11/24/2010 02:20 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Cambodia's Bon Om Touk Stampede Preventable

In Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the Bon Om Touk festival stampede that this Monday night caused at least 378 deaths and left more than 700 injured also left open questions about Cambodia's government and its handling of the disaster.

Prime Minister Hun Sen recognized Monday night as "the biggest tragedy we have experienced in the last 31 years, since the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime." The majority of those who perished were from rural areas. 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.

The government of Cambodia now faces the responsibility of attending to survivors and the families of those killed. Further, the government must thoroughly investigate the causes of the stampede as well as responses by police, emergency personnel, and hospitals to ensure such a tragedy does not occur again. While the exact cause of the stampede last night remains unclear, with contradictory reports indicating it may have been instigated by either crowd antics or poor construction of the bridge to Koh Pich island, the failure of the state to plan for and control the crowd then limit the damage from the stampede is clear.

Poor event planning and management contributed to the disaster. Organizers set up two bridges, 200 meters apart -- one to permit attendees to cross to Koh Pich and a second to permit them to cross back to the city -- but then did not enforce traffic directions. The bridge nearest to the festivities became overrun with people attempting to move in both directions. In the midst of a festival packed with millions of people, the result of conflict and crowding on the bridge was to create the perfect environment for widespread panic.

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 and must make restitution, but restitution cannot be counted only in riel. The Cambodian government owes its people more than the 5 million riel ($1,230) promised to the families of those killed and the 1 million riel ($246) allotted to those who sustained injuries -- the government must make a substantive effort to prevent similar disasters in the future.

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 while hospitals were overwhelmed. Emergency and medical personnel resorted to piling bodies together, covering them with mats or sheets. Families were forced to try to gain access to makeshift morgue tents outside of hospitals to lift the sheets draped over bodies or wander through corridors looking for victims. The capital had only 60 coffins available for victims, requiring that others be gathered from outlying areas to transport bodies as they were identified and claimed by families at the four major hospitals in the area. On Monday, Cambodia's government failed its people at all levels.