FIRES, MAN-MADE DISASTERS AND INFRASTRUCTURE IN CAMBODIA

INFRASTRUCTURE AND COMMUNICATIONS IN CAMBODIA

Kampong Cham on the Siem Reap is Cambodia’s main economic hub and Sihanoukville is the country’s only port. They are about 400 kilometers apart. Phnom Penh is situated roughly in the middle of them.

Needless to say, Cambodia’s infrastructure is in pretty bad shape. How bad? Well, in the early 2000s, the building that housed the Public Works Ministry, which was in charge of developing and overseeing many of Cambodia’s infrastructure projects, collapsed while it was being renovated. In 1990 there was no functioning phone system. Water resources and roads were poor. In Phnom Penh there was no electricity system. Generators ran everything.

Tyler Marshall, Evelyn Iritani and Marla Dickerson wrote in the Los Angeles Times: Cambodia “cash-strapped government can't afford to build new highways, upgrade the energy grid or modernize the Sihanoukville port, where inspectors tracking container traffic use pens and stacks of paper layered with carbon paper in a flashback to pre-photocopier, let alone pre-computer, days. “Cambodia certainly doesn't boast the multilane freeways and high-speed telecommunications lines prevalent in the exporting zones of China. That infrastructure was paid for, in part, by the $52 billion in direct foreign investment China received in 2003 -- compared with Cambodia's $251 million. [Source: Tyler Marshall, Evelyn Iritani and Marla Dickerson, Los Angeles Times, January 16, 2005 =]

In March 2005, the Japanese government said it would provide Cambodia with ¥3 billion in long-term loans for the development of a communications network using fiber optics. Fiber optic cables were laid between Kampong Cham, Sihanoukville, via Phnom Penh, covering a total distance of about 400 kilometers.

Japanese Bridges in Cambodia

Since 1994, Japan rehabilitated or built two major bridges across the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers in Cambodia at a cost of about $80 million. Following a request from Cambodian government, Japan in 1992 began rehabilitating the 710-meter Chroy Changwar Bridge in Phnom Penh, later named the Cambodia-Japan Friendship Bridge, across the Tonle Sap River. The project was completed in 1994 at a cost of $23.2 million. The 1.3-km Spien Kizuna bridge was completed in 2001 for $57 million. It was built across the Mekong in Kompong Cham Province about 125 kilometers northeast of Phnom Penh. [Source: Kyodo, June 23, 2010]

Cambodia’s first bridge across the Mekong River and the largest bridge in the country, opened in the early 2000s near the town of Kampong Cham. Funded by the Japanese, it is 1.36 miles long and cost $56 million. It links eastern and western Cambodia and makes road travel between the two regions possible for the first time. The bridge took thee years and a labor force of 10,000 people to build. Before it was completed people relied on flimsy ferries to get across the river.

The road between the Thai border and Siem Reap and the new bridge across the Mekong River are part of an East-West Economic Corridor between Bangkok and Saigon. Much of this route runs along Route 6, the main road in Cambodia, which goes from Poipey at the Thai border to Siem Reap and then north of Tonle Sap to Vietnam. Many of the bridges on this route were blown up in the Khmer Rouge era. Vehicles get across the bridges by negotiating wobbly planks laid across the remains of the bridges.

The Chroy Changvar Bridge (the Cambodia-Japan Friendship Bridge) was originally constructed in 1966. During the war from 1973 to 1975 Khmer Rouge forces mined it twice and destroyed large portions if it. When Phnom Penh was abandoned in April 1975, the bridge was neglected has been abandoned without taking care or repairing the damages from the war. After the liberation on 7th January 1979, mixed provincial and municipal population, returned to live in Phnom Penh and the government started to rehabilitate the infrastructures in Phnom Penh that has been damaged from the war and abandonments. However, the bridge would not be constructed due to the financial constraint. But in 1995 the government got the donation of the Japanese government to reconstruct this bridge and the Japanese engineers repaired it.

In June 2010, Kyodo reported: “Japanese government provided $131 million to Cambodia to build a second bridge across the Mekong River. Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said the grant will be used to build a new bridge across Mekong River at Neak Leung, 63 kilometers southeast of Phnom Penh. ''Today, the people and Cambodian government are happy with the grant provided by Japan,'' he said, adding the bridge will help facilitate free flow and fast transport and access of all kinds in the country as well as in the Mekong subregion. He said the bridge is expected to be completed by February 2015.

In February 2011, Kyodo reported: “Construction on a third bridge in Cambodia to be built with Japanese economic assistance began Saturday on a route crossing the Mekong River to Vietnam. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said the bridge, at 2,240 meters, will be the longest and "most beautiful" in the country. The structure, 37.5 meters above the river at its highest point, will provide a direct transportation link to Vietnam. The new bridge is at the Neak Loeung River Crossing, 56 kilometers southeast of Phnom Penh. Construction is expected to take until February 2015. [Source: Kyodo, February 12, 2011]

Speaking at the ground-breaking ceremony, Yutaka Banno, Japan's secretary of state for foreign affairs, said, "This bridge will not only link the two sides of the river, but link all countries in the region, tying Cambodia today to the future, linking Japan to Cambodia and this bridge will become a popular symbolic tie for our two countries." At the request of the Cambodian government, Japan in 1992 began rehabilitating the 710m Chroy Changwar Bridge, later named the Cambodia-Japan Friendship Bridge across the Tonle Sap River in Phnom Penh. It was completed in 1994 at a cost of $23.2 million.

Fires and Explosions in Cambodia

Two massive fires in December 2001 that left one man dead and up to 20,000 squatters homeless appears to have been set on purpose with “flaming torches fired from a boat on the Bassac River. Most of the squatters were Vietnamese. Someone clearly did not want them there. It is not clear who. Most people think the perpetrators were thugs fired by developers who planed to redevelop the land where the squatters were living.

In late 2001 and early 2002, four fires races through squatter camps in Phnom Penh area. One reason these fires were so bad is that Cambodian fire fighters lack the means to tackle big fires,

In March 2005, AP reported: “A large pressure cooker used for making noodles exploded in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, killing six people and injuring 17 others. The accident occurred inside a noodle shop near a busy market in the central city, said Kong Rith, a local district official. He said the shop's owners - 52-year-old Chea Pheng and his wife 46-year-old Lim Kieng - and two of their employees died instantly in the early morning blast. [Source: AP, March 21, 2005]

A chunk of the cooker's chimney, about 1m long, landed through the zinc roof of a nearby laundry shop. The debris struck two people sleeping inside, killing them instantly, the official said. Kong Rith said police suspected the pressure-release valve of the cooker may have failed, raising pressure inside until it burst. The shop, which collapsed after the blast, employed about 40 people.

Those who survived appeared to be too shocked to recall what happened. "The explosion was so powerful that it lifted me off my bed when I was asleep," said 78-year-old Hok Meng, who lives opposite the noodle shop. "I thought it was the blast of an artillery shell."

Seventeen Die as River Ferry Sinks in Cambodia

In October 2009, Associated Press reported: “An overloaded river ferry capsized on its way to a Buddhist ceremony in Cambodia, killing 17 passengers in a tributary of the Mekong River, an official said. Kham Phoeun, governor of Kratie province, said the boat was crammed with 30 passengers when it capsized in midstream in northeastern Kratie province, said Police Maj. Leng Sarum. He said 13 passengers were rescued after the accident, which happened while the boat was headed to a ceremony at a Buddhist temple. [Source: AP, October 11, 2009]

"There was no storm or heavy rain when the boat sank. The accident happened because it was overloaded with passengers," the officer said, speaking by telephone near the site of the incident. He said the bodies of 17 dead, which included 14 women and two children under the age 5, were being given to relatives. The accident happened about 100 miles (160 kilometers) northeast of the capital Phnom Penh.

Stampede at Cambodia Water Festival Kills 347 People

In November 2010 human stampede during the Khmer Water Festival in Phnom Penh killed Phnom Penh killed 347 people and injuring 755. The stampede occurred at the end of the three-day festival, which celebrates the end of the monsoon season and the semiannual reversal of flow of the Tonlé Sap river. Initial reports suggest that festival-goers had gathered on Koh Pich ("Diamond Island"), a spit of land stretching into the Tonlé Sap, to watch boat races and then a concert. Around four million people had attended the festival. State media reported that most of the dead were young women in their 20s. "This is the biggest tragedy we have experienced in the last 31 years, since the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime," Prime Minister Hun Sen said. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The stampede began at 9:30pm local time on a bridge across the river, though witnesses said that people had been "stuck on the bridge" for several hours before, and victims were not freed until hours after the actual stampede occurred. Many local hospitals were pushed far beyond capacity by the influx of victims. At one point, the death toll had been listed as being 456, but on the government decreased its official death toll to 347, based on the total put forth by Cambodian minister of social affairs Ith Sam Heng. The death toll has increased to 353 victims. +

A witness said the cause of the stampede was "too many people on the bridge and...both ends were pushing. This caused a sudden panic. The pushing caused those in the middle to fall to the ground, then [get] crushed." While trying to get away from the stampede, he said that people pulled down electrical wires, causing more people to die of electrocution. These claims were backed up by one of the doctors treating patients, who said that electrocution and suffocation were the primary causes of death among the casualties, though the government disputed the claims of electric shock. A journalist from The Phnom Penh Post said that the stampede had occurred due to police forces firing a water cannon into people on the bridge in an attempt to force them to move off the bridge after it began swaying, which had triggered panic among those on it. Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said that the stampede began when panic broke out after several people fell unconscious on the crowded island. +

A report from a preliminary government investigation, released on 24 November, said that the stampede had been triggered by the swaying of the bridge, which had caused panic among many of those on it. A later, more detailed report found the crush began when rumours rippled through the packed crowd that the eight-metre-wide, 100-metre-long bridge was unstable. A Police and witnesses pointed to the narrow bridge as providing inadequate access to and from the island. Authorities had closed another bridge earlier in the day, forcing tens of thousands of people to use a single span. The government said that it would pay five million riel, or US$1,250, to the families of each of the dead, as well as paying a million riel ($250) to each of the injured. On November 23, the day after the incident, around 500 Buddhist monks visited the site of the stampede to chant prayers for those who had died. +

Reports of Phnom Penh Stampede That Killed 347 People

AP and NPR reported: “A panic-stricken crowd — celebrating the end of the rainy season on an island in a river — tried to flee over a narrow bridge in the capital of Phnom Penh late Monday. Many people were crushed underfoot or fell over its sides into the water. Disoriented victims struggled to find an escape hatch through the human mass, pushing in every direction. After the stampede, bodies were stacked upon bodies on the bridge as rescuers swarmed the area. Horrific footage of the night aired on state television, showed twisted bodies — both alive and dead — piled on one another. Some writhed as they desperately reached out with their hands, the footage showed, screaming for help and grasping for rescuers who struggled to pull limp bodies from the pile as if they were trapped in sand or snow. [Source: NPR, AP, November 23, 2010 ^^]

“Paul Hurford, an Australian who runs a charity training firefighters in Cambodia, said he and several colleagues were called in not long after the stampede occurred. He said all they could do was quickly pick out the dead from the living and try to help the survivors. "I've never come across something with such mass casualties ... in such a small area," he said. "This was a devastating situation, no matter how you look at it." ^^

“One witness said the trouble started when several people fell unconscious in the press of the crowd. Another survivor said he heard a police siren just before the panic erupted. "I was taken by shock. I thought I would die on the spot. Those who were strong enough escaped, but women and children died," said Chea Srey Lak, a 27-year-old woman who was knocked over by the panicked crowd on the bridge. She managed to escape but described a woman, about 60 years old, lying next to her who was trampled to death by hundreds of fleeing feet. ^^

"I heard people yelling that the east side of the bridge was collapsing, and they told people to move west," Som Sarath, a 20-year-old college student, told NPR's Anthony Kuhn. "But other people kept coming at us from the west, and I became trapped in the middle." Sarath smiled feebly from a straw mat. He was bruised and battered, but hadn't broken any bones. He recalled falling on his side and being crushed under a heap of people, some dying, some injured. It took rescuers three hours to pull him out. "I was stuck on the bottom with perhaps 30 people or so on top of me. It was so painful I almost lost consciousness several times," he said. "Some helpful people gave us water. I just struggled to stay alive." ^^

“The main attraction of the three-day water festival, the Bon Om Touk, is traditional boat races along the river. The last race had ended when the panic started later on Koh Pich — Diamond Island — a long spit of land wedged in a fork in the river where a concert was being held. It was unclear how many people were on the island. Soft-drink vendor So Cheata said the trouble began when about 10 people fell unconscious in the press of the crowd. She said that set off a panic, which then turned into a stampede. Seeking to escape the island, part of the crowd pushed onto the bridge, which also jammed up, with people falling under others and into the water. ^^

“A Singaporean businessman who was running a sound-and-light show on the island Monday night said that after people began collapsing, firefighters sprayed the crowd, apparently to try to calm it down. The man, Sonny, who asked not to use his surname so as not to jeopardize his business contacts, also said that it was at least 1 1/2 hours after the bridge was mostly cleared before police and ambulances arrived. Information Minister Khieu Kanharith denied that authorities fired water cannons. ^^

Siphan, who was at the scene of the stampede, said that despite a large deployment of security personnel, authorities couldn't keep the crowds under control. "I'll share with you, it's out of control," he said. He also dismissed reports saying that revelers were electrocuted by lights on the bridge. "They panicked. They panicked and they shouted, 'The bridge broke down,' stuff like that, he said. "And they just, like, jumped on each other." ^^

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism of Cambodia, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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