials have placed responsibility for security at the scene of the stampede at the feet of the firm that owns the bridge-the Overseas Cambodian Investment Corporation.

While OCIC officials have accepted some blame for their security team’s poor crowd control, they have placed ultimate responsibility for security back on the government.

(Additional reporting by Eang Mengleng)

Related Stories

Latest News