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Friday, November 26, 2010

Cambodian water festival will continue despite tragedy

Lauren Crothers Special to The Star

People place offerings and incense sticks for the victims of the stampede near the Diamond Gate bridge, site of a stampede late on November 22 which left nearly 350 people dead, in Phnom Penh on November 25, 2010 as Cambodia holds a national day of mourning.

PHNOM PENH—The bodies lay on mats, some cocooned in clear plastic body bags. Others were shrouded with thin, white sheets, some blotted with specks of blood. The bodies seemed innumerable, filling the porch area of a makeshift morgue on a sandy plot in Khmer Soviet Hospital.

An anxious crowd overwhelmed hospital officials, sitting at a little table nearby laden with papers and photographs of corpses bearing ID numbers. Relatives wanted to know where their loved ones were.

This was an end no one saw coming when the annual water festival, which ushers in the end to the monsoon season and marks the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap river, on the banks of which this mostly sleepy Cambodian capital lies.

The festival, in many ways, is the event of the year, marked by boat races, concerts, fairground rides and an influx of up to 3 million people this year — mostly from the provinces — to the city.

The long stretch of open park area from Independence Monument to the riverbank is crammed with stalls selling everything from face whitening cream to laundry powder to prawn crackers in bulk — and the constant, high-pitched drone of promotional specials make sure the crowds here can’t ignore it.

What usually takes a 10-minute walk from the monument, built to mirror one of Angkor Wat’s iconic pagodas, can take almost an hour during the festival. While many of roads are closed to traffic, that doesn’t mean the driver of a moto, the preferred method of transport here, will obey.

So the crowds negotiate each other, the blaring speakers and rogue motos. The throng is headed in the direction of Koh Pich, or Diamond Island, a short walk over one of two bridges connecting it to the mainland. The people are here for food, the fair, perhaps a concert or some Japanese wrestling. The entire experience is a sensory overload, punctuated by the fact that no one can really get anywhere quickly. It’s an awkward, shuffling, dodging, waiting game when there are millions of people headed in the same direction.

And on Monday, the final night of festivities, the sheer number of people coupled with a comparatively small bridge resulted in a stampede that left at least 347 people dead, and nearly 400 more injured.

A government investigation found that thousands of revellers cramming the bridge panicked as it began to sway under their weight. Some shouted that the structure was going to collapse; the crowd pushed and heaved, setting off the stampede.

It was the kind of tragedy people here are saying they have not seen here since the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979.

Behind the cordoned-off scene on Friday night, in the shadow of the Nagaworld Hotel and Casino, crowds gathered to light incense, say prayers and just stare at what some are now calling the “Bridge of Ghosts.”

Sem Sophea, 36, a businessman in Phnom Penh, came to see the site for himself, having spent the first day of the festival in the beach resort town of Sihanoukville, about three hours away, and the second at home with his family.

“The way it generally works is that the city people keep their distance, while the people from the provinces flock here,” Sophea said. “They want to experience city life, see the development, go to the carnivals. City people have seen it all before — they just want some peace and quiet.”

The water festival, which will continue next year, is steeped in tradition, typified by boat races and a carnival atmosphere. Now it will be irrevocably connected with the tragedy.
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National Assembly Passes $2.4 Billion Budget

The 2011 budget, totaling $2.4 billion, allocates military and security spending of $304 million, including $190 million for the Ministry of Defense.

With a day of mourning for the Diamond Bridge tragedy behind it, the National Assembly took up debate and passed next year’s budget, approving an increase of nearly half a billion dollars.

The 2011 budget, totaling $2.4 billion, allocates military and security spending of $304 million, including $190 million for the Ministry of Defense. The Interior Ministry received $114 million, health $169 million, and education $223 million.

Ouk Rabun, secretary of state for the Ministry of Finance, told lawmakers his ministry would accept recommendations from the National Assembly on “better public finance management.”

The main opposition, the Sam Rainsy Party, said it did not support the budget, claiming it had misplaced funding priorities.

“The sectors of the government considered a priority, like the Ministry of Agriculture, received 1.8 percent of the total expenditure,” Yim Sovann, a spokesman for the party, said. The ministries of rural development, land management and water resources each only receive 1 percent of the total, he said.
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