As was expected many people and organizations feel called upon to seek out those bearing supposedly direct responsibility for the disaster on the Koh Pich bridge this past Monday.
A certain Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza of the Asian Human Rights Commission based in Hong Kong put out a press release, which even found its way into the New York Times. She accused the authorities of a ‘failure to plan for and control the crowd then limit the damage from the stampede’. She went on to say that the police
- Did not enforce traffic directions (on the bridge),
- Military and police attempts to control the crowd may have exacerbated fear and confusion and caused further fatalities.
- Eyewitness reports state that the military used water cannons on the crowd after the stampede began, electrocuting, and killing some of those trapped on the bridge when the water hit exposed electric wiring.
- The government is directly responsible for the stampede deaths; Phnom Penh was unprepared for any form of large-scale disaster.
- Responses by police and military were lacking and may even have contributed to the stampede
- Hospitals were overwhelmed,
- The capital had only 60 coffins available for victims,
In a previous post on the Huffington Post she had stated that ’ an estimated two-thirds of those who died were women, less able to fight their way from the crowds, indicating the extreme vulnerability of Cambodian women to disaster.’
To her everything is ‘clear’. While the authorities were clearly overwhelmed and certainly have no experience in this kind of disaster, to put the blame squarely on them is somewhat of a stretch. As in any such mass panic, it was a combination of factors that contributed to the tragedy (see my previous post).
If Ms. Poza had lived in Cambodia for a while she would know how undisciplined most Cambodians are in traffic. Traffic is practically a daily chaos in Phnom Penh. The police are helpless in the face of the sheer numbers of motorcycle riders that go just as they please regardless of traffic lights, signs, even police. Add to that a certain apathy, it is no wonder they were equally helpless when people just used both bridges any way they wanted. The new bridge was closer so most of them simply preferred that one.
I am sure the authorities had no contingency plans for stampedes. Even if they did, those plans are no guarantee that this disaster could have been prevented as examples in other countries demonstrate; each mass panic is different. Crowd control is a nice word but again, if you look at other countries, authorities mostly fail at it miserably using water cannons, tear gas, etc., which only aggravate the situation, sometimes even leading to riots in the aftermath of a panic.
How the government is directly responsible would need a bit more substantiation than mere hearsay and accounts from possibly unreliable sources. Eyewitnesses were still in shock. People in shock aren’t the best witnesses immediately after the event. A case in point is the rumor of electrocution, which this dear lady takes at face value and even repeats twice - in her post and a news release. It turns out that this did not happen. Nobody was killed by electrocution according to doctors.
The response by police and military were most likely not on a level with Western standards, but one has to bear in mind that this was a first for Cambodia. This in itself does not absolve the authorities from all responsibility, but a more thorough evaluation than Ms. Poza’s is certainly desirable.
I would be interested to learn which city in the world stocks enough coffins for such an incident. What I see and read is that elsewhere, but not everywhere, body bags are used. And it is no surprise that hospitals were overwhelmed. This is a third-world country with all the deficiencies this term denotes: lack of proper health care, lack of education, lack of training in emergencies, and so on, and so forth. Ms. Poza, I only hope such a tragedy doesn’t strike Hong Kong. The scope of incompetence you so stridently condemn in Cambodia would most likely be equally present.
And finally, how Cambodian women are more vulnerable in such disasters than other women eludes probably not only me. That statement together with your other allegations, assumptions, and outright falsehoods clearly show how unbalanced your view of events is, your bias, and a certain extent of ignorance. If all ‘reports’ by the Asian Human Rights Commission are prepared like this I can understand the government’s animosity towards your and similar organizations.
P. S. The AHRC website lists Ms. Poza as an intern whereas she labels herself as a political consultant and writer for the AHRC.