On November 16, Williams welcomed lecturer Dith Pran, the Cambodian “taxi driver” turned war correspondent whose experiences in Cambodia in the aftermath of the Vietnam War formed the basis for the 1984 film The Killing Fields. Dith, who has since dedicated his life to raising awareness of the Khmer Rouge’s bloody holocaust, spoke to a nearly full Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall.
Introduced by Frederick L. Shuman Professor of International Studies Peter Frost as “a man of courage…who sees himself as a messenger,” Dith described both his four-year internment in Khmer Rouge work camps and the political tensions present in 1970s Cambodia.
Dith opened by explaining the effect that the Vietnamese War had on Cambodia, much of which was felt only after the United States pulled out in 1973. By this time, Cambodia was a nation ravaged by American bombing and Vietnamese intercession.
The communist Khmer Rouge, aided by complicity from Cambodia’s neutral government and Vietnamese support, had risen to power in a coup d’ etat.
With this in mind, Dith and New York Times reporter Sydney Schamberg decided to stay in Cambodia after American troops were evacuated in order to cover the fall of Cambodian capital Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge. Dith and Schamberg were unprepared for the mass genocide that ensued. “We didn’t know that the Khmer Rouge would try to kill all of us…. If I knew that they were going to kill two million people, I wouldn’t have stayed behind,” Dith said.
Although the Khmer Rouge claimed it would offer journalists complete freedom, its anti-American sentiment led to the arrest of Dith, Shamberg and two other American journalists. Dith saved the quartet from execution by convincing Rouge officials that the Americans were neutral French journalists. The group managed to escape, but Dith was unable to leave when an attempt to forge a passport failed.
In Cambodia, Dith was an eyewitness to the most infamous holocaust since World War II. The Khmer Rouge systematically attempted to eliminate all Western and capitalistic elements of Cambodian culture by banning all institutions from banks to schools to hospitals and killing anyone it decided was undesirable.
Those who did survive were held in torturous conditions in work camps, Dith said. “We worked 14 to 16 hours a day and we had no right to say anything,” he said, adding that meals of cold soup were few and far between. Children as young as six were interned in the camps.
Dith spent four years in work camps before escaping to Thailand in 1979, when a Vietnamese invasion liberated the Cambodian citizens. He remains suspect of Vietnamese motives, but stressed that “I never forget to say ‘thank you’ [to Vietnam] for liberating me.”
Dith attributed his survival to three factors: instinct, prayer and a belief in destiny. “I believed I was meant to survive to carry this message into the future,” he said.
The most widely received outlet for his message was the acclaimed movie The Killing Fields. For his portrayal of Dith, Cambodian refugee Dr. Haing S. Ngor received an Academy Award (sadly, he was murdered in 1996; many speculate his opposition to the Khmer Rouge was a motive). The film was shown twice November 10 in conjunction with Dith’s appearance.
The Killing Fields, Dith said, smoothed over some of the intolerably rough edges of Dith’s story so that it could appeal to a greater audience. Dith praised the film as an example of “the power of Hollywood to make you understand.” He also expressed his support for an official international trial of Khmer Rouge criminals: “It’s been a long time, but we need some symbolic justice.” Dith has sought to increase awareness of the Cambodian genocide – and genocide in general – through his lecturing, touring and a website (www.dithpran.org.) He has also founded The Dith Pran Holocaust Awareness Project, which runs the website, and has served as a photojournalist for the New York Times for the past two decades.
Dith closed by expressing his gratitude to the attendees. “I’m very glad you’ve come,” he said, citing once more the importance of awareness and shock. “I’m a victim. I still don’t understand.”