A Culture of Irresponsibility in Cambodia: Rethinking Koh Pich Bridge Stampede Tragedy
By Sopheada Phy | November 5, 2014
It is widely believed that a culture of irresponsibility does exist in Cambodia, especially when it has to deal with those in power and those in authority. One of the examples is the very recent case of a fireworks accident that killed one person and injured about seven others at the 10th anniversary celebration of King Norodom Sihamoni’s coronation on October 29, 2014. After the accident, technical problems or faulty fireworks have been blamed, and no one in authority, particularly those in charge of organizing the festivity and the fireworks show, bears the responsibility. Cambodia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Tea Banh even implicitly called the accident “not a big deal”. The other example that showed the existence of culture of irresponsibility in Cambodia was the case of the 2010-Koh Pich bridge stampede tragedy.
Koh Pich bridge stampede was an unpredictably preventable tragedy that claimed the life of over 300 people and left about many hundreds more injured during the panic stampede on Koh Pich bridge in the capital city of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Such a tragedy happened in the last day, November 22, 2010, of Water Festival, one of the biggest traditional festivals in the country. This story quickly captured international headlines. Once again, Cambodia stunned the world. Reacted with shock, many wondered why such a preventable catastrophe could easily happen.
Regarding the causes of the calamity, some raised by the eyewitnesses. Some claimed that the stampede happened due to a panic that the bridge might collapse since it was packed by a crowd of thousands of people passing back and forth and those people might have not been aware that it is the suspension bridge that is easily to be swayed. Others said it was due to the police firing water cannon on the crowd just to make them move faster to avoid human traffic jam that this could get some people electrocuted, and so on and so forth.
Whatever reason is, strategically speaking, it can be argued that this happened due to the weak mechanism and inability of authorities in ensuring the safety of the people during the festival. The authorities should have ensured, since the bridge is too small and narrow (about 8 meters wide and 100 meters long) that there are some space left for passengers to walk comfortably, not letting them pack to one another even having no space to just stand. It was all about crowd management. Some might say the public is not cooperative, but it is believed that if there is any serious instructions or statement made by the authorities in the public through loudspeakers, the public is very cooperative because, to some extent, they respect or are afraid of the authorities. However, this means that even the authorities or those in charge of organizing the festival themselves have never expected such a disastrous calamity to happen. This really showed the weakness and carelessness of those responsible. When this happened, there were no authorities or rescue team around, and when they arrived, it is already late to rescue the victims, especially those who were already dead, since they were tightly packed to each other. And even worse, it was even too late when they did not strategically and technically know how to rescue the victims upon arrival at the scene; this is because they might have not been trained well on emergency rescue.
Moreover, when the injured were brought to the hospitals, there were not enough rooms and spaces to accommodate them, not enough staff, not enough equipment, and even worse, most of the equipment are not technologically up-to-date. There are about four big public hospitals in Phnom Penh; all these hospitals could not accommodate all those patients. This can be inferred that the government did not have any mechanisms to prepare for such a huge disaster. Even without talking about such an unexpected catastrophe, those hospitals still could not accommodate the number of patients visiting the hospital on a daily basis due to the fact that the hospital beds and rooms are inadequate. This pushes some patients to stay on the sidewalk of the hospital buildings. Such a situation exactly shows the weakness of the public health care in Cambodia. Health care is one of the most prioritized sectors that the government should pay much attention on in order to build a healthy society.
Soon after the stampede, the government has conducted an investigation into the incident and finished it one week later with the conclusion that no one was specifically to blame for the tragedy. The case was closed, and up until now, over four years later, not a single authority in charge of the festival bears the responsibility for the accident.
Furthermore, it could be noted that Cambodia is already fortunate that it has never ever been suffered from big natural disasters such as earthquake, volcano eruption etc., except occasional floods caused by climate change due to the misuse of the environment of particularly those in power and the elites, without mentioning the weak mechanism and poor risk management of the government in preventing those floods. This Koh Pich bridge human disaster would have been easily prevented if risk management could have been well planned and implemented. This is just the accident which happened due to human disaster, so what if it happened due to “natural disaster” like earthquake etc., as examples from other countries around the world, would not Cambodia fall into an even worse preventable tragedy?
This recall of the Koh Pich bridge stampede tragedy is to raise awareness of those responsible and accountable, the government, and also the public to rethink about such a tragic catastrophe, which left so much sorrow and trauma with the victims, the relatives of the victims, and to some extent, the public in general.
It is time to end the culture of irresponsibility in Cambodia so as to improve human security, both traditional and non-traditional, and promote peace and prosperity in the country. To have a sustainably just society, everyone should be responsible for what they have done or been in charge of in order to be a role model for others, particularly the younger generations, to follow. The leaders and those in authority should learn about how to be a real leader—someone who dare to truly take responsibility, not dare to make excuses—and in return, they will be genuinely respected and live with honor, which is the greatest gift that they cannot buy from anywhere or anyone.