The brilliant green rice paddies of Banteay Meanchey’s Phnom Srok district stretch as far as the eye can see this time of year. Locals are thankful for the bounty, but it’s a gratitude tempered by the painful history of its source – the Khmer Rouge-era Trapeang Thma dam.
The construction of the massive dam and its associated canal network transformed the area’s once-volatile agricultural fortunes with the introduction of year-round irrigation. Building it today would cost in the millions, but in the late 1970s, the price was paid in human life.
“The authorities celebrate ceremonies every year, especially during the water festival, to dedicate to the spirits of the victims who died during the construction of that dam,” Heng Meng, 34, said as he arranged his fishing net by the edge of the dam.
The Khmer Rouge set an untenable rice production target of three tonnes per hectare and devised irrigation systems, like Trapeang Thma – the regime’s largest – to support such production.
“My parents told me that during the regime, there were a lot of people who worked to construct the dam. They say the humans looked like ants working here,” Meng said of the tens of thousands of overworked and underfed virtual slaves who built the giant structure using only the most rudimentary tools.
“This is a sad place, but now it is a big tourist place,” he said, tightening his red krama before casting his fishing net into the dam.
Nearby, groups of jovial youths on school break gather at the water’s edge and crowd around tables at restaurants nearby.
Standing in front of her dam-side restaurant, Ou Phav, 57, intermittently turns a chicken over coals for a group of boys as she mixes a fish marinade by hand.
For Phav, who was conscripted in a child mobile work unit building the dam – since rehabilitated in a 2004 project backed by the Japanese government and the Ministry of Water Resources – the tourists are a welcome addition to the now-popular picnic site.
“We worked hard, but we did not have enough food, not like recently – I can eat whatever I want to eat,” Phav laughed, exchanging a batch of chicken for US$5 to the group of youths.
The tiny fish Phav caught from the dam just that day is pounded into a paste.
But some 30 years ago, in the wake of the Khmer Rouge regime’s collapse after the Vietnamese invasion, the fishing nets cast near the deep waters of the dam sometimes yielded a far more morbid catch.
“They would not find fish, but parts of humans, including their skulls,” she said, attributing the atrocities at the dam to a man called Ta Val, who she remembered being responsible for the construction of the literal pipe dream.
According to prosecution documents at the Khmer Rouge tribunal, Ta Val was purged in mid-1977.
However, in the nearby village, Kan Sam At, 50, said there was a different leader’s name that struck terror in her heart when she was a child working on the dam.
“During that time of the regime, even if I was very sick, if I heard the name ‘Im Chem,’ I knew I had to get better at once and work harder!” Sam At said, recounting watching scores of people marched away daily at 10pm, never to be seen again. “They were mostly from Phnom Penh.”
“Now I am not afraid of Im Chem’s name anymore, but I am angry when I hear her name, because during that time we worked so hard and had no food,” Sam At said as she sat under her house, stitching together fishing nets.
Im Chem and the crimes that took place at the Trapeang Thma dam are part of the controversial Case 004 at the Khmer Rouge tribunal.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has said the case will “not be allowed” to proceed as it involves what he says are “mid-level” Khmer Rouge cadre.
Liv Dean, 55, said he hoped the case went to trial so that people would know what happened in the area.
“Some people, they do not know the history of this dam, and they think it’s just water from the sea. They don’t believe that it was made by villagers’ hands,” he said, recalling how he himself had been made to haul two to three square metres of earth every day, receiving only two cans of rice for his efforts.
“Recently, even though the dam has become a tourism place and the biggest water supply in the area, I do not give thanks to the Khmer Rouge, because I worked hard in that place,” he said.