Dith Pran (born 1942) became known to moviegoers in the West as his story was portrayed in The Killing Fields (1984). When the Communist forces of the Khmer Rouge took control of his homeland in 1975, Pran and his compatriots experienced almost unimaginable suffering. Four years later he was able to escape and ultimately become a crusader for justice in Cambodia.
As a guide and interpreter working with members of the United States media in his country during the early 1970s, Pran got to know New York Times journalist Sydney Schanberg. The two worked together, became close friends, and witnessed firsthand the horrors of the Cambodian government's war with the Khmer Rouge. Yet those horrors would be overshadowed by much greater ones that ensued when the Khmer Rouge took power in April of 1975. Schanberg would return to the U.S., where he earned a Pulitzer Prize for his work on Cambodia, but Pran would be forced to stay behind, victim of the madness that swept his country for four years. The story of his later escape, and the reuniting of the two friends, would prove an inspiring one; yet before it could be written, Dith Pran would have to endure a great deal.
The War Next Door
Dith Pran was born on September 27, 1942, in the town of Siem Reap. At that time, the Japanese army occupied Cambodia, which belonged to French Indochina, but Pran's home was far from the center of the occupying force's power. He grew up near the ruins of the vast complex of temples called Angkor Wat, built centuries before in northwestern Cambodia. His father was a senior public-works official, and Pran attended local schools, where he learned French. He learned English on his own, and after finishing high school in 1960, went to work as an interpreter for the U.S. Military Assistance Command.
From the end of World War II, neighboring Vietnam-formerly a part of French Indochina as well-had been involved in a civil war. A coalition of nationalists and Communist insurgents, led by Ho Chi Minh, had fought the French colonizers. In 1954 they were able to drive French forces out of Vietnam. The Communists suppressed all other factions to gain control over the north, and with the support of the Soviet Union and China, began waging war with anti-Communist forces in the south, which were supported by the U.S. Cambodia, meanwhile, remained in a state of relative peace. But as American bombing raids increased, North Vietnamese troops-along with South Vietnamese Communists, called Viet Cong-began using the neighboring country as a place of refuge. In 1965, Cambodia's government severed its relations with the U.S. amid charges that American troops had entered the country's borders to pursue their Communist enemies.
For Pran, the withdrawal of the Americans meant the end of a job he had held for five years. He went to work as an interpreter for a British film crew, then moved to a position as a receptionist at a hotel near Angkor Wat. In 1970, a U.S.-backed dictator, Lon Nol, seized power in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. War broke out between Lon Nol's forces and those of a frightening new enemy: the Khmer Rouge.
Darkness Descends on Cambodia
The name "Khmer Rouge" means simply "Red Cambodian, " signifying the group's Communist and nationalist roots. Their leadership was a clique of some 20 intellectuals, called Angka Loeu, or "The Higher Organization." Educated in France during the 1950s, the Angka had absorbed an amalgam of doctrines from philosophers such as Jean Jacques Rousseau, who maintained that science and technology had corrupted mankind's natural goodness, and melded these theories with the Communist ideologies of Marx, Lenin, Stalin, and Chairman Mao of China. But the rank-and-file of the Khmer Rouge, led in the field by the infamous Pol Pot, knew little of these theories. Mostly illiterate peasants and young people, they had little experience with the sophisticated city life of Phnom Penh, let alone Paris. The Angka Loeu leadership had determined that the answer to Cambodia's problems was a return to subsistence farming and destruction of anything that hinted of the West or the twentieth century. This message had particular appeal to the rank-and-file soldiers of the Khmer Rouge.
Because the civil war had virtually destroyed the tourist trade, and in part because of his desire to tell the world about the war sweeping his country, Pran moved his family to Phnom Penh to work as a journalist. There he met Craig Whitney, Saigon bureau chief for the New York Times, and he worked with a number of journalists as guide and interpreter. In 1972, Pran made one of the most important friendships of his life. New York Times writer Sydney Schanberg had been operating in Singapore, but he became fascinated by the war in Cambodia, and arranged for a transfer to Phnom Penh. He had contacted Pran, who met him at the airport with a list of contacts and ideas for stories. From that day, the two were close friends and, by 1973, Pran worked exclusively with Schanberg.
Both men were dogged in their pursuit of their work, a fact which had as much to do with their circumstances as their personalities. As the war with Lon Nol's forces continued, the Khmer Rouge, operating from strongholds in the hinterlands, became an ever more hardened and fanatical fighting force. Meanwhile the U.S. had pulled its troops out of Vietnam, which was subsequently overrun by Communist forces. On April 12, 1975, American personnel evacuated Phnom Penh as well. With Khmer Rouge victory imminent, thousands of Cambodians scrambled for any possible means of escape.
Pran put his wife, Ser Moeum, and their four children on a truck operated by the U.S. military, but he chose to stay and help Schanberg report the story of the Khmer Rouge takeover. Both men assumed that once the Khmer Rouge had achieved victory, they would behave responsibly. As the first troops began to enter the city between April 12 and April 17, it indeed seemed possible that peace had come. But the Khmer Rouge soon began to display their true intentions.
Year Zero Begins
Historian Paul Johnson, in his Modern Times, offers a chilling account of what followed: "On 17 April over 3 million people were living in Phnom Penh. They were literally pushed into the surrounding countryside. The violence started at 7 a.m. with attacks on Chinese shops; then general looting. The first killings came at 8:45 p.m. Fifteen minutes later troops began to clear the Military Hospital-driving doctors, nurses, sick, and dying into the streets. An hour later they opened fire on anyone seen in the streets, to start a panic out of the city." Many were slaughtered in these first attacks, and many more killed in the forced exodus from the city, which involved some 60 percent of Cambodia's entire population of 5 million.
Pran, Schanberg, and two other journalists went to a hospital to investigate the casualties. As they were leaving, they were accosted by a group of armed Khmer Rouge. Suddenly Pran sprang into action, beseeching the soldiers on his friends' behalf. The troops ordered them to get into an armored vehicle, and the Westerners complied, but Pran stayed behind, still speaking to the soldiers. In his 1985 book The Death and Life of Dith Pran, Schanberg recalled that he thought "For God's sake, Pran, get inside…. if you go on arguing, they'll shoot you down in the street." Finally Pran got in, and they were released several hours later. Schanberg learned that Pran had not been hesitant to get in the armored vehicle-on the contrary, the Khmer Rouge were trying to keep him away, because they intended to kill the foreigners.
Pran had saved Schanberg's life. Now Schanberg, along with the other Western journalists who had remained behind in the city, tried to save Pran's. With their close Cambodian associates, the Westerners had taken refuge in the French embassy. Under an ordinary government, no matter how repressive, the Cambodian nationals would have been safe inside the foreign embassy; but the Khmer Rouge "government" was not an ordinary one. The soldiers ordered Pran and all Cambodians to leave the embassy. Schanberg and other journalists tried to create a fake passport for him. It did not work, and Pran was forced to leave the embassy.
Schanberg soon returned to the United States, where he looked after Pran's wife and children in New York City. (The New York Times, in fact, helped to support the family financially.) Through intermediaries at border camps in Thailand, Schanberg circulated photographs of his lost friend. Pran, meanwhile, was absorbed in the new Cambodia, or "Kampuchea" as the Khmer Rouge had renamed it.
Sizing up the situation, he quickly realized that anything which hinted of the West or of wealth was a liability, not an asset. Therefore he discarded the items with which he had intended to bribe the Khmer Rouge, dressed himself like a peasant, adopted a limited vocabulary, and pretended to be a simple villager. It was a wise decision. The Khmer Rouge had orders to execute as "intellectuals" and "foreigners" anyone who wore eyeglasses, perfume, makeup, watches, or other evidence of non-traditional influences. Everything that was not agrarian and Cambodian would be eradicated, and the Khmer Rouge were determined to remake their country from scratch. As a symbol of the fact that Cambodia was starting over, they designated 1975 as "Year Zero."
The Killing Fields
In accordance with his strict Buddhist faith and its belief that a name is sacred, Pran kept his. But under the persona of his peasant alter-ego, a taxi driver, he made his way to a village 20 miles from Siem Riep. He and the other villagers, many of them evacuees from Phnom Penh, were put to work in the rice paddies. Their days consisted of back-breaking labor, while their nights were filled with political indoctrination.
Though they were growing food, literally at gunpoint, the ration of rice was reduced to just one spoonful per day. Starving, Pran and other villagers ate anything they could find: bark, snakes, snails, rats, and other vermin. Some even dug up dead bodies-one of the few products in abundant supply under the new regime-and gnawed human flesh. Pran was so weak he could barely walk, and his face was becoming swollen from malnutrition while he began to lose his teeth. One night he dared to sneak out to a rice paddy and try to eat some raw rice. For this he was beaten, under guards' orders, by a dozen of his fellow villagers wielding bamboo-cutting blades. He was left outside in a rain storm, and there he prayed to Buddha for survival.
Ultimately the Khmer Rouge would be responsible for the slaughter of between 1.5 and 2 million of their compatriots, an act of genocide which-given the fact that Cambodia only had 5 million people to begin with-was proportionately greater than the atrocities committed by Hitler, Stalin, or Mao. But while this holocaust continued, the rest of the world remained largely silent. Having withdrawn completely from Southeast Asia, America had turned its attention to other concerns, and there were few protests of Khmer Rouge atrocities on U.S. college campuses. But Sydney Schanberg did not forget. Receiving a Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for his Cambodia reporting, he accepted it on behalf of Pran as well, and continued to search for his friend.
In the fall of 1977, Pran was granted permission to relocate-a rare privilege in Kampuchea. He became a house servant for a commune chief in the village of Bat Dangkor. The chief, a disillusioned Khmer Rouge officer, allowed Pran far greater freedom than he had experienced at the slave-labor camp. In January of 1979, the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and overthrew the Khmer Rouge. Pran made his way to Siem Riep, and there he found that some 50 members of his family had been killed. The village wells were filled with skulls and bones, and the land was covered with graves. Nicknamed "killing fields, " these were easily distinguished from the nearby ground by the fact that the grass was greenest over them.
Death and Life
Pran was given a position as village administrative chief by the Vietnamese, who had no idea that he had been a journalist. When a group of reporters from Eastern Europe came to visit, he managed to get a message to Schanberg through a member of the East German media. But the Vietnamese learned that Pran had been involved with the press himself, and he decided to escape before they began to question him more closely about his past.
On July 29, 1979, Pran set out with several other men on a 60-mile journey past land mines, traps, and the forces of the Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge. He arrived at the Thai border after almost two months, and entered a refugee camp there on October 3. He asked an American relief officer to contact Schanberg, who met him on October 9.
Their emotional reunion and the saga that had led them there would be depicted by Haing S. Ngor and Sam Waterston in Roland Joffe's 1984 film The Killing Fields. By that time, Schanberg had assisted Pran in relocating to the United States, where he was reunited with his family. The New York Times gave him a job as a reporter, and Pran became a U.S. citizen in 1986.
Pran began to devote all of his spare time to activities on behalf of his fellow Cambodians who had suffered under the Khmer Rouge. He would ultimately take several trips back to his homeland, and would attempt to bring the Khmer Rouge to justice before the World Court. His example is Elie Wiesel-who helped keep alive the memories of the Nazi genocide. Remarried, Pran and wife Kim DePaul operate the Dith Pran Holocaust Awareness Project, Inc. Among the other projects in which his group assists is a photographic archive on the Internet to assist Cambodians looking for missing family members. In the early 1990s, he interviewed 29 people who had suffered in the Khmer Rouge camps, and published the results in 1997 as Children of Cambodia's Killing Fields: Memoirs by Survivors.
For Pran, the ghosts of Cambodia remain, and the memories are "Still alive to me day and night, " he said in an online interview at "The Site. "When I'm too busy, I can try to forget a little bit, but if I have nothing to do, it bothers me so much because my mind goes back and forth…. It's unbelievable what [the Khmer Rouge] did to the Cambodian people."
Further Reading on Dith Pran
Johnson, Paul, Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Eighties, Harper & Row, 1983, pp. 654-657.
Notable Asian Americans, Gale, 1995, pp. 318-321.
Pran, Dith, compiler, Children of Cambodia's Killing Fields: Memoirs by Survivors, edited by Kim DePaul, Yale University Press, 1997.
Schanberg, Sydney H., The Death and Life of Dith Pran, Viking, 1985.
New York Times, September 24, 1989, section 6, p. 125.
New York Times Book Review, May 25, 1997, p. 21.
Reader's Digest, May 1997, p. 60.
"Dith Pran, " The Site, http://www.zdnet.com/zdtv/thesite (March 26, 1998).
"MSNBC TV: Dith Pran with Brian Williams, " The Dith Pran Holocaust Awareness Project, Inc., http://www.dithpran.org (March 26, 1998).