The death toll from the collapse of an under-construction building in Cambodia’s coastal town of Sihanoukville over the weekend rose to 28 with 26 injured on Monday, as authorities signaled an end to rescue efforts and vowed to pursue an investigation into the Chinese investors who operated the site.
The new toll was announced Monday as Prime Minister Hun Sen visited the site of the incident, where he told reporters that while rescue operations had concluded, police are undertaking a probe of “illegal Chinese construction” that had led to the Saturday morning collapse of the unlicensed seven-story building, which held an estimated 70 people—many of whom were sleeping construction workers.
But Hun Sen also defended Chinese investment in Cambodia, which has flooded into the country since his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) swept a July 2018 general election widely seen as unfree and unfair amid a crackdown on the political opposition, NGOs, and the media that has led to sanctions from Western governments over what they say are substantial rollbacks on democracy.
“If there were no Chinese investors in Sihanoukville, let me ask whether we would have such high-rise buildings and construction as we see nowadays,” the Cambodian strongman said.
“We should not fan the flame of a tiny issue into a raging fire that could damage relations [with China] and the attractive environment for investors,” he added.
“Those who committed a crime will be brought to justice. The Chinese Ambassador has also called for this case to be handled according to Cambodian law.”
Hun Sen’s visit to the site came as Preah Sihanouk provincial governor Yun Min resigned in a post to his Facebook page on Monday, expressing “deep regret” and “apologies” to the families of victims.
“As a matter of responsibility for this incident, I have requested that Prime Minister Hun Sen accept my resignation, which he has done,” Yun Min wrote in the post.
“I would like to apologize and request understanding from our fellow citizens, civil servants, and armed forces in Preah Sihanouk province for my past shortcomings, and let them know that I’ve done all I could to make things right in this situation.”
Hun Sen also took to Facebook to confirm Yun Min’s resignation, as well as the removal of Nhim Vannda from his post as senior minister and first vice-chairman of the Committee for Natural Disaster Management due to his “lack of responsibility and lies.”
Hun Sen said he is in discussions with Interior Minister Sar Kheng to replace Yun Min with Kuoch Chamreun, the present governor of Kampong Cham province.
In the immediate aftermath of the collapse, Sar Kheng had issued an urgent letter instructing relevant authorities to expedite rescue operations, and vowing that his ministry would investigate the cause of the tragedy in a bid to punish those responsible.
‘Independent and trustworthy’ probe
While representatives of civil society groups and legal experts welcomed Yun Min’s resignation and the government’s response so far, they also demanded an “independent and trustworthy” investigation of the incident to ensure that the perpetrators are brought to justice.
“No one has been held accountable, either from the company or the state, with regard to this building construction,” Choung Choungy of the Seila Law Office told RFA’s Khmer Service on Monday.
“[Yun Min’s] resignation does little to address the tragedy, in which many lives were claimed … There must be an investigation by competent authorities—in particular, prosecutors should act as representatives of the state to investigate those responsible.”
Families of the victims are entitled to demand compensation for the loss of their loved ones, Choung Choungy said.
“There are both criminal and civil responsibilities in this case,” he added.
Am Sam Ath, deputy director of the Cambodian rights group LICADHO, said Yun Min’s resignation should set an example for other government officials who lack accountability, and also called for an in-depth and independent investigation into the collapse.
“There are irregularities involved in this building collapse, as the construction was ongoing when the incident occurred, resulting in the killing of innocent workers,” he said.
“We demand an investigation of the facts behind the construction of this building, the reason for why it had continued, and who ordered it. If it is found that corruption is involved … a criminal prosecution should be enforced.”
Opposition weighs in
The building collapse also drew calls from the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) for accountability from Hun Sen’s government in a statement issued Monday expressing condolences to the families of victims.
The CNRP, which was banned by Cambodia’s Supreme Court in November 2017 over an alleged plot to overthrow the government, condemned what it said was official “negligence” and “failure to oversee the management and inspection” of the unlicensed construction project.
“The CNRP demands responsibility for this tragedy by ensuring the highest authorities of Preah Sihanouk province and other relevant authorities be held accountable through resignation or termination, to show accountability and render justice to the victims,” the statement read.
“The Phnom Penh regime must take stringent measures to enforce the law strictly in regard to the construction sector, especially all buildings or construction owned by the Chinese or Chinese investors.”
Acting CNRP President Sam Rainsy, who is living in self-imposed exile to avoid a string of what he calls politically motivated convictions, said in a post to his Facebook page that the disaster was the result of “corruption, negligence, and irresponsibility” by Cambodia’s leaders.
“It is only the tip of the iceberg, in that there is no way to know how many other buildings lack construction permits and the most basic supervision and security,” he said, adding that “money talks in Cambodia,” and that Hun Sen’s government is “a danger to the public.”
CNRP President Kem Sokha, who is facing charges of “treason,” defied the conditions of his house arrest and issued a rare statement in a post to his Facebook account on Sunday calling on authorities to “render justice to the victims by providing compensation to them and their families, and properly prosecuting those responsible.”
The Chinese, Australian, U.S., Japanese, and French embassies all released statements of condolence to the families of the victims, although the Chinese Embassy stopped short of issuing an apology for the incident.
Chinese investment has flowed into casinos, hotels, and real estate in Preah Sihanouk province and its largest town, Sihanoukville, turning the once sleepy seaside town into a flash point for Cambodians concerned about Chinese economic penetration of their country.
Cambodians complain about unscrupulous business practices, gangland violence, and unbecoming behavior by growing crowds of Chinese investors and tourists drawn to Sihanoukville and a nearby Chinese Special Economic Zone connected to Beijing’s Belt and Road global infrastructure initiative.
Last month Sihanoukville authorities shut down a Chinese-owned casino accused of polluting an adjacent beach following the casino’s defiance of orders to cease operations.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.