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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.

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