I am writing in regards to the misleading front-page image of a firefighter valiantly putting out a fire (September 22).
For eyewitnesses and victims of this fire, the firefighters did not partake in any heroic act or, at the very least, adequately fulfill their jobs as public servants.
Normally, the primary objective of firefighters is to act swiftly in a response to an emergency situation when and where the safety of the public is put at risk by a fire.
This did not happen on Monday when a house on a busy street, nudged between other houses and shops, caught on fire.
It was not because of “engine failure”, as one of the firefighters claimed on a Cambodian news radio station, because I have video footage of four fire trucks parked along the street and right in front of the blazing house.
It was not because there were difficulties in operating the number of readily available fire hoses, because I also have video footage of one firefighter intentionally spraying the hose haphazardly as if to tease the house owners and onlookers about the work they could perform.
It is because, like in almost all cases in Cambodia, money and status trump all.
If you have status, then money is not a problem because (smart) public servants wouldn’t dare ask for such incredulous ‘service fees’.
For those without status, money is the determining factor when it comes to service, and if money isn’t given to firefighters, police officers, doctors or other civil servants, then quality care and emergency attention never surfaces. It is that simple, and it is why a majority of unnecessary deaths occur in public hospitals and roads.
On Monday, firefighters refused to help put out a fire even though they had quickly arrived, were fully equipped and prepared to extinguish the flames. The person in charge refused US$500 from the homeowner and stood by as the fire escalated. It wasn’t until clouds of black smoke reached the rooftop of a nearby villa that neighbours pooled money (some paying as much as $2,000 each) to get the firefighters to start putting out the fire.
By that time, the damage had already been done: it is estimated that more than $1 million of property was destroyed. A family which had been away for the Pchum Bun holiday returned to a charred house and empty lot that had been used to sell cars.
I am bringing this story to light because, as shocking as it is for me and for other foreigners, injustices like this frequently occur, but are rarely publicly discussed.
I also find that people, young and old – from the educated to the laymen – are so desensitised by negligent public-servant behaviour that their reactions are reduced to apathy rather than anger.
Moreover, people fear that speaking out may result in retaliation by powerful people through defamation charges, incarceration or worse, violent attacks.
As much as I love and have hope for this country, I cannot condone the appalling actions of selective assistance by those whose job it is to help people – ALL people.
Furthermore, the fact that no major media outlet attempted to unravel the truth of this incident makes it all the more iniquitous.
Millions of dollars in aid is donated to Cambodia to promote democracy, development and peace, but none of these can be achieved with an undercurrent of abuses by the public sector.
It is time we, as a community, as educators and policy makers, find realistic and viable solutions and enforce accountability and the rule of law. We have already witnessed the scope of destruction through inaction.
Veasna Adrian Hoy