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 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 Cambodians died from execution, disease, starvation and exhaustion. The accident happened late on Monday last week when more than 1,000 people celebrating the end of an annual Water Festival on a man-made entertainment island crossed a narrow bridge. The crowd suddenly panicked and started to run.
Video footage showed hundreds piled on top of each other, screaming for help, wedged under bodies, dead, alive and unconscious for as long as three hours. Security personnel appeared disorganised and unsure of how to rescue the survivors. The victims died mostly of suffocation while some drowned after leaping into the Tonle Sap river below [ID:nSGE6AM0CQ].
Mystery surrounds what triggered the stampede, with varying witness accounts. The government said in a preliminary report last week the Diamond Gate bridge moved slightly under the weight of people, who thought it was about to collapse. GOVERNMENT UNSCATHED The death toll was 456, but that was later scaled down when officials said many bodies had been counted twice.
About the same number of people were injured. Hun Sen, whose government has promised $12,000 for the families of each victim, drew parallels with the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States under the presidency of George W. Bush, which killed 2,995 people. "Did Bush administration officials resign following the incident in the U.S. of planned attacks that were preventable? Did New York's governor resign? Did Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld resign?" he asked.
Hun Sen was widely expected to absolve his government of any 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 [ID:nSGE6AN02W].
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." Pov Vatanak, 27, said it was no surprise that disciplinary action would not be taken against those in charge. "It's rare that officials will resign," he said.
"It's more likely they will be promoted." 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.