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Elegy for Cambodia and New Zealand

Catherine Marshall |  26 November 2010

It is the living who are burdened with responsibility for those who have died. In New Zealand, where a  Hollywood ending redolent of the San Jose Mine in Chile failed to materialise, mine management and redundant rescue teams must now contain the grief and anger of a nation.

'We need answers to what happened at Pike River, clearly something's gone terribly wrong and it's now claimed the lives of 29 people,' said the country's Prime Minister, John Key.

Twenty-nine lives that may have been extinguished much earlier, when the original blast ricocheted through the mine on New Zealand's sparsely-populated west coast last Friday.

(Continues below)

But in the absence of evidence either way, institutional post mortems are being ordered even before the bodies of the dead have been recovered or the grief of the living processed. No fewer than three inquests are planned: blame will be assigned, no doubt, and compensation paid, but the families' excruciating sorrow will never be assuaged.

Something went terribly wrong, too, in Phnom Penh on Monday night, when 347 people were either crushed to death or drowned after falling off a crowded bridge linking the city to an island in the Bassac River.

Compensation is being spoken of here, too: donations from the government, the monarchy, NGOs and the private sector will in all likelihood be used to cover funeral costs in a country whose population lives largely below the poverty line.

Organisations such as Caritas Cambodia and World Vision are providing medicine, food and — poignantly — 'three bottles of drinking water each day for a total of five days' to many of the 750 people injured during the stampede.

As they begin to recover from the shock of this unbearable tragedy, bewildered family members are said to be angry at the government for failing to provide adequate crowd control.

But unlike New Zealand, where an educated, self-confident populace will demand explanations and assert its rights, the relatives of those who died in Phnom Penh are unlikely to receive reasonable answers to their sorrow-filled questions.

Cambodians are all too familiar with brutality and loss; this most recent tragedy is just one more blow to a beaten, diminished people. It will be stoically absorbed into their national psyche, alongside all those acts of depravity inflicted by the Khmer Rouge regime, the landmine and cluster bomb injuries that still occur daily, and the other, innumerable hardships that define these people's lives.

There is nothing like hardship to build resilience.

This characteristic will serve the Cambodians well, for they bear their grief in relative isolation, bereft of an outpouring of attention proportionate to the number of lives lost in Monday night's disaster. While the living hold aloft the memories of the dead, the dead in turn carry within them a value that determines just how readily they will be remembered.

The revellers who had the life sucked from them in Phnom Penh and the miners who now lie buried in a smouldering mountainside near Greymouth suffered equally horrific deaths; their families now buckle beneath the same, exquisite grief.

But a Cambodian life is not as valuable as that of a New Zealander or an Australian, as a cursory observation of our media suggests.

The mining disaster having dominated headlines for the past week, it was with tremendous sorrow that readers uncoiled their copies of the Sydney Morning Herald on Thursday to find photos of all 29 of the miners staring out from its front page above the headline, 'Hope died swiftly, but the grief will never end'. Another full page was dedicated to the story later on in the newspaper.

In contrast, the Cambodian stampede — labelled the biggest tragedy there since the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror in the late 1970s — was accorded just two meagre articles by the same newspaper this week, both of them buried deep within.

Our multi-ethnic heritage notwithstanding, many of us in Australia seem inured to the pain of people whose race or economic worth is not equal to our own. But such self-importance is often accompanied by a weakness, an inability to bear loss with dignity the way those in more robust countries are able to do.

New Zealand can take strength at this time from Cambodia, a country to whom tragedy is no stranger, reaching out in communion as each of them comes to terms with the torment of loss and bereavement. And both disasters will remind people the world over to make the most of every moment, for no matter how thoroughly we try to mitigate risk, there is no knowing when tragedy will strike. 

Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a journalist working for Jesuit Communications. 



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Submitted comments

It is wrong to draw the conclusion from news coverage in a Sydney newspaper of two separate tragedies (New Zealand and Cambodia) that these people's lives have different values. It seems to me a pointless exercise to want to make this point - after decades of academic research showing the ways "news values" distort reality rather than reflect it.

Michael 26 November 2010

"It is the living who are burdened with" safety issues built around paperwork exhonerating insurance companies rather than real safety measures to protect the miners. The only protection built into Aussie mines is protection for insurance companies: ask any miner.

Greig WIlliams 26 November 2010

Catherine's elegy for Cambodia and New Zealand is a thoughtful commentary on these tragedies occurring so closely in time and in our region.

Correctly it draws the sad reality that compensation for loss of family members is more reliable in New Zealand (and Australia) then in Cambodia (and elsewhere in Southeast Asia).

Many years of reading media reports and commentary about tragic events has cured me from hoping to see equal weight given to a tragedy in Asia as given to one in Australia or New Zealand. The media reflects geographic and cultural distance. It doesn't create them.

Greig Williams's carping about insurance companies is tasteless so soon after the death of the 29 miners. I know from industry experience that miners' attitudes towards health and safety protection are positive. Based on their awareness of the dangers and their ability to reduce risk, miners construct, maintain and use the protective measures on which their lives depend.

Part of the burden of the living after Pike River is to provide improved safety measures to better protect coal miners in New Zealand and Australia.

We can only hope that an enquiry in Cambodia will similarly produce improved safety measures for pedestrian bridges.

Ian Fraser 26 November 2010

I remember as the horrifying story of Rwanda unfolded here in Australia. As soon as it was reported, I began looking for more information, and news.

The news of the genocide to me was very slow in coming, and I put that down to the racism of Australian news media... or ... just another African story ...

anne 27 November 2010

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