Cambodia Calls Off Rescue Efforts in Building Collapse as Death Toll Hits Three Dozen

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cambodia-building-collapse-kep-province-jan-2020.jpg Rescue personnel work at the site where an under-construction building collapsed in southern Cambodia's coastal Kep province, Jan. 5, 2020.

Cambodia has ended its search for victims in the rubble of a seven-story hotel that collapsed late last week, as the number of casualties jumped to an estimated 36 dead and 23 injured—many of whom were living in the unfinished building as members of the crew that was constructing it.

Prime Minister Hun Sen held a press conference on Sunday announcing an end to rescue efforts, in which he defended his government’s handling of the disaster that occurred on Jan. 3 in southern Cambodia’s Kep province. He said that no one would be fired as a result of the collapse, which provincial authorities have said is being investigated to determine a cause.

Hun Sen blamed the collapse on the building’s contractor, who perished in the collapse, and said that the building’s owners—Ek Sarun and his wife, Chhiv Sithy—had been detained for questioning, although he suggested that they were not responsible for the accident.

“It was a tragedy and the mistake of the contractor,” he said.

“The owners of the collapsed building were not staying at the construction site, so they were unaware of what was going on during the construction—only the contractor knew that. Unfortunately, he and his child were trapped and died inside the [collapsed] building.”

Hun Sen said that “the courts will decide how to proceed,” but vowed that the families of the 36 killed in the tragedy—which Reuters news agency said included six children, at least two of which were infants—would each receive U.S. $50,000 in compensation, while those injured would receive U.S. $20,000.

On Monday, Man Boareth, a spokesman for the court of neighboring Kampot province, told RFA’s Khmer Service that the Kep Provincial Court had released building owners Ek Sarun and Chhiv Sithy on bail.

“I don’t know the reason why they were released—they weren’t facing a criminal charge, just a regular civil charge,” he added.

Reuters quoted Kep governor Ken Satha as saying he was unaware if the owners had been charged with any crime.

He said that, in principle, people are not allowed to live at construction sites, but acknowledged that there was nowhere else for the workers to live.

He also vowed to “take measures,” when asked whether authorities will ban workers from living at other construction sites.

Seang Phan, who lost five members of his family—including two children—in the collapse, told RFA that he is demanding justice.

“Regular people like us have no clue about what the court has decided, but I also want reparations from the building’s owners,” he said, noting that he had had received U.S. $50,000 following Hun Sen’s promise to provide compensation.

Construction accidents

Tragedies such as last week’s collapse are common amid a construction boom in Cambodia, where developers often ignore permit requirements or simply never apply for them, and workers have died as a result.

RFA reported in June that a Chinese-owned unlicensed seven-story building collapsed in Sihanoukville, killing 28 people and injuring 26—many of whom were construction workers sleeping on the second floor at the time of the incident.

Calls for the country to take action against illegal construction were made to Hun Sen following that incident, including through measures such as shutting off the electrical and water supply to sites, refusing access to the sewage system, rejecting permit applications, and banning marketing materials from offending developers.

Last week, Yun Phally, the Kep province coordinator for local rights group ADHOC, told RFA that the construction permit for the hotel in Kep province did not allow for seven floors, and suggested that corruption may have caused local officials to turn a blind eye to what was happening at the site.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Neang Ieng. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.


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