Friday, November 26, 2010

The Blame Game

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.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Koh Pich Disaster – Preventable?

It goes without saying that everybody is shocked by this event and feels with the families and friends of those who lost their lives on that fateful night.

The headline might suggest that I am going to engage in a round of finger pointing or seeking out responsible parties - I am not; it wouldn’t be my place anyway. Of course, it would be very easy to put the blame on someone in order to divert from the real issue underlying such a stampede. Once you have a culprit the case is closed for most people. It is just like in a murder trial. The killer gets a life sentence or even the death penalty; that is supposed to bring closure (what a nice word) to the victim’s family. But does it? I don’t think the families of the victims in this case would feel less pain if they knew why all this happened. Their son or daughter, or niece, or nephew, is gone and won’t return.

The answer to the question is obviously not so easy. Although I am not an expert, I dug into the subject matter and was shocked at how many of those stampedes actually happen every year. Just check out, which incidentally had added Koh Pich just one day later. We are swamped by news stories every day so much that we don’t seem to notice any more how many people die in such a horrible way. Sure enough, this story had disappeared from international headlines just one day later, to be replaced by a missile attack in the Koreas. How are we supposed to keep up with all this news stream?

This stampede appears to be very similar to the one that happened in Germany this past summer at an event called ‘Love Parade’, a huge rave concert. The number of fatalities was thankfully ‘only’ 21. Instead of too narrow a bridge as the access/exit route to a site there it was tunnel. In both cases these two entry/exit points became the proverbial bottleneck, which when people move in panic becomes like moving walls in a horror movie. People are pressed against each other, which makes them move even faster in order to get away from all that pressure.

Many studies have been done on the subject and there is a very logical and scientific explanation of people’s behavior and why it comes to stampedes. I found one done by the Technical College for Sociology in Zurich. The gist of it is as follows.

There is something called average density, meaning the number of people on a certain area at a given time, which generally is considered to be four per square meter. Once the number reaches six a critical point has been reached, at which people start to feel uncomfortable and try to avoid this by moving away. If there is enough room to move to, of course, there is no imminent danger. Under normal circumstances, that critical density is of no direct consequence as the people either move to or from an event in a more or less orderly fashion unless there is something that makes people want to move faster than is possible due to local density.

By news accounts the Koh Pich root cause that provoked the panic was a slight swaying of the suspension bridge due to the masses moving on it, which led some people to believe that it was about to collapse. This thought spread through the masses like wildfire. People reportedly started moving in both directions increasing the local density to over eight people. At the critical point of six people per square meter the speed of movement is decreased threefold, in other words, they almost come to a complete stop. Meanwhile more people press on, trying to get away from the purported danger point.

Now one has to realize that such a density can result in forces to over 445 kg being exerted in one direction. In this enormous pressure, people have trouble breathing that adds to the panic and they futilely try to move even more quickly, resulting in possible thrashing about. Eventually and consequently, many of them lose consciousness and die by asphyxiation (compressive asphyxiation as per Wikipedia). They are literally crushed to death. They then fall to the ground and are trampled on by the masses above them.

Now are those stampedes preventable? At first glance one tends to say ‘yes’. This is actually the point where the local authorities with their responsibility for public safety come in. Usually, such an event needs some kind of official permission to take place. In Koh Pich the Bayon concert and all the other attractions most certainly did have all their permits in place. The authorities estimated that about 2 million people converged on Phnom Penh for the water festival, the biggest event every year. Some previous estimates were as high as 4 million. The newly open Koh Pich was an attractive addition to the venue and promised to be a nice conclusion to the festival. I wasn’t there so I don‘t know whether the authorities posted police at the entrance to the bridge on each end to monitor the stream of people. I am sure there were at least a few as police was present in force throughout the city during the festival.

Now did the police have reason to expect or suspect that a panic might break out on the bridge in view of the masses moving over the bridge? Any clear-headed person must answer this with a ‘no’. This is just like at the end of a football/soccer game or a rock concert with 80,000 people in attendance. They may have many more exits available to leave the stadium but if people start pushing and shoving even that number of exits is not enough. It will only take a tiny spark to set off a panic and consequently a stampede. Similarly, the assumed spark that set off the stampede on that bridge could under no circumstances be expected. As a former resident of Florida, I know what it is like to be sitting on one of the many suspension bridges in your car waiting for the oncoming traffic to pass by due to a lane closure ahead. Believe me, those things do sway and shake, especially if a big truck rushes by. People just put their trust in the engineers that constructed the bridge, firm in their knowledge that those did a good job. Of course, the people here don’t know anything about that. For them the swaying was an ominous sign, which then resulted in that horrible disaster.

Finally, it appears that short of shutting those sites off for mass events there is no sure method of preventing a stampede if certain conditions prevail. Such catastrophies at one time or another strike even countries that have much more experience in crowd control than Cambodia. Perhaps one idea for the future would be to install cameras to monitor the density on the bridge, or any other public venue for mass gatherings for that matter, and once that critical density of five or six people per square meter has been reached slow down or temporarily stop the onflow or inflow of people onto the bridge or any other site for mass gatherings.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

One Tiny Step at a Time

It’s been there a while but I only now get to show it. Ocheuteal Beach in Sihanoukville, or Kompong Som as the locals still call it, has undergone a transformation for the better. It has been going on for a while and initially I thought this was only the individual bar and restaurant owners improving their own site but this is a concerted effort by the city of SHV. They built a ‘boardwalk’, which here is made of tiles. The restaurants are not just shacks, although there are still a few around; the beach lounges and umbrellas are usable, and the sand is clean, at least most of the time. It’s far from perfect but it’s a start.

Let’s face it the beach was nothing much to look at in the past. It was a beautiful stretch of oceanside showing nothing but neglect from the beach lounges to the umbrellas and the tables. One always read about those high-flying plans the federal and the state governments espoused of how to attract major tourist operators and airlines to send in thousands of tourists every year. All those plans foundered due to the lack of hotel capacity and, of course, the beach itself. As long as it stayed that way, they would only continue to get parsimonious backpackers.

First, the beach is rather small in order to accommodate the throngs of tourists the government and the local entrepreneurs would like to see there. Second, Western tourists, and those are the ones they should focus on, are rather spoiled when it comes to beaches; they are beach connoisseurs so to speak, probably having taken in the sun in places from Mombasa, Kenya, to Mauritius, or neighboring Thailand. Cambodia could not compete with any of those. On the one hand, this was one of the attractions of this country, but on the other hand, in order to lure those hard-currency carrying foreigners the beaches needed to undergo a major change. It is those Western package tourists who spend quite a bit of their money pouring it into the local economy.

I recently read an article sort of complaining that most of the money of the tourist sector goes back to foreign companies, starting with the airline, the foreign-owned hotels, and many times foreign-owned incoming operators. The frugal backpackers and individual tourists do spend money locally but they stay at cheap hotels, eat cheap food, and travel like locals on the inter-city buses. So altogether, they probably try to get by on $25 a day including hotel. For the tourism sector to be a major contributor the economy tourists would need to spend more time in the country and consequently more money that stays in the country. Currently the majority of tourists comes from Vietnam who stays 3 days on average. They are not exactly known for splurging. Koreans and Japanese come in groups and are herded through Angkor Wat, take a day to see Phnom Penh, and are off again. Their tours are usually 5 days. Mind you, they don’t like to eat at Khmer places – no, they want to eat their own food. So, it is Westerners.
There are a few hotel projects under way in SHV. I don’t know whether they will make a difference. We read about many promising multi-million dollar projects; so far, nothing has materialized. What the city and its beaches need are a few major investors who put up a string of 3 – 4 star resort hotels totaling about 2,500 beds. Since this won’t happen overnight, the logistics of that are manageable in terms of flight transfers from Phnom Penh or Seam Reap unless the plans for that airport at SHV become reality, which for now has again been put off. Once that number of ‘quality’ beds have been built there is no doubt that there will be at least one Western airline introducing non-stop flights from Europe to SHV. Cambodia, after all, makes for an ideal tourist destination – a typical package would comprise a total of 10 days at the beach, 3 days in Seam Reap, 2 days in Phnom Penh. Europeans normally have 4 – 6 weeks paid vacation time. Given the inhospitable climate there, they travel two, sometimes three, times a year, one of which is often a long-haul destination. Cambodia could be the next destination in their travel plans, but only if the infrastructure is there. And so far, unfortunately, it is not. But cleaning up their act, in the truest sense of the word, is a tiny first step.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Any Results?

Usually a visit by a foreign government official to Cambodia results in some kind of promise, political agreements, or even contracts which would help the country in some way or other, but Hillary Clinton’s visit seemed to have been more of a good-will tour because no tangible results came out of her two-day visit to Cambodia.

First of all, she started out in Siem Reap, where she visited the shelter for trafficked women. The she took of tour of Angkor Wat; of course, she can’t miss that. But is this the way to start a state visit?

The most interesting pronouncement was her idea to use Cambodia’s debt to the U. S. to channel it into education and the environment or nature. The way understood I it, her idea was that Cambodia repays at least some of the money, which the U. S. then earmarks for those purposes. The balance might then be used directly within Cambodia with a firm commitment to those purposes. This is at least a novel idea and quite different from that expressed by her Assistant Deputy Under Secretary (that is a mouthful, isn’t it?) who testified before a Congressional Committee that it needs to be repaid - period. It actually is quite a good concept that could be used by other countries as well when it comes to repaying those immense loans Cambodia has piled up over the years. But a Secretary of State doesn’t have the authority to make such a concession point-blank. It needs to be reviewed by however many committees and subcommittees. So in order to prepare for this she will send over a team of experts to hammer out details with the Cambodian government that will stand up in those committees and ultimately in the U. S. Congress. Having followed American politics for many, many years I am doubtful, though, that this idea will meet with much enthusiasm. American politicians are good when it comes to talking about issues that don’t affect the budget, but once money is involved, their thinking tends to change quite rapidly. With the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives and only 53 seats in the Senate Obama and Hillary Clinton are practically hamstrung. They won’t get one law passed without major concessions, if any at all.

As a consequence, this issue will remain on the backburner. The Cambodian government could just relax and wait what happens if it were not for the interest that keeps accruing to the original debt, which was something like $330 million and has now risen to over $440 million. Bottom line: nothing will happen the next two years.

Her remarks on the UN Human Rights office, and human rights in general, were typical diplomatese and in my mind distinctive only in that they were softer than what all human rights organizations had anticipated and even encouraged her to state. Her words on the opposition parties were equally broad and general. According to the press, she stated she would follow the situation ‘in detail’. Now what does that mean? In no way could this be interpreted as her ‘helping Sam Rainsy return to Cambodia for the next election’. The opposition was clearly overshooting with that statement. Wishful thinking? Notably absent was Mu Sochua playing for a central public role in the encounter with Hillary Clinton. She wasn’t even mentioned in particular in the statement released by the opposition. Did she really miss that chance to buddy up to her ‘close friend’ Hillary?

Overall, the whole visit was remarkable in that it was rather unremarkable in the context of Cambodian politics. Maybe she really did want to get away from the for the Democrats catastrophic mid-term elections in the U. S. And sure enough, the next day a high-ranking Chinese official came to town who got a lot more play in the press. Well for one, he stayed 4 days instead of the 2-day whirlwind tour of Hillary Clinton. And besides, he brought with him a $1.2 billion package, and the Chinese government forgave $4.2 million in debt that had become due for repayment. Who’s to argue with this? All this happened on the heels of Hillary Clinton’s admonition that Cambodia should seek partners everywhere in Asia (and beyond), not just China. Make no mistake, Vietnam might be on the opposition’s mind, but the real dominating force here is China these days. With $62 million or so p. a. in U. S. aid for Cambodia, there is just not enough leverage for the U. S. to make their case; additionally, their influence as a great power is waning. This was underscored by the fact that Forbes magazine chose Hu Jintao, the Chinese President, as the most powerful man on earth. The Americans sure got enough problems at home right now – and they will last well into the next decade - to bother with backwater countries like Cambodia.

Another sign, though on a smaller scale: I just learned the other day that one large private Cambodian rubber manufacturer sold out to a Chinese company. China is the next great power and will dominate the world. This is the reality, people.

The Canadia Tower

I think that building was finally really inaugurated on Friday, Nov. 05. Although it has been open and functioning for a while now (with still a lot of office space available), one thing has been missing that normally many tall buildings in other metropolises of the world feature: a rooftop restaurant.

A building like this is ideal for this, and I am really amazed why nobody has had the idea to open one unless, of course, the rent is forbiddingly high and makes the whole thing unworkable. After all, who can afford to go to expensive restaurants on a regular basis? The Malis restaurant is obviously the exception, but with its world-class cuisine, it found its niche in Phnom Penh’s restaurant scene.

But this past Friday, one very creative French entrepreneur and his equally creative Korean wife at least opened up the rooftop terrace for a one-night party. They own the Elsewhere restaurant, a popular hang-out for expats and NGOs employees and feature the First Friday of the Month evening at their restaurants, which they now held at the rooftop terrace.

Initially, it looked kind of desolate with only a few tables and chairs available, but they had hired a pretty good jazz combo, the sound system was terrific and after the wind had died down it became what you would expect from a tropical night party. They served up food prepared or organized by the FTE NGO, the proceeds of which went to that NGO.

After 8 o’clock, the place filled up and by 9 o’clock, it was packed. At the time we were leaving at around 10:30 (I had drunk my beers a little too quickly) there were still people streaming in. As was expected the crowd was more on the younger side with a lot of what looked like girls-night-out. My guess is there were about 1,000 people milling around, mostly Caucasian though. I was wondering whether these were really all people living and working here or whether a lot of tourists found out about the party from their hotels. Whatever the case it was quite enjoyable and the view is just great, something one only has when arriving by plane at night. Anyway, I had my doubts about the whole thing when I first entered but it certainly turned out a smashing success. I am sure this venue will prove successful for all kinds of get-togethers with a social character.