Swaying Bridge Sparked Panic in Cambodia

By PATRICK BARTA

Wall Street Journal

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia—A government investigation into Monday’s deadly bridge stampede in Cambodia said victims panicked when the bridge began to sway, as criticism of the government’s handling of the disaster mounted.

The investigation, summarized on a television news station that serves as a mouthpiece for the government, found that many of the victims came from rural areas and didn’t know it was normal for suspension bridges to sway, according to the Associated Press and other local and international news agencies that followed the report.

A police officer on Wednesday lays flowers for victims who died in a stampede near a bridge in Phnom Penh.

The 8,000 or so people who were on the bridge apparently thought it was about to collapse and then panicked, the report said, leading to a desperate struggle to escape that left hundreds of people crushed.

Government spokesmen couldn’t be reached to comment on the report.

The latest official casualty tally was 347 dead and 395 injured, according to the Associated Press. down from earlier official figures. Some of the confusion appeared to come from the fact that many relatives took victims’ bodies back home to rural areas, making it harder to get an accurate count.

Human-rights groups and some residents have grown increasingly critical of the government’s management of the disaster, which occurred during Cambodia’s annual three-day water festival, which marks the end of the country’s rainy season. About two million people descend on Phnom Penh for the festival each year.

This year, tens of thousands of people gathered on an island across from the central downtown area that was holding a series of free concerts. Many residents and survivors say there weren’t enough police on hand to manage such a large crowd, and that authorities should have known there wasn’t sufficient bridge space to move people on and off the island. Others say some victims were electrocuted after police allegedly fired water cannons to disperse the crowd—a charge the government has repeatedly denied.

Hundreds are feared dead in a stampede on a bridge in Cambodia. Video courtesy of Reuters.

“I want the government to do more investigation,” said Sam Phalla, a 23-year-old restaurant manager along the riverside after she heard the results of the government’s initial investigations Wednesday.

“The government allowed people to come to the site—a lot of people—and they did not think in advance about the exit,” said Yim Sovann, a spokesman for the main opposition Sam Rainsy Party, which is named after a longtime opposition leader. In other countries when a disaster of this magnitude occurs, officials in charge resign, he said, but that hasn’t happened in this case. “We need to create a culture of responsibility,” he said. The complaints echoed concerns raised earlier by human-rights groups. “The failure of the state to control the crowd and limit the damage from the stampede is clear,” the Asian Human Rights Commission said in a statement Tuesday.

Public criticism of the government is becoming more common in Cambodia, a country that is only just recovering from decades of civil war and chaos, including a period in the 1970s when it was ruled by a radical Maoist movement known as the Khmer Rouge whose policies led to the deaths of 1.7 million people.

Scarred by so many years of trouble, many residents have at times refrained from openly criticizing the current government led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, even though international groups routinely accuse his administration of corruption and pressuring the local media. But Mr. Hun Sen’s government has also presided over a stabilization of Cambodia’s economy that has resulted in an investment boom in recent years. As incomes have risen, many residents have become more active in political affairs—and more willing to complain.

Mr. Hun Sen declared Thursday a national day of mourning, and the government is offering cash payments to families of the deceased to help cover funeral costs and other expenses. The investigating committee behind Wednesday’s report included government ministers and city officials and relied on testimony from witnesses, the Associated Press said.

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