Sleeping Giant

Surrounded by rice fields and palm trees, Kompong Chhnang Airport once boasted the longest runway in the country. Constructed by the Khmer Rouge with direct material and technical support from China—under conditions deemed severe enough to list it as a crime site in the ongoing Case 002/02 at the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia—the airport was abandoned unfinished in January 1979. Pressed briefly into action during the Untac period of 1992 to 1993, the airport has since sat mostly unused.

The Kompong Chhnang Airport’s control tower and runway, seen last month (Peter Ford/The Cambodia Daily)
The Kompong Chhnang Airport’s control tower and runway, seen last month (Peter Ford/The Cambodia Daily)

KRAING LEAV COMMUNE, Kompong Chhnang province – Chin Saran, a 41-year-old soldier, was guarding the gate to the airport on a muggy Friday last month. Mr. Saran has been stationed at the airport since 1991, he said, and though his sandaled feet suggested the posting was not a strenuous one, he takes the job seriously.

“No one is allowed to do anything on the runway unless they get permission from the boss. No motorbike racing or crop drying on the runway,” Mr. Saran said.

A quick call to his superior, however, and the gates were opened.

Made of concrete blocks joined with tar, the 2,400-meter strip was designed to accommodate large military and cargo aircraft. Along with the control tower and a number of smaller structures, it remains largely intact. Dotting the surrounding fields are the ruined shells and foundations of what were once storage buildings.

“The airport is just empty now—it is not used for anything,” said Major General Keo Vandet, the Royal Cambodian Air Force commander in charge of the airport, in a telephone interview. Still, he said, 70 soldiers were tasked with guarding the site in Rolea Ba’ier district.

“The soldiers are to protect the airport, just like an army base,” he said. “Once in awhile, the airport is used for training. No cargo aircraft land here, not at all.”

A ruined storage building to the east of the airport (Peter Ford/The Cambodia Daily)
A ruined storage building to the east of the airport (Peter Ford/The Cambodia Daily)

From 1976 until 1979, construction of the Kompong Chhnang Airport was undertaken almost exclusively by Revolutionary Army of Kampuchea (RAK) soldiers under the command of Sou Met, secretary of the Division 502, the Khmer Rouge’s air force.

The site of the airport was chosen during an April 1976 meeting of the Communist Party of Kampuchea’s standing committee, minutes of the meeting show. With hills to the south and west—radar systems were installed atop them, a command bunker beneath—and the Tonle Sap river to the east, the site was strategically important.

Initial work on the airport was carried out by Division 502 soldiers, but beginning in 1977—with political power plays within the Khmer Rouge leadership leading to purges and defections—soldiers from the East Zone were sent to the site to be “tempered” for transgressions, both real and imagined.

Yey Hach, 71, was born in Patlang village, which straddles the road leading to the airport, and has never left. Selling corn snacks in front of her bamboo shack, she said she remembered seeing soldiers from the east arriving by truck.

“It was they who were used to build the airport,” Ms. Hach said, adding that she and her husband, like other rural peasants, or “base people,” were forced to work at a nearby dam site.

“Most base people were involved with quarrying stone for a dam. It was military officers and soldiers who worked on the airport,” said Srey Somnang, 60, another villager.

Nep Sokhom, 46, a rice farmer who lives within sight of a ruined storage building and less than a kilometer from the airport gates, said he had been too young to labor. But he remembered the Chinese at the airport site with a certain fondness.

“We used to catch lizards such as geckos to give to the Chinese. They would give us drinks in return,” Mr. Sokhon said, adding that he and other local boys used to sneak into an open-air cinema for the Chinese technicians.

A water pit built as a safety measure in case of aircraft fire (Peter Ford/The Cambodia Daily)
A water pit built as a safety measure in case of aircraft fire (Peter Ford/The Cambodia Daily)

For 13 days in June and July, the Khmer Rouge tribunal heard testimony from eight men and women who spent time at the Kompong Chhnang airport, either as soldiers, prisoners or both. They painted a vivid picture of the living and working conditions at the airport—a stark contrast to the tranquility of the site today.

Mr. Kin, the Division 502 soldier, was sent to the airport at the very beginning of construction. “There were only 10 people…and 10 Chinese from Beijing,” he told the court, adding that no civilians worked at the site.

Another soldier from the division, Chan Morn, 59, said that both male and female soldiers worked at the airport, the “women usually working along the road.”
Mr. Morn also elaborated on the role of the Chinese.

“One group of Chinese technician[s] would be responsible for the rock-breaking unit, another group would be responsible for electrical wire installation unit,” he said. “Chinese technician[s] would tell workers how to install wire, how to lay pipe under the ground, so on and so forth, so they told those men how to work.”

Khin Vat, 65, a witness at the tribunal, said she saw Chinese advisors at both the Pochentong Airport in Phnom Penh and at the Kompong Chhnang airport.

“Some of them taught the Khmer Rouge soldier[s] how to pilot or fly the planes or helicopters,” she said of the Chinese at Pochentong. “They also taught or trained the Khmer Rouge soldier[s] to repair planes and helicopters as well as to know how to operate radar.”

But only one witness, Mr. Morn, testified to seeing an airplane land at Kompong Chhnang Airport before 1979—a test flight three days after a visit to the airport by “senior people” from the Khmer Rouge standing committee, including head of state Khieu Samphan.

It is due to the documented presence of Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, Pol Pot’s lieutenant, at the initial planning meetings for the airport that the “Kampong Chhnang Airport Construction site” is part of the tribunal’s ongoing Case 002/02.

While no evidence of mass killings has been found at the airport itself—despite witnesses claiming to have heard screams and smelled decomposing bodies while they worked there—the Documentation Center of Cambodia lists a number of gravesites in the area and 524 mass graves in Kompong Chhnang, earning the province the highest tally on its “Brutality Index.”

Rice farmer Nep Sokhom stands under his house. (Peter Ford/The Cambodia Daily)
Rice farmer Nep Sokhom stands under his house. (Peter Ford/The Cambodia Daily)

Kompong Chhnang Airport was abandoned, unfinished, in early January 1979 as the Vietnamese captured Phnom Penh.

On December 30, 1978, the last of the Chinese advisors in the country, numbering in the thousands, left the country through the Kompong Som port.

While better-known sites linked to the Khmer Rouge were turned into tourist attractions and memorials after 1979, the airport languished largely forgotten until the U.N. breathed new life into the area in the early 1990s.

With supplies and personnel pouring into the country for the U.N. mission in Cambodia, the Phnom Penh airport reached maximum capacity. Kompong Chhnang offered a convenient alternative.

Residents of Patlang village said the airport saw its heaviest use in 1992 and 1993, operated as an important cargo and logistical base, and allowing the U.N. better access to the north and west of Cambodia, which were still terrorized by armed Khmer Rouge incursions from Thailand.

“During Untac, lots of planes landed here,” said Mr. Sokhom, the rice farmer. “This year, only military helicopters doing exercises.”

Despite redevelopment plans for the Kompong Chhnang Airport periodically surfacing since 1996—including a 2006 Asian Development Bank feasibility study for a proposed $10 million railroad line linking the airport to Phnom Penh—nothing has yet materialized.

In October 2012, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced a plan to convert the airport into the main hub serving Phnom Penh by 2030.

“I would like to announce that the new international airport, which we need to do and which I have spoken about before, but without using its name, now, I would like to announce that it is Kompong Chhnang,” he said at the time.

Ms. Hach, the corn-snack seller, laughed at mention of future plans for the airport.

“It might be impossible,” she said. “They [officials] say this year, then this year.”

And despite living near the airport for most of her life, Ms. Hach said she had never stepped foot on the airport grounds.

During the Pol Pot era, she said, “no one was allowed near except the workers,” adding that she believed the ghosts still haunted the concrete strip, noting the mirage caused by heat rising off the runway.

“I still dare not go,” she said.

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