PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - A stampede that killed 456 people in Cambodia was sparked by the swaying of a bridge, investigators said on Wednesday in a report that failed to address broader questions facing the government over the deaths.
The preliminary government report, broadcast on media, echoed comments made a day earlier by government spokesman Phay Siphan who said the bridge was designed to sway, but the movement took pedestrians by surprise and some shouted it was broken.
The death toll rose to 456 from 375 on Tuesday with hundreds injured from Monday night’s chaotic exodus of thousands of people along the narrow Diamond Gate bridge in the capital Phom Penh.
The disaster has raised plenty of questions -- from why so many people were allowed to enter such a confined space on a small, man-made island to how authorities handled crowds.
Critics have pointed fingers at developers who built the bridge, city authorities organising the festival and security forces. But they say ultimately the buck stops with the government of long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The disaster, however, is unlikely to spiral into political damage for Hun Sen, a strongman whose blend of populism and cronyism has kept him in office for a quarter of a century.
“There won’t be any fallout for Hun Sen and his government. It won’t go away any time soon, but it can be explained away as a tragedy,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun a professor of regional strategic and political studies at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
“Hun Sen will think he will get away with it and he’s not under threat and he’s probably right. There’s a reason he’s survived in office for so long.”
That reason centres on the rural popularity of Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which has a big parliamentary majority, and his powerful connections among the business elite, the judiciary and the security forces.
Rights groups accuse the CPP of using the judiciary to silence its political opponents, especially the main opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), named after a leader who lives in self-exile in France, avoiding jail sentences of a combined 12 years for forgery, disinformation and criminal damage, charges he says were politically motivated to intimidate his party.
Experts say the government’s virtual monopoly on power and its connections will mean, while some heads might roll, senior city and police officials, or those involved in the construction of bridge are not likely to face prosecution.
Hours after the stampede, Hun Sen apologised to the country for what he said was Cambodia’s biggest tragedy since the era of the Khmer Rouge regime three decades ago.
But he has kept a low profile since, a move that in most other countries would have attracted a hail of public criticism. “Others would try to score political points from this, but he has nothing to gain,” added Pavin. “With emotions high, public appearances might lead towards criticism.”
The power of Hun Sen’s pro-business government has been a plus point for investors, despite the frequent criticism it draws from rights groups and foreign donors.
The CPP has presided over a period of unprecedented stability and economic growth over recent years and increased foreign investment has helped boost the party’s popularity.
Few believe the CPP’s power base will be weakened as a result of the stampede but some analysts point to an outside chance of trouble ahead if the investigation does not meet public grievances and no one is brought to book.
Many of the victims are believed to be from rural provinces that delivered a landslide to the CPP in a 2008 general election. The next poll takes place in 2013.
“There was incapacity within the security forces to handle the crisis and standards were not enforced in managing this event,” said Ian Bryson, a Singapore-based consultant at Control Risks.
“I doubt there will be any real fallout immediately, but if nothing is done, if these grievances are allowed to fester, the CPP could have themselves a problem in the next election.”
Editing by Jason Szep and Robert Birsel