Several Cambodian families missing relatives who worked at a Poipet casino engulfed in a deadly fire in late December say weeks later they have still not received information or compensation from authorities and the casino’s owners.
At least 27 people died in the fire at the Grand Diamond City hotel and casino near the Thai border, according to Banteay Meanchey authorities. Though some bodies remained unidentified, Cambodian officials have insisted no Cambodians died.
DNA test results allegedly initiated more than two weeks ago remain pending, authorities say.
Without legal confirmation of their relatives’ deaths, the families of missing workers are unable to receive benefits which they say could support the workers’ children.
Som Sony said her sister Ear Thy has now been missing for nearly a month. Thy, a 43-year-old widow, was the main provider for her seven children, some of whom have now had to stop studying to find jobs to support themselves while the youngest children were living with relatives, Sony said. One of Thy’s daughters went to Thailand for a DNA test on January 16 but has heard nothing since.
“I gave up finding my sister and I have 1% hope that she is alive and 99% belief that she is already dead,” Sony said.
Keo Vandy, the wife of another missing worker, said she heard her husband was working on the 8th floor of the building when the fire erupted on the first floor and she believed he had not survived.
She fears her husband’s corpse was destroyed in the fire and his death will not be confirmed.
“That company must give compensation to me because my husband worked at that place,” she said. “I can take that money to do a funeral for him.”
One family conducted a funeral despite not having confirmation and said they were given around $750 in compensation by a company representative. Grand Diamond City did not respond to requests for comment.
Banteay Meanchey provincial police chief Sith Luos told CamboJA five unidentified corpses were transferred to Thailand for DNA testing and Cambodians claiming missing relatives can go to Thailand for a DNA test. He would not say how many families came forward to claim missing relatives or how many had conducted DNA testing.
“Now we are waiting for the result of the DNA tests and for Cambodian families who are missing their relatives, we are searching for them but have not yet found anything till now.”
Luos said compensation will likely only be given to families if DNA test results show the corpses are Cambodian.
“About the compensation I don’t know, it is not under my authority, so wait for the committee’s evaluation to resolve it,” he said, referring to a committee investigating the fire run by Minister of Interior Sar Kheng.
Banteay Meanchey deputy provincial governor Ngor Meng Chroun told CamboJA the Ministry of Labor will work together with Grand Diamond city casino to get compensation for Cambodian families in accordance with labor law.
Heng Sour, Ministry of Labor spokesperson, said the ministry was awaiting the results of the committee’s investigation before determining if any compensation was owed.
Am Sam Ath, director of operations for human rights NGO Licadho, said authorities should investigate who is responsible for the catastrophic death count and casino fire, seeking criminal charges if safety standards were not followed.
Victims’ families can sue for civil compensation and the decision would be up to the court, he added.
“The authority should send the case to the court and investigate if that casino was built to the proper standard or not and whether it had [features] to save people in the event of a fire or not,” Licadho’s Sam Ath said.
Companies associated with Grand Diamond City list Mean Veasna, the naturalized Cambodian Thai wife of fugitive Thai politician Vatana Asavahame, and tycoon Ly Yong Phat as directors in Ministry of Commerce records, along with several Thai associates. A Cambodian named Seoum Sa Im is listed as chairperson.
Veasna and Asavahame could not be reached for comment. Sa Im told reporters he was no longer associated with the company and declined to comment further.
Yong Phat told CamboJA he used to own Grand Diamond City but sold it to someone around 10 years ago but did not remember who bought it.
“Before it was mine, back then I sold it to a Cambodian, but I forgot the name, I already forgot,” he said.
Grand Diamond City posted in Thai on the company Facebook page on December 30: “Deepest condolences to the families of the victims and injured in the fire incident. We will get through this time together.”
For the relatives of the casino’s missing employees, the struggle to provide for their remaining family members has deepened. Vandy said she and her husband came to Poipet from their home province of Pursat, believing they could make more money in the bustling casinos at the Thai border, but that dream dissolved with his death.
“We hoped we could earn much more money and go back to our hometown, but now he is gone,” she said.
Vandy said she is in debt and must cover rent, meals and the schooling of her three children on a $150 monthly salary as a house cleaner. She has not yet been able to tell them the truth about their father’s apparent death.
“My children always ask where their father is and I always lie to them, saying that he is working in Thailand,” she said, pausing as sobs overwhelmed her.
“So please help me to find justice, I lost my husband.”