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Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Husband Remembers Fatal Night on Diamond Bridge

Like other families of stampede victims on Diamond Bridge, Leung Porn's family decided to hold the 100-day ceremony last weekend at a Buddhist clergyman's suggestion.

Leung Porn's wife, Tor Sophal, was one of the 353 victims killed in the stampede on the bridge during last year’s water festival.

Leung Porn, who is 54 and now the single father of three children, said the ceremony will help his wife rest in peace.

“The ceremony is to stop her soul from wandering and help her reincarnate,” he said in an interview. “I pray for her to be reborn in a better life, one not as miserable as this one.”

Leung Porn is a farmer and motorcycle taxi driver from a small town in Kampong Speu province, Chbar Mon. His wife had been a commune council member and the main breadwinner of an extended family of 10 people.

“I wonder where she will be reborn,” Leung Porn said. “I still want to know in what direction, what province and what village she will be reincarnated.” He began to cry. “I love my wife so much,” he said.

Leung Porn was with his wife on the bridge on the night of Nov. 22, 2010. They had decided to walk along the bridge at the end of the Water Festival, along with many others. They found themselves trapped amid thousands of people, all sandwiched onto the small platform, pushing from two directions and unable to move either way. The crush of bodies began suffocating some, and when panic ensued, many where crushed to death.

Leung Porn said he survived by maneuvering his body to keep his chest from being crushed. He was separated from Tor Sophal and in the crush of bodies was helpless to save her.

“I was hopeless for my wife at the time, because I myself was nearly half dead,” he said. “When I saw my wife lying dead, I was confused and speechless.”

Tor Sophal’s ashes now sit on a shelf in the house, for the whole family to pray to. In the aftermath of tragedy, they received about $12,000 from the government and other donors. Some of that was spent on her funeral and subsequent ceremonies. The rest remains in savings.

“Even though you gave me gold too heavy to carry, I didn’t need it,” he said, looking at his teenage son, whose head was shaved in mourning. “I would have taken my wife back instead.”

Leung Porn said he will no longer allow any of his family members to go to Diamond Island, or even to the Water Festival, for fear of another disaster.

Cambodia University students lay down flowers during a memorial service near a bridge where festival goers were killed Monday in a stampede in Phnom Penh, Nov. 25, 2010.

“I’ve advised my children and grandchildren not to go there,” he said. “If they want to celebrate the event, I tell them to celebrate at home with the family. I’m afraid, and I swear I’ll never go again.”

Perhaps, he said, he would be willing to visit a memorial stupa for the dead if it is built near the bridge. And he wants the authorities to ensure such a tragedy doesn’t happen again.

For now, 100 days later, he remembers his wife and is sorry he had not done more for her when she was alive.

“I am regretful that I could never afford to treat her to a big meal in a restaurant,” he said.
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Cambodian Court Rejects Opposition Leader's Final Appeal

Sam Rainsy, leader of Cambodia's opposition Sam Rainsy Party, speaks during a campaign rally in Kandal province, Cambodia, July 11, 2008.

Cambodia’s highest court on Tuesday upheld a two-year jail term imposed on the exiled leader of the opposition, Sam Rainsy. The verdict came after he uprooted border markers on the country’s boundary with Vietnam more than a year ago, claiming Cambodian farmers were losing land to their more powerful neighbor.

Judges at the Supreme Court said Tuesday that opposition leader Sam Rainsy must serve the two-year sentence that was handed down last year by a lower court.

Sam Rainsy, who lives in self-imposed exile in France, was convicted of racial incitement and damaging public property in the October 2009 incident on the border with neighboring Vietnam..

Senior members of the Sam Rainsy Party, or SRP, said on Tuesday the verdict had come as little surprise. One of them, veteran SRP legislator Son Chhay, says the courts are there to do the bidding of the ruling party.

"We all predicted the Supreme Court will maintain the verdict to send Sam Rainsy to two years in prison," he says. "And we have no hope that the judicial system in Cambodia or the court itself will be able to make any reform to gain some confidence from the public in any near future."

The ruling party’s motive, says Son Chhay, is to ensure that Sam Rainsy is unable to take part in the next election, which is scheduled for 2013.

As matters stand with Tuesday’s ruling, there is little chance that Sam Rainsy can now participate, unless, that is, a political compromise can be reached.

Son Chhay says the international community, which has invested billions of dollars in Cambodia’s political stability, has failed to grasp the seriousness of the situation.

“They seem to be being fooled that the case of Sam Rainsy is an individual case, that it isn’t reflecting the whole need for maintaining the democratic environment in the country," he says. "That is a big mistake, the donors, especially the Western countries, who have provided so much assistance to Cambodia, should look into the issue of Sam Rainsy more seriously.”

During his recent trip to Phnom Penh, the United Nations human rights envoy Surya Subedi said public figures should become more tolerant and should stop using the courts against their critics.

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy faces more legal problems.

Last year, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison after he displayed a map at a press conference that the government claimed misrepresented the border between Vietnam and Cambodia.

At the time, the government said that his actions amounted to disinformation and the falsifying of public documents.

The issue of the country’s border with Vietnam is a sensitive one for the government. Prime Minister Hun Sen maintains close relations with Hanoi, and many Cambodians are distrustful of their more powerful neighbor.

Last week, Sam Rainsy traveled to Washington to rally support from the U.S. government and human rights groups. During the trip, he sat down with VOA's Kate Woodsome, to talk about his legal troubles and the future of the opposition.
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