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Study on Koh Pich stampede never approved

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Discarded shoes and flip-flops litter the Koh Pich bridge in Phnom Penh a day after a stampede that resulted in the deaths of more than 350 people in November, 2010. Photograph: Heng Chivoan/Phnom Penh Post

Not long after a tragedy in which 353 people were killed exactly two years ago, mental-health researchers at the country’s prominent Transcultural Psychosocial Organization went to work on a study interviewing parents in mourning.

The list of questions touched on loss, of course, but also on whether the government’s financial compensation could help assuage the grief of families.

Findings from the study were never compiled and released, however, because a review board from the Cambodian Ministry of Health decided it did not meet certain standards, the submitters said yesterday.

On November 22, 2010, hundreds of people were killed during a stampede on the bridge connecting Koh Pich, also known as Diamond Island, to the west bank of the Tonle Bassac river.

The bridge was packed with people celebrating the Water Festival, a raucous event of boat races and fireworks that coincides with the annual reversal of the river’s current. This year, in the wake of the October 15 death in Beijing of King Father Norodom Sihanouk, the government cancelled the holiday. Last year, it was cancelled because of nationwide flooding.

The mental health organisation, known as TPO, submitted its proposal last year to the ministry’s ethics committee, which acts as a central oversight board for research in the country, and whose endorsement is considered a mandatory stamp of credibility.

The committee handed back a rejection letter with little explanation, TPO executive director Chhim Sotheara said.

“I think the government is maybe not interested. I don’t know if maybe they are afraid of something politically motivated, if that’s why they don’t look at it,” Sotheara said, adding that he was not closely involved with the study so could not comment more on its contents.

“But I can say that the way the ethics committee in Cambodia deals with research is different [from] ethics review boards in universities overseas; they would look at the dangers the research would pose in communities here.

“They would like to look at a lot of things: whether there is politically motivated research, impact on human rights, criticism of government.”

A highly criticised government investigation initiated after the disaster deemed it an accident after finding no one responsible for the tragedy.

Eng Huot, head of the ethics committee, and Health Minister Mam Bunheng did not return phone calls seeking comment yesterday.

Alhough Prime Minister Hun Sen has called it the worst tragedy to befall Cambodia since the Khmer Rouge, at an event a few months ago to commemorate the new $2 million bridge, officials avoided dwelling on the subject.

Asked at the time if authorities were prepared for this year’s celebration, Mann Chheoun, then City Hall deputy governor, said only that the new bridge enhanced safety.

“[Visitors] should not be scared to have something bad happen to them; this bridge was built in good condition.”

The new crossing went up not far from where the original bridge – demolished late last year – once stood. The site remains a sad reminder for many who were there that night, when thousands panicked on the packed bridge.

Although the study’s rejection did not necessarily mean the data would never come to light, it did make it virtually impossible to publish it in respected medical journals, Sonny Krishnan, a spokesman for the World Health Organisation in Cambodia, said.

“Anything relating to research with humans needs this. That’s the whole basis of an ethics committee: to ensure they are using reasonable research methods,” he said, “Especially when you are doing research with women and children and highly traumatised people.”

The committee had initially rejected one WHO proposal on malaria, Krishnan said. But once the WHO responded to the critique and updated the proposal, the government body approved it, he said.

“I don’t think there is any political element in there. These are professional medical personnel on the ethics committee.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Joe Freeman at joseph.freeman@phnompenhpost.com

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