Water Festival to Return to Phnom Penh

The Water Festival will be held in Phnom Penh this November for the first time since 353 people were trampled to death or suffocated in a stampede on a Koh Pich bridge during celebrations in 2010, officials said Tuesday.

The festivities, which draw more than a million people from the provinces and mark the Tonle Sap’s annual change of direction, have been canceled over the past three years ostensibly due either to floods or the late King Father Norodom Si-hanouk’s death.

National and International Ceremonies Organizing Committee (NICOC) secretary-general Chhin Ketana said the government circulated a notice last week instructing authorities to prepare to hold the festival in the capital in November.

“We will celebrate on November 5, 6 and 7 as we have failed to hold it for three years already,” he said. “Samdech [Prime Minister Hun Sen] didn’t allow us to organize the festival due to unforeseeable disasters,” he said.

Mr. Ketana also declined to say what his committee would do to ensure there was no repeat of the November 2010 Koh Pich stampede this year.

“Don’t recount this story,” he said of the stampede, which Mr. Hun Sen called the worst disaster in the country since the Khmer Rouge held power.

In the week following the November 22, 2010, stampede, police officials conceded that their had been shortfalls in their management of the crowds that converged on Koh Pich but also blamed the private owners of the island.

A committee of high-ranking government officials wrapped up its investigation into the event within the week, and Mr. Hun Sen said no one would be held to account. “Nobody should be blamed for an unexpected stampede,” he said.

The festival was then canceled due to flooding in November 2011, because of King Father Norodom Sihanouk’s death in 2012, and then again due to flooding last year.

This year, flooding along the Mekong River in the northern provinces has already killed 35 people, with more than 120,000 families evacuated from their homes.

At the same time last year, flooding had not yet begun but would start affecting the northern provinces in the middle of September and would go on to claim at least 168 lives.

Kem Gunawadh, the director-general of state broadcaster TVK, which is tasked with covering state events, said that the Water Festival will feature at its climax a nighttime float parade with colorful boats prepared by five ministries, the National Assembly, the Senate and the Royal Palace and the government itself.

Each province will also send boats to compete in boat races in front of the Royal Palace, he said.

“I believe that boats from pagodas, provinces and cities, and [government] units will be prepared starting from now,” wrote Mr. Gunawadh on his Facebook profile.

Phnom Penh City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said that he had not yet heard about the return of the Water Festival but that municipal authorities stood ready to prepare the festivities if it was not again canceled.

“If NICOC said that, it would not be wrong. The municipal authorities will be prepared to carry it out,” he said.

Phnom Penh municipal traffic police chief Chev Hak said he also had not heard the news.

“But if it’s true, we will have to plan in order to be prepared,” he said.

Near the Royal Palace, where the festivities will be focused, vendors said they were happy to see the festival’s return both for cultural and financial reasons.

“I am excited to see the celebration of this festival because I don’t want to see it disappear,” said Mum Dany, 50, who was selling souvenirs on Preah Sihanouk Boulevard. “I hope to sell my stuff more than on normal days,” she said.

Ros Leng, 64, a longtime seller of drinks and snacks on Sisowath Quay, said that a Royal Palace official had already informed her about the plans for the Water Festival.

“I hope to have good sales this year,” Ms. Leng said. “I could earn at least 50,000 to 100,000 riel a day [about $12.50 to $25] during the previous festivals, while I only earn about 20,000 to 30,000 riel on normal days.”

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