Lessons learned from the tragic Koh Pich stampede of 2010 had shaped safety preparations for King Father Norodom Sihanouk’s four-day funeral — which is expected to draw 1.5 million people to the streets of Phnom Penh from Friday — government workers said yesterday.
But exactly how authorities intend to avoid a disaster similar to the one that claimed 353 lives during that year’s Water Festival is a detail senior officials have addressed only in the vaguest terms.
In the absence of these details, police, soldiers and medical teams already manning the streets near the Royal Palace yesterday gave an insight into the training and education they have undergone since the King Father’s passing, at the age of 89, in Beijing on October 15.
“We’ll be in a position to take control of crowds and direct them in certain directions if anyone is in danger of being crushed,” a member of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit who did not want to be named said. “We have the ability to take control of any situation that occurs.”
The officer is one of about 12,000 members of the armed forces who will patrol the streets of the capital, including along the funeral procession’s six-kilometre route, tomorrow.
“We’ve been training since soon after the King Father’s death,” he said. “We’re confident we have enough skills against terrorists, too... as we have good experience protecting ASEAN leaders who participated in last year’s summits.”
A member of the RCAF’s anti-terrorist unit involved in a practice patrol on Preah Sisowath Quay said he would be equipped with a Chinese-made automatic rifle capable of firing 100 bullets a minute.
Asked in what circumstances he would fire that gun, he replied that he had been told to “keep an eye out for terrorist activity, and rescue the crowd if necessary”, adding that such an attack was highly unlikely.
Police officers patrolling near the palace said security had been mapped out in detail, but would not elaborate.
The driver of an ambulance stationed nearby — one of 25 the Ministry of Health will deploy during the cremation ceremony — said he was prepared for the influx of people, but hoped crowds would clear a path in an emergency.
Yim Deth, chief officer at the Phnom Penh Municipal Health Department’s medical tent near the palace, said authorities had a back-up plan to transport casualties to hospital.
“We have 10 boats from the Navy that will wait on the Tonle Sap opposite the palace,” he said. “If we cannot move our ambulance in the streets, we will move patients by boat.”
Deth said about 300 medical officers were under his command and ready for the challenge ahead.
“The experience of the [Koh Pich] stampede has been mentioned a lot,” he said.
Authorities had learned from that tragedy and from dealing with the 100 people who fainted during the return of the King Father’s body on October 18, when an estimated one million people lined the streets to pay their respects.
“We’re confident we will be able to take control of any incident that might occur,” he said. “It’s 100 per cent safe because we’re well prepared.”
Kirth Chantharith, spokesman for the National Police, said armed forces would be under the command of Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng.
“We’ve ordered armed forces to pay attention to dangerous situations, but so far, there has been no indication that a disaster might occur,” he said.
Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak said strong attention had been paid to security.
In a speech at Koh Pich on January 29, Hun Sen urged people to be careful during the procession.
“Pay strong attention to [your] safety and public order to ensure the entire royal procession proceeds without problems,” he said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Vong Sokheng at [email protected]
Shane Worrell at [email protected]