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Death and Life – after the Diamond Island Tragedy

By: Norbert Klein Posted: November-29-2010 in
Norbert Klein

The Mirror, Vol. 14, No. 692

The tragedy at the Diamond Island bridge – the worst disaster in peace time in Cambodia, and probably the second biggest of this nature in the world – was followed by different phases of reaction: first, the awareness that something terrible had happened [images can be seen by clicking here], calling for immediate first aid and rescue actions – then a period of reflections to clarify what actually had happened and why – and finally deliberations about longer range concern, with which we closed yesterday’s report: “But the question remains: What will the government do to prevent still larger crowds from creating even greater calamities next year and beyond in the future? The government has already announced that next year, the Water Festival will be held again.”

Various media, especially also exchanges of opinion on the Internet during the time since the tragedy at the Diamond Island bridge happened, follow roughly the same pattern.

To establish some basic data, like the number of casualties, was difficult. This is understandable as the immediate care for the dead and the wounded had to happen wherever such responses were rendered, and to share information could only be a next steps. On 24 November 2010, Minister Ith Samheng, chairperson of the Sub-Committee to Identify Victims and Aid Their Families, had declared that 456 people were confirmed dead – precisely 109 who lost their lives at the bridge, and 347 who died in different hospitals in Phnom Penh. But on 25 November 2010, the Ministry downgraded the number of casualties to 347 persons (now 126 male and 221 female), saying that the clear numbers given one day before were inflated, as the included also disappeared persons. It is not clear how disappeared persons will be accounted for and when, as a number of persons are supposed to have drowned; what will be the real final figure?

After the earthquake in Kobe in Japan in 1995, there was soon one central name list system created, also accessible through the Internet, where the known names of victims, and search requests from concerned families and friends, were listed, and the public could add information and ask questions which were quickly screened and grouped – to be verified, or already verified. Similar arrangements were made in Thailand after the Tsunami of 2004. Surprisingly enough, there was even a report – not confirmed among the many messages floating around – claiming that the Cambodian government had decided not to publish a name list of all victims. How, then, if this is true, can the financial assistance measures be monitored?

There appeared various discrepancies of opinion about how to proceed. There were also voices which stated that they are not interested in establishing the facts, as this would only lead to accusations:

  • “I don’t want to find the one to blame. The right thing to do is praying for the victims and families.”
  • “An eye for an eye, and the whole world would be blind; I am sure you know this statement well. Before the event took place, people would believe that the design was well made… It is not to put burden on who to be held responsible, but let us see more results from the investigations.”
  • “Not to blame, but to discover the reasons that lead to the event!”

At the same time, various initiatives started to collect funds to assist the victimized families. Not only television stations and other institutions started to call for assistance, also a network of students form different universities took similar initiatives, well aware that these could only provide limited assistance, while the government was expected to provide systematic responses.

One day after the tragedy, the Prime Minister established a Main Committee and three sub-committees to oversee the government’s responses:

  • Sub-Committee to Identify Victims and Aid Their Families
  • Sub-Committee to Investigate the Cause of the Disaster
  • Sub-Committee to Examine the Bodies of the Dead

The high level membership of these committees consists of Minsters, Vice-Ministers, Secretaries of State, senior Police and Military Police officers, including from the Anti-Terrorist and the Spy and Investigation Departments. One could imagine that the normal function of government might be impaired, when these committees and sub-committees start their intensive work. But there are also three hospital directors involved, and the deputy chairperson of Cambodian Scouts, and the president of the Cambodian Confederation of Trade Unions.

Not on the list is, however, any representative from the Ministry of Justice, but the Director General of the Overseas Cambodia Investment Corporation – OCIC – which holds a 99-years license to develop Diamond Island, is also a member of the Main Committee.

Another discrepancy surfaced in the general appraisal of the reasons for the tragedy.

There were voices which declared what had happened as unfortunate, but beyond the possibility of control.

  • The Phnom Penh Governor is quoted with the statement: “This is an incident that no one wanted to happen, it happened unpredictably.”
  • The Government Spokesperson and Minister of Information indicated that police was oriented to control pick-pocketing, and to be prepared to launch rescue operations if a boats would capsize, as there had been fatal incidents of this nature in the past.

Others voices called what had happened to be not only predictable, but also preventable. It is estimated that 3 to 4 million people from the provinces were in Phnom Penh for the Water Festival, and about 7,000 to 8,000 may have been on the bridge when the stampede started.

Apart from the immediate responses, discussions started also toward longer perspectives. And in spite of the call not to argue, and to consider any response mainly in a spirit of national unity, the public debate among different Cambodian voices is not going only smoothly, as the following voices show:

  • “We are Cambodians, time to help each others. Donate some money to help the victims’ family, if you can’t do anything else… No one could predict such incident.”
  • “Should we unite as one, or should we blame this person or that person? Unless you put yourself into the government’s shoes, you will never understand the circumstances.”
  • “Besides fund raising, joining the National Mourning Day, what else can we do for the sake of this lesson of sacrifice, to learn from a failure of risk management systems in Cambodia? Also can the Cambodian government and the public be really cooperative and supportive beyond the fact of such a sudden incident? How about the structural violence that occurs daily without any solution?”
  • “Establish a legal team to help the victims get justice from those accountable, and bring those accountable to justice!”

The plea for clarity about wider responsibilities relating to the general environment of where the tragedy happened will not be easy to be carried through.

The Canadia Bank provides the financial back-up for the Diamond Island developments. An executive stated: “This can’t be blamed on anybody. This is an accident nobody expected.” The Overseas Cambodian Investment Corporation – OCIC – is investing US$300 million for high rise housing, a convention center, and sports facilities. But they declined that they should also invest in “public security” and, as owners, take also responsibility for the situation that resulted in the tragedy; “It had happened near the Diamond Island, but not on the island.”

Diamond Island Plan - Source: Camboguide

Diamond Island Plan - Source: Camboguide

Even the way in which Diamond Island developments had started is remembered.

There had been about 300 families doing fishing on the island, who had to leave, getting between US$2.50 and US$12 per square meter of the land on which they lived. Land prices in the economic center of Phnom Penh at that time were up to US$2,500 per square meter – and Koh Pich was to become also a lucrative economic place. Reportedly, the OCIC leased the 750,000 square meters of land from the Phnom Penh municipality in 2006 for 99 years with a price tag of US$50 million per year. That is for US$0.66 per square meter.

Is this within, or is outside of the scope of the government's Main Committee and its three Sub-Committees to oversee the response to the tragedy? The results of this work were announced to be released quickly, already in one week’s time.

There was a stampede tragedy in the German city of Duisburg in July 2010, where 21 people among a crowd of about one million were killed. I will share information about this accident and how the response to it is handled in the days to come. It may be a useful as reference while dealing with the aftermath of the Koh Pich tragedy.

This article was first published by The Mirror, Vol. 14, No. 692 – Sunday, 28.11.2010
Have a look at the last editorial - you can access it directly from the main page of The Mirror.

Norbert Klein is the Editor of The Mirror – The Mirror is a daily comprehensive summary and translation of the major Khmer language press - More about The Mirror

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