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Monday, November 29, 2010

Cambodia PM says no one responsible for stampede

By Prak Chan Thul

PHNOM PENH — Cambodia's prime minister said on Monday no state officials were to blame for a stampede last week that killed 351 people and ruled out resignations in the aftermath of the country's worst tragedy in three decades.

Long-serving premier Hun Sen said calls for senior figures within the government and security forces to step down were politically motivated to serve opposition parties, but he said mistakes had been made and the situation was badly handled.

"No one will resign from their positions after what happened," Hun Sen said during the opening of a new government building in the capital, Phnom Penh.

"The incident happened because of carelessness and we didn't expect this thing to happen," he added. "The biggest mistake was that we had not fully understood the situation."

The stampede caused the biggest loss of life in Cambodia since the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge's regime's four-year reign of terror in the late 1970s, during which an estimated 1.7 million people were executed or died of starvation or disease.

The accident happened late on Monday last week when hoards of people celebrating an annual Water Festival on a man-made entertainment island crossed a narrow bridge at the same time. For some reason, the crowd suddenly panicked.

Footage showed hundreds piled on top of each other, screaming for help, wedged under bodies, dead, alive and unconscious for about three hours. Security personnel appeared disorganized and unsure of how to rescue survivors.

A government committee announced the findings of its investigation on Monday and said the panic was caused by the slight swaying of the Diamond Gate bridge -- as part of its design -- under the weight of at least 7,000 people, who thought it was about to collapse.

It also said large movements of people in both directions, along with rumors that some people had been electrocuted, added to the chaos. Investigators said there were no electrocutions and no one had died from drowning, contrary to some witness accounts, and suffocation was the cause of most of the deaths.


"The panic caused the stampede," said Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, who is head of the committee. "People were jammed at all ends and the ones in the middle were the victims."

Investigators said rescue efforts were timely and the number of people involved in the operation was sufficient. People pour into Phnom Penh from the countryside for the three-day festival and investigators estimated 4 million had attended. The city has a population of up to 2 million.

The death toll was 456, but that was later scaled down to 351 when officials said many bodies had been counted twice. Hundreds were injured.

Hun Sen, whose government has promised $12,000 for the families of each victim, had been widely expected to absolve his government of blame and analysts say it is unlikely there will be any repercussions for his powerful Cambodian People's Party (CPP), which enjoys a huge parliamentary majority.

Experts attribute Hun Sen's quarter-century in office to his blend of populism and cronyism and say it is unlikely the government or the judiciary will pursue any action against the CPP's influential allies among the police and business elite.

But many Cambodians believe heads should roll and say someone should take the blame for the handling of the rescue effort.

"If they had worked faster, they might have saved many more lives," said survivor Chum Srey, 30. "They must take responsibility for this, for the sake of the families."

The opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) said the government was "careless and incompetent."

"With the loss of nearly 400 lives and many injuries, there must be people responsible," said party member Yim Sovann..
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Cambodia Catholics visit water festival victims

Phnom Penh Catholics have responded to last week’s Water Festival tragedy which killed at least 375 revelers by organizing hospital visits to survivors of the deadly stampede.

“We come here to share the sorrow,” said Sang Yeth, a member of the charity committee of St. Joseph’s Church.

On Nov. 26, she led a group parishioners to Preah Ketomilia Hospital in the capital where more than 40 of the injured were hospitalized.

Hundreds more injured are being treated at two other hospitals.

The parishioners also distributed 40,000 riel (about US$10) to each victim, most of whom were poor farmers who came from the provinces to celebrate the Water Festival in the capital.

Sam Sotom, who was caring for her three injured sons, told that she was grateful for the Church’s support.

Local priest Father Bruno Cosme added that the Catholic group wanted to show their solidarity with the victims.

“We take time to talk, to encourage people to give hope even though we don’t have much time with them,” he said.

Parishioners and students from Don Bosco schools in Cambodia are also collecting money to assist the victims.

Meanwhile, Caritas Cambodia has joined with other NGOs to provide daily meals to 450 patients in five hospitals where the injured have been admitted.

“We are doing this because the hospitals could not provide food for them,” explained Sok Sakhan, the Caritas disaster management officer.

Earlier on Nov. 25, all Catholic churches in Cambodia offered Mass and prayed for the victims of the tragedy.
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Cambodia gears up to host ATF 2011 TRAVEX

ETW Staff – Mumbai

The ASEAN Tourism Forum (ATF) 2011 TRAVEX, to be held from January 19-21, 2011, at Phnom Penh’s Diamond Island Convention and Exhibition Center, Cambodia has recorded strong interest and rapid take-up rate early in its registration process. The 2011 ASEAN leisure travel trade event, showcasing the largest contingent of ASEAN destination products and services, is also expected to feature a larger show with 25 per cent more booths space than last year.

More than 70 per cent of the 450 available booth space has already been secured by around 240 exhibiting companies from across the 10 ASEAN countries - Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. More than 600 applications received from across the world.

Dr Thong Khon, Minister of Tourism, Cambodia, and permanent vice-chairman of ATF 2011 Organising Committee explained, “Improving market optimism aside, a significant part of this year’s interest also has to do with the appeal of Cambodia as a destination. International delegates are motivated to experience the country’s rich cultural, natural, and historical heritage.”

Ministry of Tourism, Cambodia, will host the three day event’s opening and closing ceremony. ATF 2011 marks the 30th anniversary of this event since its inauguration in Malaysia in 1981. ASEAN Tourism Forum (ATF) is a cooperative regional effort to promote the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) region as one tourist destination. Read more!