Calls For Justice Continue A Year After Cambodian Stampede

By Shibani Mahtani

A year after more than 350 people died on a bridge stampede in Cambodia’s capital of Phnom Penh – an event that drew headlines across the world – a new report says the government hasn’t conducted a “meaningful” inquiry into the tragedy, and advocates are calling for new investigations.

The Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), responsible for the report, is recommending that the government reopen a “full investigation” into the incident, which Prime Minister Hun Sen himself labeled as the greatest tragedy to befall the country since the Pol Pot regime.

“The anniversary of this tragedy falls on International Day to End Impunity… a timely coincidence as despite the gravity of the event, no one has been held accountable,” said Ou Virak, the President of CCHR.

In the initial months following the stampede – which occurred on the Koh Pich bridge on Nov. 22, 2010 during Cambodia’s annual three-day water festival, which draws millions of people to Phnom Penh – a government inquiry found that victims panicked when the suspension bridge started to sway, setting off a domino effect that resulted in the deaths. What caused the panic, however, has remained a subject of debate, and many human rights groups and residents were dissatisfied with the government-led investigation, which they said did not hold anyone accountable or responsible for the deaths of so many people.

The new report criticized the make-up of the government-sanctioned committees responsible for the investigation, which included the developer of the Koh Pich bridge, people responsible for planning the festival, and other government officials.

The report also questioned what provoked the panicked reactions on the bridge. At the time, Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said in local media reports that the stampede happened because people became “scared of something.” The report, based around interviews with hundreds of victims, their families and witnesses, found that many people interviewed still do not know what caused the panic. Others said rumors were circulating that the bridge was collapsing, and some others mentioned gang involvement.

The report also noted that some victims – about a quarter interviewed – said they had heard victims were electrocuted after police fired water cannons at people on the bridge to get them to move off of it — a charge vehemently denied by government officials.

At the time of the incident, no state officials were held personally responsible or called to step down, according to the report. The human rights organization says that this is partly to blame for what it described as insufficient reforms to improve crowd management and emergency response.

Government officials disagreed with the report.

“This was not carelessness, but it is an unpredictable incident,” said Phay Siphan, a government spokesman for the Council of Ministers, in response to queries from the Wall Street Journal. “The investigation on the stampede has been conducted already.” He added that the government had built two additional bridges to manage crowds during future festivals, and also erected a stupa, a mound-like Buddhist structure, in memory of the tragedy, bearing the name of each deceased victim.

According to government statements from last year, families of deceased victims were set to receive compensation of 5 million Cambodian riels (US $1,250) with injured victims receiving 1 million riel (US $250). Additional sums were given to victims from private sector donations. The government says that this compensation was sizeable and an indication that officials were doing their best to help the victims, but according to the report, some of this compensation was not distributed in a transparent manner.

Mr. Phay Siphan said that even though human rights organizations have the right to call for a deeper investigation, the government has been “responsible” and “responsive” in dealing with the aftermath of the stampede, adding that new crowd control procedures are in place.

Any new procedures around crowd management, such as the two new bridges, were not tested during this year’s water festival, though, as the popular boat races were cancelled amid massive flooding in Cambodia.

“CCR is not saying that any particular person or agency is to blame…  [but] does think that a greater amount of responsibility should be taken for the incident,” the report said. “A serious discussion should take place about what systems and procedures should be in place to reduce the likelihood of similar events happening in the future.”

– Sun Narin contributed to this article

New Report Details Forced Evictions in Cambodia

By Shibani Mahtani, from Wall Street Journal

A mother of eight, Hoy Mai was five months pregnant when she was forcefully evicted from her house in northwest Cambodia in 2009, according to Amnesty International. Her village – once home to more than 150 families, some of whom are now homeless – is now a guarded sugar cane plantation surrounded by empty fields, the group says.

Ms. Mai is one of the five “human faces” featured in Amnesty’s latest report on forced evictions in Cambodia – an issue that has long captured the attention of activists and multilateral organizations, from local Cambodian groups to the World Bank. But Amnesty hopes the new report will humanize the statistics, especially by profiling the role of women in the struggle against evacuations.

“Women increasingly are at the forefront, and are leading civil action against this,” said Donna Guest, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific deputy director. She added that women are typically the caretakers of the family and often stay at home, so the burden falls on them to protect their families from eviction.

Forced evictions have become commonplace in Cambodia, activists say, as investors look for more land for development, especially for natural resources. Amnesty contends that even though there are laws on the books in Cambodia to prevent forced evictions, those laws are often selectively applied or ignored. By Amnesty’s count, an estimated 10% of Phnom Penh’s population was evicted between 1990 to 2011.

Cambodian officials dispute activists’ accounts of the problem, and say many of the residents who are moved are given compensation.

“The report should not use the words ‘forced eviction,’ because it is just relocation for development,” said Beng Hong Socheat Khemro, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction.

“People always complain about the compensation and relocation, but they have to know that they live on state land illegally,” he said, though people who live on land legally are compensated by the government according to market prices. He said that when there are cases of people who have lived on their land illegally, but for a long time, the government will provide some compensation as a “humanitarian policy.”

Land ownership is often hard to prove in Cambodia, ever since the Maoist Khmer Rouge regime that controlled the country for several years in the 1970s abolished Cambodia’s land titling system and outlawed ownership of private property.

The Amnesty report is different from some previous studies of the issue in that it goes into deep detail about five women from cities and indigenous forest communities in Cambodia who said they had been forcibly evicted, or threatened of eviction.

“The court has no justice for poor citizens,” said Tep Vanny, a 31 year-old resident of Phnom Penh, in a video prepared by Amnesty. “[Poor] people don’t have any money to give them to deal with our problems.”

Ms. Vanny was one of the leading figures in a high-profile struggle against the developers of a project involving the Boeung Kak Lake in central Phnom Penh. After a private development company was granted a 99-year lease over the site – aimed at building a luxury residential and leisure complex – residents complained to City Hall, attracting international attention and prompting the World Bank to suspend loans to Cambodia. In August, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen granted 12.44 ha of land around the lake to the displaced residents, in what activists have described as a rare victory against forced evacuations.

Amnesty acknowledges the government’s move at Boeung Kak Lake was a positive step. But the group says officials still need to do more – and acknowledge that the right to land and home ownership is guaranteed under international law. The report calls for the government to suspend all mass evictions until a clear prohibition on forced eviction is adopted, and stricter legislative guidelines are adopted.

“Land disputes can be solved, but not if politics is behind [the dispute],” said Nonn Pheany, a former spokeswoman for the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction who is now retired. She added that victims and “land grabbers” often do not understand each other, with the latter sometimes having no respect for the law.

“It is not easy to solve land disputes since it is so large scale,” Ms. Pheany added. “We have to spend much time studying the problem behind it.”

She said the government often does provide evicted residents with sufficient compensation. Amnesty’s report, though, said many residents would rather stay in their homes and not accept the compensation — but are forced to do so under duress. At one point, the report said residents of the Boeung Kak Lake area were offered US $8,500 for their houses regardless of the size of their plots of land, and were told to move to an area 20 kilometers outside Phnom Penh.

Ms. Pheany suggested that the government should register both private and public land and take steps to evaluate the consequences of private development on the land before selling that land to investors.

“Private business has to ensure that no human rights abuses occur on their development,” said Ms. Guest of Amnesty International. She added that Amnesty was appealing to international governments and using multilateral forums like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the European Union and the United Nations to ensure cooperation from both foreign investors and private companies.

According to the World Bank’s country director for Cambodia, Annette Dixon, the institution has not made any new loans to Cambodia since December 2010, and is continuing to watch the situation there closely.

–  Sun Narin contributed to this report