Cambodia PM sacks top official as Chinese condo death toll hits 28

There was amazement in the resort town of Sihanoukville, Cambodia yesterday as rescue teams found two survivors pinned under the wreckage of an illegal condominium building two days after it collapsed in the early hours of Saturday.

The discovery prompted a sudden frenzy of work just as rescuers were winding their efforts down, reports newspaper Khmer Times. One of the unlikely survivors, a 17-year-old boy, repeatedly thanked rescuers as he was freed. 

Twenty-eight people are now known to have died in the collapse, which has heightened concern over unregulated construction as Chinese cash fuels a building blitz of hotels and casinos to cater for Chinese tourism at this once-sleepy fishing village. At least 24 were injured.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who arrived in Sihanoukville yesterday to take personal charge of the rescue operation, has now sacked the country’s first vice president of the National Committee for Disaster Management, Nhim Vanda, for failing to show up to the site or to respond to the prime minister’s text messages.

"I will no longer keep any officials who tell a lie," Hun Sen said, reports Khmer Times. "I have just removed him from the government and appointed him as advisor to the Royal government. If he is not satisfied, I will remove him from the post of an advisor as well."

The nearly-finished seven-story condominium was being built without permits when it collapsed with workers and their families sleeping inside.

Its Chinese owner, two Chinese contractors, and a Cambodian man who owned the land have been arrested.

Provincial authorities said building owner Chen Kun had been warned about problems and had been ordered to stop construction.

Yun Min, Governor of Preah Sihanouk province, yesterday resigned from his post, asking on his Facebook page for "forgiveness from the families of all the victims". 

Yesterday Prime Minister Hun Sen also lashed out at the accusation that the influx of Chinese nationals and cash in Preah Sihanouk province is a "debt trap" and colonisation.

"I have already heard the accusation many times that China comes to colonise through its investments but I wish to clarify to all of you that now the world needs Chinese investors to invest in their countries. We are lucky, we attract Chinese investors to our country," he told reporters at the disaster site.

He said Sihanoukville would benefit from the influx, and "will become a big city".

Formerly a fishing village and destination for backpackers wanting to escape the beaten track, in recent years Sihanoukville has bristled with high-rise hotels and more than 50 casinos to cater for an influx of Chinese tourists, for whom gambling, forbidden to Cambodians, is permitted.

Around $1bn flowed into Preah Sihanouk province between 2016 and 2018 from Chinese state and private sources, reports Deutsche Welle, citing official statistics. 

Lending billions for infrastructure and development, China has become Cambodia’s most influential sponsor.

Its ruler for 33 years, Prime Minister Hun Sen, who won an unopposed election in July 2018, has warmly embraced Chinese investment.

Image: The death toll hit 25 today as rescue crews continued clearing debris (From a video posted on the Facebook page of Yun Min, Governor of Preah Sihanouk province)

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