Cambodian authorities have started to dismantle the charred remains of the Grand Diamond City Casino in Poipet to pave the way for new construction, only one week after the massive blaze killed at least 26 people.
But the sudden shift from rescue efforts to rebuilding the casino has angered the families of a dozen people who remain missing in the aftermath of the fire and who say not enough has been done to search for their loved ones and investigate the cause of the catastrophe.
Sek Sokhom, a spokesperson for Banteay Meanchey province, said Wednesday that authorities found seven safes with cash in them while going through the buildings, but added that no more bodies have been found.
“We have fenced the scene and the committee’s engineers are dismantling the burned buildings,” he said.
Relatives say at least three Cambodians and nine Thais are still missing since the fire.
Khem Vong’s wife Sam Srey Mom is one of those not yet found. He told RFA he is disappointed with how authorities are focusing on the site and securing cash safes before searching for his wife.
“I have asked them many times but they said they will wait for their superiors,” he said. “I don’t know what to say. They are prioritizing money over human life.”
The fire broke out shortly before midnight on Dec. 28 in the casino along Cambodia’s border with Thailand, injuring nearly 60 people. Thai authorities at the time said that more than 100 people were transferred to the Thai side, but only 34 were admitted for treatment.
Thawatchai Bunseng, a Thai official from Aranyaprathet district across the border from Poipet, said Cambodian authorities are the ones responsible for finding victims, adding that families will suffer without being able to properly bury their loved ones.
“Cambodia is responsible for the search and safeguarding of the bodies and evidence. Cambodia can resolve the case according to the law but we will wait and see,” he told RFA.
“We can’t search for ourselves … if they said they stopped searching, it means they stopped.”
Ny Sokha, president of the NGO Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association, said authorities should continue searching for victims and investigate the fire to bring those responsible to justice, adding that it is up to officials to make sure victims’ families feel at peace.
“[The investigation] is crucial for compensation. At the end of the [investigation] there must be people found to be responsible before compensation can be discussed,” he said.
Firefighters were only able to douse the blaze by 2 p.m. on Dec. 29, according to a report by the Associated Press. Civil society officials told RFA that the deaths were caused by the negligence of casino owners and relevant authorities who had skirted building codes. One official pointed out that the fire spread rapidly across the complex because it was built using wood, as opposed to concrete.
A victim who survived the fire said the casino didn’t comply with fire codes. He added that there was no fire alarm inside and too few exits out of the building, which prevented some of the guests from escaping.
Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Nawar Nemeh. Edited by Josh Lipes.