Workers who directly witnessed the Stung Atai dam accident more than a week ago have contested government accounts, telling the Post four, not three, men were still missing after an outlet pipe burst.
Those working or living near the dam also told the Post investigations pledged by the Chinese embassy and the construction firm (Cambodia) Hydropower Development Co Ltd, a subsidiary of the state-run China Datang Corporation, had never taken place.
The dam site remained a hive of activity on Wednesday, with excavators busily displacing earth, scores of workers levering large rocks or slabs of concrete into place with crowbars, and trucks ferrying building materials back and forth.
An employee of the company who wished not be named said at the site he was about 10 metres from the rectangular, reinforced concrete pipe when it exploded. The blast of water knocked a Chinese national in a nearby shed into the torrent.
“I saw some Chinese people could escape, but there was one person who was writing something in the office who was caught in the water stream,” he said. “I think he’s dead, but my Chinese boss did not allow any of the workers to speak about this. [He told me:] ‘Just say there are only Cambodian people missing.’”
Numerous other employees interviewed by the Post at the site confirmed that account.
The employee said the water level in the dam’s reservoir had reached a very high level leading up to the accident, which led to flooding in areas surrounding the site at O’som commune, in Pursat province’s Veal Veng district.
Chinese embassy spokesman Yang Tian Yue directed questions yesterday to the embassy’s economic department, where an official said she had never heard of the accident and directed questions back to Tian Yue.
Veal Veng district police chief Theang Leng said he knew nothing about a missing Chinese man and had received no new information about the three missing men recently.
One man, originally presumed missing, was found to have wandered off into the jungle, narrowly avoiding the disaster.
“It is hard to say if they are dead or not. In the case that they survive, the company will not take that [compensation] money back from the victim’s family,” Leng said.
Chear Srey Nuon, the sister-in-law of 29-year-old Tang Lisok, whose family has presumed him dead and already held a funeral, said on Wednesday that the Chinese firm gave them $3,300 in compensation and told them to shut up around the media.
“That compensation is not enough for us, because we lost our family member and he was just married [18 months ago]. We would like to ask the company to support his [six-month-old] daughter’s living until she turns six years old.
“I feel pity for him. He passed away, but we can’t find his body to celebrate the ceremony.”
Srey Nuon was angered by rumours that the Chinese victim’s family received $15,000 and said about 10 employees had left the job since the accident out of fear.
Her sister, Chear Srey Nead, said yesterday she still believed her husband was out there lost in the jungle somewhere working his way back home.
“I have never thought that he passed away,” she said.
Those swept away face tough odds of survival, with water from the upper Stung Atai dam flowing several kilometres down stream before cascading down a steep drop at a smaller dam wall and finally gushing into the lower Stung Atai further down stream.
Four men were reportedly rescued with serious injuries and taken for medical treatment in Vietnam, where workers said the company’s senior management and translator were monitoring them.
Three Cambodians remain missing, presumed dead.
Resentment amongst Cambodians toward their Chinese employers at the dam is palpable, with workers complaining they are treated as second-class citizens, forced to work on public holidays and never allowed time off for medical treatment.
A stone worker at the site said that not only had promised investigations by the embassy and China Datang Corporation never materialised, but the company had tried to prevent him from searching for his missing relative.
“They ordered us to work as we would in a normal day and seemed to have no problem with what happened. But for me, Khmers have to help Khmers, so I tried looking for him,” he said.
The Cambodian government initially stated it would not launch an investigation into the incident, but Council of Minister’s spokesman Phay Siphan indicated yesterday that was no longer the case.
“It has already attracted the attention to the Ministry of Labour, the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Industry [Mining and Energy]; they are seeking remedies to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” he said.
Siphan said he had no idea if and when the results of investigations would be made public, adding he expected himself to see the results of the probes.
Representatives of China Datang Corporation have repeatedly hung up on reporters when contacted.