restricted access 7. Dead Labor
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187 7 Dead Labor Walking among Graves Some forty miles south of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s modern capital, nestled among the rolling hills of Kampot Province, sits an altogether unremarkable earthen structure. Spanning nearly seven and a half miles in length, nine miles high, and twelve miles wide, what remains of the Koh Sla Dam seems at peace among the short grass and scrub, its flanks crisscrossed by narrow footpaths connecting the stilt houses that dot the scene. The villagers who tend the rice fields and fish in the surrounding ponds anchor Koh Sla, the seemingly timeless landscape of rural Cambodia. But the tranquil repose of this earthwork in such an idyllic setting conceals a darker past. Under the vegetation that covers its canted bulk—beneath the sediment of intervening years—lingers a geography of starvation, disease, exposure, and execution. Nine thousand men, women, and children perished here, killed or left to die at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. During the Cambodian Civil War (1970–75), as parts of the country were “liberated” by the Communist Party of Kampuchea, villagers were gradually subsumed into various work brigades. In 1973 planning began for the Koh Sla Dam, a massive weir located in the vicinity of the village of Sre Lieu. To provide labor, thousands of Cambodians were forcibly relocated to the site; conditions were deplorable and mortality was high. Construction was slow, and, through 1975, Khmer Rouge officials redoubled their efforts. Additional work brigades were deployed to the site, and work continued through 1977. Laborers continued to suffer. Malaria and cholera were rampant, and many others died from injury or execution .1 Srey Neth was assigned to bury members of her unit who died. She 188  •  From Rice Fields to Killing Fields recalls, “I was forbidden [by the Khmer Rouge] from telling others about the number of deaths.” She explains that “sometimes they [the Khmer Rouge] woke me up in the middle of the night and order me to take bodies to be buried. . . . The number of bodies I buried ranged from two to six per night.”2 Nget Chanthy was only sixteen years old when she was forced to labor at the site. Her duties included the clearing of forests and the movement of dirt to build the earthen weir. Food was inadequate, and people worked in constant fear of punishment by the Khmer Rouge.3 Sickness —construed as “idleness”—was often considered a traitorous offense, punishable by death. Samon Prum writes firsthand of the death associated with the Koh Sla Dam.4 Throughout the reign of the CPK, Samon lost more than thirteen family members, including his grandfather, father, three brothers, a sister, and numerous aunts, uncles, and cousins. He recalls the continuous propaganda of the Khmer Rouge, of how Angkar would provide all the necessities of a fruitful, prosperous life. Exactly who—or what—constituted Angkar was unclear. What was most important for Samon Prum was that Angkar promised that people would have enough to eat. There was, however, no food security. Samon Prum and millions of other Cambodians were restricted to insufficient food rations—often a watery rice gruel—that formed a cornerstone of CPK policy. It was through the rationing of food, but especially rice, that the Khmer Rouge sought to build socialism. In practice, however, this policy led to widespread malnutrition and susceptibility to disease. In the case of Heat, Samon’s cousin, it led to an early death. Heat was seventeen years old when she was assigned to a woman’s mobile unit at Koh Sla. One day, Samon recalls, Heat “was very hungry, so she picked an ear of corn and cooked it. Before the corn was ready to eat, the unit chief caught her and gathered people around for a meeting. The unit chief tied her arms in back of her, grabbed the hot corn from the fire, and put it into her mouth, burning her. He then declared that Heat had betrayed Angkar and the cooperative. Everybody at the meeting was threatened to not follow in her footsteps.”5 Although Heat was not executed for her “crime,” she would later become seriously ill and die of starvation-related causes. Dead Labor  •  189 The mass graves at Koh Sla today stand as silent testimony to the violence that engulfed Democratic Kampuchea.6 The recollections of Srey Neth and Prum Samon likewise bear witness, but in different ways, to the production of mass graves. On the one hand, Srey Neth’s job...


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