Even though no one has been brought to justice, authorities have provided life jackets to four boat operators and are studying the construction of a bridge across the Stung Sen River at the site where a boat sank, killing one of 15 students on board, on June 8 in Chhouk commune of Kampong Thom’s Prasat Sambor district.

It is a similar solution to the one provided after the tragedy in Kandal province’s Loeuk Dek district in October 2022, when 11 students were killed in a boating accident.

National Bank of Cambodia (NBC) governor Chea Serey visited the scene on June 9 and gave the jackets to the boat operators for student use.

Joint authorities are also inspecting the site to build a bridge to prevent future accidents on the water, according to district police chief Khuon Vuthy.

After meeting and discussing the matter with commune and district authorities to identify the cause and find a solution to prevent future accidents, Serey posted on her social media page that the accident was caused by overloading and the negligence of the operator in not using life jackets, as they thought the water was not deep and the students could swim.

“As a matter of urgency, we have provided 40 life jackets for immediate use and will continue to discuss with technical experts to find a better solution. The accident occurred on the Stung Sen River, about 130 metres from one side, where the water flow is strong,” she wrote, urging students and villagers to wear life jackets and avoid overloading.

The district police chief claimed that the district administration provided life jackets to the four boats in 2023. However, because the current water level is not as deep as last year, a female boat owner, identified as Soeu Youn, 40, did not distribute them to the passengers. 

“She thought that this year’s water level wasn’t high, so she was careless and did not provide life jackets to the students. However, she did offer them last year,” Vuthy said.

He added that before the incident, all 18 students from Chhouk Secondary School needed to take the boat home after leaving school. However, due to limited space, only 15 students and about eight bicycles were allowed on board. Vuthy noted the boat sank because it was overloaded, with water rushing in from the front. If the boat had sunk in the middle of the river, he said, no one would have survived.

“The students are 13 or 14 years old, and they didn’t want to sit at the back but in the front. So, water got in while the female operator was unaware because she was at the back,” he said.

“First, it is the fault of the female owner who carelessly loaded 15 people along with bicycles. Secondly, the young students did not stay still; they were throwing water at each other,” he explained, adding that the wooden boat’s capacity is only between 12 to 13 people.  

He noted, however, that the boat was not old.

The girl, who was identified as In Sopheak, 13, lived in Chorm Boueng village, Sroeung commune and was studying in grade 7. She could not swim and died of drowning, Vuthy said.

A video of the accident was taken by one of the three students left behind. 

According to the over 2-minute video posted and shared on social media, the boat was seen full of passengers, with its front sinking as students jumped off into the water, shouting. They tried to swim to the other side of the river before the boat disappeared into the water.

Youn, owner and captain of the boat, is one of four operators in the area who take turns running the route one week each month. She operates the boat to support her three children and elderly mother, as her husband is a migrant worker outside the province and visits them only once every few years.

Vuthy mentioned that by the afternoon of June 10, the girl's family, whose father is a village security guard, had not filed any complaint against Youn, even though the funeral and cremation had concluded that morning.

“The bereaved family has not filed any complaint. They may demand some money for the funeral, but I do not know how much yet,” he said, adding that the boat operator was not detained.  

Following the accident that killed 11 students in Kandal province in 2022, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport issued instructions to its subordinates and relevant individuals on measures to prevent accidents while travelling to school for teachers and students.

The ministry reposted it on June 8, instructing them to evaluate possible risks for teachers and students, such as road conditions, strong winds, floods and rain. Additionally, they were advised to cooperate in inspecting means of transportation, such as vehicles or boats used by students and educators. If any of these pose a risk, they must advise improvements.

Ministry spokeswoman Khuon Vicheka said that in addition to the instructions, the ministry is enhancing education and increasing attention to relevant institutions and people throughout the country.

“What the ministry can do is educate and enforce stricter measures for students’ safety. We are also trying to build a village primary school and a commune secondary school,” she said. However, she mentioned that a secondary school is already available in Sroeung commune, where the girl lived, eliminating the need to travel by boat, however, the girl preferred to study at Chhouk Secondary School because it was slightly closer to her home.

The ministry urged parents and boat operators to pay closer attention to the safety of students. 

Vicheka added that any students travelling by bicycle, scooter or motorcycle who do not wear a safety helmet would not be allowed to leave the school after class. The ministry is also working with partners to provide more helmets for poor students.

As for legal action against boat captain, she said the authorities are working on it.