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Accountability calls follow tragedy

Photo by: Heng Chivoan
Uniformed military police and others lift people injured on Diamond Island’s northern bridge onto a truck late Monday night.

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Local officials today were reluctant to take responsibility in the wake of the Diamond Island stampede that killed more than 450 people, amid opposition calls for accountability for Monday’s tragedy.

A government task force released a report today concluding that swaying of the Diamond Gate bridge induced a panic that led to a crush of people on the narrow walkway. Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said he was unsure of whether the event would be investigated in any more detail, or if individual officials could be deemed responsible.

“It’s too early to comment,” he said. “For the time being ... the government is concentrating on helping the victims.”

Information Minister Khieu Kanharith admitted that the government was ill-prepared to deal with crowd control challenges as an estimated 3 million people gathered in the capital for the annual Water Festival.

“We were concerned about the possibilities of boats capsizing and pick-pocketing. We did well, but we did not think about this kind of incident,” he said.

The government’s investigation was headed up by Health Minister Mam Bunheng, Social Affairs Minister Ith Sam Heng and Ministry of Interior Secretary of State Prum Sokha. Sam Rainsy Party spokesman Yim Sovann said, however, that an independent committee including event planning experts and representatives from civil society was required to give a proper accounting of what led up to Monday’s disaster.

“I would like to appeal to the government to suspend the officials who were responsible for this event pending investigation, and I call on the Phnom Penh governor and police chief to resign from their positions,” Yim Sovann said. “This is a human failure.”

Human Rights Party President Kem Sokha echoed the SRP’s call for high-level resignations.

“This is not a natural disaster, but a miserable event which occurred under the management and control of the government,” he said.

Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema could not be reached for comment, though municipal Police Chief Touch Naruth said police on the scene had done their best to handle the situation.

“I think our authorities have performed their duties very well to help and rescue victims at the Diamond Island bridge,” Touch Naruth said. “I myself have worked very hard to help them, but we could not rescue all of them on time because the crowd was so big and the bridge was so narrow.”

An overwhelmingly youthful crowd gathered on Monday at the recently-opened Diamond Island development, or Koh Pich, where a concert stage and carnival attractions had been set up. Khieu Kanharith said security at the development, as well as on the bridges that service it, was the responsibility of Diamond Island developer Overseas Cambodian
Investment Corporation.

“The place is [privately owned], so they used their own security, and police only helped handle order outside,” the Information Minister said.

But Susi Tan, the Diamond Island project director for OCIC, said the responsibility for maintaining order fell to the government.

“It’s more to do with public security rather than our own company,” she said. “It happened mainly near the Diamond Island, but ... not really on the island.”

Tan said OCIC had retained 106 security guards in addition to the 12 police officers stationed on the island. Crowds on the island, she said, were light in many areas, but became concentrated on the Diamond Gate bridge despite the efforts of security guards to direct crowds away from the area and towards a southern bridge.

“I’m not blaming this on the public, but the public are sometimes not cooperative. Sometimes we tell them not to go in and they don’t care,” Tan said.

“We need to talk more with the traffic police, the police, all that, to see what kind of way we can make it more secure in the future.”

Local businesses have offered charitable payments to victims to complement the government’s offer of 5 million riel (US$1,227) for the families of victims. OCIC has offered $1,000 to families of victims and $200 to those injured on Monday, said Charles Vann, the deputy general manager of Canadia Bank who also serves as a spokesman for the Diamond Island development.

Vann added that both the government and the company had “done our part” in the wake of the disaster.

“I think we should not have asked ... who is responsible for that. That’s my view, because no one was expecting this incident to occur, this tragedy,” he said. ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY AFP



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