Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Witness tells of terror, suicides at airport site

Witness tells of terror, suicides at airport site

Witness tells of terror, suicides at airport site

A former messenger became the first witness to testify at the Khmer Rouge tribunal yesterday about the construction of the Kampong Chhnang airport, describing the constant fear workers felt for their lives after witnessing daily the deaths and suicides of their colleagues due to “terrifying” working conditions.

Before and after the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge in 1975, ex-soldier and witness Chan Man, 61, was working as a messenger for a commander in Division 502, which was in charge of the Cambodian Air Force.

In early 1976, he was sent to accompany Chinese engineers to measure land that would be the location of the new Kampong Chhnang airport – one of the largest forced labour sites during the Khmer Rouge era, where thousands were said to have died.
“I heard that the [airbase] was meant for military operation . . . and parachuting troops,” Man said.

The witness never saw the end of the airport’s construction but added that during his time there, the soldiers working in the site were “always afraid and terrified” for their survival.

“If the chiefs hate us, he or she can say anything they wanted, that we betrayed Angkar . . . and if we betrayed the revolution, we were killed,” Man said, referring to the name by which the Khmer Rouge called themselves.

According to him, the airport’s workforce consisted of two divisions with 5,000 to 6,000 soldiers in each, and a few other units. They worked in different sites where they performed tasks like breaking rocks, clearing terrain, digging soil and uprooting trees.

“Work-related incidents happened every day,” Man said. “Some people were injured from overworking, exhaustion and malnutrition. They also suffered from malaria.”

The working conditions, he said, were so dire and the leaders so strict that some workers committed suicide “out of desperation”.

“Some of the women just put themselves on the ground to be crushed by rollers . . . due to starvation and fatigue. They had no hope to hang on to. At the time, materials and equipment were more important than human life.”

Man was working onsite one day when he was arrested for allegedly transporting rice for “enemies”. Blindfolded, he was taken in a truck to the capital’s notorious S-21 political prison.

Upon arriving at the killing site, he was kicked out of the truck and helped by a guard and friend to escape.

“I fell off the vehicle and I was taken into a toilet by a guy. He tried to help me flee,” he said.

Man will resume his examination today.


  • Cambodia-Thailand rail reconnected after 45 years

    A railway reconnecting Cambodia and Thailand was officially inaugurated on Monday following a 45-year hiatus, with the two kingdoms’ prime ministers in attendance at the ceremony. On the occasion, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha travelled together from Thailand’s

  • Thousands attend CNRP-organised pro-democracy vigil in South Korea

    Thousands of supporters of the Supreme Court-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) on Saturday gathered in the South Korean city of Gwangju to hold a candlelight demonstration calling for the “liberation” of democracy in Cambodia. Yim Sinorn, a CNRP member in South Korea, said on

  • US Embassy: Chinese trade does not help like the West’s

    The US Embassy in Phnom Penh on Friday said relations between China and Cambodia did not create jobs or help industry when compared to the trade between the Kingdom and the US. “About 87 per cent of trade [with China] are Chinese imports, which do not

  • The Christian NGO empowering Cambodian families in Siem Reap

    With its basketball court, football pitch, tennis court and ninja warrior water sports area, you could be forgiven for thinking that the Siem Reap campus of International Christian Fellowship (ICF) Cambodia is a sports centre. But while these free, family-friendly activities are one of the