March 31, 2008


Dith Pran, September 27, 1942 – March 30, 2008


I was a young, fairly directionless punk in high school when I first watched The Killing Fields. It was the first film I saw that shocked me into realizing that we live in a fucked-up world and that it takes people of courage beyond my comprehension to overcome the worst aspects of it, which are also incomprehensible. Dith Pran's true story, along with the fictional Apocalypse Now, Coming Home and The Deer Hunter, helped light a fire of conscience and pacifism within me. I recall being at a house party once where a group of us was watching the latter movie, now considered the more right-wing view on Vietnam, in the wee hours. Most of the others cheered when Robert DeNiro's and Christopher Walken's characters end up blowing away their captors in the first Russian Roulette scene, but I was repulsed. The cement hardened a bit more when I had to walk out on a discussion of Coming Home in which a loud and inebriated older cousin of a friend, 4-F in the draft, couldn't be persuaded to stop harping about Hanoi Jane. Along with the burgeoning conscience came forth a previously unknown acerbic wit, as I recall my parting shot to the drunk as "Cry me a river, flatfoot. You weren't over there."

The unassuming Pran is now immortalized in history and on the personal hero lists of millions, including myself.

From :
On April 17th, 1975 the Khmer Rouge, a communist guerrilla group led by Pol Pot, took power in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. They forced all city dwellers into the countryside and to labor camps. During their rule, it is estimated that 2 million Cambodians died by starvation, torture or execution. 2 million Cambodians represented approximately 30% of the Cambodian population during that time.

The Khmer Rouge turned Cambodia to year zero. They banned all institutions including stores, banks, hospitals, schools, religion, and the family. Everyone was forced to work 12-14 hours a day, every day. Children were separated from their parents to work in mobile groups or as soldiers. People were fed one watery bowl of soup with a few grains of rice thrown in. Babies, children, adults and the elderly were killed everywhere. The Khmer Rouge killed people if they didn’t like them, if didn’t work hard enough, if they were educated, if they came from different ethnic groups, or if they showed sympathy when their family members were taken away to be killed. All were killed without reason. Everyone had to pledge total allegiance to Angka, the Khmer Rouge government. It was a campaign based on instilling constant fear and keeping their victims off balance.

After the Vietnamese invaded and liberated the Cambodian people from the Khmer Rouge, 600,000 Cambodians fled to Thai border camps. Ten million land mines were left in the ground, one for every person in Cambodia. The United Nations installed the largest peacekeeping mission in the world in Cambodia in 1991 to ensure free and fair elections after the withdrawal of the Vietnamese troops. Cambodia was turned upside down during the Khmer Rouge years and the country has the daunting task of healing physically, mentally and economically.

Haing Ngor as Dith Pran in The Killing Fields

A memorial for children killed by the Khmer Rouge

Here are two good remembrances from Pran's colleagues.

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