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People watch from the riverbank as boat racers cross the finish line yesterday in Svay Rieng province during Water Festival celebrations.
People watch from the riverbank as boat racers cross the finish line yesterday in Svay Rieng province during Water Festival celebrations. Vireak Mai

Races hung out to dry

Citing low water levels of the Tonle Sap as the cause, Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday justified his decision to call off the upcoming Water Festival in Phnom Penh in a speech in Kampot, even as some observers suggested political concerns motivated the event’s abrupt cancellation.

The decision, announced on Saturday, came as an unexpected about-face less than two weeks after the premier personally promised the festival would go on, regardless of the drought, and admonished local authorities to prepare to handle the influx of hundreds of thousands of visitors that the annual event brings.

However, observers said yesterday, it was precisely that influx – coming amidst one of the most politically tense periods in the last year – that the government was hoping to avoid by cancelling the festival.

“The reason why [it was cancelled] is that we usually race the boats in Phnom Penh when the water level is at least between 7 metres and 8 metres, but the water level in Phnom Penh today is only 5.07 metres,” Hun Sen said yesterday.

Further justifying the decision, Hun Sen noted that areas along the river lack adequate water to farm rice, and ordered the Ministry of Economy and Finance to reallocate the festival’s budget to buy fuel to operate water pumps that would irrigate dry rice fields.

Having consulted with the Minister of Water Resources and Meteorology, he said, the water level of the Tonle Sap will have fallen to 4.2 metres by the time of the Water Festival.

Boat racers wait on the river’s edge for instructions during a Water Festival event in Svay Rieng province yesterday.
Boat racers wait on the river’s edge for instructions during a Water Festival event in Svay Rieng province yesterday. Vireak Mai

“The water level is so low that they cannot row the boats,” he continued.

The Ministry of Water Resources, however, would not elaborate on that assertion yesterday.

When asked how low water levels might affect the festivities, Bun Hean, undersecretary of state for the ministry, declined to comment, simply saying “the decision was taken by the prime minister” before hanging up the phone.

And while most of the country is facing a drought, boat races went off without a hitch in Svay Rieng yesterday. Hong Chhet, a Battambang provincial officer in charge of Water Festival planning, said yesterday that his drought-stricken province had already held its own races, and added that a water level of just 2 or 3 metres was ample to float the traditional vessels.

“When we celebrated the Water Festival on October 26 and 27 on the Sangke River, the water level was 2.5 metres,” he said.

But political analyst Ou Virak said yesterday that water levels had nothing to do with it.

“[The government is] trying to avoid having millions of Cambodian people come to Phnom Penh,” he said, adding that “if one of the criteria is to have a perfect level of water, we would never have a festival”.

Virak pointed to the tumultuous events of the last week: the beating of two Cambodia National Rescue Party lawmakers, Hun Sen’s suggestion that CNRP president Sam Rainsy may be liable in the trial of Senator Hong Sok Hour and the ousting of National Assembly vice president and CNRP deputy head Kem Sokha.

King Norodom Sihamoni claps during the Water Festival last year at Phnom Penh’s Riverside.
King Norodom Sihamoni claps during the Water Festival last year at Phnom Penh’s Riverside. Heng Chivoan

“The political situation is too volatile so the government has decided they don’t want to deal with it,” he said.

Ou Ritthy, a blogger and political observer, agreed, and said the public should question why the festival was only cancelled in Phnom Penh, given that water levels were low all over the country. The reason, he bluntly suggested, was that the government feared the CNRP could use the flood of visitors into the city to their advantage.

“It will be a risky festival for CPP if CNRP happens to mobilize the mass demonstration at that time,” he said in an email. “Given this scenario, the cancellation of water festival is politically motivated.”

But government spokesman Phay Siphan maintained yesterday that the decision to cancel the festival had no connection to political sensitivity surrounding Kem Sokha’s ouster from the vice presidency of the National Assembly one day prior.

“Those people who said the government cancelled the Water Festival due to fears of crowds of people gathering to protest against the ouster of Kem Sokha are just the groups of Kem Sokha’s people,” he said. “Kem Sokha does not have the ability to gather people to the point to make the government not dare to do the Water Festival.”

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