Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - A bridge too far for Sokha?

A bridge too far for Sokha?

Opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party deputy leader Kem Sokha
Opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party deputy leader Kem Sokha talks at a Khmer Krom ceremony at Samaki Rainsy pagoda in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district on Wednesday. Hong Menea

A bridge too far for Sokha?

Deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha has drawn the ire of the government and civil society groups after on Wednesday accusing Vietnam of orchestrating the Koh Pich bridge stampede that killed more than 350 people in 2010 as part of a plot to “eliminate the Khmer race, tradition and culture”.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan yesterday called the allegations “groundless and ridiculous”, while Cambodian Center for Human Rights chairman Ou Virak said it was irresponsible of a political leader to propagate inflammatory “conspiracy theories”, especially given that no government officials have yet been held personally accountable for the tragedy.

Speaking at a ceremony on Wednesday to mark the 65th anniversary of France’s transfer of the former Kampuchea Krom provinces to Vietnam, Sokha, deputy head of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, lambasted the Kingdom’s eastern neighbour for trying to destroy Khmer culture, using the stampede as an apparent example.

“The yuon [Vietnamese] have used the CPP and Hun Sen to eliminate the Khmer race, tradition and culture … and now [since 2010] there has been no Water Festival.… They created an incident to kill Khmers at Koh Pich, using this [as a] reason to eliminate our Cambodian Water Festival tradition,” he said.

The Water Festival – the Kingdom’s biggest public event, which draws millions to the capital’s riverfront each year – has been called off by the government for each of the three years since the stampede.

The tragedy occurred on the last day of the 2010 festival and claimed 353 lives. An official government investigation into the incident quickly concluded that the swaying of the bridge was what had induced panic, sparking a stampede on the overcrowded walkway.

Though Prime Minister Hun Sen said the disaster was the worst calamity to befall Cambodia since the rise of the Khmer Rouge, he also said that no public officials would be personally held to account.

When reached yesterday to clarify his comments, Sokha explained that given the Water Festival has not been held since the stampede and that Vietnam “has always” assailed Khmer people and culture, there could well be a link between the two.

“That’s why I would like us to think about the problem [related to the government] stopping the Water Festival being held. We are worried in case it could be the trick [of the Vietnamese] to eliminate our traditions,” he said.

“There were deaths at Koh Pich with no investigation at all and no real reason [given] at all for the incident. There was no transparent [investigation] so we could understand why the incident happened. That is why we are worried about this point.

“I did not accuse [Vietnam] completely. I just thought about the history. I guess I did not say it was the [definitive] truth.… I wanted to say that one country wants to eliminate the race of another country [and] they eliminate through traditions, the same as in Kampuchea Krom,” he said, referring to the area in what is now southern Vietnam that was signed over by the French in 1949. Khmer Kroms are Khmers from that geographic area.

CCHR chairman Ou Virak yesterday said that while there was no doubt Vietnam had occupied Cambodia in the 1980s and continues to “undermine the democratic process in Cambodia” through political influence, there was no evidence supporting Sokha’s “ridiculous” theory.

“There needs to be some more responsible leadership in this country. And [as] always with the opposition, that’s certainly a bit disappointing,” he said.

“Certainly, many Cambodian people would love to believe such juicy conspiracy theories, it’s easier to just blame somebody else, it’s easier to come up with these things. I don’t blame the innocent Cambodian people [who believe this], but I expect more from politicians who are trying to lead this country.”

Preap Kol, executive director at Transparency International Cambodia, said Sokha’s statement could create confusion as to who should be held accountable for the stampede.

“I find this particular remark controversial and unreliable unless there is a strong evidence to support such claim,” he said in an email.

“People have a desire to see some officials being held accountable for the tragedy [that] occurred in Koh Pich but this statement might even further confuse people on who should have been responsible for the accident.”

Thun Saray, president of rights group Adhoc, said he did not agree with Sokha’s allegation, calling the stampede a “tragic accident”.

“The stampede at Koh Pich was tragic and nobody has taken responsibility for what happened. In other countries, when such an event occurs, those in charge are held responsible. This has not been the case here.”

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan yesterday said that Sokha was undermining his credibility as a political leader by making such accusations, which were “groundless and ridiculous”.

“It’s nonsense to say that, to accuse the government of, under the pressure of the Vietnamese, abolishing the culture of the Water Festival. It’s an abuse of freedom of expression,” he said.

“The government launched an investigation and found nothing to reveal that anything like terrorism [occurred at Koh Pich].… It was only a stampede caused by people panicking.”

Siphan added that the CNRP could request that the National Assembly review the incident again after it ends its parliamentary boycott.

Vietnamese Embassy spokesman Tran Van Thong said that Sokha’s accusation regarding Koh Pich was “baseless”.

“We don’t understand about his idea and why he is twisting [things] like this. He invented [this] and has accused us without any basis, and we have difficulty understanding why.”

The Council of Ministers will hold a press conference today to address allegations made by opposition leaders regarding the Khmer Krom and Vietnam on Wednesday, it said yesterday.

CNRP leader Sam Rainsy could not be reached for comment yesterday.

MOST VIEWED

  • Hong Kong firm done buying Coke Cambodia

    Swire Coca-Cola Ltd, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Hong Kong-listed Swire Pacific Ltd, on November 25 announced that it had completed the acquisition of The Coca-Cola Co’s bottling business in Cambodia, as part of its ambitions to expand into the Southeast Asian market. Swire Coca-Cola affirmed

  • Cambodia's Bokator now officially in World Heritage List

    UNESCO has officially inscribed Cambodia’s “Kun Lbokator”, commonly known as Bokator, on the World Heritage List, according to Minister of Culture and Fine Arts Phoeurng Sackona in her brief report to Prime Minister Hun Sen on the night of November 29. Her report, which was

  • NagaWorld union leader arrested at airport after Australia trip

    Chhim Sithar, head of the Labour Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees at NagaWorld integrated casino resort, was arrested on November 26 at Phnom Penh International Airport and placed in pre-trial detention after returning from a 12-day trip to Australia. Phnom Penh Municipal Court Investigating Judge

  • Sub-Decree approves $30M for mine clearance

    The Cambodian government established the ‘Mine-Free Cambodia 2025 Foundation’, and released an initial budget of $30 million. Based on the progress of the foundation in 2023, 2024 and 2025, more funds will be added from the national budget and other sources. In a sub-decree signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen

  • Two senior GDP officials defect to CPP

    Two senior officials of the Grassroots Democratic Party (GDP) have asked to join the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), after apparently failing to forge a political alliance in the run-up to the 2023 general election. Yang Saing Koma, chairman of the GDP board, and Lek Sothear,

  • Cambodia's poverty cut in half from 2009 to 2019: World Bank report

    A report published by the World Bank on November 28 states that Cambodia’s national poverty rate fell by almost half between 2009 and 2019, but the Covid-19 pandemic recently reversed some of the poverty reduction progress. Cambodia’s poverty rate dropped from 33.8 to 17.8 per cent over the 10