When a bridge and kiosk collapsed into a pond at a Phnom Penh garment factory last month, injuring more than 20 workers, the Prime Minister’s Bodyguard Unit and police rushed to scour the murky water for survivors.
Some hours later, those forces remained unsure whether any workers from the Top World garment factory remained unaccounted for.
The reason, Phnom Penh municipal police chief Choun Sovann said at the time, was that hundreds of garment workers had defied police orders to return to their stations for a headcount.
“Our request was ignored and workers just panicked and gathered right near us,” he said. Members of the bodyguard unit watched as workers wandered onto part of the sheltered bridge that balanced on the pond’s bank.
Other workers stepped over debris that protruded from the water or walked in the way of a crane that was lifting concrete out of the pond, causing the operator to stop his machine and order them back.
“I thought the crane could drop it on the crowd; the number of injured would have risen,” said Cambodian Labour Confederation president Ath Thorn. “The crowd should have been kept away.”
No further injuries occurred and no one remained missing, but the bridge collapse was one of three incidents last month that raised questions about the ability of police and other government security forces to respond adequately to emergencies.
Just days before the episode at Top World, the response to the deadly ceiling collapse at Wing Star Shoes in Kampong Speu province was also chaotic.
Dozens of officers from the bodyguard unit stood by as cameramen, photographers and onlookers walked over rubble, even as a final search for survivors continued.
And in a separate incident days later, police responded haphazardly to an accident at Dreamland amusement park in which a 33-year-old mother of two died after falling from a high-speed ride.
One police officer, stationed nearby, told the Post he was unable to investigate until he received permission from his superiors to do so. Another arrived in civilian clothes, only for security guards to turn him away, despite the fact he produced police identification, he claimed.
Dreamland staff said police investigated for a short time after the accident and again the next morning. In between the inspections – and within two hours of the death – the ride was operating again with people in it.
John Muller, managing director of Cambodian-based Global Security Solutions, said police and other authorities are hamstrung by a lack of funding, which prevents staff from being properly trained and developing the know-how and technical skills needed to respond appropriately to emergencies.
“Unfortunately, the people in charge of protecting lives are under-trained and underpaid,” he said.
Ideally, Muller said, police and other officials should treat factory collapses and amusement park deaths as a crime scene – at least until it is determined that they aren’t.
“Either way, evidence has to be protected,” he said. “They must completely shut down the area within a couple of hundred metres and wall it off. The biggest mistake is allowing people to trample around, potentially sabotaging evidence.”
According to Muller, safety has improved markedly in the 22 years he has been doing business in Cambodia, but more money and training is needed to bring “related agencies” up to global standards.
Complaints of police officers being underpaid are hardly new. Indeed, commentators have said that low pay is a major contributor to corruption in police ranks.
The Cambodia National Rescue Party has vowed to introduce a public servant minimum wage of $250 per month – more than three times what many officers get now – if it wins July’s national election.
CNRP lawmaker Son Chhay said the government must pour more money into increasing salaries and focus on stamping out “corruption” that enables unqualified people to be put in charge of forces.
Training is another element of the job that desperately needs to be better funded, Chhay said. “You need resources to do the job properly and provide services.”
Steve Morrish, a former senior-detective in Australia and founder and executive director of NGO SISHA, said new police recruits were only getting about 20 to 25 weeks academy training before being sent out to work. The only training many of them received after that, he added, came from NGOs and private security companies like Muller’s.
“Police have to understand how to deal with an emergency situation,” he said. “That can be difficult even for developed police forces.”
Since 2009, Morrish has been running a criminal-investigation training program which teaches police officers how to approach crime scenes.
He is now trying to establish an intensive eight-week detective training program that, once funded, will teach the best and brightest from the CI course more advanced skills.
Morrish said that in his eight years in Cambodia, an increase in police training has sent officers’ capabilities “through the roof”, but there is still a long way to go. But while officers remained inadequately trained in how to control crime scenes, uncertainty prevailed about the extent of the police’s powers to control a situation, and the force struggled for respect from the community, Morrish said.
“If a major disaster hit, it probably wouldn’t be handled to a standard people and the police themselves would want,” he said.
Working within constraints
Even police spokesman Kirt Chantarith admitted police were hampered by budget constraints. But the government has improved training to better respond to emergency situations like the stampede at Koh Pich in 2010, in which more than 300 people were killed, he added.
“Since what happened at Koh Pich, we have focused on intervention and what is required to respond [to emergencies],” he said.
Officers, including tourist and traffic police, had recently been trained by the Ministry of Health in how to respond to such situations.
But Chantarith said police were working from a “limited” budget and did not have a lot of heavy machinery to call on in the event of something like a factory collapse.
This was evident to reporters after the Wing Star tragedy, when the factory’s excavator was used to clean up what could have been considered a crime scene.
“We’re also trying to install cameras – but the budget is limited,” Chantarith said. “When we get [more] CCTV, we can know how to move crowds and keep control.”
Chantarith said that since the Koh Pich stampede, the police had focused on better managing large crowds – a staple of the annual Water Festival.
“We have more experience . . . We have to prepare more intervention units to spot and respond . . . so when something happens, we can get in there,” he said.
But Thorn, from CLC, remains sceptical of the police’s abilities to control a scene.
“The authorities were trying to save the lives of workers [at Top World] . . . but to improve their work, I feel I have to say they weren’t really working in a professional way,” he said. “This is a lesson for our police and government to improve training .”
Additional reporting by Chhay Channyda