Finding strength and sensibility in the aftermath of a national tragedy

By Kounila Keo & Colin Meyn
Coming to terms with the loss of life in the stampede on Koh Pich’s north bridge in the final hours of this year’s Water Festival has made for particularly trying times in the capital city of Cambodia.
351 people died and hundreds more were injured in the crowd of several thousand – many of them young people – who were packed so tightly on the narrow bridge that people were jumping off the bridge so they could breathe.
Sadness swept through the city’s streets, where hours before bright lights were shining on joyous revellers on a farewell romp through the annual celebrations that mark a change in the direction of the Tonle Bassac river that runs through the middle of Phnom Penh.
Upon seeing the footage of the stampede on Cambodian TV stations, some began bawling in the middle of the street. Others sought the comfort of home to share heartbreak or relief upon finding out the fate of those up to one million according to Information Minister Khieu Kanharith – who went to join the party on Koh Pich.
The island development has quickly become one of the city’s most popular destinations, thanks to the wide variation of its attractions.
The spacious wedding halls are popular among Cambodians; a floating club – now closed – was popular among expatriates; and rows of shops, restaurants and a modest amusement park that attracts a steady stream of teenagers – most on their motorbikes – arriving on the island in the late afternoon and evening.
The images people associated with the island changed suddenly when images of bodies piled five deep on the brightly coloured and ornately decorated bridge began to spread.
Initial reports of electrocution from doctors the night of the stampede (rushed medical judgements, apparently, that were retracted the next day and never talked about again by hospital staff) have lost traction. Although speculation about electrocution continues on blogs and message boards frequented by politically minded Cambodians, whose anonymous message boards are home to some of the strongest – and least reliable – government criticism that you will find in the country, as the government has been unapologetic about clamping down on unwanted opposition voices.
Most news outlets, however, have dropped the electrocution angle, falling into line with the governments statement that deaths resulted from suffocation and injuries sustained by being trampled or jumping off the bridge.
Hun Sen joined family members of the victims in comparing the stampede to Pol Pot’s regime. But unlike that tragedy – which continued to cripple the Kingdom decades after its demise – the stampede last week was finished before many people knew it started, and rebuilding began with acts of bravery in the midst of the chaos.
One boy managed to escape the crush when a man lifted him onto his shoulders, allowing him to breathe above the suffocating crowd. The boy, whose story was told in a blog by Emma Leslie, the executive director at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, eventually realised that the man who saved his life had lost his own. The boy was sitting on the shoulders of a corpse; still standing because it had nowhere to fall.
“From this suffering comes great compassion,” wrote the beloved Cambodian monk Maha Ghosananda, describing how people’s struggles under the Khmer Rouge brought them closer, exposing humanity’s best in the worst of times.
Yet nothing is good when tragedy strikes. The lives of victims and their loved ones are invariably changed for the worse, as was the case in the wake of the stampede last week.
The blaring sound and swirling lights of sirens, atop the emergency vehicles rushing over Koh Pich’s larger south bridge to get to the scene or to the west bank of the Tonle Bassac to pick up victims from the rescue boats, woke people living nearby the riverside and garnered the attention of the thousands of festival goers who were making the most of the fleeting festival atmosphere.
Over 15 percent of Cambodia’s population of 14.8 million people were in the capital that night, and as rumours began to abound on the street, visitors from the provinces – temporarily living a nomadic existence – began to call around to confirm the status of friends and family and to collect clues about what was happening on the island, which had been overflowing with entertainment options over the festival weekend.
They unknowingly joined forces with the nearby urbanites, who roused themselves to begin the same round of calls, trying to determine how they would be effected by whatever had gone so horribly wrong.
For those who didn’t know what was happening by the time Hun Sen went on Bayon TV to address the nation at 2:30am on Tuesday morning, the scale of the heartbreak became clear; but even the Prime Minister of Cambodia was unable to provide specifics on the cause of panic and death.
Ten days later an official investigation has already been completed, but little progress has been made in explaining  with certainty what happened that night. The inquiry was undertaken by a team that included officials from Diamond Island developer Overseas Cambodian Investment Corporation and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party; essentially the only groups who could be blamed for failing in their mandate to maintain order among the festival crowds, or at least prevent a potential disaster.
There was a brief period, two days after the stampede, when it seemed the two sides were trying to pin the blame on each other. Information Minister   Kanharith said that because the island development is privately owned with its own security, “police only helped handle order outside”.
But Susi Tan, the Diamond Island project director for OCIC, said maintaining order is the government’s job. “It’s more to do with public security rather than our own company,” she said. “It happened mainly near the Diamond Island, but … not really on the island.”
Upon the release of the official report earlier this week, however, it was announced that no officials would be held to account for what Hun Sen called the “biggest mistake”, when they “wrongly evaluated the situation”. Officials admitted to negligence in their decisions leading up to the stampede, but punitive measures were categorically dismissed by the prime minister hours before the report – overseen by Deputy Prime Minister Sok An – was released.
“Nobody will be punished for the incident,” said Hun Sen.
The demands of opposition politicians including Sam Rainsy, who was pushing ruling party leaders to identify the people responsible for “organizing the festival and handling the crowd” in an interview on Australian radio last week, still made it into the newspapers the day the report was released; however, with King Norodom Sihamoni’s publicly pronounced “profound thanks” to CPP leaders, who he said rescued and took care of the victims, the conversation is effectively over.
On November 25, three days after the stampede, young, old, rich and poor came together at a mourning ceremony, one of several high-profile gatherings held throughout the week, at the foot of the suspension bridge that reportedly started swaying Monday night, one of many factors that has been blamed for the stampede.
Gathered mourners followed monks in prayer and, together, they paid their respects to those who perished and then, alone, powerful politicians took the stand to express their condolences and outline their efforts to help the victims and their families.
The government set a precedent for helping families through cash compensation almost immediately after the stampede, and reports from the city’s hospitals in the days after told of representatives from various companies, including cellular service providers, handing out money to victims and their families.
The government initially said it would give US$1,227 to each victim. The OCIC followed suit when they offered $1,000 to families of victims who died and $200 to those who were injured. The Royal Family put up $400 per victim and various other private interests announced less formal compensation schemes. In his speech at the inauguration of the Ministry of Social Affairs on Monday, Hun Sen said each family was now eligible for $12,000, thanks to cooperation from ACLEDA Bank President In Channy as well as money raised by media outlets in the Kingdom.
As Phnom Penh’s most honourable monks were followed at the podium by notable members of Phnom Penh’s power circles, a beggar on the outside of the crowd approached a young man who was calling for donations for victims.
The panhandler reached into his pockets for what little money he had and handed it to the charity collector. He said he simply “felt like helping” and walked away, unaware of how exceptional his contribution actually was.
What set the beggar apart from many of the others – apart from lacking an ulterior motive – was his decision to give such a significant portion of what he had to give. He resisted the pull of self preservation in the hopes that his contribution, seemingly meaningless, could help somebody in a worse off than him.
It was his grant to humanity. With no expectations; hoping for the best.
Read it on the PPPost.