Chum Thida could see the crush of bodies that lay ahead as she and five friends, exhausted and anxious to get home, approached the east entrance to Diamond Island’s north bridge around 10:30 on the night of November 22.
Although panic had set in among people caught in the jam, the least fortunate having already collapsed, 18-year-old Chum Thida and her friends weren’t particularly alarmed by what seemed to be, at worst, a severe example of the predictable chaos that descends on the capital each year during the Water Festival.
Traversing the bridge was still being discussed before an unfamiliar woman stepped into their path and warned that hundreds of people had been electrocuted.
Standing metres away from the place where officials would soon put up a human barrier separating victims – 351 dead and 395 injured at last count – from onlookers of the deadly stampede, Chum Thida and two friends squeezed their way out of the crowd and found a grassy spot, on what was once her family’s backyard along the eastern bank of the narrow strip of the Tonle Bassac that separates Diamond Island from Phnom Penh’s riverside, to watch events unfold.
More than 30 minutes went by before people began to jump off the bridge into the shallow waters below. Rescue boats, with people onboard pulling in as many bodies as possible, traced the same route back and forth across the river that she and her six siblings took every day while commuting between public schools in the city and their house on the family fruit farm on Koh Pich.
When soldiers and police finally pushed through the crowd shortly after 11 o’clock, they set up a human barrier to contain the bedlam. Those on the outside of the roadblock, Chum Seila and her five friends included, were told to stay put; a notable change in the position of government enforcers during her encounter at the same place five years ago. Just 13 at the time, she remembers uniformed men, representing the interests of the 7NG group and other developers, carrying lumber over their shoulders as they walked towards her raised wooden house, finally bringing an end to a land dispute in which residents and rights groups battled with developers over compensation for nearly two years.
Chum Thida’s father, Chum Sam Oeun, was the eldest resident of Koh Pich and was often the public face representing the 300 farming families fighting to stay on their land, where they lived modest but comfortable lives selling fruit in markets across the river.
In a story in The Phnom Penh Post on November 3, 2004, Chum Sam Oeun spoke for the 20 families who were still demanding more compensation after a hearing between City Hall lawyers and Koh Pich residents and their lawyers reportedly broke down because judge Kim Ravy refused to move out of his small office to the courtroom, “It’s very, very clear and the decision is very clearly wrong,” he said in an interview with The Post. “If we go with no money, we would die, so we have to struggle to live on the island.”
The compensation paid to Chum Sam Oeun’s family, who were the last residents on the island to accept compensation, was at least four times the offer of $2 per square metre that was made in a 2004 letter from City Hall that was sent to 134 families living in Koh Pich (one family held out longer but lost a lawsuit and received almost nothing). But, the money didn’t soften Chum Sam Oeun’s position toward the companies developing the island, where he settled down in 1979 and stayed for 26 years.
“According to my religion, I believed that the bad events were returned to the company because, before they left, villagers prayed in their minds that they wanted the company bankrupt and unsuccessful in their development projects because they take over villagers’ land, beat and threaten them,” he said, adding that the spiritual connection between the deeds done unto his fellow islanders and the recent stampede help explain why investigations have been unsuccessful in identifying causes.
Khieu Bunthoeun, a former villager on Koh Pich who now lives in Cham Karmon district, agreed that karma, as much as anything, was the root cause of the stampede. “It is an injustice that those people died,” he said. “But their death reflects the activity of the company towards the villagers in Koh Pich in the past, which is why their project had a problem.”
While Soew Hak, another former Koh Pich resident, doesn’t deny that the past actions led to the tragedy on Koh Pich, he questioned why so much of the punishments fell on festival goers.
“They threatened villagers and they deployed police around the village,” he said, referring to their tactics during the eviction struggle in 2004 on 2005. “They even cut off electricity. It should be happened to company, not to those people.”
Just a couple hundred metres from the spot where Chum Thida watched the tragic events unfold on the final night of the water festival, there used to be a shrine, one of three on the island, where neighbors would go if they needed to solve a problem. Because of his status, and the position of the shrine next to his house, neighbors would call on Chum Sam Oeun in desperate times, when he would gather the community together and lead them to the small Buddhist building, built with money collected from community members in 1984, where they prayed and made offerings to the spirits who protected the island and its inhabitants.
Vengeful thoughts were never spoken around the shrine, according to Chum Sam Oeun, but he said revenge was on the minds of many on the island as, one by one, the families accepted compensation packages and moved away.
Touch Samnang, project manager of Overseas Cambodian Investment Corporation, the group overseeing development on Koh Pich, said he was only aware of one shrine on the island. Asked about the role of spirits in the recent events on the island, he said he “had no idea”.
The wooden shrine has been replaced by a stone and concrete structure that is used by staff on site for religious ceremonies and prayer. The grey building can still be seen from the bridge, blending in with the surrounding pavement.