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Don’t blame me, official says

Boat race participants paddle along the river in Phnom Penh at the last Water Festival in 2010
Boat race participants paddle along the river in Phnom Penh at the last Water Festival in 2010. Sreng Meng Srun

Don’t blame me, official says

The National and International Festivals Committee has ordered City Hall to start preparing the area along the river for the Water Festival in November, saying measures would be more stringent to ensure there is no repeat of the disastrous 2010 celebration, when a stampede killed 353 people.

Kong Sam Ol, minister of the Royal Palace and head of the organising committee, who went out of his way to prematurely absolve himself of any responsibility, said yesterday in a meeting with provincial officials that City Hall and the relevant ministries must clear the boats and stalls along the riverside for safety reasons.

“I will not allow vendors to sell along the riverside, which is from the [Council for the Development of Cambodia] to the front of the Royal Palace, so City Hall has to pay attention to this as well, because if a lot of people gather there a stampede may happen,” he said.

Sam Ol also said he could not be blamed for anything that happened after the festival finishes at noon on its third day, an allusion to the stampede’s occurrence on the night of the same day of the last festival.

He added that he was not in charge of the area where the tragedy occurred anyhow.

“For the accident at Koh Pich bridge, the people blamed me and Prime Minister Hun Sen, but I did not organise anything at Koh Pich. I was only in charge of the area along the riverside.”

In an extra bit of cautionary advice, Sam Ol said that the estimated 20,000 people who will participate in the boat races should be able to swim.

“I want each province to teach all the boat racers how to swim in order to avoid any accidents happening to them.”

The number of racing boats this year is 397, fewer than the last festival’s count of 421, a decline Sam Ol blamed on the allures of modern life.

“I think it is because of people working in factories, who have parties on the weekends, they are not interested in our traditional festival. They have forgotten the traditions,” he said.

Sam Ol also said wine, beer and cigarette advertisements would not be allowed in front of the Royal Palace or on the stage where the King would be, with advertising banned outright on the boats.

“They have to use the name of their provincial governors or the name of their provinces, because the Water Festival is not a ceremony meant to advertise any companies or products.”

City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said yesterday that the municipality had a lot of work to do.

“We know we have a lot of tasks to do to avoid any negative incidents, and we also have to prepare the area’s environment, provide stalls for the vendors and ensure the safety of the people who come to the city who will number one million as they did before,” he said.

Dimanche said that he was “not yet aware” how many security officers would be employed for public safety purposes, but that a subcommittee would be created to prepare for the festival.

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