Cambodia's Water Festival is to return to the capital this year for the first time since 2010, when a stampede on a bridge packed with revellers killed more than 350 people.
Officials announced yesterday that the traditional event, which marks the end of the rainy season and the reversing course of the Tonle Sap, will be held over three days in early November.
“Our country will celebrate the Water Festival as normal, the way we always have in front of the Royal Palace for three days, November 5, 6 and 7,” said Pean Cham Roeun, an official with the National and International Festivals Committee.
As for the question that is on everyone’s mind – why now? – Cham Roeun was in the dark: “I can’t answer why the festival is allowed to happen this year, because I am not aware either,” he said.
With its longboat races, colourful atmosphere and the presence of royalty, the Water Festival has long attracted packed crowds to the city, creating a shoulder-to-shoulder party that can number more than a million people.
The dangers of such a large gathering became evident in 2010, when, on the last day of the festival, the swaying of a bridge leading to Koh Pich, or Diamond Island, induced panic among festival-goers crowded onto the structure, triggering a fatal stampede. The bridge was later destroyed, and in 2012 another was inaugurated near the original site, just northeast of the NagaWorld casino.
In 2011, a year after the disaster, the government cancelled the festival due to mass flooding. In 2012, the reason given was the death of the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk, who died in October, just weeks before the event is usually held. Last year, flooding was again cited as the reason.
A stupa was built on the site to honour the victims, but the cancellations have overshadowed the mourning and have drawn more of a spotlight to a disaster for which no one was held culpable.
Frequently cited as an example of government impunity or simple incompetence, the lack of accountability around the stampede – a government investigation found no one bore responsibility – has created a vacuum in which alternative theories have taken root.
Most recently, Kem Sokha accused Vietnam of orchestrating the stampede as part of a plot to “eliminate the Khmer race, tradition and culture”.
The accusation drew widespread condemnation not only from the government but from a broad spectrum of civil society voices.
In 2013, the cancellation came not long after the disputed election. This year, the festival is coming back not long after the post-election deadlock was resolved.
The timing has not gone unnoticed.
Ou Virak, chairman of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the festival’s cancellation last year had less to do with flooding than the Cambodia National Rescue Party demonstrations taking place at the time.
“The government hasn’t always been good with coming up with good excuses,” he said. Referring to the flooding: “There’s no truth in any of that”, he said.
The government, more likely, was concerned with bringing so many people to Phnom Penh who may have been sympathetic to the CNRP’s position, Virak said.
“The opposition [could have exploited] that. So now that politics are back to so-called normal, it can give enough confidence to them,” he said, referring to the July 22 deal that ended the CNRP’s 10-month-long boycott of parliament.
Long Dimanche, a spokesman for City Hall, said he could not comment on the timing, as he was unaware of the announcement that first emerged in a Facebook post by Kem Gunawadh, director-general of government-owned broadcaster TVK.
Though the city has been without a Water Festival for three years now, several provinces have continued to hold theirs, and will again this year.
Lun Limthay, Kampong Cham provincial governor, said yesterday that he had not yet received the announcement, but it wouldn’t make a difference anyway.
“My province celebrates the Water Festival every year, even when it was cancelled in Phnom Penh,” he said. Floods, he added, don’t matter.
“Right now, I do not have time to think about this festival yet, because I am so busy to help my people with flooding, but we still celebrate it even if it floods,” he said.
Ung Nget, 30, who survived the stampede in 2010, said yesterday that the memory of the Water Festival always haunted him.
“I cannot forget it for my whole life. When someone talks about the Water Festival, it makes me see the pictures of a lot of dead people, and I was injured among them as well,” he said.
Nget said he will join the festival this year, but he will try to avoid the crowds.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY JOE FREEMAN