‘Killing Fields’ Survivor Dith Pran Dies

Adam Bernstein – The Washington Post

A good friend and true colleague has passed.
Copyright The Washington Post
March 30, 2008
Dith Pran, 65, a journalist and human rights advocate who became a public face of the horrors in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge regime and whose life was portrayed in the influential movie “The Killing Fields,” died today at a New Jersey hospital. He had pancreatic cancer.
For much of the early 1970s, Dith Pran was a resourceful guide and interpreter in Cambodia for Sydney H. Schanberg of the New York Times, whose reporting on the country’s civil war and rise of the Khmer Rouge won a Pulitzer Prize.
“Pran was a true reporter, a fighter for the truth and for his people,” Schanberg told the Associated Press when announcing his death. “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.”
Schanberg’s partnership with Dith Pran became the basis for the film “The Killing Fields” (1984), which conveyed in personal terms the brutality of the Khmer Rouge under despot Pol Pot from 1975 to 1979. Nearly 2 million Cambodians died during those years.
“The Killing Fields” had a major impact on public opinion, said Ben Kiernan, who directs Yale University’s Genocide Studies Program. “A mass audience saw the story of what happened in a way that had never been done before, a dramatic and accurate depiction of a horrifying experience for millions of people,” he said.
“Pran was one of the major figures in the United States in bringing the issue of justice for Cambodian genocide to public attention, and in pushing the U.S. government to support the accountability of the Khmer Rouge,” Kiernan said.
In speeches and lectures, Dith Pran gave vivid and compelling accounts of the genocide, including the death of 50 members of his family. During a famine, he said he was nearly beaten to death for stealing more than the daily ration of a spoonful of rice. He was told one of his brothers, who served in the Cambodian army, was thrown to crocodiles by the Khmer Rouge.
The Khmer Rouge, which followed a radical communist path of social engineering, tried to remake the country by killing anyone with political opinions or who seemed educated. Dith Pran spent four years disguising his middle-class background by dressing as a peasant and working in rice fields.
Of the killing fields, or mass graves in the countryside, he once told Schanberg, “In the water wells, the bodies were like soup bones in broth. And you could always tell the killing grounds because the grass grew taller and greener where the bodies were buried.”
Peter Cleveland, a foreign affairs expert working for then Sen. Charles Robb (D-Va.), said Dith Pran worked with other outside groups to help influence passage of the Cambodian Genocide Justice Act of 1994.
The act, which Robb sponsored, created the State Department’s Office of Cambodian Genocide Investigations, which gathered evidence against Pol Pot and his deputies for crimes against humanity.
Pol Pot died in Thailand in 1998 without answering to an international tribunal. United Nations-backed trials began last year, after years of resistance from the Khmer Rouge’s supporters.
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