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Tragedy a ‘joint mistake’

Government authorities yesterday announced the conclusion of their investigation into the causes of last week’s lethal stampede on Diamond Island, saying no officials will be held to account for an incident that was described as a “joint mistake”.

Announcing the results of the inquiry yesterday, Deputy Prime Minister Sok An backed up preliminary findings that the incident was triggered by mass panic related to the swaying of the bridge leading to the island.

“There is no any sign of terrorism or that criminals arranged this in advance. We can say that it was caused by a stampede,” said Sok An, who headed the committee investigating the Diamond Island tragedy.

The Kingdom’s annual Water Festival ended grimly last Monday after crowds panicked on a narrow bridge leading to Diamond Island, one of the main festival areas.

Sok An said the official toll from the ensuing stampede stood at 351 dead and 395 injured, and that all missing people were now accounted for.

He described the tragic incident, which has unleashed a wave of grief across the nation, as “a huge experience” for the government and vowed that the authorities would learn from it.

He said the majority of victims died from “compressive suffocation”, dismissing multiple eyewitness reports that some were electrocuted by wiring that had come loose off of the bridge railings.

About 4 million people from across the country flocked into the capital over the course of the three-day celebration, Sok An said.
Prum Sokha, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Interior, said people started panicking after rumours spread through the crowd that the bridge was about to collapse and that people were being electrocuted.

“According to eyewitnesses interviewed, the incident was caused by the crowds of people walking in opposite
directions on the bridge,” he said, which caused many people to suffocate.

“People started getting scared and then panic caused the stampede,” said Prum Sokha, who also sat on the investigation committee.
During the Water Festival in 1994, he said, 11 people were killed in a similar incident at the Royal Palace.

Also yesterday, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced that given the accidental nature of the tragedy no officials would be personally held to account, dismissing opposition demands that key individuals be forced to resign.

“Nobody will be punished for the incident,” Hun Sen said at the inauguration of the new Ministry of Social Affairs building in Phnom Penh.

“Our biggest mistake is that we wrongly evaluated the situation,” he added. “It was a joint mistake which led to the incident.... It was unexpected and [we were] careless ... and did not prepare any protection measures in advance.”

In the wake of the tragedy, criticism has begun to mount about the government’s handling of the event. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy, currently living in self-imposed exile, told Australian radio last week that the government should hold to account those most responsible for the incident.

“This again is reminiscent of the killing in the past, but I think these killings could have been prevented. So we have to find out the responsibility of those in charge of organising the festival and handling the crowd,” he said.

But Hun Sen said any criticism from the opposition of the government’s handling of the stampede was motivated purely by “political gain”.

Kong Sam Ol chairman of the Permanent Committee for Organising National and International Festivals tendered his resignation after the stampede, but Hun Sen said he refused to accept it on the grounds that Kong Sam Ol could not have foreseen what would happen.

“It is unpredictable that the people would crush each other,” Hun Sen added.

King Norodom Sihamoni, speaking yesterday at a seven-day commemoration for the victims, praised the government’s handling of the event.

“I would like to offer my profound thanks to Samdech Chea Sim ... Samdech Heng Samrin ... Samdech Hun Sen ... Bun Rany Hun Sen and all the citizens that helped rescue people, took care [of victims] and shared the sadness with the victims’ families,” he said in remarks televised on TVK.

The premier confirmed the Water Festival would be held next year despite this year’s tragedy, and vowed that the development of Diamond Island – which has become a popular location for weddings – would press on.

“I would like to confirm that we cannot cancel the Water Festival, which is a national festival,” Hun Sen said, adding that he was also set to preside over a meeting of over 100 Asian political parties on Diamond Island next week.

The tragedy has unleashed a wave of support from across the Kingdom for the families of the victims, with donations streaming in from private companies and individuals via televised appeals.

Hun Sen said yesterday that each family was in line to receive no less than US$12,000 in donations and government support, adding that he met with ACLEDA Bank President In Channy to establish bank accounts for the victims’ families. ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SAM RITH AND AFP

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