Why disasters happen: Cultural framings from the Diamond Island stampede in Cambodia

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Human stampedes are anthropogenic disasters. The purpose of this study is to identify the emic construction of disaster in Cambodia and thus enable a cultural framing. The case study is the 2010 human stampede at Diamond Island in Phnom Penh, which resulted in the deaths of 347 people. An ethnographic study was carried out in Phnom Penh and nine provinces, starting in 2010, with cases followed up for up to eight years. We explored the beliefs about the causes and meaning of the disaster held by 5 survivors and 8 of their family members, 34 bereaved relatives of 9 people who had been killed, 31 villagers, and 48 key informants (7 monks, 10 female Buddhist lay devotees, 22 Buddhist lay officiants, 4 mediums, and 5 traditional healers). It was popularly believed that the disaster was a consequence of the supernatural “dark road” and the neoliberal development and disrespect to the Landlords of Water and Earth guardian spirits that triggered a retaliation by the spirits. Millenarian explanations for disaster were foretold through the “Buddha Predictions” and the “Three Vast Plains” of disaster. The Diamond Island stampede powerfully illustrates how people confronted by mass disaster draw on cultural and religious explanations for misfortune, and it is woven into a wider narrative about the national tragedy of the Khmer Rouge era. It is proposed that an emic understanding of the ontology of disaster that is grounded in local knowledge can strengthen cultural responsiveness to disaster prevention and management.

Original languageEnglish
Article number101423
Number of pages12
JournalInternational Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2020


  • Buddhism
  • Cambodia
  • Disaster
  • Ghosts
  • Human stampede
  • Meaning-making

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