Late at night on November 22, 2010, some 80 bodies lay side by side in front of a crowd of onlookers who had gathered to peer through a gate at Calmette hospital, trying to understand who had died and why.
Inside, victims of what Prime Minister Hun Sen would later call the worst tragedy to befall Cambodia since the Khmer Rouge were being treated on the floor, while the dead were taken outside and added to the long rows.
A government investigation into the incident concluded that no one was specifically to blame for the Koh Pich tragedy and resulted in no resignations despite the death of more than 350 people on a bridge on the final day of Cambodia’s annual Water Festival.
One year later, the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights has released a report that highlights the gaps in the public’s knowledge of what actually happened on the Koh Pich bridge and calls for a proper government investigation.
CCHR president Ou Virak said yesterday that unless the government took these measures, they were in danger of repeating their mistakes.
“The government finished an investigation over the stampede only one week after the incident, but did not give an exact reason [for the disaster]. I think that the government should keep investigating this case in order to find out the real reason,” he said.
The CCHR report found that in preparing for the festival, despite an expected additional 1 million more attendants than in previous years, Phnom Penh City Hall appeared to make no “detailed or specific measures relating to crowd management and control”.
The 80-page report – based on 100 interviews with victims’ families, police officers, hospital staff and others directly involved – also finds that 90 per cent of eyewitnesses said a one-way system of crossing the bridge was not adhered to.
Witness reports also suggest a second bridge that was supposed to support the one-way system might have been closed, while a police officer admitted he and his colleagues were not enforcing the safeguards.
A disturbing but unverified response from a doctor interviewed for the report, suggests that officials threatened hospital staff that they would be sacked if they told the media electrocution was a cause of the Koh Pich tragedy.
“A doctor that CCHR spoke to from one hospital said that in fact 90 per cent of the dead he saw had been electrocuted or burned,” the report states. “The doctor stated that a number of people came to talk to the staff, and said they should not mention electrocution, or other causes of death other than the crush. This included someone who was ‘very close to the Prime Minister’.”
Say Sengly, director of the Cambodian-Russian Friendship Hospital, yesterday denied people had been electrocuted and said his staff had already forgotten about the Koh Pich tragedy.
“I don’t want to talk about that anymore, because a long time has already passed, and there were not cases of electrocution,” he said before declining to comment further.
Pa Socheatvong, municipal deputy governor of Phnom Penh and vice chairman of the special committee commissioned to oversee the government’s investigation into the stampede, could not be reached for comment yesterday.
The families of victims killed in the tragedy have been invited to attend the inauguration of a stupa tomorrow commemorating the dead. It will be blessed by 353 monks, representing each person that lost their life.
A survivor who lost her younger sister and declined to be named said yesterday that she was unaware of the inauguration but would not attend even if she had been invited.
“I don’t want to see and to hear about the Koh Pich bridge anymore, because it can remind me of the worst event in my life,” she said.