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Author Topic: 'Killing Fields' survivor Dith Pran dies  (Read 432 times)


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'Killing Fields' survivor Dith Pran dies
« on: March 30, 2008, 12:12:08 pm »
Sad news today:

'Killing Fields' survivor Dith Pran dies

Photographer succumbs to pancreatic cancer at 65

Dith Pran, the Cambodian-born journalist whose harrowing tale of enslavement and eventual escape from that country's murderous Khmer Rouge revolutionaries in 1979 became the subject of the award-winning film "The Killing Fields," died Sunday, his former colleague said.

Dith, 65, died at a New Jersey hospital Sunday morning of pancreatic cancer, according to Sydney Schanberg, his former colleague at The New York Times. Dith had been diagnosed almost three months ago.

Dith was working as an interpreter and assistant for Schanberg in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, when the Vietnam War reached its chaotic end in April 1975 and both countries were taken over by Communist forces.

Schanberg helped Dith's family get out but was forced to leave his friend behind after the capital fell; they were not reunited until Dith escaped four and a half years later. Eventually, Dith resettled in the United States and went to work as a photographer for the Times.

It was Dith himself who coined the term "killing fields" for the horrifying clusters of corpses and skeletal remains of victims he encountered on his desperate journey to freedom.

The regime of Pol Pot, bent on turning Cambodia back into a strictly agrarian society, and his Communist zealots were blamed for the deaths of nearly 2 million of Cambodia's 7 million people.

"That was the phrase he used from the very first day, during our wondrous reunion in the refugee camp," Schanberg said later.

With thousands being executed simply for manifesting signs of intellect or Western influence -- even wearing glasses or wristwatches -- Dith survived by masquerading as an uneducated peasant, toiling in the fields and subsisting on as little as a mouthful of rice a day, and whatever small animals he could catch.

After Dith moved to the U.S., he became a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and founded the Dith Pran Holocaust Awareness Project, dedicated to educating people on the history of the Khmer Rouge regime.

He was "the most patriotic American photographer I've ever met, always talking about how he loves America," said AP photographer Paul Sakuma, who knew Dith through their work with the Asian American Journalists Association.

Schanberg described Dith's ordeal and salvation in a 1980 magazine article titled "The Death and Life of Dith Pran." Schanberg's reporting from Phnom Penh had earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 1976.

‘A true reporter’

Later a book, the magazine article became the basis for "The Killing Fields," the highly successful 1984 British film starring Sam Waterston as the Times correspondent and Haing S. Ngor, another Cambodian escapee from the Khmer Rouge, as Dith Pran.

The film won three Oscars, including the best supporting actor award to Ngor. Ngor, a physician, was shot to death in 1996 during a robbery outside his Los Angeles home. Three Asian gang members were convicted of the crime.

"Pran was a true reporter, a fighter for the truth and for his people," Schanberg said. "When cancer struck, he fought for his life again. And he did it with the same Buddhist calm and courage and positive spirit that made my brother so special."

Dith spoke of his illness in a March interview with The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J., saying he was determined to fight against the odds and urging others to get tested for cancer.

"I want to save lives, including my own, but Cambodians believe we just rent this body," he said. "It is just a house for the spirit, and if the house is full of termites, it is time to leave."

Dith Pran was born Sept. 27, 1942 at Siem Reap, site of the famed 12th century ruins of Angkor Wat. Educated in French and English, he worked as an interpreter for U.S. officials in Phnom Penh. As with many Asians, the family name, Dith, came first, but he was known by his given name, Pran.

After Cambodia's leader, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, broke off relations with the United States in 1965, Dith worked at other jobs. When Sihanouk was deposed in a 1970 coup and Cambodian troops went to war with the Khmer Rouge, Dith returned to Phom Penh and worked as an interpreter for Times reporters.

In 1972, he and Schanberg, then newly arrived, were the first journalists to discover the devastation of a U.S. bombing attack on Neak Leung, a vital river crossing on the highway linking Phnom Penh with eastern Cambodia.

Dith recalled in a 2003 article for the Times what it was like to watch U.S. planes attacking enemy targets.

"If you didn't think about the danger, it looked like a performance," he said. "It was beautiful, like fireworks. War is beautiful if you don't get killed. But because you know it's going to kill, it's no longer beautiful."

After Vietnamese forces invaded Cambodia in 1979 and seized control of territory, Dith escaped from a commune near Siem Reap and trekked 40 miles, dodging both Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge forces, to reach a border refugee camp in Thailand.

From the Thai camp he sent a message to Schanberg, who rushed from the United States for an emotional reunion with the trusted friend he felt he had abandoned four years earlier.

"I had searched for four years for any scrap of information about Pran," Schanberg said. "I was losing hope. His emergence in October 1979 felt like an actual miracle for me. It restored my life."

After Dith moved to the U.S., the Times hired him and put him in the photo department as a trainee. The veteran staffers "took him under their wing and taught him how to survive on the streets of New York as a photographer, how to see things," said Times photographer Marilynn Yee.

Yee recalled an incident early in Dith's new career as a photojournalist when, after working the 4 p.m. to midnight shift, he was robbed at gunpoint of all his camera equipment at the back door of his apartment.

"He survived everything in Cambodia and he survived that too," she said, adding, "He never had to work the night shift again."

Outspoken critic

Dith spoke and wrote often about his wartime experience and remained an outspoken critic of the Khmer Rouge regime.

When Pol Pot died in 1998, Dith said he was saddened that the dictator was never held accountable for the genocide.

"The Jewish people's search for justice did not end with the death of Hitler and the Cambodian people's search for justice doesn't end with Pol Pot," he said.

Dith's survivors include his companion, Bette Parslow; his former wife, Meoun Ser Dith; a sister, Samproeuth Dith Nop; sons Titony, Titonath and Titonel; daughter Hemkarey Dith Tan; six grandchildren including a boy named Sydney; and two step-grandchildren.

Dith's three brothers were killed by the Khmer Rouge.

I remember watching the movie when I was barely a teenager. The sheer scale of the atrocities blew my mind.

EDIT: Some pictures taken by Dith Pran.
"I give the gift of endless imagination."
~~Gary Gygax (1938 - 2008)

Serious Paul

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'Killing Fields' survivor Dith Pran dies
« Reply #1 on: March 30, 2008, 01:42:12 pm »
What a shame, I recall coming across his work as a young teenager, and of course shortly thereafter seeing the Killing Fields-which was required for all eight graders at the time. I'd dare to say this guy was the real deal!


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'Killing Fields' survivor Dith Pran dies
« Reply #2 on: March 30, 2008, 06:30:16 pm »
This movie has been on my "must watch" list for some time.  I have to get around to seeing it some day.

John Morrow

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'Killing Fields' survivor Dith Pran dies
« Reply #3 on: March 30, 2008, 09:22:22 pm »
Quote from: JongWK
Sad news today:

While he deserves credit for helping to expose what happened in Cambodia to a larger audience, Sydney Schanberg also suffered from faulty imagination concerning what what would happen when the United States pulled out of Cambodia and essentially let the Khmer Rouge win:

   But these concepts mean nothing to the ordinary people of Indochina and it is difficult to imagine how their lives could be anything but better with the Americans gone. For the American presence. meant war to them, not paternal colonialism. The Americans brought them planes and Napalm and B-52 raids, not schools and roads and medical programs.

This is not to say that the Communist-backed governments which will replace the American clients can be expected to be benevolent. Already in Cambodia, there is evidence in the areas held by the Communist-led Cambodian insurgents that life is hard and inflexible, everything that Cambodians are not.

The insurgents have committed several village massacres In their present offensive, and the Americans have predicted a “bloodbath” when the rebels take over. On the other hand, Government troops who recently emerged from a besieged provincial town southwest of Phnom Penh reported matter of factly that they had cooked and eaten the bodies of dead insurgents when they ran short of food and that they had grown to enjoy it.

Wars nourish brutality and sadism, and sometimes certain people are executed by the victors but it would be tendentious to forecast such abnormal behavior as a national policy under a Communist government once the war is over.

From an interview with historian Stephen Morris about his book Why Vietnam Invaded Cambodia from a Cambodian newspaper in 2000:

   Q. You're suggesting that all academics and all journalists were conspiring to bury the story about Khmer Rouge atrocities. But there were people here who reported on it from the beginning.

A. [Yes, there] were people who were open-minded about this [but] you wouldn't find any such reports [by New York Times reporter Sydney] Schanberg, for instance. Schanberg only started to write negatively—file reports which cast negative images-in early 1975, and what he was reporting was the rocket attacks in Phnom Penh.

Schanberg himself described his decision to stay in Cambodia:

   Our decision to stay was founded on our belief—perhaps, looking back, it was more a devout wish or hope—that when they won their victory, they would have what they wanted and would end the terrorism and brutal behavior we had written so often about.  We all wanted to believe that, since both sides were Khmers, they would find a route to reconciliation

(Quote taken from this partisan review.)

But let's not forget that the stories of the fully scope of Khmer Rouge atrocities were already being reported fairly early, including this April 1976 Time Magazine report.  So why did people still need proof of what was going on?  This undergraduate thesis by a student who fled the killing in Cambodia with his family as an infant provides some suggestions.

Several online reviews of The Killing Fields comment on the irony of playing John Lennon's Imagine at the end of the movie given not only Sydney Schanberg failure to "imagine how their lives could be anything but better with the Americans gone" but also because the Khmer Rouge tried to implement, by force and murder, exactly the sort of utopia that John Lennon envisioned in that song.  

Why does learning the right lessons from Cambodia (and Southeast Asia in general) matter today?  From a column by William Shawcrosson:

   The Killing Fields illustrates brilliantly part of the long disaster that has been Cambodia over recent decades. It is a compelling film that follows the story of a young Cambodian, Dith Pran, who worked for the New York Times reporter Sidney Schanberg in Cambodia during the brutal five-year war that resulted in the communist Khmer Rouge victory in April 1975.

At that moment all the foreigners and their Cambodian friends took refuge in the French Embassy, hoping for safe passage out of the country. They had not reckoned with the horrific total revolution that the communists planned to impose. They demanded that all the Cambodians, including Pran, surrender, while the foreigners were trucked out of the country. In tears, the foreigners, including Schanberg, let their friends go. Many were murdered at once as “Western agents”.

For the next three and a half years Pran had to conceal his past as he worked in the fields. The communists under Pol Pot shut Cambodia off and imposed one of the most vicious totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. Up to two million of the seven million people died, either murdered by the Khmer Rouge or from starvation and disease as a result of the draconian agrarian policies they imposed. Pran survived.

At the end of 1975 I went to the Thai-Cambodian border to talk to refugees. Their horrific stories of people with glasses being killed as “intellectuals” and of “bourgeois” babies being beaten to death against trees were being dismissed as CIA propaganda by the antiAmerican Western Left, but it seemed obvious to me that they were true. I wanted to discover how the Khmer Rouge had grown and come to power; I wrote a book called Sideshow, which was very critical of the way in which the United States had brought war to Cambodia while trying to extricate itself from Vietnam.

But horror had engulfed all of Indo-China as a result of the US defeat in 1975. In Vietnam and Laos there was no vast mass murder but the communists created cruel gulags and, from Vietnam in particular, millions of people fled, mostly by boat and mostly to the US. Given the catastrophe of the communist victories, I have always thought that those like myself who were opposed to the American efforts in Indochina should be very humble. I also think it wrong to dismiss the US efforts there as sheer disaster. Lee Kuan Yew, the former longtime Prime Minister of Singapore, has a subtler view. He argues that, although America lost in IndoChina in 1975, the fact that it was there so long meant that other SouthEast Asian countries had time to build up their economies to relieve the poverty of their peasants and thus resist communist encroachment — which they probably could not have done had IndoChina gone communist in the 1960s.

That long view seems to me to be the one that has to be applied to Iraq. [...]

So while Dith Pran was a courageous guy and Schanberg worked to redeem himself, don't forget the optimism that could just as easily have gotten Dith Pran killed and which helped lead policy makers to just let the Khmer Rouge take over in the first place.  And if someone tells you that Iraq can't possibly be any worse than it is now with the US there, that's not necessarily true.  And even if the United States is to blame for the chaos in Iraq as people argue it was to blame for the chaos in Cambodia, pulling out the troops won't necessarily make things better and could make things a whole lot worse.

(As an aside, while doing research for this reply, I ran into even more evidence of what a swell guy Jimmy Carter's National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski was and the sorts of policies the future Nobel Peace Prize winner's administration was up to other than encouraging the Soviets to invade Afghanistan:  And to insure that Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge would fight the Vietnamese occupiers, the Carter Administration helped arrange continued Chinese aid. ''I encourage the Chinese to support Pol Pot,'' said Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser at the time. ''The question was how to help the Cambodian people. Pol Pot was an abomination. We could never support him, but China could.'')
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Serious Paul

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'Killing Fields' survivor Dith Pran dies
« Reply #4 on: March 30, 2008, 11:53:34 pm »
Buzz Kill.

(Seriously though, that was an interesting read. Thanks.)