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